Thursday 25 March 2010

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

Director: John Huston
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt and Walter Huston

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

John Huston's first film as a director, The Maltese Falcon, was nominated for three Oscars including one for the screenplay for Huston himself and another for Best Picture. It didn't win a thing, as it turned out, but it did start off the film noir genre with a bang and set Huston's career on the best possible footing. He backed up that promise seven years later, after a set of inspirational wartime shorts for the US forces, with this, his fourth feature, which again features a bunch of odd characters all searching for a grand prize. This time round he won two Oscars, one for his direction and another for his screenplay, and even managed a third for his father Walter as Best Supporting Actor. To make that achievement even more special, he later directed his daughter to an Oscar as well, making three generations of Academy Award winners within the same family. Anjelica Huston's win was as Best Supporting Actress for Prizzi's Honor in 1985.

Huston was certainly ambitious with this production. It was filmed almost entirely on location, which had very rarely been done at that time with Hollywood productions, and in Mexico no less. This ran the bill up to a well over-budget three million dollars but it certainly added to the authenticity, especially as the night scenes that were shot back home in the studio at the request of Warner Brothers are obvious in comparison. Technology has a habit of marching on and looking back from a 21st century viewpoint, it's usually pretty easy to instantly tell when supposedly outdoor scenes were filmed in the studio instead, often very badly. Huston got away from all that fakery here, for the most part, by taking his cameras and crew down to Tampico and Durango and San Jose de Purua, and I'm glad he did. It makes everything look real. Even the Mexicans are played by Mexicans.

It's Valentine's Day in Tampico in 1925 and Fred C Dobbs is an American south of the border and down on his luck. He meets up with someone in precisely the same situation, Bob Curtin, to the degree that they find neighbouring park benches to share stories of how gringos can't get work selling lemonade or shining shoes, but burglary or begging are apparently halfway tolerated. Dobbs has tried the latter but ends up trying it on the same white suited American three times, one ironically played by director John Huston in a small cameo who was paying the bills anyway. They find a job working sixteen hour days for a man named McCormick but he's just a fraudster who has no intentions whatsoever of paying their wages, even stooping low enough to add in bonuses and buy them drinks to keep them on the hook.

Life obviously isn't too good for this pair, even though they're played by Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt respectively. Bogart had come into his own when the forties arrived, with films like The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca and The Big Sleep. In fact he could easily be described as the epitome of the forties Hollywood star. He'd also met and married Lauren Bacall, whose four films opposite him sparked legendary screen chemistry. The fourth would be Bogart's next film after this, also made for John Huston, for whom he'd already starred three times. Holt was a pretty substantial name in the forties too, a top ten box office star from 1941 to 1943 and again, following this performance, from 1948 to 1952. He was never the most avid film star though, working mostly in B movies and even though he had followed in the footsteps of his father, who was a huge cowboy star in the silent era and beyond. Jack Holt gets a cameo here too, in the crucial flophouse scene.

This flophouse is where they run across Howard, a grizzled old prospector in the form of the director's father Walter Huston, a man who doesn't look much but as they later find out is half goat and half camel, because he just keeps going whatever the terrain and doesn't seem to need anywhere near the water they do. He's talking about gold, of which there is plenty up in the mountains, but he also warns about what else gold means. 'I know what gold does to men's souls,' he says, but Dobbs and Curtin wax philosophical about it, especially the next day while they're sitting at a fountain. They haven't had much luck in town, after all, so why not take a gamble on the Sierra Madre? As if this idea was meant to be, luck begins to fall on them. They find McCormick and rumble him for the money he owes them. Dobbs also wins a couple of hundred pesos on the lottery, so they hunt down the old man to join forces.

At heart this is a story about greed, perhaps the definitive Hollywood depiction with only Erich von Stroheim's silent epic, titled simply Greed, in the same league, even though the hatchet job done on it by the studio is a thing of legend. Thus far our heroes have been honest as the day is long. When Dobbs and Curtin rumble McCormick they only take what he owes them and throw the rest down on his battered face. Dobbs gives the Mexican kid who sold him the winning lottery ticket (a young Robert Blake) the traditional cut of the winnings, especially as he wouldn't have even known about his win otherwise. Yet even while sitting at the fountain thinking about prospecting, Dobbs shows the beginning of his greed, rubbing his fingers with a gleam in his eye. You can certainly see the hints early if you're looking for them though the longer the film runs on the more unmistakable they become.

Throughout the expertise, wisdom and rationality comes from Howard. Obviously he's the expert prospector, having been such across the globe, so he's something of a wake up call to his new compatriots who half believe that you just pick it up, put it in sacks and carry it home, the difficulty being in the finding. So it's Howard who teaches them about iron pyrites, sluices and trenches and all the rest of it. 'Without me,' he accurately suggests, 'you two would die here, more miserable than rats.' Yet he's also the man to listen to when it comes to human nature as he's seen it all. He knows that the gold is addictive, that loners go mad and partners get murderous. 'Never knew a prospector yet that died rich,' he says. 'Make one fortune, you're sure to blow it in trying to find another.' So much of what he tells them back at the flophouse is prophetic. 'As long as there's no find,' he tells them, 'the noble brotherhood will last, but when the piles of gold begin to grow, that's when the trouble starts.'

And so it does. When they've acquired about five grand's worth, Dobbs begins to show his true colours. He's the one who suggests that they split up the gold now and on an ongoing basis, rather than taking it back to civilisation together and splitting the profits once they've sold it. Of course that means keeping their gold in their own secret place and guarding it, which gets dangerous. When Curtin starts to overturn a rock because a gila monster crawls under it, it turns out to be where Dobbs keeps his treasure and the two tangle over the situation, verbally and physically. When they talk about when to call their haul enough Howard and Curtin are happy to go home when they reach $25,000 each, but Dobbs wants to stick it out, for a year if need be, to make $50,000 or $75,000. Eventually he starts talking to himself like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings.

Just as the greed distorted Smeagal into Gollum, it's notable just how unrecognisable Humphrey Bogart is at points in this film, given that he has one of the most recognisable faces of any actor who ever worked in Hollywood. He sports a beard for much of the film though at one point early on he visits a barber and gets smoothed out to the degree that he just doesn't look right. Hard work prospecting makes him look far more like the Bogart we know but then greed changes him physically. He grows gaunt and eventually descends to the level of the narrator in Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart, mentally torturing himself until he finds his own destruction. What makes this so successful a transition is that it's never a black and white thing. It's always shades of grey that get lighter and darker as the film goes on, the progression always moving towards the dark and inevitable doom for at least someone.

Circumstance did aid this as Bogart began to lose his hair a year earlier and by the time he arrived on location to make this film he was completely bald. The key factor was the hormone shots he was taking at the time to improve his chances of becoming a father, but there were others including a vitamin B deficiency. When he started taking vitamin B shots in Mexico, some of his hair grew back but nonetheless he wore a wig throughout. No actor is going to say no to circumstance but the work he does here is outstanding, providing a powerful lead performance in the face of constant competition from Walter Huston, a natural scene stealer anyway, but who as Howard is the grounding for Dobbs throughout. Amazingly he wasn't recognised by the Academy with even a nomination, though he would eventually win for another John Huston movie shot on location, The African Queen in 1952.

Walter Huston wasn't just nominated, he won, his only win even though his performances of the early thirties were often outstanding, films like The Beast of the City, Kongo and Gabriel Over the White House being variable in quality but with him excellent in each. He had earned three nominations before this, but surprisingly the first didn't come until 1936 for Dodsworth. Here he benefitted from the fact that his son had written the part specifically for him, following small uncredited roles in two of his films, The Maltese Falcon and In This Our Life. He was also persuaded to act without his false teeth for authenticity, learned a few perfect lines of Spanish phonetically and rattles on at the sort of speed Walter Brennan used to get up to. As Bogart once said, after seeing how far Huston had fleshed out his role, 'One Huston is bad enough, but two are murder.'

Huston even gets an intriguing couple of scenes that play out strangely today, seeming to be a prescient nod to what would become the environmental movement. This story was based on a novel published in German in 1927 and began the translation to film in 1941 after John Huston's notable success with The Maltese Falcon, finally being released in 1948. Yet, except for the actors involved and the lack of colour, these scenes feel like they could have come from a nineties movie. 'It'll take another week to break down the mine and put the mountain back in shape, make her appear like she was before we came,' says Howard, after they decide to take what they have and leave. 'We've wounded this mountain and it's our duty to close her wounds. It's the least we can do to show our gratitude for all the wealth she's given us.' He even thanks the mountain when they leave and his bemused compatriots do likewise.

How much of this came from the Hustons and how much from the source material I have no idea, but there's a deeper mystery in the original writer, B Traven. The only thing really known for sure about Traven is that the name is a pseudonym, but nobody has yet proved who the man behind the name really was. The current consensus opinion is that he was a German, possibly named Herman Feige, who later became different people at different points in his life, first Ret Marut, then Traven Torsvan and finally Hal Croves. It was as Croves that it's believed that he was present during the filming of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, pretending to be B Traven's literary agent. There are many books written by Traven scholars proposing theories and evidence but nobody has conclusively told his story yet. John Huston was apparently fascinated by the man and it's a shame he didn't film his own version of the Traven story.

What he did film was this and while not initially particularly successful, it has gone on to much critical acclaim. No less a filmmaker than Stanley Kubrick named it among his favourite films and director Paul Thomas Anderson watched it as preparation for writing his Oscar winning There Will Be Blood. The character of Fred C Dobbs was iconic enough for Sam Peckinpah to pay tribute by writing a character with the same name into his film Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Tribute was also paid by many others, not least Mel Brooks in Blazing Saddles, when it came to a particular line of dialogue that began here. 'Badges? We don't need no steenking badges!' isn't what the Mexican bandit known as Gold Hat says here but it's close enough. There's even a site dedicated to pop culture references to stinking badges and if that isn't immortality I'm not sure what is.


jervaise brooke hamster said...

Its a shame that the word "STEENKING" had to replace what would have been a much more appropriate word because of that ludicrous Hays Office so-called "code of conduct".

jervaise brooke hamster said...

Hal, more of my hilarious comments over on Soiled Sinemas reveiws of "Shaft In Africa", "Doomsday" and the 2003 remake of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre". Actually on the reveiw of Shaft in africa the hilarious bit is that they actually did an impersonation of me and it is brilliant i`m not kiddin` (Tyree and MaQ are so cool because although they have the same intelligence levels as Noam Chomsky they are not snobbish towards low-brow wankers like myself) and on the reveiw of Doomsday the side splitting bit is the reply i got from an Anonymous commenter its a belter just wait till you read it. By the way, i trust you agree with what i said about Jessica Biel.