Film Flick: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Friday, October 12, 2012

They sold their souls...for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre! Bogart presents what many contend might be his strongest performance in this classic film. Set south of the border, three Americans cook up a get-rich-quick scheme, by mining for gold in the Mexican mountains. But when the gold starts flowing, greed and paranoia set in. Dobbs (Bogart), Curtin (Tim Holt) and Howard (Walter Huston) are all sleeping with one eye open. What will man do for gold? Is betrayal what awaits in these dusty mines?

After the smashing success of  his first directoral outing, The Maltese Falcon, John Houston had the clout needed to write and direct The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Houston had first come across the book, written by the mysterious recluse author "B. Traven", in 1936. Though the author had refused a job as the technical advisor for the film, he did send an associate to help out. Many suspect that this associate was actually the author himself operating under a pseudonym!

The film was shot on location in Mexico, and reunited the director/star combo of Houston and Borgart. Borgart was actually bald throughout much of the film, due to fertility drugs he was taking to start a family with his wife, Lauren Becall, and so he is sporting a wig instead. Also on set were co-stars Tim Holt and Walter Houston, who was John Houston's own father! John Houston had in fact written the role for his father; the character in the book was a much older man. The intuition to cast Walter Houston paid off more than once; Walter Houston improvised the famous jig scene in the film. Tim Holt's father also makes a cameo in the film, making it a real family affair. (Though John Houston's wife, Evelyn Keyes, probably could have done with it being a little less familial- or at least a little less surprising. Houston adopted a Mexican boy without telling her. Picking her husband up at the airport was the first time she met her "son!")

Though the film is a gripping adventure story, it is not the adventure alone that has captured generations of audiences. As critic Roger Ebert wrote, "[The Treasure of the Sierra Madre] has never really been about gold but about character, and Bogart
fearlessly makes Fred C. Dobbs into a pathetic, frightened, selfish man -- so sick we would be tempted to pity him, if he were not so undeserving of pity." There are no clear villains or heroes on this silver screen. We are our own enemy. It is for this reason that this Hollywood-made morality play places as number 30 in the American Film Institute's Top 100 Movies.

Unusually, in a time of clean-shaven and debonair stars such as Clark Gable, this film does not shy away from the rougher side of men, either emotionally or physically. The men are dirty, scruffy, and Dobbs, at least, is portrayed as a man of small, mean dreams. As I mentioned above, this unusual complexity of character is what makes this film great. But if you are looking for a hero to cheer on, or a redemption story with a happy ending, look elsewhere. You will only find bandits who " ain't got no stinking badges!" Heroes do not belong to the world of this film. Otherwise, sit back, relax, and enjoy a well acted film with a moral to leave one thinking.

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