The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

1948 was an important year for the Western.  Movies like 3 Godfathers and Fort Apache were contributing to the overwhelming continuation to the genre by the team of John Ford and John Wayne.  Movies like Silver River with Erroll Flynn and Yellow Sky with Gregory Peck were headlining other great team-ups with superstar actors and directors (Raoul Walsh directed the former; William Wellman, the latter).  The second World War was drifting into the past, but its ripples were still freshly informing the new artistic psyche, and these team-ups were beginning to integrate a far more human arrangement into the Western to supplant what was originally a mythological archetype.  Method acting and human dilemma were rising to an important position in the way that Westerns were written.  While these aforementioned films, and others, were making their dramatic (or, at times, comedic) impact on what was, before the war, a simple formula, two films really made waves in 1948.  These two Westerns were The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Red River.  

I will use the next two posts to write essays on these two important films in 1930s and ’40s American cinema.  They mark the transition from the early Western to the more mature rebirth of the Western out of World War II and into the 1950s and early ’60s, when the Western would reach its quality peak.  After Red River and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the American Western would become darker, more brooding, and telling of a far more cynical approach to the cosmology of the American dream.

What these two movies had in common, and what I hope to highlight in these next two essays, was their mixture of a traditional approach to mythology with a new twist.  In particular, this twist is an approach to human nature.  And in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the most important element of human nature is greed.

The idea of greed was a potent one when it came to the early years of cinema, years that were characterized first by a stunning growth in wealth throughout the world (especially in the United States with industrialists like Rockefeller, Morgan, and Carnegie), followed by a rapid depression into poverty.  Perhaps no film showed this relationship with money like Erich von Stroheim’s silent masterpiece, Greed.   Made right in the middle of the first period, in 1924, this film seemed to tell the most introspective story of the unraveling of humanity in the face of tremendous posterity, particularly as it can be seen in the United States.  It was a time when, for the first real time in recent history, people started to identify with the products they consumed.  For the first time, it mattered “who” you were wearing, and what you were listening to.  Greed told the story of—you guessed it—greed, and its vacuum-like impact on those who get tangled up in it.  It was a warning call that can still be heard today.

No other American film draws more comparisons to Greed than The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  Even the film’s promotional poster incited this relationship, stating that “They sold their souls for…The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”  Like Faust meeting up with King Midas, the perennial archetype summed up in the words “pride cometh before the fall” takes center stage in the characters of this movie, particularly in its main character, Fred Dobbs.

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In this movie, we watch as Dobbs teams up with two other men to find a trove of gold.  They think that it is the answer to all their problems, but there is an obvious hesitation throughout the film.  With each passing scene we, and they (at least to some degree) start to realize just how far a person will go for some extra money.  As the movie goes on, we cheer as they find the gold.   We are intrigued by the gold’s appearance (in a dust-like form).  And we feel the suspense of the prolonged wait as threat after threat is overcome on their search, including a hold-up from a bunch of Mexican bandits who quite clearly “don’t need no stinkin’ badges!”  Despite all the gold and adventure, though, the movie is only about one thing: its characters, particularly Dobbs.

Roger Ebert said that Fred C. Dobbs is one of those few characters whose name everybody knows, even if they haven’t seen the movie in which the character appears.  Well, I’m afraid that while that may have once been the case, it is the case no longer.  Unlike Norman Bates, Rhett Butler, Hannibal Lecter, or Vito Corleone, Fred Dobbs has not survived very well into the 21st century.  Maybe, somehow, more than twenty people will read this review and we can get #FredCDobbs trending.  He deserves it.

Dobbs was played by Humphrey Bogart, the most famous actor in the history of Hollywood.  Looking back on his performances, this is likely his most powerful performance and most memorable role; only his character, Rick Blaine, in Casablanca is as good.  What is so grand about his performance, and what makes his character the central piece in the film’s significance, is seen in his incredible transformation.  At first, he seems like the quintessential vagabond, flawed and desolate, like Dean Martin in Rio Bravo, who—according to the mythological standard—will get his chance at redemption.  Maybe a girl will come along.  Surely, there will be a gunfight with a monolithic adversary.  Perhaps a triumph over harsh nature or Indians will be needed.

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But no, not for Dobbs.  Instead, we see what is, in its purest form, tragedy in the Greek mold.  He is a tragic hero, a protagonist with a fatal flaw that will put him on an inevitable collision with destiny.  There is no escape; for dust he is, and unto dust he shall return.  And that is where we see him at film’s end: he lies in a pit of dust and dirt, his unrefined gold flying into the wind like it was from a Kansas song.  This film’s approach to tragedy is decidedly Greek because Dobbs is not a redeemable vagabond at film’s outset like the aforementioned Martin in Rio Bravo or Robert Mitchum in El Dorado.  His flaws are so readily visible that they are nothing but inescapable.  His doom isn’t decided at film’s ending, but at film’s beginning.

I remember the first time I ever saw Treasure; I was not looking for the right things.  I approached the film like any other Western, and so I was blind to Bogie’s flawed character.  I didn’t notice just how dark he was.  I gave him the benefit of the doubt, treated him like a victim, and hoped he would win out in the end.  I didn’t notice how well John Huston (the film’s director and screenwriter) had foreshadowed this tragic end.  I didn’t notice how well the plot concepts were framed in those opening conversations between the film’s three leads: Bogie, Walter Huston (John’s father), and Tim Holt.  So, naturally, I was caught by surprise when I heard Fred Dobbs “pull the trigger.”  (Watch the movie, and this reference will make sense).

I don’t know if I’ve ever been so shocked by a single sound effect.  What I realized was that my horror was born of empathy, a principle that I have documented well in my “My Take On…Suspense” page, when I dissect concepts of suspense and horror.  In that page, I proved that it is not when you are most disgusted by the villain that you feel the most terror.  It is when you most empathize with the villain.  I had started to cheer for Dobbs, and was now shocked to realize my own poor aptitude as a judge of character.

This, however, is a testament to Humphrey Bogart’s acting.  In my two-page series on acting, I address the issue of Bogart’s being “typecast”, and stand up for him (and a few others) by attacking the pejorative association that the term “typecast” carries.  Bogart was a fine actor, and made himself even finer by creating a persona that was easily recognizable and loved.  People connected with Bogart, not because he was human, but because he was more than human.  They cheered for his characters regardless of their moral ambiguity (much more will be said of this in later reviews).   In Fred Dobbs, Bogart reeled in his viewers with his dirty charm, and then left them broken.

The viewers’ attraction to the character is also a testament to John Huston, the true master behind the film.

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When it comes to John Huston, though, I have to make a quick tangent.  See, every film critic has to take a non-popular stand every now and again, and for me, that non-popular stand has been that I find a few directors incredibly overrated.  In particular, I find Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch, Ang Lee, and Pier Paolo Passolini far worse than their critical appeal tends to state.  Even Cecil B. DeMille and Stanley Kubrick are overrated, at least in my eyes.  Some films that critics universally consider to be masterpieces from these artists are anything but.  (Ironic, considering the fact that Kubrick is actually very well-represented on my “Top Films” list).  I have also long-considered John Huston to be overrated.  I see in him a pattern of absurd plot resolutions, cheesy constructions, and a kind of abruptness that I find abrasive.  Even some of his best films, like The African Queen and The Asphalt Jungle, suffer from these shortcomings.  But, in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (and The Maltese Falcon, another film he made with Bogart), Huston’s chronic weaknesses are nowhere to be found.

His direction is superb in this movie.  Not only do his three leads interact with vivacity that hints at a great puppet-master behind the scenes, but he creates scenes wherein these leads can work that hint at an outdoor recreation of Citizen Kane.  Most noticeably, it is Huston’s appeal to deep focus that catches the eye.  Like Orson Welles did in Kane, Huston creates a mise-en-scène that goes deep as it also grows wide.  Consider the scene with the Mexican bandits.  We see Bogie and the crew behind a series of rock formations in the foreground, and in the back, we see a team of bad guys with their guns, all in fantastic focus.

This is important because it provides Huston a special favor.  I hope you recall in my review of My Darling Clementine when I discussed the mythological contrast between man and nature being a key element to the Western mise-en-scène.  (I also discussed it in my review of Stagecoach and my chapter on the American Western).  In Treasure, there are far fewer scenes where a long-shot allows us to better comprehend the dynamic between mythical man and the unconquered.  This is a movie that is much more like (stealing from Roger Ebert, as usual) Joseph Conrad’s work, when the movement and adventure is not so much the key to the movie as are the people moving within the adventure.  The adventure (the plot) is only a device to let us in to the minds of the people participating in it.  A more direct adaptation of Conrad’s work can be seen in the fantastic Coppola film, Apocalypse Now.  Because of the nature of Treasure, therefore, there are far more close-ups and intimate frames, focusing on the three prospectors more than the land they are prospecting.  This would be a perversion of the mythology of the American Western because it removes a key mythological element from the Western formula.  But, it doesn’t do that.  How?  Because of deep focus.  Through deep focus, Huston was able to continually keep the surroundings in mind.  Even in close-ups on a character’s face, the terrain maintains vivid detail.  Hence, the contrast is preserved while simultaneously opening new realms of human introspection.

Remember, though, these reviews are supposed to hearken back to my overall thesis of the last couple months: the great American films of the 1930s and ’40s are great because of their superb mastery of screenplay and writing.  I began this most recent endeavor with a chapter on screwball comedies, and then reviewed four screwball comedies.  I then wrote a chapter on Westerns, and am now on my third of four reviews on Westerns.  In all of these, I have attempted to focus on key themes and motifs that are utilized in the scripts of the movies to make them great.  So, there is obviously more here to discuss than Huston’s directorial efforts.  We absolutely must discuss his screenplay.

Of all the American Westerns, Treasure is probably the fastest-spoken.  Perhaps this is because of Bogart, who was the king of repartee.   But, Huston was no slouch when it came to writing such quick exchanges and utilizing such important themes as those that can be seen in Treasure.  His ability to guide the movie not so much with the action on the screen but the foreshadowing words of previous scenes is an absolute joy to watch.  From the movie’s very outset, we see people exchange words that help us to predict the inevitable conclusion—the Greek tragedy—of this chapter of the American Western mythology.

Perhaps the most significant contribution of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (at least in the context of these reviews), is that it opened the door to a more personal story/myth.  For every Greek myth of Zeus and Athena, there is a story of Orpheus and Eurydice.  For every Trojan War, this is a Sisyphus.  Well, with Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the Western was no longer a Western epic, but a Western fable.  It became the story of a person with individual conflict, whose choices do not necessarily directly impact the society all around him.  It became a story with a moral, one of those transcendent tales that touch us all.  In this regard, Treasure continued the prized tradition, while introducing the genre to an all new means of story-telling.  This is the brilliance of Huston’s script and direction.  He introduced the new Western myth.  And, in this case, it was Narcissus.

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8 thoughts on “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

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