Review: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

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The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

Directed by: John Huston | 126 minutes | action, drama, western, adventure | Actors: Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt, Bruce Bennett, Barton MacLane, Alfonso Bedoya, Arturo Soto Rangel, Manuel Dondé, José Torvay, Margarito Luna, Robert Blake, Guillermo Calles, Roberto Cañedo, Spencer Chan, Jacqueline Dalya, Ralph Dunn , Ernesto Escoto, Pat Flaherty, Martin Garralaga, Jack Holt, John Huston, Francisco Islas, Mario Mancilla, Julian Rivero, Ann Sheridan, Valdespino, Ildefonso Vega, Harry J. Vejar, Ignacio Villabajo, Clifton Young

Humphrey Bogart starred in movies for years before actually becoming a star. He was short, balding and had an ugly scar on his face, which initially only allowed him to play supporting roles as a villain. It wasn’t until the rise of film noir and Bogart’s memorable role as detective Sam Spade in John Huston’s ‘The Maltese Falcon’ (1941) that people began to see what the actor really had. In the years that followed, Bogart developed into one of the greatest actors of all time. But he hadn’t forgotten that he forced his breakthrough thanks to Huston. When the director returned from the war, they decided to embark on a new and promising project together, about a poor man who finds gold and then dies of greed. “Wait till you see me in my next picture,” Bogart is said to have yelled at a film critic in a New York nightclub. “I play the worst scumbag you ever saw.” The roll? That of bum Fred C. Dobbs. The film? ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ from 1948. The audience wanted to see Bogey as they knew him from the countless detective and film noirs and initially ignored the film. Fortunately, it was later realized that Bogart and Huston had made a great classic.

Tampico, Mexico, 1925. Fred C. Dobbs (Bogart), a poor slob who has to beg for some money, meets another bum from the US, Bob Curtin (Tim Holt). Both men have fallen victim to the dubious practices of an employer named McCormick, who puts slobs to work and then never pays. When they meet him in a bar and make him pay for his misdeeds, they beat him up so badly that there is no point in lingering in the town. The elderly Howard (Walter Huston) then points out to them that there is a lot of gold to be found in the area and so the three men set out in search. Walter, as an expert by experience, teaches the younger men wise lessons. It’s not that hard to find gold, but keeping it without getting killed is the toughest task ahead. In the middle of a desolate area in the mountains they experience this firsthand. Not only do they have to watch out for the Mexican bandits and friendly or not hill tribes, they also get into a fight with each other. Because Dobbs in particular becomes suspicious and distrustful as soon as they have gold in their hands, which does not make the atmosphere within the group any better…

‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ is based on a book by the mysterious writer B. Traven, whose oeuvre focuses on camaraderie and the threat of nature. John Huston, director and screenwriter for this film who also has a supporting role as an American tourist in Tampico, is firmly in control and delivered his best work with this film. The beautiful black and white cinematography of the Mexican wilderness is evocative and, in fact, speak for itself. At nearly $4 million, ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ was the most expensive film ever made that didn’t make a dime in the beginning. Bogey was portrayed as the ultimate film noir anti-hero, not as the unshaven, unwashed beggar who slowly turns into a maddened, murderous bastard. Fortunately, the film was reinstated years later and is today regarded as one of the greatest American classics. The main strength of the film lies in the acting performances, but the excellently developed tension build-up also contributes to its success to an important extent. At first glance, ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ looks like an ‘ordinary’ adventure film. But over time, that changes and it becomes a psychological drama. The growing distrust, the greed that gradually eclipses the friendship between the three men; it is all equally aptly incorporated into the story. Huston also adds a surprising amount of humor (cynical undertones in the dialogues) and an unexpected and relativistic ending. And that is precisely why this film is so balanced.

Huston also benefits from the great acting of the cast. Humphrey Bogart, who has always played the confident and worldly detective, surprises as the unstable, paranoid drifter Dobbs. This character is much more of a flesh and blood human being than most of his other roles. The development of his character propels the story forward and brings tension to the film. On the other hand, Howard (Walter Huston, the director’s father) puts things into perspective, who has gained the necessary experience in searching for gold and knows what finding something so valuable can do to people. Once he was like Dobbs, he didn’t trust anyone. But through trial and error he has become wise and represents common sense. Huston earned an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal, two years before his death. Between Bogart and Huston stands Curtin (Tim Holt, best known for B-westerns), who is forced to make choices by the behavior of his friend Dobbs. The scene in which both men are at the mercy of each other, which ultimately leads to a showdown, is the strongest of the entire film. In addition, Alfonso Bedoya, who plays the dangerous bandit leader ‘Gold Hat’, also deserves a special mention. ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ eventually cashed in on three of its four Oscar nominations. In addition to Walter Huston, his son was also awarded, not only for directing but also for the screenplay he adapted. The award for the best film of the year, which ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ certainly deserved, went to ‘Hamlet’ (1948).

Those who want to see Humphrey Bogart in blood form would do well to check out ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’. The legendary actor manages surprisingly well in his atypical role as the unstable drifter Dobbs. Tim Holt and especially Walter Huston deliver top performances. And all thanks to John Huston, who delivers his best work with this tragic film. All elements of a good film are incorporated in ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’. It is a picture to look at, the story is compelling and exciting and does not last a minute too long because every scene has a function in the story. Moreover, the film makes you think about ruthless materialism. Let yourself be carried away into the treacherous snake pit of greed and mistrust that this film offers you. It doesn’t make you very happy, but the ending is so ironic that it seems as if some supreme being got involved. Definitely a must see movie!

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