February 27, 2014

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
Grade: 92/100

Director: John Huston
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt

What it's about. The 1927 adventure novel by mysterious recluse B. Traven, set in 1925 Mexico, is adapted into an A-list Hollywood film. Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt play broke and unemployed Americans living in Tampico. They land a job as construction workers under Barton MacLane.

After the job has ended, the con man MacLane skips out to avoid paying his men. But he is spotted, confronted, and ultimately beaten by Bogart and Holt. The money from MacLane's wallet, along with a small lottery jackpot from a ticket sold by a very young Robert Blake, stake Bogart and Holt as gold miners with shrewd old prospector Walter Huston.

The wily Huston leads his partners to the Sierra Madres, a remote area infested with bandits and, possibly, tigers. The three find a paying vein, and through time and hard work, accumulate wealth in excess of $100,000. To keep the money and their claim, they have to fight off bandits led by the colorful Gold Hat (Alfonso Bedoya). The gunfight leads to the death of Bruce Bennett, another expatriate American who attempted to become partners with the wary trio.

Huston, whose wisdom apparently extends beyond mining, is called upon by local villagers to save the life of a boy in shock from a diving accident. Bogart and Holt are left on their own. Bogart had earlier displayed signs of paranoia and greed, but these symptoms of madness now take over. Bogart shoots Holt and leaves him for dead. With the gold dust bounty of all three men, he again encounters Gold Hat, who murders him for his clothes, hides, and burros. Gold Hat dumps and abandons the gold dust, believing it is merely dirt.

Because crime still does not pay, Gold Hat is soon captured and executed by Mexican Federal troops. By now, Holt has partially recovered from his wounds, and with Huston attempts to locate the gold dust. However, a windstorm has swept it all back up the mountain.

How others will see it. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was one of the first Warner films shot nearly entirely on location, and it went over schedule and over budget. Nonetheless, the decisions of director John Huston (the son of second lead Walter Huston) were proven correct when the film became a great critical and commercial success.

The Hustons were the biggest beneficiaries. Walter won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, while John was Oscar-nominated for the direction and screenplay. In addition, the film received a Best Picture nod. Bogart's efforts were ignored by the various award festivals, though he was mercilessly parodied in the 1950 Warner Bros' cartoon 8 Ball Bunny.

The film's most famous line "We don't need no stinkin' badges" is courtesy of Gold Hat, who gets angry when asked to display a Federales badge. Nearly 70 years later, the line remains better known than film itself.

Today at imdb.com, the film has an impressive 60K user votes and a remarkably high user rating of 8.4 out of 10. Women over 45 give it an 8.7, even though there are hardly any women with speaking lines, and the male leads are typically in need of a shave and bath. Part of the film's appeal is that "good guys" Huston and Holt fare much better than Bogart and Gold Hat.

How I felt about it. Walter Huston was a fine actor, of course, but his role is a ripe plum. Bogart gives a great performance, ultimately full of menace and paranoia. Holt is the third man out, obligated to underplay his role to avoid encroaching upon his more famous fellow leads.

Having seen the film several times, the extensive foreshadowing by John Huston becomes obvious. For example, a "norther" storm in the first half explains its appearance in the second half. Same goes for the execution of bandits by Federales when Holt is first accosted by Bennett, Bogart's murder by bandits "who would kill him for his shoes", and Walter Huston's various tales of men grown mad from the greed of gold.

Nonetheless, Bogart's behavior in Huston's absence is curious. If he truly wants to get the jump on Holt and take all the gold for himself, he can do so almost at any time without all the dramatic show of insanity.

By contrast, Holt is almost too good. True, he agrees to murder Bennett, but is a loyal partner to the other two, despite Bogart's outrageous actions, right until he is shot. Holt's projection of innocence is incompatible with his hardscrabble existence in Mexico.

We also wonder why the villagers would believe that Walter Huston can raise the near-dead. He would have been a complete stranger to them, and there was no prior evidence of any medical knowledge.