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Revisiting classic films can be a chore, simply because you've watched them ten or fifteen times too often. John Huston's films rarely have that problem, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is just so good that it always seems fresh and new. B. Traven's timeless tale of adventure and greed helped cement Huston's reputation as a great filmmaker, a fact that many critics have never admitted. Many of his so-called flops remain highly watchable, fascinating pictures: We Were Strangers, The Roots of Heaven, The Unforgiven.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a gritty and uncompromised story without a romantic angle. It has a fatalistic cynicism that Luis Buñuel might admire, a refusal to romanticize the world. It doesn't play like many pictures from the late forties, when most movie fare hewed close to audience expectations. It's an original adventure filled with excitement, desperation, and hard choices made by men under pressure, and it's practically perfect. Now on Blu-ray, we can appreciate the vital realism of this exceptional production, made on distant location in Mexico.
B. Traven's story begins in a situation of relative squalor, circa 1925. Stranded in Tampico, Yanquis Fred C. Dobbs and Bob Curtin (Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt) share their misery and are swindled by crooked contractor Pat McCormick (Barton MacLane). When they get back what they're owed in a barroom brawl, and Dobbs wins a lottery prize, the near-bums throw in with grizzled prospector Howard (Walter Huston), who offers to accompany them into the high country to prospect for gold. When the going gets tough, they stick together against threats like bandit Gold Hat (Alfonso Bedoya) and interloping prospector James Cody (Bruce Bennett). But as soon as they strike it rich and begin to amass a treasure, jealousy, suspicion and paranoia come to the fore.
Critic James Agee fell all over himself to praise The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in Time magazine. To Agee, Huston had made a masterpiece: location shooting, real Mexicans, an uncompromised plot and a Hollywood actor ignoring his star persona to play a reprehensible character was a formula for greatness. Agee adored every close-up and every naturalistic line of dialogue. The public apparently didn't go for it. They didn't want to see Humphrey Bogart playing an uncool madman. The movie was 'uncomfortable'; it courted a naturalistic temperament more European than Hollywood. Perhaps the whole enterprise sounded like a corny replay of Greed, trying to be too arty in the bargain.
Those who went found out what we all know, that Treasure is an exceedingly entertaining, almost perfect picture. The negativity comes from its firm foundation of social determinism, the kind that in 1948 seemed suspiciously anti-American. Our heroes are decent men who can't find work. They're basically good yet don't resolve every dilemma in an ethical manner. A bar fight near the beginning is one of the best ever. It's dirty and unpleasant. Our two grimy heroes gang up on a third man, even though he's a better fighter than either of them.
The original story had a strong socialist base. Almost every other chapter, in between those relating the story, introduced another tale of the Mexican revolution as told by the old prospector Howard. Full of idealism and sacrifice, romantic fables like La Adelita stood in contrast to the tragedy that befalls the three partners who begin so nobly only to end in death and defeat. Huston turns away from Traven's assertion that personal riches are the curse of mankind, and concentrates instead on a basic flaw in the human character. Men are ennobled when they work together in pursuit of a goal: they can be selfless, generous and even heroic. But, as Howard says, when money gets in the way, their hearts turn to suspicion and black thoughts.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is only a little over two hours long but it packs a huge story into that running time. The first half-hour is a bum's whirlwind adventure in Tampico -- the lottery, the flophouse, the bar fight. Then we're off on high adventure that doesn't fall into any convenient Hollywood genre. It's the 1920s, so it's too late to be a Western. The heroes pack guns but must dig into their suitcases to find them. Two tenderfoots and a pro, they sneak up into the high hills and concern themselves more with their vaguely criminal enterprise (all the mineral rights are claimed by distant American mining companies, a book detail left out of the movie) than with doing what a man's gotta do.
In a way, it's a pure character study. Walter Huston's Howard is a fascinating old guy, a big talker whose good-natured banter can't defuse his partners' growing hostility. Tim Holt's Curtin is a sentimentalist hardened by the trail and his own brush with Greed. And Bogart's Dobbs is a resentful little man, a walking bad attitude ashamed of being a miserable failure and lacking in dreams beyond a petty lift in status. When the three spitball about spending their loot, Dobbs' imagination goes no further than throwing his money around like a big shot. The lovable Bogey we know hides a mean streak. He tosses water in a boy's face and threatens to kill Howard just because the old man laughs at him. It's the same nasty side of Bogey that made the excellent In a Lonely Place a box office turn-off.
If the story has weak seams (I'd never call them flaws) it's because it strains against Bogart's accrued positive persona. After applauding every happy moment of solidarity, we don't really enjoy Bogie's breakdown, which happens rather quickly and displays too many stage mannerisms. Bogart hangs his hands like Duke Mantee, and a lot of character lighting is used to augment his (good) line readings. Dobbs' retreat into psychosis is built up as well as a character change can be; it's just that we resist seeing Bogart transform against our wishes. Huston always cast big names as characters, and often gave 'stars' some of the best roles of their careers, as with Clark Gable in The Misfits. But audiences rejected what I think was an inspired effort to cast Gregory Peck against type in Moby Dick. Apparently they once felt the same way about Bogie here, although now we relish seeing him chew the scenery: "Ya gotta get up pretty early to put one over on Fred C. Dobbs!"
Huston's Mexican setting is impeccable, authentic and free of sentimental condescension. We see hardworking shopkeepers and barbers. Local kids aren't overly cute and law officers aren't bumbling oafs. Agee was probably bowled over by the fact that the Mexicans speak un-subtitled Spanish and remain foreign. Essential talk is repeated in English by the leads, but the foreign banter requires us to listen and think -- and maybe realize that speaking English is not a requirement to be human. Perhaps 1948 audiences resented not having every bit of dialogue explained to them.
The film mixes real locations, studio sets and process photography, and if an occasional scene now seems artificial, it's only because of sixty years of changes in movie conventions. Huston insisted on delaying leaving Mexico as long as possible, and includes a scene in a filthy ditch where Bogart sticks his head into a really fetid-looking puddle of water. Once they get down there in the ditch, there's no reason why the scene couldn't have been done in Hollywood; the ambience of the locale was obviously important to Huston.
Incidentally, Treasure is almost an early gore movie. (spoiler) Poor foolish Dobbs could easily have intimidated the bandits if Curtin were there to back him up. But he gets clouted on the neck with a rock, and then Gold Hat chops at him twice with a machete, off screen. We just hear Dobbs groan. Then Gold Hat's look pans left. The next cut shows a dark trail leading to the freshly-disturbed puddle. Anybody who's read the book knows what's up -- Gold Hat has hacked Dobbs' head off, and it's just rolled into the muck. Treasure is just a short insert away from being as nasty as anything in Georges Clouzot's angry The Wages of Fear. 1
Detractors look to Max Steiner's busy score as a detriment to the film. It plays up the adventure and the Mexican background admirably, assuring us in the static early scenes that the story is indeed going somewhere. The critics called it too melodramatic. If anything, the score only goes bad by reinforcing the positive side too frequently. Curtin almost leaves Dobbs to die in a mine cave-in, and we get a rush of congratulatory music when he does the right thing and rushes in to save him. This leads us to expect the better nature of the characters to shine through. Because Curtin and Howard seem so guiltless compared to Dobbs (we seem to forget they also vote for murder), the weight of Evil falls on the Bogart character. The music goes nuts as Bogie's laughing face is consumed by superimposed fire. It works, but it's maybe a bit too much.
But who would throw out such a magnificent score? The romance and hope of the story is conveyed through the string music that accompanies the letter about the Texas peach orchard. The music's so beautiful, we want to cry. It's Huston's compromise with Traven's negativity. We'd love to see an epilogue, or a sequel perhaps, with Curtin meeting Cody's widow.
Warner's Blu-ray of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a satisfying package. The HD transfer improves on the earlier DVD special edition, lessening grain, eliminating damage and evening out contrast. It reminds me of 35mm screenings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The improved audio track showcases the Steiner music in full fidelity. The punchier track also reminds us that the Warner sound department used the same "house label" gunshot sound effects for decades -- the shootouts have an audio signature identical to the battles in Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch, 25 years later. We also get a big dose of Warners' signature wind noise effects. I always think of giant ants when I hear that howling wind. 2
The show comes with a long list of extras that seemingly go on forever. The informative commentary is by author Eric Lax. The "Warner Night at the Movies" playback option precedes the feature with a trailer, a newsreel, and a cartoon. Everything has been ported over from the old DVD Special Edition except the Bogie trailer gallery.
The two lengthy docus overlap content with each other and the commentary. An older docu on John Huston is exhaustively long and expensive-looking, but includes many great interviews from key people. It almost gets a handle on the enigmatic & abusive charmer that Huston seemed to be. A new docu on Treasure utilizes Warner's go-to critics and experts (Leonard Maltin, Rudy Behlmer) to tell the tale of the filming. It's nicely paced and has only one flaw, a limp narration by John Milius. Milius is always a riot of enthusiasm when recounting his own tales but his recital skills aren't so hot. The doc attacks the legend of B. Traven assisting the production under an alias, and points out the hidden cameos in the picture -- Tim Holt's dad Jack, and (maybe, she sure doesn't look like her to me) Ann Sheridan as a Tampico streetwalker.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Treasure is probably the single most important influence on Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, and stands as evidence that the 1969 Western owes major conceptual debts. The cackling old man in the group, the idealized camp of Mexican Indians and duplicitous Mexican greetings under arms are all there, along with an ending that dissolves into cynical, defeatist laughter. Peckinpah was a passionate intellectual but he lacked Huston's love of people; his Mexicans are colorful but still sentimentalized and pigeonholed with 'nobility' and 'suffering souls'.
2. Many classic film scores have been re-recorded since the 90s, often by inexpensive Eastern European orchestras. A friend told me that one Moscow re-do of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre used balalaikas to play the Texas peach field theme ... the Russian musicians clearly weren't up on Mexican harp music!
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T'was Ever Thus.