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When you've seen a lot of classic films, going back to check out a title like The Thin Man or even The Wizard of Oz can be a chore, simply because you've watched them ten or fifteen times too often. John Huston 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 John Huston's reputation as a great filmmaker, a fact a lot of 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 really doesn't play like a picture from the late forties, when even the darkest noir thriller 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. Warners' big splash this season are 2-disc deluxe sets that augment top titles with added docus and extras, and the ones for Treasure don't disappoint.
Critic James Agee fell all over himself to praise The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. To him, its combination of location shooting, real Mexicans as Mexicans, an uncompromised plot and a Hollywood actor ignoring his star persona to play a reprehensible character was a recipie for greatness. Agee adored every closeup and every naturalistic line of dialogue. The public apparently didn't go for it. Humphrey Bogart playing an uncool madman wasn't what they were looking for, and the whole enterprise sounded like a corny replay of Greed, perhaps trying to be too arty in the bargain.
Those who went found out what we all know, that Treasure is indeed an almost perfect picture that's exceedingly entertaining. 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, but don't resolve every dilemma with stalwart heroism or pure honesty. There's a bar fight near the beginning that's one of the best ever. It's dirty, unpleasant, and basically has our two heroes ganging 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, was a tale of the Mexican revolution as told by the old prospector Howard. Full of idealism and sacrifice, romantic and tragic fables like 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 on some 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 has a huge story packed 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 have to dig into their suitcases to find them. They sneak up into the high hills, two tenderfoots and a pro, and concern themselves more with their vaguely criminal enterprise (all the land is 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 basic 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 the money around like a big shot. The lovable Bogey we know hides a mean streak - tossing water in a boy's face, threatening to kill Howard just because the old man laughs at him. It's the same nasty side to Bogey that probably made 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 persona. We applaud every happy moment of solidarity, and don't really enjoy Bogie's breakdown, which appears to happen rather quickly and consists of a lot of stage mannerisms. He tends to hold his hands like Duke Mantee, and a lot of character lighting is used to augment his (good) line readings. It's actually 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. Audiences rejected what I think was a perfect 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 background is impeccable, authentic and completely free of sentimental condescendsion. We see hardworking shopkeepers, barbers, law officers and local kids and none are cute or bumbling oafs. Agee was probably bowled over by the fact that they speak un-subtitled Spanish and remain foreign. Essential talk is repeated in English by the leads, but lots of foreign banter requires us to listen and think. Perhaps 1948 audiences resented not having every bit of dialogue explained to them. 1
The film mixes real locations, studio sets and process photography very well, and only seems artificial now after 55 years of changes in movie conventions. Huston insisted on delaying leaving Mexico as long as possible, including 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 the scene couldn't be done in Hollywood; obviously the ambience of the locale was important to Huston.
Incidentally, Treasure is almost an early gore movie. (spoiler) Poor foolish Dobbs could easily have intimidated the bandits if Curtin was there to back him up, but he's clouted on the neck with a rock, and then Gold Hat chops at him twice with a machete, off screen. We just hear him 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 The Wages of Fear.
Detractors look to Max Steiner's busy score as a detriment to the film. It plays up the adventure and the Mexican background admirably, helping immeasurably in the early scenes to let us know the story's 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 constantly 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 voted for murder), the weight of Evil all falls on the Bogart character. Things get a little heavy when the music goes nuts as Bogie's laughing face is consumed by fire. It works, but it's maybe a bit too much. The music tells us too much how to react, but is also necessary to make the duller moments work, like the pack-mule scenes.
But who would throw out such a magnificent score? The romance and hope of the story is almost all conveyed through the string music that accompanies the Texas peach field story. The music's so beautiful, we want to cry. It's Huston's compromise with Traven's negativity. There's almost a sequel in Curtin going to see Cody's widow. 3
Warner's DVD of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a satisfying package. I've gotten more than one email from readers vocally dismayed about the quality of the transfer, saying that shots and whole scenes have quality problems they didn't expect to see in a deluxe format that's already made Casablanca and The Adventures of Robin Hood look so flawless. I saw some slightly darker scenes, some scratching in a few shots, and several slightly grainer shots, but nothing that stood out as objectionable. The original film has a few grainy shots that I distinctly remember, especially telephoto angles of Gold Hat robbing the train, and the process shots often are encoded a bit more roughly than other scenes. But it all looked reasonably smooth to me, and frankly, I now suspect my player when I see some kinds of digital imperfection. I hate to differ with the honest and concerned notes I've gotten, but I just don't see the problems. I don't have any reason to defend Warners: look at my review for Kiss Me Kate (which is said to be in the process of being remastered). I compared the new DVD to the old laser, and this version is far better-looking. 2
The sound brings out the Steiner music in full fidelity and recaptures old Warners audio effects like the signature gunshots and wind noise that we've heard ever since. I always think of giant ants when I hear that howling wind.
The extras go on forever. In a nutshell, the first disc has a good and informative commentary by author Eric Lax. 'Night at the Movies' packages the feature with a trailer, a newsreel, and a cartoon. There's a Bogie trailer gallery too.
Disc two has two long (very long) docus that overlap with each other and the commentary, content-wise. An older docu on John Huston is exhaustively long and expensive-looking, but has many great interviews from key people. It almost gets a handle on the enigmatic & abusive charmer Huston seemed to be. A new docu on Treasure uses Warner's frequent bunch of critics and experts (Maltin, Behlmer) to tell the tale of the filming. It's nicely paced and has only one flaw, a limp narration by John Milius. Milius recounting his own tales is a riot of enthusiasm, 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.
Savant enjoys Robin Hood, but John Huston is hard to beat for re-watchability. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is solid gold.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre rates:
1. Treasure is probably the single most important
influence on Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, and evidence that that great Western isn't without
major conceptual debts. The cackling old man in the group, the idealized camp of Mexican Indians,
duplicitous Mexican greetings under arms are all there, along with an ending that dissolves into
cynical, defeatist laughter. Peckinpah was an exceptionally talented armchair intellectual but didn't have
Huston's love of people; his Mexicans are colorful but still sentimentalized and pigeonholed with
'nobility' and 'suffering souls'.
2. It's just possible that the quality protesters have defective discs,
but I'm not the man to make comparisons. Savant apologizes for not being the technical detail
watchdog many need on the web. I just tell 'em as I see them, and I make plenty of mistakes.
3. Many classic film scores were re-recorded in 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!