Many Riches for Those Seeking The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre airs on TCM on Saturday, January 11, 2013 at 5 pm EST.
We all have them. The films that whenever they’re on, whenever we stumble upon them, we sit through all the way to the end, bad prints, commercials and all. I have about 10 of these, and vying (and sometimes winning) for the top spot is The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I’ve easily seen it 15 times, and even though I own it on DVD, I’m not above venturing out into the real world to sit in a theatre to see it the way it was originally intended. For these films that live in our sub-conscious, repeated viewings unearth more hidden treasures, and continue to solidify their place in our personal pantheon of “Movies That Make Us Who We Are.” Whether you’ve seen The Treasure of the Sierra Madre before or not, here are some of the elements that help make it a timeless and enduring classic for me.
John Huston was at his leanest and meanest as a director. He’d been a screenwriter for over a decade; and it was his work on High Sierra that helped Humphrey Bogart sit up and take notice, requesting he direct Bogie’s career making turn in The Maltese Falcon. Huston’s keen eye for camera placement and staging turned this parlour room mystery with almost all interiors and conversation into a taut, suspense-filled thriller.
Huston teamed again with Bogie for Across the Pacific, and then went into the Armed Forces during World War II to make, along with Frank Capra and George Stevens, some of the seminal documentaries of the period: Report from the Aleutians, Tunisian Victory, San Pietro, and the best of the lot, Let There Be Light, (a powerful examination of post-traumatic stress disorder). Then he returned to Hollywood to continue an almost unparalleled ten year streak of creative masterpieces: Key Largo, We Were Strangers, The Asphalt Jungle, Red Badge of Courage, and The African Queen. But it is the brilliance of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre that motivated Director William Friedkin to once call it, “a perfect movie.”
Like Casablanca before it, the many disparate elements that came together haphazardly, united to make the film an embarrassment of riches. And like Casablanca, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre cannot be categorized in any particular genre- it’s at once a noir, a western, a parable, a psychological thriller, a romance, an adventure. The elusive and mysterious writer B. Traven (one of many fake aliases he went by) who wrote the original book, would not agree to be on set as technical director. He sent his “agent” in his stead (who it turns out, was B.Traven himself, although he would never admit it, even to Huston). The source material was first-rate, but it was Huston the writer who fleshed out the characters and used his decade-long experience as a writer to create a near perfect blueprint for Huston the director to work from. The dialogue bounces deftly back and forth from hard-boiled, “I need dough, and plenty of it,” to philosophical, “I know what gold does to men’s souls,” to comical, “You buys want some beans?” to iconic, “Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges,” all without shifting tone whatsoever. Max Steiner, as Warner Brothers go-to composer, helped bring the vibrancy, the swash-buckling storytelling, and the characters’ claustrophobic and internal turmoil to life.
In this tale of three very different men who venture into the wilderness for gold, it’s the delicate balance and dance between these three personalities that are the crux of the story and the compelling performances that help make it timeless. In the beginning we watch as two homeless vagrants form a bond over their difficult situation, mysteriously trapped in a small town in Mexico, drifting aimlessly from one misadventure to another, when they happen upon an old man who tells them about the riches available to them all if they could get the financial backing to set out and pull gold from the mountains. It’s a simple enough set-up, but as with the best stories, nothing is as it seems. The two “fellow Americans down on their luck” turn out to be two very different people. With Matinee good lucks, B-movie cowboy star Tim Holt plays the sentimental Curtin, who yearns for a home and hearth. Prior to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Bogart had first played young playboys, then tough-guys, and even psycho-killers, but it wasn’t until Treasure that he played such a multi-layered psychotic, one moment charming and funny, streetwise and tough, the next paranoid, bitter, hateful and brutal. He is the hungry and perverse belly to Holt’s heart. And it’s Walter Huston, who is the head to the other two, acting as one fully-fleshed out being. One of the real gems here is director John Huston’s own father, Walter. A powerhouse of an actor, Huston was one of the best actors of the Golden Age of Cinema. Whether it was nepotism or astute casting that had John Huston use his father as the elder statesmen of the trio, the end result is a career defining role that no actor could’ve played with greater resonance, humor, empathy and guile.
Throughout their adventure, we are treated to twists and turns that help establish that there is no such thing as good and bad people, just good and bad action and reaction. From the shadows of treasure mad stalkers to banditos to hunger, thirst, lust and greed, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre constantly challenges the viewer with scenarios that require one to soul search and ask, What would I do? Would I do that? Would I have done something different? Because while the three characters are very different, their problem solving and reactions all fall into the greys. They all make clever and smart decisions. They also all make deadly mistakes.
Even Walter Huston’s lust for all that the treasure promises blind him to the warning signs of Bogart’s weak character and mind. We see Bogart start to crack just as Huston does, yet we also see the old timer deftly deny the disaster just waiting to explode. As disarming as the story starts out, it is Bogart’s slow descent into greed and madness, only at first lightly hinted at, that plays out so well in the film’s surprising, yet well plotted climactic karmic joke.
As the story unravels, and as the three characters become more estranged, the film takes the specific tone of each one of them and hops from sentimental (Holt) to comedic and wise (Huston) to lost and mad (Bogart). And as surprising as it is conventional, by the end each character gets what he deserves. And so do we. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre holds up strongly today. It’s as ageless as its characters, as timeless as its characters struggles, and as rich a trove of dialogue, moments, performances and storytelling as any you’ll ever unearth.