Sunday, September 23, 2012

THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE - REVIEW

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
January 6, 1948
126 min
United States (English)

Written and Directed by John Huston (Based on the book by B. Traven)


The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is an innovative, genre-bending wonder. Bogart and Huston show us the way to gold and the effect it can have on one's morality and a captivated audience.

It's the early 1920s and Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) is begging for coins from fellow Americans better off than him in Tampico, Mexico. We do not know what brought him to this ragged lifestyle, but he is not alone. Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) is also needy. When they overhear an old man named Howard (a worthy Oscar-winning performance by Walter Huston) telling stories of those who struck it rich during the gold rush they hire him as their guide and set out for the Sierra Madre with high hopes. Though Howard warns them from the very beginning, "I know what gold does to men's souls."

This was one of the first Hollywood productions where significant filming took place outside the United States. The effort truly shows. Actual Mexican towns were used to represent themselves. A large cast of locales  and the decision to not subtitle any Spanish makes American audiences foreigners, not unlike our three gringo amigos. Meanwhile, closer locales like the Mojave Desert stand in for the maddening wilderness to and from the Sierra Madre mountain range.  

Cinematography for this picture was done by Ted D. McCord who would go on to photograph the iconic green hills and blue mountains as seen in The Sound of Music. The tracking shots through a desert thicket at night are among the more memorable visuals. Max Steiner's score might be the real treasure with its memorable themes of triumph and defeat respectively echoing every crucial decision made by Dobbs and Curtin.

It is difficult to categorize a genre for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Besides donning both dramatic masks it has plenty of Western sensibilities, but is far unlike any I have ever seen. IMDb will label it as Action/Adventure, of which there's plenty of both. The aghast face of theater emerges the victor as this is a tragic and cautionary tale for those who set their sights on riches. Competition and paranoia inevitably follow. I was reminded of Erich von Stroheim's Greed and even Paul Thomas Anderon's There Will Be Blood (turns out Anderson watched this movie every night while he was writing that very screenplay). 

The performances are heavy but this film wears its theatrics on its sleeve. Walter Huston played Old Scratch himself seven years earlier in another American classic, The Devil and Daniel Webster. Therein we watched how one man would have been far better off without the wealth that comes to him without any effort. This time around our protagonists work for it, but still are not immune to its curse. Huston supplies the film with its closing remedy and at least one of his compadres is there to take note.

"I know what gold does to men's souls."
- Howard



★★★★★

CONTENT: some language, some violence

Updated 8/5/2013

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