Blog Directory CineVerse

Book 'em, Kirk-o

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Last week, our CineVerse group closely examined Detective Story, the 1951 film directed by William Wyler and based on a play by Sidney Kingsley (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here). Arguably, Detective Story is more of a police procedural than a proper noir. The movie is interesting not just because it’s set entirely in a police station within a bustling New York precinct over the course of one day and night. It’s also fascinating because the main character – Detective Jim McLeod (played by Kirk Douglas) – is, on one hand, a tough and relentless cop known for his dedication to his job and his uncompromising approach to justice, but on the other hand, he’s a deeply flawed and conflicted individual, haunted by his past and struggling to come to terms with his own failings.

The making of Detective Story was notable for its use of innovative camera techniques and its ensemble cast, which included several prominent actors of the era, such as William Bendix, Lee Grant, and Joseph Wiseman. The film was also praised for its realistic portrayal of police work and its nuanced depiction of complex characters.

What makes Detective Story a thought-provoking film worthy of retrospection? It’s essentially the filming of a popular stage play that takes place entirely in a single locale. Shooting such a confined story in a sole setting was likely challenging for the filmmakers, as the set and clustering of actors can become tedious and repetitive. For visual oomph, director William Wyler chose to employ deep-focus cinematography in which characters in the foreground, middle ground, and background are all in focus and we have multiple planes of characters to concentrate on in the same shot. Likewise, he occasionally uses overlapping dialogue – relatively rare at the time – to underscore how frenetic a police station can be.

This would have been a controversial film for the early 1950s in that Dr. Schneider is assumed to be an illegal abortionist. He’s not called as such in the film, but audiences then and today can interpret that he was terminating pregnancies illicitly. Additionally, the Breen censorship office normally would not permit a police officer to be killed, but they made an exception for this movie because the murder of McLeod is not premeditated and the killing serves an important dramatic purpose that makes his character more sympathetic.

Consider how our allegiance toward McLeod dramatically shifts as the story progresses and we learn how violent, ill-tempered, and resentful he is. Even though Schneider is a loathsome character, we cringe at how McLeod continually breaks the law in his violent treatment of the suspect and digs his own grave. The final straw comes when McLeod pathetically rejects Mary for the second time. His character is redeemed somewhat at the conclusion, however, when McLeod practically begs Gennini to shoot him and put him out of his misery, after which he drops his case against Arthur.

It’s somewhat refreshing to see an African-American police officer character in a 1951 film. Granted, Russell Evans as officer Steve Barnes isn’t given much to do or say, but it’s a small sign of racial progress in a Hollywood feature nonetheless.

Sadly, this movie reveals sexist gender politics of the time, putting Mary through the wringer for getting pregnant out of wedlock and having multiple lovers before marrying McLeod, for which he called her a tramp. New Yorker critic Richard Brody wrote: “William Wyler’s 1951 drama shows the dangers that women face when abortion is illegal—and suggests that an underlying sociopathology, the control of women’s sex lives, drives men to ban abortion…The drama’s tension involves the destructive extremes of masculinity, linking strength and courage with pitiless judgment and sexual domination; the essential subject is society’s—rather, men’s—obsession with women’s virginity, and the film’s liberal-minded perspective brings a hint of reality to rigid Hollywood mores.”

Among the major themes underpinning the story is the message of “bend or break.” McLeod is too obsessed and rigid to change his extreme views on law, order, and retribution. His intransigence and adherence to a hyper-masculine code of self-righteous ethics leads to his downfall, including the likely loss of his job, the dissolution of his marriage, the loss of respect from his boss and peers, and ultimately his life.

Another reading? Forgiveness, mercy, and empathy are as important as justice and safety. McLeod isn’t willing to give war hero Arthur a break or forgive his wife’s actions as a younger unmarried woman. Detective Story demonstrates that police officers need to be flexible and compassionate human beings who can benefit from better work/life balance.

Detective Story also serves as a rumination on the dangers of taking the lawn into your own hands. McLeod tries to play judge, jury, and executioner in addition to his role as detective, and his heavy-handed methods of interrogation and personal punishment are more than reprehensible – they’re illegal. Sadly, many other officers on the force practice similar physically violent methods of coercion and vengeance that were more widely tolerated decades ago.

Significant takeaway #4: The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Despite his intentions and determination, McLeod turns out to be just as violent, recalcitrant, and psychologically twisted as his father, whom he vowed never to emulate.

Similar works

  • The Desperate Hours
  • Glengarry Glen Ross and Homicide, both by David Mamet
  • Dragnet
  • His Girl Friday/The Front Page, The Petrified Forest
  • The Sniper
  • The Naked City
  • Call Northside 777
  • Boomerang
  • Panic in the Street

Other films by William Wyler

  • The Best Years of Our Lives
  • Ben Hur
  • Wuthering Heights
  • Mrs. Miniver
  • Roman Holiday
  • Dodsworth
  • The Little Foxes
  • The Heiress
  • Funny Girl


Cineversary podcast marks King Kong's 90th birthday with Phil Tippett, Ray Morton, and Richard Correll

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Phil Tippett, Ray Morton, and Richard Correll
In Cineversary podcast episode #57, host Erik Martin celebrates the 90th birthday of King Kong with three great guests: visual effects master Phil Tippett; Ray Morton, author of King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon from Fay Wray to Peter Jackson; and TV actor, director, screenwriter, and producer Richard Correll. Together, they take the scenic route from Skull Island to the Empire State Building as they explore why Kong still matters, how it’s stood the test of time, its huge influence on cinema, and more.

To listen to this episode, click here or click the "play" button on the embedded streaming player below. Or, you can stream, download, or subscribe to Cineversary wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Audible, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, PodBean, RadioPublic, and Overcast.

Learn more about the Cineversary podcast at and email show comments or suggestions to 


A moody marriage milestone

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

45 Years, a 2015 British drama film directed by Andrew Haigh and starring Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, tells the story of Kate and Geoff Mercer, a couple who are about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. Suddenly, they receive news that the body of Geoff's former lover has been found perfectly preserved in the Swiss Alps, 50 years after she fell to her death while they were on a hiking trip. The news causes Geoff to become increasingly preoccupied with memories of his former lover, which leads Kate to question the strength and depth of their own relationship. As they prepare for their anniversary party, their marriage begins to unravel as secrets and hidden emotions are revealed. 

The film was well received by critics and was nominated for numerous awards, including an Academy Award for Best Actress for Charlotte Rampling.
Our CineVerse squad parsed this picture last week, discussing several key merits and themes (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).
What makes 45 years special? First, the performances by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay are equally impressive and spectacular. Rampling’s pondering eyes and subtly vulnerable facial expressions and body language speak volumes about this character’s snowballing misgivings and gradual unraveling, and Courtenay perfectly embodies an increasingly frail and flawed husband who insists on living in the past and not so secretly pines for what could have been.
45 Years also benefits immensely from an ingenious sound design graced by diegetic as well as imagined sounds that color our perception of what Kate is experiencing and sometimes serve as narrative foreshadowing. For example, the film opens to black background credits paired with the strange rhythmic noise of a slide projector, which prefigures a later scene in which she actually operates a slide projector in the loft; interestingly, during that later scene, we hear the projector clicks as well as the eerie echoes of crashing waves – suggesting that she is imagining Geoff and Katya on the boat where the pictures from the slide projector were taken decades ago. Additionally, early on we hear Kate humming the song Smoke Gets in Your Eyes – attuned that later plays as a bittersweet musical eulogy of sorts during the anniversary party.
Consider, too, how the pop music soundtrack and the lyrics to some of these songs seemingly comment on the emotional status of Kate and her relationship with Geoff. Cases in point: (1) the lines “You’ve kept the secret of our youth/Now it hurts to know the truth” from the song Young Girl by Gary Puckett & the Union Gap; (2) the lyrics, “When a lovely flame dies/smoke gets in your eyes,” from that tune; and (3) “We've already said "goodbye"/Since you gotta go, oh you'd better/Go now, go now, go now (go now, ooh)/Before you see me cry?” from the Moody blues song Go Now that plays over the end credits. Each of these speaks aloud what Kate is likely thinking.
Small gestures, subtle actions, and simple verbal exchanges carry momentous importance in 45 Years. For proof, ponder Kate’s very last act on the dance floor: Geoff raises their held hands in anniversary triumph at the coda of their first (and likely last) dance, but Kate pulls her hand away and down in an act of rejection, anger, and disgust. The film also refrains from character speechifying, thankfully, allowing Courtenay and Rampling’s nonverbal moments to fill in any blanks for the audience. We are given any grandiose weepy breakdown scene or major shouting match.
Director Andrew Haigh often prefers long shots that keep his characters at a distance, often juxtaposed against vast landscapes. Recall the shot where Geoff and Kate are conversing somewhat far away in their garden, the conversation of which we cannot hear.
The POV in 45 Years is decidedly Kate’s. And it’s easy to empathize with her and her emotional state as she discovers troubling new things about her husband and his past. But arguably, the film doesn’t take sides in this relationship. Geoff can be viewed as a sympathetic character whose past romance and romantic feelings for a dead lover resurface after her preserved body is discovered decades later – an understandable reaction. Also, Kate chooses to inquire about this previous relationship and probe deeper, which is also understandable. The movie asks serious and important questions about this couple and their bonds.
Criterion Collection essayist Ella Taylor wrote: “45 Years shows how half a century can turn to ash in a few short days…In 45 Years, it takes decades of familiarity for two people to discover that they’re strangers…Is Geoff a superannuated child in need of coddling by his sensible wife, or was he cheated, through Katya’s death, of the more free-spirited life he craved? Is Kate no more than an uncomprehending put-down artist who feels obliged to point out that her husband has made multiple fruitless efforts to read Kierkegaard, or is she exactly the woman he needs to keep him down-to-earth? Haigh won’t tip his hand, though you may draw your own conclusions from the wind rustling through dead leaves that haven’t yet dropped from a tree, or the inexplicably desolate cries of children at play.”
It’s perhaps telling that Geoff and Kate never had children, while Katya was pregnant by Geoff, and they don’t showcase couple photographs about their home.
The movie is replete with subtexts, as well. Among its major themes: Time does not heal all wounds. Memories, suspicions, and past romances can haunt and even doom a longstanding relationship.
In fact, time is a constant motif and audiovisual presence in 45 years, as well, as evidenced by the continual use of ticking and chiming clocks, clock faces, and mentions of watches.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing is another message explored. By choosing to more closely examine her husband’s past relationship with a lover, Kate learns harsh truths and is burdened by doubt, mistrust, and resentment. Her discovery that Katya was pregnant with Geoff’s child before she was killed only drives the wedge further between her and her husband.
45 Years further examines the dangers of yearning for, regretting, and being preoccupied with the past. It has become apparent to Kate that Geoff is living her life with him in the shadow of his past romance with Katya, a dead woman who has lately inspired him to read books she liked, recall the perfume she wore, and go digging through photographs and scrapbooks that memorialize their relationship.
The reckoning – and wrecking – of a marriage is a central tenet, too. Kate ostensibly comes to realize that she’s been living something of a lie with Geoff, a man she’s been married to for 45 years but who, in her mind, chose her as a consolation prize to his former lost love. Sydney Morning Herald critic Sandra Hall wrote: “The Mercers had persuaded themselves that they'd become resigned to these signs of irrevocable change, but the discovery in the ice has shown otherwise. As Geoff sees her, Katya is his own Sleeping Beauty, destined to remain ageless and live on as a silent rebuke to his own inevitable decline into decrepitude. In mourning her, he's not only toying with tantalising possibilities forever unrealised, he's grieving for his youth. For Kate, it's even worse. You can't fight a ghost, so there's no one to blame for the irrational fits of jealousy undermining the state of wisdom she thought she had achieved. As well as frustrated, she feels diminished.” Recall, also, how Kate says: “It’s like she’s been standing in the corner of the room all this time, behind my back. It’s tainted everything.”

Lastly, ponder the inescapability of age and decrepitude as a further thematic element. Geoff is beginning to lose his memory, injure himself, and require more TLC from Kate, and he can’t perform in the bedroom as his younger self did.

Similar works

  • Before Midnight
  • Amour
  • Faithless
  • Last Night
  • Reconstruction
  • In the Mood For Love
  • Another Year
  • The Big Chill
  • Under the Sand
  • James Joyce’s The Dead

Other films by Andrew Haigh

  • Weekend
  • Lean on Pete
  • Looking: The Movie (HBO)


We're over the moon about this 50-year-old classic

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Paper Moon, released 50 years ago in 1973, directed by Peter Bogdanovich and produced by Frank Marshall and based on the novel "Addie Pray" by Joe David Brown, is admired for being shot on location in Kansas, Missouri, and Illinois and for the casting of Ryan O'Neal and his real-life daughter Tatum O'Neal. The film was a critical and commercial success, receiving four Academy Award nominations and winning one. Remembered fondly for its witty screenplay, excellent performances, and nostalgic atmosphere, Paper Moon still resonates five decades later. 

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse film discussion group’s conversation last week about Paper Moon, click here.

What makes Paper Moon a cut above? This is one of the finest performances by a young actor in Hollywood history. Nine years old at the time of filming, Tatum O’Neal won the Academy Award for best supporting actress for her role as Addie. She outshines her father, Ryan O’Neil, in nearly every scene they share. The performance is even more impressive when you consider several extended/uninterrupted shots in which Tatum must remain plausibly in character. Likewise, the chemistry between these two is palpable because they are actually father and daughter.

The decision to shoot in black-and-white paid off. Paper Moon reflects the stark, austere landscapes of the time and the downtrodden vibe of the Great Depression thanks in large part to its monochrome canvas. Director Peter Bogdanovich somewhat invokes the look, techniques, and vibe of films made by many of his key influences, including John Ford and Howard Hawks.

Roger Ebert wrote: “The two kinds of Depression-era movies we remember best are the ones that ignored the Depression altogether and the ones like “The Grapes of Wrath” that took it as a subject. Peter Bogdanovich’s “Paper Moon” somehow manages to make these two approaches into one, so that a genre movie about a con man and a little girl is teamed up with the real poverty and desperation of Kansas and Missouri, circa 1936. You wouldn’t think the two approaches would fit together, somehow, but, they do, and the movie comes off as more honest and affecting than if Bogdanovich had simply paid tribute to older styles…Paper Moon” doesn’t come off, then, as a homage to earlier beloved directors and styles (as Bogdanovich’s “What’s Up, Doc?” did - and his “The Last Picture Show,” to a smaller extent). No, it achieves something quite different: a period piece that uses generic conventions only when they apply, so that we see the Depression through the eyes of characters who are allowed to be individuals. Whatever Addie and Moses do in this movie, we have the feeling it’s because they want to (or have to) and not that the ghost of some 1930s screenwriter is prompting them.”

Bogdanovich also employs a simplistic style in filming and editing Paper Moon, opting to use deep-focus photography, long takes, and crosstalk dialogue. DVD Savant Glenn Erickson wrote: “Bogdanovich finds a classic camera style in Paper Moon, holding many scenes in extended takes, and cutting as infrequently as possible. A car chase is confected to use one single camera position for several screeching turns, for instance. The style sometimes resembles John Ford, particularly at the beginning. Dialogue scenes, like one in an ice cream parlor, use real street backgrounds as if they were rear-projections in a 30s studio film. Many exteriors have classically-composed wide shots showing the terrain and the horizon as might Ford. But scenes do jump across cuts, and there are many more closeups and wide angle shots. Bogdanovich's restrained camera, the lack of color, and the source music he uses for a soundtrack, place us firmly in the dust bowl years without the period oversell of the many imitators of Bonnie and Clyde.”

What’s more, the movie avoids being saccharine, cloying, cutesy, or politically correct. We see Addie smoking, hear her use profanities, and watch her engage in adult games of cat and mouse, revealing a precociousness that results in great comedy. Also, the film isn’t afraid to explore the subtopic of racial subjugation and the diminished societal status of Blacks during the Great Depression.

Paper Moon is organized tidily into three acts. Act I introduces Addie and Moses and establishes their dynamics and personalities. Act II involves Moses being preoccupied with Trixie Delight and Addie befriending Imogene. Act III focuses on the bootlegging scheme subplot and getting Addie home.

One prevailing question viewers may have after the film ends: Would Addie have been better off remaining with her aunt, or does forcing Moses to take her along again feel right? Consider what film critic Emmanuel Levy wrote: “Paper Moon features anarchic philosophy with a twisted view of childhood, one that could be just as harmful as growing up within a suffocating Milieu since both education and domesticity are rejected. Glamorizing deviance and legitimizing Addie’s status as a child-monster, the narrative fails to provide a clue as to how Addie is going to make the inevitable transition from childhood to maturity and womanhood.”

Major themes abound in Paper Moon. One message is “Fake it till you make it.” Moses and Addie must con and grift to get from point A to B and survive in a hardscrabble era. They also sometimes must pretend to be father and daughter, or pretend not to be if he truly is her biological patriarch, to accomplish their goals. Another moral to the story? Appearances are deceiving. Despite Addie’s young age, tomboyish qualities, and dependence on Moze, she’s a crafty and devious yet goodhearted kid who can easily fool grown-ups. Likewise, Moses uses this setup of appearing as Addie’s father to hoodwink marks.

A further takeaway is that familial bonds help us endure life’s hardships. While it is never confirmed that Moses is Addie’s father, he becomes a father figure to her and the pair form a symbiotic relationship built on mutual trust, respect, and loyalty. Interestingly, Addie seems to protect and rescue Moze more than the other way around. Even if Moses doesn’t believe he is her father or admit it, he comes to love and appreciate Addie in unspoken ways, and that feeling is reciprocated – as evidenced by Addie’s giving of the photograph to Moses. If this attachment proves mutually beneficial at a time when nearly everyone around them is suffering.

Similar works that come to mind after screening Paper Moon include:
  • The Grapes of Wrath

  • Bonnie and Clyde
  • A Perfect World
  • Nebraska
  • The Kid
  • Little Miss Marker, a 1934 Shirley Temple film
  • A Simple Twist of Fate
  • The Professional
  • Con artist films like The Sting, The Grifters, Matchstick Men, and The Flim-Flam Man
  • Road movies such as Thelma and Louise, Little Miss Sunshine, and It Happened One Night
Other films by Peter Bogdanovich include:
  • The Last Picture Show
  • What’s Up Doc
  • Targets
  • Mask
  • Runnin’ Down a Dream


A retro artist who was ahead of his time

Friday, February 24, 2023

Once Warner Brothers’ The Jazz Singer debuted in 1927, the era of talking pictures was born, signaling an end to the dominance of silent movies. But Charlie Chaplin never got the memo. He continued making (mostly) silent films through 1936, as evidenced by Modern Times, released that year. The CineVerse faithful put this film under a magnifying glass last week and determined that it remains one helluva funny flick, regardless of its relatively wordless status, and surprisingly relevant in the 21st century. Here’s a recap of our discussion (click here to listen to a recording of our group conversation).

What is significant about this feature film by Chaplin?

  • It’s the last true appearance of his Little Tramp character, which first debuted in 1914.
  • Many shorts and films featuring the Little Tramp end with him walking off alone. This movie concludes with him arm in arm with a partner, which was rare.
  • Modern Times also marks the only film in which the Little Tramp utters words, which occurs during the restaurant singing scene. Technically, the character is singing gibberish, not any comprehensible language.
  • Although the film includes voices and sound effects, it plays and is intended as a silent movie. This is widely considered to be the last silent film released in Hollywood. To create and distribute a silent picture in 1936 – nine years after the introduction of sound in cinema – was gutsy but risky.
    • Interestingly, other than the nonsensical song Chaplin sings, the only words spoken are delivered through a machine, such as the inventor speaking via phonograph and the factory owner talking through his screen – which serves as thematic comment on dehumanization by technology.
    • Rob Nixon of TCM wrote: “Modern Times represents more than a refusal to move into talkies for the film actually comments on sound and plays with the conventions of both silent and talking pictures. In exploring this new technology, the form of the film becomes part of the content and the story itself becomes a reflection of the cinematic "modern times," an observation on the increasingly mechanized, factory-like production of movies, something far removed from the improvisational and leisurely way Chaplin was accustomed to working.”
  • Also unusual for Chaplin, this movie has a strong female lead who is arguably not a love interest but more a platonic partner who is from the same lower rung of the socioeconomic ladder as the Little Tramp. In past films, the Tramp often pined for more unattainable females.
  • This was the breakout film for actress Paulette Goddard, who plays the Gamine.
  • Additionally, Chaplin is making more of a sociocultural/sociopolitical statement in this movie than in many of his previous Little Tramp pictures in the way he critiques corporate America, authority figures, the government, and law enforcement, while representing down and outers and the disgruntled labor force empathetically.
  • This was a rare instance of a Chaplin feature that wasn’t widely popular among audiences, and it suffered at the box office. Perhaps that can be attributed to its imagery and scenes of financial hardship at a time when many Americans didn’t want to be reminded about the Great Depression.
  • As with several Chaplin feature-length films, Modern Times is built around a handful of gags and set pieces strung together, here comprised of four main segments: the factory, the jail, the department store, and the restaurant/nightclub.
  • This film introduced Chaplin’s composition Smile to the world, one of the most beloved songs of the 20th century.

Major themes

  • The dangers of increased reliance on mechanization, industrialization, and technology over human beings. Modern Times repeatedly demonstrates how technological advancement comes with significant cost to humans, particularly workers dehumanized and exploited by big business.
  • We need to prioritize people and human ingenuity over machines and technology.
    • Deep Focus Review creator Brian Eggert wrote: “Chaplin resolves that people need human interaction, not more technology—a theme easily drawn from the Gamine’s presence. The Tramp and Gamine are like children, free of responsibility, while adults remain mindless and controlled automatons.”
  • David versus Goliath, or the little guy against the world. “Industry, labor strife, and government are all the enemies of the common man…The theme is really innocent Tramp against the world,” according to DVD Savant Glenn Erickson.
  • Good people pushed to extremes. Most characters in Modern Times, including the Little Tramp, the Gamine, and even the department store intruders, are good at heart but may have to break the law for basic needs like food and shelter during a time of extreme financial duress.
  • Grace under pressure. The Tramp and the Gamine are forced to be creative, improvisational, and cleverly spontaneous when put on the spot. They rise above their limitations with the help of pluck, inventiveness, and cunning.

Similar works

  • Metropolis
  • Sullivan’s Travels
  • The Grapes of Wrath
  • Brazil
  • Woody Allen films like Sleeper and Take the Money and Run
  • Films by Jacques Tati, including Jour de fĂȘte, Monsieur Hulot's Holiday, Mon oncle, PlayTime, Trafic, and Parade
  • TV shows like I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show

Other feature films by Chaplin

  • The Kid
  • The Gold Rush
  • The Circus
  • City Lights
  • The Great Dictator
  • Limelight


What's priceless about Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Two weeks ago, our CineVerse group took the scenic route through Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a classic marking a 75th anniversary in 2023. Highlights of our discussion points are summarized below (you can listen to a recording of that group conversation here; to access the latest Cineversary podcast spotlighting Treasure of the Sierra Madre, click here).

Why does Treasure still matter? Why does it deserve to be celebrated 75 years later, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • The film was helmed by one of the all-time greats of the classic Hollywood era, John Huston, who was renowned for a distinctive style across several genres, including Westerns, noir, and adventure dramas. With this story, Huston continues his exploration of disparate individuals or misfits who band together for a mutual purpose, such as the pursuit of wealth or the quest for an elusive target. Other Huston films that follow this formula include The Man Who Would Be King, The Asphalt Jungle, Moby Dick, The Maltese Falcon, and Beat the Devil.
  • Treasure of the Sierra Madre is also memorable for its visual realism and verite-tinged cinematography. It’s no small point that most of the scenes were filmed outdoors in Mexico, which graces the picture with sociocultural and aesthetic authenticity. In fact, this was one of the first Hollywood movies to be shot on location outside the United States, within Durango and Tampico.
  • Likewise, this movie has aged more gracefully than some others of this period because most of the Mexican characters are played by Mexican actors or nonprofessional natives. Yes, we have a young Robert Blake portraying a Mexican child, but virtually every other Mexican character is performed by a Mexican native or Mexican-American. Consider that American actors were often cast at this time to play Hispanics, Blacks, and Native Americans and wear dark makeup to hide their whiteness.
  • The film earns extra points for not including subtitles when the Mexican characters speak, and they speak often. Granted, it was extremely rare for an American production in the 1940s to use subtitles, but there are quite a few verbal exchanges in Spanish that the vast throng of English-speaking viewers would not have understood, which remains true today.
    • Refraining from using subtitles and not having characters constantly translating Spanish to English for the audience’s benefit makes many of us as culturally disoriented as Dobbs and Curtin, further immersing us in their world as outsiders in this foreign land. But this decision also speaks to Huston’s faith in the intelligence of his audience to figure out what they can in context and abandon language concerns they can’t decipher.
  • Treasure also deserves to be celebrated because it’s a showcase role for its lead, Humphrey Bogart, who plays against type and isn’t afraid to get dirty – literally and figuratively – as the character Dodds. While some have criticized his portrayal as being overacted or exaggerated, others appreciate how Bogart, who, when the lead, usually plays a likable character who is in control and two steps ahead of everyone else, is at the mercy of external forces and succumbs gradually to paranoia and animalistic impulses.
  • But as large a presence he may be, Bogart is outshined here by Walter Huston, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for so vibrantly bringing the old prospector Howard to life. There’s also a fascinating familial dynamic at work here in that we have a rare instance in a classic Hollywood feature of a son directing his father.
  • This film plays as a hybrid of sorts that clearly works as a western and an adventure movie but is also infused with film noir elements. This is evidenced by the prevailing cynical tone and pessimistic worldview of the characters along with the high-contrast lighting in key scenes. Ruminate, as well, on the devolution of Dobbs from a down-and-outer with some semblance of morals to a duplicitous would-be murderer emboldened by avarice – the kind of traits we see often in a gritty urban crime drama otherwise known as noir.
  • Like films such as It’s a Wonderful Life, Citizen Kane, Vertigo, and others, Treasure of the Sierra Madre was not a box-office hit or fully appreciated in its original era but was reappraised as an all-time classic many years later: further proof that great filmmaking transcends eras and generations.
  • Among the reasons why it likely wasn’t as well-received by moviegoers back in 1948 were its downbeat ending and lack of a romance or major female character. Huston and his collaborators stayed true to the plot and tone of the original 1927 novel by B. Traven and defied conventional formula for a late 1940s picture.
  • This film also contains one of the most quoted (for that matter, misquoted) lines in movie history: “Badges? We ain’t got no badges! We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!” Interestingly, most people mistakenly cite the last part of this quote as: “We don't need no stinking badges!”

Can you cite any influence this movie had on filmmakers or later films that may have drawn inspiration from Treasure?

  • Although the level of political commentary imbued in this movie is minor, Treasure’s moral about the consequences of greed and betrayal was a fitting precursor to the message movies and socially conscious Hollywood pictures that came in the 1950s and 1960s.
  • One of the most obvious descendants of Treasure of the Sierra Madre is the Indiana Jones films; ponder the rugged and dirty appearance of Indiana Jones and the Fedora hat he wears, which take a cue from Dobbs.
  • Other similar works include McKenna’s Gold, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), Huston’s own adaptation of The Man Who Would Be King (1975), Trespass (1992), City Slickers II (1994), Three Kings (2000), Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods (2020), and the Breaking Bad TV series.
  • Additionally, Paul Thomas Anderson rewatched this movie multiple times to inspire his creation and direction of There Will Be Blood. The director said: “Sierra Madre is as direct as you can get—nothing clever, nothing structurally new or different—and I mean that as a high compliment. It's harder than anything else to be completely straightforward.”
  • Some scholars speculate that, when writing his book, author B. Traven may have been influenced by the Pardoner's Tale within The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer and Christ’s parable of the hidden treasure in the New Testament.

What impresses about the acting?

  • This movie shows another side to Bogart; although he played criminals, gangsters, and antiheroes before Treasure, here we have him in the lead as an outright villain, which isn’t fully revealed until about halfway through the story. His character’s transformation from sympathetic drifter to seemingly trustworthy team player to venal, avaricious snake in the grass is remarkable. It’s rare to see Bogey this sweaty, nervous, and utterly despicable.
  • Walter Huston, by contrast, projects an amiable, grizzled charm and a hard-earned sagacity that earns his character and the actor well-deserved seniority among the trio. He has to be careful here not to steer Howard into stereotype territory as the old prospector archetype. Instead, with his rhythmically rapid manner of speech, his soft, empathetic eyes that contrast his hard-stubbled visage, and his gift for greeting misfortune with laughs, he fashions a distinctive and original persona.
  • The final sequence, in which Howard’s unexpected guffaw makes Curtin break out into peals of laughter, is infectious. It’s hard for the viewer not to chuckle in response, and it says a lot about the humility within these two survivors that they can find comedy in disaster.

John Huston earned his only Best Director Academy Award for helming this picture. What stands out about his directing choices in Treasure?

  • As he proved in his cinematic translations of written works like The African Queen, Moby Dick, The Dead, The Maltese Falcon, and The Asphalt Jungle, Huston had a clear gift for adapting acclaimed stories as both a director and often the screenwriter on many of his films. Treasure is no exception. It’s little surprise that Huston won dual Oscars for this picture: Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director.
  • The narrative in Treasure of the Sierra Madre is tightly paced, straightforward, simple to understand, and free from extraneous subplots, unnecessary side characters, and showy directorial flourishes. There are no frivolous scenes or ham-fisted dialogue. Were intently focused on three things: the interdynamics between the three men, progress or lack thereof in their quest for riches, and Dobb’s riveting descent into villainy. Sometimes the best directorial efforts involve following the straightest path to success: letting great actors tell a great story.
  • Huston worked closely with his thespians, often urging them to improvise. The filming of Treasure was more strained, due to the longer-than-expected shoot under harsh conditions, but Huston lightened the mood by playing practical jokes on the actors.
  • Huston has famous for taking risks and staying faithful to his vision, such as insisting on riding Bogart to glory instead of other actors earlier in their careers and preserving the complex themes and dark undercurrents of his adapted source materials, as is true of Treasure.
  • Indeed, this director brought out the best in Humphrey Bogart, who played four of his finest roles for Huston. In addition to Treasure, Bogart starred in six movies for the filmmaker, including The Maltese Falcon, Key Largo, and The African Queen, winning a Best Actor Oscar for the latter.
  • Two shots that demonstrate Huston’s mastery of the craft include when Dobbs and Curtin symmetrically shake hands in front of a dubious-looking Howard, and when Dobbs sees Gold Hat’s reflection on the surface of the water.

What major themes or messages can be mined from Treasure of the Sierra Madre?

  • The corrupting influence and power of greed. As the story advances, Dobbs increasingly demonstrates how avarice can grip the soul and strip you of empathy, allegiance, or compassion. The fact that Howard and Curtin each save Dobbs’ life and are willing to trust each other and collaborate fairly doesn’t prevent Dobbs from double-crossing them and attempting to murder Curtin.
    • Treasure of the Sierre Madre is a cautionary tale about the dangers of unbridled materialism and how a tunnel vision pursuit of wealth inevitably results in moral decay and the dissolution of trust and friendship.
    • As mentioned earlier, Dobbs devolves into an inhuman, animalistic being as the story advances. Riffing on that theme, the film is replete with mentions and appearances of creatures both common and exotic, including jackasses, tigers, dogs, lions, foxes, buzzards, swine, birds, monkeys, ants, and a Gila monster.
  • Self-interest versus altruism and the greater good. There’s a clear dichotomy between the selfish, mistrustful nature of Dobbs and the more generous, trusting, and compassionate Howard, who pledges, like Curtin, to donate a portion of his treasure to Cody’s family, encourages the group to repair their damage to the mountain in an ecologically conscious gesture, and agrees to help a sick young villager—leaving his share of the gold in the hands of his partners during his absence.
  • A love/hate triangle. Howard, Dobbs, and Curtin form a character triad in which one point of the triangle, Curtin, stands between two practically diametrical opposites in Dobbs and Howard and is pulled in either direction at various points in the story.
    • Roger Ebert wrote: “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a story in the Joseph Conrad tradition, using adventure not as an end in itself but as a test of its characters. It involves moral disagreements between a wise old man and a paranoid middle-aged man, with a young man forced to choose sides.”
    • From a psychological perspective, Dobbs, Curtin, and Howard could represent the id, the ego, and the superego, respectively. Per Freud and his psychoanalytic theory, the superego serves as the conscience and moral compass of our personality, which fits with Howard; the id pertains to that part of our mind driven by instinctual, primitive, and immediate gratification urges, which somewhat describes Dobbs; and the ego is the mind’s more rational and realistic component that mediates between the superego and id, which describes Curtin. It’s interesting how the id dominates and attempts to destroy the ego once the superego in Howard temporarily leaves Dobbs and Curtin.
  • Material rewards versus human rewards. A major message of this film is that the real treasure in life comes from helping others, as suggested by the perks Howard receives after healing a sick boy in a nearby village and the bright prospects evident to Curtin, who agrees to aid Cody’s widow. Howard and Curtin seem content with these non-monetary forms of compensation, and both are at peace with the loss of their shares of the gold.
  • A moral quandary provoked by external forces. After an outsider, Cody, intrudes on their operation and wants in, the trio must make a difficult decision about the interloper: They vote to kill him. Conveniently for them, Cody is killed in a gunfight with Gold Hat and his bandits. But it reveals much about Howard and Curtin that they, like Dobbs, were willing to murder Cody to prevent dilution of their fortune. This subplot also compels viewers to ask themselves how they would vote in this situation.
  • Karmic irony. In the end, no one gets the gold—not even Gold Hat, whose very name and reappearance throughout the story perhaps make you believe he’s going to prevail with the fortune by the conclusion. Not only are Dobbs, Curtin, and Howard denied the spoils of their toils, but the winds scatter the carefully sifted gold dust, making it irrecoverable to anyone. As remarked by Howard: “It’s a great joke played on us by the lord or fate or nature or whatever you prefer, but whoever or whatever played it certainly had a sense of humor.”
  • Appearances can be deceiving. Curtin and Dobbs underestimate Howard, judging him based on age and visage; they’re soon shocked by their old partner’s surprising stamina. Likewise, the younger men are convinced they’ve struck it rich before Howard informs them they’ve been duped by fool’s gold. The trio are also practically convinced that Cody is an ill-intentioned extortionist but later form different opinions after reading his wife’s letter.

Is Treasure showing any wrinkles 75 years onward?

  • You could make a case that the ethnic typecasting of Mexicans is minimal in Treasure of the Sierra Madre. After all, the filmmakers did cast Mexican actors in these roles without putting Americans in brownface. But depicting the Mexican bandits as vicious, uneducated savages perpetuates a creaky stereotype, as does the portrayal of indigenous peoples as uncivilized, superstitious, atavistic inferiors to Whites. 1948 was a different time, certainly, but it’s only fair to point out, 75 years later, that facets like these are less acceptable today.
  • It’s perhaps unfortunate that the only female roles in this film are primarily wordless women who serve men, such as the prostitute who walks past Dobbs, a gold digger on the arm of the contractor who owes Curtin and Dobbs money, and attractive personal servants who possibly function as Howard’s harem.
  • That fistfight sequence in the cantina, using stuntmen who look nothing like Bogart and Tim Holt and employing mismatched cuts between the real actors and their doubles, is visually the biggest blemish noticeable 75 years later.

What is Treasure of the Sierra Madre’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • One of its greatest gifts is that it continues to resonate as a minimalistic but effective morality play about the repercussions of covetousness and selfishness—how it can erode relationships, leave you alienated and vulnerable, and ultimately backfire on you. That’s an obvious gift, certainly.
  • But an ever bigger present this movie bestows on us is to demonstrate to filmmakers and lovers of film alike that the best cinematic stories are often the simplest. Sure, Treasure of the Sierra Madre benefits from some thrilling twists and gripping turns along its rusty railroad track of a narrative, but this train doesn’t have to be the fastest, newest, or most stylish vehicle to get us from A to B to C. All you need for a thoroughly satisfying ride is a strong, dependable locomotive engine in the form of a well-written but streamlined tale and compelling characters.
  • John Huston and his collaborators make things look easy because three strong actors, a solid screenplay, and Mother Nature in the form of outdoor location shooting are doing the heavy pulling. There’s no merit in overthinking Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Sometimes the very best movies are the simplest to understand thematically, the easiest to follow narratively, and the beneficiaries of good casting and a handful of memorable performances.


TCM's Ben Mankiewicz & Farran Smith Nehme join Cineversary podcast to celebrate Treasure of the Sierra Madre's 75th anniversary

Thursday, February 16, 2023

Ben Mankiewicz and Farran Smith Nehme
In Cineversary podcast episode #56, host Erik Martin is joined by Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz and Farran Smith Nehme, whose writings have appeared in The Village Voice, Sight & Sound, and her Self-Styled Siren Substack. Together, they sift through the sands of time to uncover the golden truths behind The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as they commemorate the film’s 75th anniversary.

To listen to this episode, click here or click the "play" button on the embedded streaming player below. Or, you can stream, download, or subscribe to Cineversary wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, AudibleCastbox, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, PodBean, RadioPublic, and Overcast.

Learn more about the Cineversary podcast at and email show comments or suggestions to


It takes a village

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Is it possible to depict the life of children in a feature film without cloying themes and situations, overscripted dialogue, and implausible performances? The Florida Project by director Sean Baker proves this is more than possible. Last week, CineVerse spent some quality time with this film and arrived at several key conclusions, detailed below (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

  • What did you find surprising, distinctive, noteworthy, curious, or satisfying about The Florida Project?
  • The film lacks a cohesive narrative, serving more as a succession of vignettes. Despite not having a conventional plot, the movie works as a penetrating study of characters, probing deep into fascinating personalities, especially the characters of Moonee, Halley, and Bobby.
  • This is one of the best feature films ever made about the formative childhood years, particularly thanks to the stupendous performances of the child actors, most notably Brooklyn Prince as Moonee, who was only six years old at the time of filming. Often, the movie feels less like a scripted fictional film than a documentary, thanks largely to the naturalistic acting of the kids, who seem to be given free rein here to simply be themselves and to shape the direction or dialogue of a given scene.
  • The contrast between the characters of Bobby and Halley is striking; the latter is a relatively carefree but angry, immature, and impudent young mother who is bailed out time and again by the eternally patient and kind motel manager, who goes out of his way to compensate for the flaws, failures, and misfortunes of Halley. While he is not a father figure and doesn’t spend any quality time with Moonee as such, Bobby is the glue keeping the mother and daughter from drifting swiftly toward disaster, until even that bond of safety inevitably breaks.
  • The filmmakers refrain from moralizing, shoehorning a message into the movie, or judging these characters. Instead, they create an impressionistic canvas that allows the viewer to form their own opinions and conclusions about these people.
    • Movie reviewer Wenlei Ma wrote: “The world captured by Baker’s lens is colourful and bright, despite its impoverished inhabitants, and he never judges or pities them for their choices, even if you might. Here is a movie that shows, not tells.”

Major themes

  • The resilience and fragility of children. Moonee and her young friends can impressively adapt to their disadvantaged financial situations and limiting environments and are amazingly street-smart, perceptive, and sturdy. But the volatile nature of their families and surroundings leaves them vulnerable to risks and sudden challenges, such as the possibility of being taken away from their parents.
    • The bent/tipped tree that Moonee admires is an apt metaphor here for the hardiness of kids and the ability to survive yet be at a disadvantage to other children and families.
  • It takes a village to raise a child. While Halley is fairly attentive to and initiates some happy experiences for her daughter, she is insufficient at being a responsible parent and providing a truly nurturing environment. We see several other adults fill in as surrogate parents of sorts to Moonee and the other youngsters on The Magic Castle motel property, including Bobby, Ashley, and Grandma Stacy. The Florida Project suggests that, especially for some disadvantaged communities, surrounding adults need to step up and help watch, safeguard, and care for neighborhood children.
    • Slant Magazine film credit Ed Gonzales wrote: “One take on the project of the film’s title is the unspoken social contract that binds these lives: the understanding that they’re in this life together, united in their love for their kids.”
  • Fantasy vs. reality. There’s a dark and often ignored realistic side to the fairytales we cherish. Adjacent to the wonderland that is Disney World in Orlando, there is a subculture of impoverished, underprivileged, and overlooked people who are barred from entry into The Magic Kingdom and instead have to settle for The Magic Castle motel.
  • Life is a series of unpredictable episodes, random events, and seemingly insignificant experiences that combine to shape and represent you. Every day for Moonee is different and unexpected to some extent, even though she and her mother have limited resources and finite terrain they can explore. This film posits that it’s often the small details and the minor slice of life experiences in life – especially in childhood – that are the most memorable and impactful.

Similar works

  • Small Change
  • Fish Tank
  • American Honey
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • Room
  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Shoplifters
  • Little Fugitive
  • Winter’s Bone
  • Bicycle Thieves and other works of Italian neorealism
  • Little Rascals/Our Gang shorts

Other films by Sean Baker

  • Take Out
  • Starlet
  • Tangerine
  • Red Rocket


A South Korean masterwork that ignites our imagination

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite took the world by storm in 2019, further demonstrating the ascendance of South Korean filmmakers and their mastery of the cinematic arts. But a key predecessor to Parasite – a movie that shares many similarities and, one could argue, is equally praiseworthy – is Burning (2018), produced, co-written, and directed by Lee Chang-dong. Last week, we at CineVerse gathered close to the brilliant light and heat generated by this film and conversed extensively about its ample virtues. Our major discussion points are outlined below (warning: spoilers ahead; click here to listen to a recording of our group discussion).

This is a picture that works on multiple levels, including multiple interpretations. Can you identify two common readings of Burning?

  • A literal, more straightforward analysis is that Ben is a serial killer who enjoys murdering women of inferior status, including Hae-mi. Jong-su suspects Ben of this and ultimately kills him in an act of self-imposed justice and revenge.
    • Evidence of this includes the various jewelry, presumably collected from different female victims, found in Ben’s bathroom cabinet; the sudden appearance in Ben’s building of Hae-mi’s cat, who immediately answers to the name “Boil”; Ben’s sociopathic traits, including lack of empathy and confessing to never shedding a tear; and Hae-mi’s apartment suddenly appears tidy and clean after she disappears, in contrast to the disheveled state it was in earlier.
  • A different reading suggests that most or all of what we see is factual and literal up through perhaps the scene in the middle of the film where the three main characters smoke marijuana. But starting roughly from the point when Ben begins talking about burning greenhouses, the remainder of the tale is metaphoric and imaginary – within the head of aspiring novelist Jong-su, who finally has a good plot for that work of fiction he’s dreamed of writing. Keeping with the burning imagery and motifs, his imagination has been “fired up” by his exposure to Hae-mi and Ben, the former a teller of captivating but possibly untrue stories, the latter a Gatsby-like figure of fascination, and he now has more of those invaluable life experiences to fuel his writing.
    • Evidence of this includes the later scene where we witness Jong-su typing on a laptop in Hae-mi’s vacated apartment; there’s also the sudden and horrific violence Jong-su unleashes upon Ben, followed by the strange behavior of removing his clothes; we also hear a character mention the word “metaphor” and explain what a metaphor is earlier in the film. In this reading of Burning, it’s likely that Ben is an elitist jerk but not a bad guy and that Hae-mi wasn’t killed but instead decided to abandon her old life and start fresh somewhere else.

Motifs and patterns

  • Fire and burning. The burning in this movie takes at least three forms: the burning of kindling or combustible materials; a burning that drives your desire, whether it be sexual, spiritual, or otherwise; and an emotionally volatile burning as represented by anger and jealousy.
  • Hunger, eating, and consumption – consumption of food both real and imaginary, and consumption of combustible materials like cigarettes and marijuana as well as kindling like greenhouses and human bodies.
  • Running. We see both men running in different scenes and hear Hae-mi presumably running and panting on the phone.
  • Dreaming. Jong-su has actual dreams he awakes from as well as aspirations and desires for something better, whether that be Hae-min as a girlfriend or the money and popularity Ben has.
  • Dancing.

Major themes

  • Hunger and desire. Each of the main characters craves something, whether it’s a climb up the social ladder, justice/revenge, or a higher purpose or meaning.
  • Reality versus illusion or metaphor. This film juxtaposes facts and tangible/believable details with representations, speculations, possible fantasies, lies, and beliefs.
    • Hai-me demonstrates how you can effectively imagine something, such as eating an invisible tangerine. She says “Don’t think there is a tangerine here. Just forget that there isn’t one. That’s the key. The important thing is to think that you really want one. Then, your mouth will water and it’ll taste really good.”
    • It’s also possible Hai-me is lying about things, like owning a cat.
    • Deep Focus Review blogger Brian Eggert wrote: “Burning revels in the ambiguity between the known and perceived, inhabiting the vast space between the objective and subjective. His thorny character study, its currents of class and masculine identity shaping many of its scenes over the two-and-a-half-hour runtime, portrays its themes in a way that raises more questions than it answers. And despite the viewer’s uncertainty about the motivations behind every character, or whether what unfolds in the film is what actually occurred or just our perception of it, the filmmaking somehow leaves us more engaged than if everything had been delivered gift-wrapped with a tidy bow. Lee’s interest in ambiguity further sculpts his use of the central mystery, how the characters have been written and performed, and where he chose to shoot the film.”
  • Class inequality. Jong-su represents the lower class who must struggle in Korean society and who yearns for opportunity and money. Ben symbolizes the upper class and privileged in society who seemingly don’t have to work for the wealth and privilege they enjoy. Hae-mi stands between them as someone from the lower class who aims to ascend the social ladder and fit in with the upper crust. A subtheme of a classic love triangle also fits within this concept.
    • Many believe this is a sociopolitical film whose key subtext preaches that these class divisions are a tinderbox waiting to ignite. With this reading, the message of class division is tied with the hunger and metaphor themes. Burning is perhaps saying that, like the imaginary tangerine, hunger by the lower classes for a better life can’t be satisfied by pretending, fancy words, illusory concepts, or trickery. If the underprivileged aren’t given real, tangible solutions, the cycle of resentment, jealousy, isolation, and ultimately violence against the empowered and upper class will continue.
    • Slant Magazine critic Niles Schwartz wrote: “Jong-su, working through his literary mind, scornfully sees (Ben) as one of South Korea’s many Gatsbys, for whom work and play are indistinct, living the good life on the backs of people like Hae-mi, who will be handily disposed in time. Lee is drawing an analogy between how both authors and sociopolitical systems cast real people as abstractions or metaphors. The author or artist heightens life with metaphor, while the exploitative materialist cheapens it, and for Ben, the employment of “metaphor” implies something destructive and not creative.”
  • Life is uncertain, mysterious, and unfair. There are few certainties in this story and many mysteries. From Jong-su’s perspective, his lot in life is unfair; from Ben’s point of view, assuming he is innocent of killing people, it’s undeserved that he is brutally murdered by Jong-su.
  • The inability to escape your fate. Ben talks about lives as predestined by DNA or nature. Proof of this theme is played out by Jong-su, who eventually demonstrates violence as his father did.

Similar works

  • Parasite
  • Vertigo
  • Taxi Driver
  • Gone Girl
  • Mulholland Drive
  • The Vanishing
  • Eyes Wide Shut
  • Memories of Murder
  • The Mad Monkey
  • Classic works of American literature, including The Great Gatsby and stories by William Faulkner, including his story Barn Burning

Other films by Lee Chang-dong

  • Poetry
  • Secret Sunshine
  • Oasis
  • Peppermint Candy
  • Green Fish


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