English Language Wednesday: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

6 07 2011

“The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” is the John Huston directed film based upon the 1928 novel of the same name. It stars Humphrey Bogart as Fred Dobbs and Tim Holt as Bob Curtin, two down-on-their-luck Americans in Mexico just trying to scrape by. After coming into a little money the decide it is their time to strike it rich and with the help of an old prospector, Howard (Huston’s father, Walter Huston), they decide to go hunting for gold. The trio ride up to the Sierra Madre Mountains and not before long strike it rich.  Paranoia and distrust start to creep in as their fortune grows and the question of whether their relationship, and themselves, can survive the trip off the mountain begins to set in. John Huston successfully navigates several genres in this unusual Western and gets fantastic performances from all three leads.

“Can you help a fellow American down on his luck?”

One of the best aspects of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” is how well it changes atmosphere and how effectively John Huston sets it up. The film begins as a standard adventure film but about half way through he veers it into a psychological drama and Humphrey Bogart gives one of, if not his best performance on screen. The whole film balances harsh violence, humor, weariness, insanity, and a little bit of sentimentalism with the utmost ease. This makes for a well-paced, always intriguing movie that will let you know where its going but never how far. John Huston’s timeless classic is without a doubt one of the more diverse of the age in this respect.

“I know what gold does to men’s souls.”

Spending so much time with only three characters could become dull if not for some fantastic performances. Although the least prominent of the three, Curtin may be the most important. Tim Holt plays this straight character with courage and a serene attitude in face of the madness before him. He is without a doubt the third wheel compared to the two larger than life characters he accompanies but is nonetheless essential. Howard was always a little off and Dobbs has a drastic character arc making the viewers association with the cool-headed Curtin all that more important. When we see him ready to commit murder himself it becomes all that more apparent the effect of their new found fortune. Compared to Curtin, we see the gold effect his two comrades in completely opposite ways. Howard is, more or less, indifferent and without the standout performance by Walter Huston the viewer may not buy it but we see many sides of him making Howard an exceptionally interesting man on his own. Dobbs on the other hand falls victim to the riches that befall him. The story is really about him and Director John Huston knows that, every step of the way he sets it up so that Dobbs eventual downfall is all that more tragic. I don’t think it would have had the magnitude it did if Humphrey Bogart had not been the one cast for in the second half of the film he truly carries it.

John Huston is a legendary director and here he may have created his best work. The performances are exceptional, the story is compelling, and the atmosphere and cinematography help accentuate the rest of the excellent production. There is no such thing as a movie that appeals to everyone but “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” gives that statement perhaps the biggest run for its money as it touches on so many different genres so effectively.

Score: 99/100

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