Director John Huston’s 1948 classic black and white adventure film, The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, has many positive qualities. Greatness is not one of them. It’s a very good film, and has good acting performances from Walter Huston, Tim Holt, and Bruce Bennett, a good screenplay, adapted by the younger Huston, from the same titled novel by B. Traven (a pen name for Berwick Traven Torsvan), but it has a number if flaws that make it nearly impossible to lift it beyond being a good, solid, enjoyable film. Chief among these flaws is the acting of star Humphrey Bogart, as the unscrupulous and cowardly Fred C. Dobbs. Over the years, and throughout the extras featured on the two disk DVD package put out by Warner Brothers, the repeated question asked was, why wasn’t Bogey even nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor, much less win it, for this performance? In reality, the answer is quite simple: because it’s not that good of an acting performance. Granted, Bogey is better than many modern day mannekins that pass for movie stars, but this film shows a clear line of divide from a ‘mere’ movie star like Bogart, and a real actor, like Walter Huston.
Another reason the film does not reach greatness is because the script, while generally good, has too many moments of Dumbest Possible Action tropes, and too many scenes where the coincidences needed to sustain the narrative are strained. However, the 126 minute long film is a good one, and one of the few films from classic Hollywood that comes close to living up to its reputation. In a sense, there is a divide between classic Hollywood and New Wave films of the 1950s and 1960s that is as significant as that between talkies and the silent era. The naturalism of the acting styles that came in with New Wave cinema simply washed aside many earlier performances as the hamfests they were. Granted, I loved the Great Depression era Warner Brothers gangster style films that starred Jimmy Cagney, John Garfield, George Raft, Edward G. Robinson, and, yes, even Humphrey Bogart; but the acting and timing and the repartee in the majority of them is so stylized and unreal that most of it just looks awkward and stagey to a modern eye and ear. The only one of these actors to rise above that characteristic, in fact, was paradoxically the one most easily parodied (even more so that Bogart as Bogey), and that was Cagney. This can likely only be ascribed to being the exception that proves the rule, and likely stems from the fact that, vis-à-vis all the others, especially Bogart, Cagney oozed an onscreen genuineness, plus the fact that he was, as a song and dance man, more multi-talented than the rest. But this dinosaurian reliquation affects Bogart throughout the film, as well as, to some degree, almost every other performance, save for Walter Huston’s, but his performance, truth be told, is well within the vein of the ‘crazy old man’ of classic Westerns. Thus, there is not a moment of realism in the film. It is all artifice, and thus the viewer never is able to suspend the disbelief that they are watching a film, rather than co-experiencing the tale with the main characters. Now, compare this film, about greed in Latin America, to a film made just five years later, The Wages Of Fear, by Henri-Georges Clouzot, a film with almost an identical theme, and the difference is stark- in direction, in character development and motivation, in buying into the ‘danger’ that abounds. Clouzot’s film is simply more modern, deeper, and better scripted and acted. About the only nod to the coming realism of the film industry, that this film gives in to, is the use of location shooting for major portions of the film.
Having dealt with the film’s negatives, let me deal with the positives and its quality screenplay. The film opens with the minor travails of three Americans in 1925 Mexico, down and outers in the town of Tampico: Fred C. Dobbs (Bogart), Curtin (Tim Holt), and Howard (Walter Huston). In Tampico there are a number of cameo appearances (John Huston, Robert Blake, and Ann Sheridan) and then the two younger men head off with the old timer Howard for the Mexican mountains. They pretend they are going hunting, rather than prospecting, and on a train ride to their location, their train is set upon by banditos, led by a criminal colloquially known as Gold Hat (Alfonso Bedoya). Despite his age, Howard proves to be the most prepared of the trio to survive in the desert. The three, over the course of some months, end up extracting over $100,000 worth of gold dust, and survive incursions by nature (a Gila monster), man (a claim jumper named Cody), and thieves (a second encounter with Gold Hat’s men. Cody ends up dying in the shootout with the banditos, and the others read a letter that shows he had a wife in Dallas, Texas. Meanwhile, Dobbs starts losing a grip on reality, and starts talking to himself and accusing the others of plotting against him, even though Curtin (who helped him get back pay owed them by a swindler and who saved Dobbs from a mine collapse) is the most honest of the bunch, and Howard is too old to make it back to civilization alone.
Having survived their fair share of scrapes, the trio head back to civilization- specifically the town of Durango. But, they are called away by a band of Indians, because a child in their tribe has been injured. Howard resuscitates him, and finds he is honored as a medicine man, and is obligated to be feted for a while. This means he has to trust Dobbs and Curtin to not steal his portion of the gold.. Not long after, Dobbs loses his mind, and ambushes Curtin, shoots him, and leaves him for dead in the desert. But, in the night, Curtin crawled away and was rescued by the same band of Indians that have feted Howard. Howard helps heal Curtin, and they take off after Dobbs. But, before they can catch up to him, Gold Hat, who twice survived Dobbs’ gunfire (on the train and at the mine), catches up with Dobbs, and beheads him. He and his men steal Dobbs’ burros, thinking only the pelts are worth anything. They inadvertently cut open the sacks of gold dust, and are captured by Federales. They are executed when the man who sold Dobbs, Curtin, and Howard their gear recognizes the stolen goods. When Curtin and Howard come to claim their property, they see the gold sacks are gone. A boy tells them he saw it at the old ruins, but before they can retrieve it, the gold all blows away. The two survivors laugh about their fate. Howard intends to live out his life as a medicine man with the tribe, whereas Curtin plans to go north to Dallas, and possibly console Cody’s widow. Howard even bequeaths Curtin his burros and pelts to help Curtin along. The film ends with Curtin and Howard going their separate ways.
There are a number of famed sequences in the film, such as Bogey’s character, early on, pestering Tampico tourists for spare change (and three times hitting up John Huston), Walter Huston’s maniacal dance once the trio discovers gold, Gold hat’s famed speech during the shootout with the trio: ‘Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges! I don't have to show you any stinkin’ badges!’ The film won three Oscars: Walter Huston won for Best Supporting Actor, and John Huston won for Best Director and Adapted Screenplay. As for the screenplay, aside from the pre-realism previously mentioned, the script is not poetic, but good solid prose. The cinematography, by Ted McCord, is solid, but likewise prosaic, as is the musical score by Max Steiner. When a film scores across the board solid marks, it simply cannot be called great.
The DVD two disk set, features a trailer for Key Largo, a newsreel, a Bugs Bunny cartoon and a short subject film. There is also a full length audio commentary by film historian Eric Lax. It is generally quite good; a bit too scripted, but Lax makes up for that with scene specific comments and a good backgrounding of the major participants and elements in the film. The second disk has some great features: a Bogart trailer gallery, a full length, two plus hour long documentary on the career of John Huston: John Huston: The Man, The Movies, The Maverick- narrated by actor Robert Mitchum; a making of documentary on the film: Discovering Treasure: The Story Of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, another Bugs Bunny cartoon, a radio broadcast of the story of The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, and assorted publicity information. The film print itself is in good shape, and shown in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio.
Of course, the film has gotten near across the board praise, and the most annoying thing has to be the praise given the film’s biggest misfire; the character of Fred C. Dobbs, as played by Bogart. One of the things that Bogart presaged was the movie star pretending someone else was him, rather than the actor pretending to be someone else. In other words, like modern mannekins Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Cruise, Bogey is Bogey in every film. One simply cannot get away from that fact. And, unlike Jimmy Cagney, Bogart could not sing and dance, and he was not as athletically gifted, therefore his choice of roles was limited. His Dobbs thus becomes an older, grimier version of the slimier earlier roles he did before he became Bogey- that all purpose character that was the same character known under different names: Sam Spade, Rick Blaine, and Fred C. Dobbs. Dobbs has all the classic Bogey tics, but none of the virtues the other Bogey incarnations had, and this is not due to poor writing, for Huston does give Bogey scenes in which to evolve his character, but mediocre acting, at bests, dooms Dobbs. No amount of sweat, mud, nor talking to himself can save Bogey- uh, Dobbs- from his own predictable spiral. Ask yourself, do you not know just when every ‘sssh’ and lip twitch is about to come? Anyone who’s seen at least one Bogart film prior to this will see them coming a good ten seconds before they do. Yet, still the overpraise and bewilderment over why the Academy wisely overlooked this performance; and, truth is, if Bogey had been nominated and won, many of the same people complaining over his critical neglect would likely bandwagon on the other end of the spectrum and moan about how overrated a performance it was, and how Bogey only got the Oscar because he was Bogey.
Of all the justifications for Bogart’s acting, the worst came from ubiquitous critic Roger Ebert, a man who is an unabashed Bogart fan, regardless of the quality of the characters and acting the man developed and portrayed:
As the stories of Howard and Curtin evaporate into convention, however, Fred C. Dobbs somehow moves to a higher level of tragedy. Hearing things in the night, desperate for a drink of water, staggering under the desert sun with the gold he valued so much, Dobbs is the tragic hero brought down precisely by his flaws. There is a pitiless stark realism in these scenes that brings the movie to honesty and truth. Leading up to them is a down-market Shakespearean soliloquy when Dobbs thinks he is a murderer and says, "Conscience. What a thing! If you believe you got a conscience, it'll pester you to death. But if you don't believe you got one, what could it do to ya?" He finds out.
If you want to see a real great acting performance in a character trope almost the same as Dobbs’s, look no further than the performance given by Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath Of God. First, Dobbs is not a hero, nor is he even the anti-hero Bogey portrayed in Casablanca. He is a bum, a coward, a paranoiac, and a loser. Period. Nor is he tragic for tragedy requires, fundamentally, a fall from on high. Dobbs starts in the gutter and ends there. No tragedy. And, one can hardly call it realism, when, in a contrived bit of movie justice, Dobbs meets up, again, for the third and final time with his Mexican doppelganger, Gold Hat. Now, compare that to Aguirre, in the Herzog film. He slowly loses his mind, and it’s in a much more believable trope. He has murdered, steered his party off course, and lost many of his contingent due to blunders. Look at Kinski on his anomic raft, alone with a horde of screeching monkeys. There is no Hollywood contrivance in the performance or in the script. Nor does Kinski fall back on a set bag of tricks and tics, the way Bogey does. Even in his other collaborations with Herzog, most notably Fitzcarraldo, Kinski creates a whole new character- a more muted demiurgent character than Aguirre, with none of that character’s tics and flaws. By contrast, Bogey is always Bogey, and Fred C. Dobbs is Bogey/Blaine/Spade in the desert. And, finally, Ebert, as he did when dismissing the Paul Henreid character in his review of Casablanca, he dismisses the two far better (and in Holt’s case, realistic) performances of Bogey’s co-stars, to the point of calling their fates conventional. So, Bogey’s dime store overacted ending is tragic, yet the more realistic scenario of Holt’s character returning to life in the States, and Howard’s opting to live with the Indians, is conventional. Well, perhaps in Ebert’s hero-worshipping world, but not in art.
Thankfully, I’m not the first, nor only, critic to peg the major flaw of the film as stemming from the acting of Bogart. In his seminal critique of the film, novelist and film critic James Agee wrote:
The only weakness which strikes me as fundamental, however, is deep in the story itself: it is the whole character of the man played by Bogart. This is, after all, about gold and its effects on those who seek it, and so it is also a fable about all human life in this world and about much of the essence of good and evil. Many of the possibilities implicit in this fable are finely worked out. But some of the most searching implications are missed. For the Bogart character is so fantastically undisciplined and troublesome that it is impossible to demonstrate or even to hint at the real depth of the problem, with him on hand. It is too easy to feel that if only a reasonably restrained and unsuspicious man were in his place, everything would be all right; we wouldn't even have wars.
In short, what Agee is stating without stating is that Dobbs is a caricature, not a character. By contrast, Curtin and Cody are characters, and Howard is a ‘character.’ Agee continues:
But virtually every human being carries sufficient of that character within him to cause a great deal of trouble, and the demonstration of that fact, and its effects, could have made a much greater tragi-comedy—much more difficult, I must admit, to dramatize. Bogart does a wonderful job with this character as written (and on its own merits it is quite a character), miles ahead of the very good work he has done before. The only trouble is that one cannot quite forget that this is Bogart putting on an unbelievably good act. In all but a few movies one would thank God for that large favor. In this one it stands out, harmfully to some extent, for everything else about the picture is selfless.
Again, and cutting through the then 1940s obligatory praise, Agee is stating that Bogart simply can be seen ‘acting’ or ‘scenery-chewing’. Again, Agee:
It seems worth mentioning that the only thing which holds this movie short of unarguable greatness is the failure of the story to develop some of the most important potentialities of the theme.
In short, what Agee is stating is that too much of the film goes nowhere after its themes of greed are laid out. There is a predictability to the trope. Does one ever really feel the bumbling trio of Howard, Dobbs, and Curtin, are really going to end up happy? Is there ever a glimmer of hope? After all, in the Tampico flophouse, we hear Howard state his life’s experience in dealing with greed, and we hear Dobbs claim that he’d know when to quit. Later, in the film, in the mountains, we see Dobbs is the first character to exhibit greed, and from then on we know he’ll be the one to pay. In fact, the film foreshadows its themes even earlier, when Curtin and Dobbs are ripped off by Pat McCormick (Barton MacLane), whom Tampico locals know preys on gullible Americans. Then there is the heavyhanded symbolism of the Gila monster, which ensures the viewer that Dobbs will do no good, and end up dead. Curtin sees the lizard slither under a rock, and knowing it is poisonous, tries to lever the rock, so to kill it. Dobbs catches him, and, as his money is buried under the rock, assumes Curtin found his cache of gold and wants to steal it. After an argument, they have neutral Howard lever up the rock and Curtin shoots the beast dead. On top of Dobbs’ gold the animal is dead, hovering greedily over it. Is there the least doubt that Dobbs is doomed, from then on, even granting the Hollywood convention of not killing off a film’s putative star?
Having pointed out the film’s flaws, The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre is still an enjoyable film. Films like this are done a disservice, however, when their palpable flaws are overlooked and they are praised as being great works of art. Even a casual comparison to better films, as I’ve shown above, is enough to dispel the easy tossing about of platitudes. The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre is a good film, a fun film, an admirable film- one thankfully void of a distracting ‘love story,’ and even Bogart’s Fred C. Dobbs enjoys a few good moments in the sun, so to speak. But, overall, there just is no deeper substance to the film than ‘Greed is bad.’ As true as that claim is, it is a bumper sticker, and great art cannot be reduced to such apothegms. Great cinema can give some answers as well as is tritely claimed, ‘provoke questions,’ but the greatest of films also have a touch of the ineffable. Again, refer to a film such as The Wages Of Fear to see how much more deeply a great film can probe such a claim, treating it as an opening salvo, not as an end to itself. John Huston was correct when he claimed that all great films start with a great screenplay. By his own claim, this film falls outside that purview- stippled with its passionate formulaic script, along with the subpar performance of Humphrey Bogart. But, I’ve long claimed that flawed works of art can be the keys to understanding greater, more perfected works of art, whose greatness often acts as a hermetic seal to percipients’ understanding of art. Thus, The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre serves its best purpose in helping cineastes understand films like The Wages Of Fear and Aguirre, The Wrath Of God better. And, given how useless most films released today are, that’s hardly an ignoble purpose for any work of art to serve.