Blog Directory CineVerse: What's priceless about Treasure of the Sierra Madre

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.

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