Tonight I didn’t have much going on so I figured why not check out the special screening of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre on the big screen. I knew almost nothing about this film except that it starred Humphrey Bogart and is a classic but I figured that’s good enough for me! (With the moviepass I could basically see it for free so why not?). I didn’t know what to expect and came out of it really impressed. I can see why it is a classic and in many ways it reminded me of the current Oscar favorite The Revenant, except it was clearly its superior in every way. I find it fascinating to compare the two.
Released in 1948 Treasure is written and directed by the great John Huston starring Humphrey Bogart (Dobbs) , Walter Huston (Howard) and Tim Holt (Curtin). They play 3 men who decide to prospect in Mexico for Gold in the 1920s.
They start out with the best of intentions- promising to be moral, upright and to not let the money go to their heads. Dobbs in many ways starts off the most confident in his own morality while Curtin is more morally consistent. Howard, on the other hand, is morally practical, even to the point of understanding why a man might kill him for the money. He says something like ‘I don’t think I’d do it, but I’d sure be tempted’.
What’s really brilliant is the morality of the film is set up with Dobbs and Curtin getting taken advantage of by a shifty businessman in Tampico before they go prospecting. This is somewhat of a prediction of the conflict to come.
The cinematography by 3 time academy award winner Ted D McCord is fantastic, using shadows to show the physical and moral challenges facing the men. Watching it makes me yearn for black and white movies again! I’d take it any day over the bleak, albeit impressive cinematography in The Revenant.
The three leads are so good with particularly Bogart’s Dobbs unwinding in such a believable way. It doesn’t happen over night. In fact, at one point he is rescued by Curtin and we think that may create some kind of obligation between the two men. Instead, Dobbs becomes more and more suspicious of Curtin’s motives and more guarded over his money.
There is a great scene where Curtin tries to stop a poisonous lizard from going in Dobbs hiding place for his ‘share of the goods’. Dobbs accuses Curtin of stealing from him and Curtin says ‘don’t believe me! Put your hand under the rock’. He’s challenging him to test his trustworthiness and see if the lizard will pounce on him. The sequence works brilliantly and tells you so much about both characters.
Howard, as the practical moral compass, never once gives a big speech but consistently warns them about the curse of the gold. It was impressive how Dobbs becomes dirtier and more disheveled as the greed overtakes him. In some ways his story arc kind of reminded me of Lord and Lady MacBeth as their lust for power, causes moral compromises that lead to mental instability. It’s like I could see Dobbs trying to wipe the blood from his hands!
The dialogue is so well done by Huston. It felt authentic to the characters and settings for the 3 leads the entire time. I never felt like someone was ‘acting’ or trying to win an Oscar. These were prospectors and I bought how they talked and the evolution of the characters. Each man spoke in a distinct way that fit who they were and who they become. It is also believable how Dobbs goes from begging for 2 pesos at the start of the film to a scene where 25,000 in gold is not enough.
Where the Revenant gets a lot of its character from the cold surroundings, Treasure of the Sierra Madre gets a similar effect from the heat. You can always feel the heat of the Mexico sun on the prospectors. It feels every bit as taxing as the scenes in Revenant, particularly towards the end.
One of the problems I had with The Revenant (which I don’t hate btw) was its bleakness and almost complete lack of humanity . It becomes kind of deadening by the end and something that should be shocking feels a little ‘meh’. There’s just a limit to how many times you can be stunned by an actor freezing to death. It becomes kind of lifeless film-making by the end.
Treasure in contrast has many moments of humanity, even humor, which makes the eventual moral crisis and madness all the more compelling. We care about these men because we’ve seen both their goodness and darkness.
The performances are also a lot more subtle and absorbing than in The Revenant. This is partly due to the script but also the acting is just that good.
The only flaws I saw in the film is the complete caricatures of the various Mexican groups. There’s the ‘Indian Mexicans’ who treat Howard as a medicine man after he saves a little boy and then the Bandits who are literally too stupid to recognize giant bags of gold. That seemed a little hard to believe.
The music also sometimes seemed a little too cute for the story but it wasn’t a big problem.
Small flaws aside, Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a must see for any movie fan. John Huston directed and wrote a true masterpiece and the acting is some of the best I’ve seen. It is an absorbing story with a compelling moral conflict that I think I will purchase on blu-ray. I particularly suggest if you have seen The Revenant watch this and see if you notice the similarities like I did. What do you like best?
Have you seen Treasure of the Sierra Madre? What did you think? I’m honestly kind of shocked with how much I liked this film. It was so well done.
I give it an A+