TCM BIg Screen Classic: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

So it’s time again to celebrate an anniversary of a classic film. This week it is John Huston”s “Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, starring Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt and the director’s father Walter Huston. It is a tale of desperation, paranoia, greed and ultimately madness. I’ve probably seen it a dozen times over the years but I don’t think I’ve seen it on the big screen since the seventies. It would most likely have been at a revival theater in those days, but it was presented in a digital format this evening at a local AMC as part of the ongoing programming from TCM and Fathom events.

If any of you are unfamiliar with the film, let me provide a very brief synopsis. Bogart is Fred C. Dobbs, an American down on his luck and trapped in Mexico without the funds to get anywhere. He and another American become partners with a third, much older American in a prospecting venture that takes them far into the wilderness. There the search for and discovery of gold tests their mettle and the limits of their morality. The film is a cautionary tale on the subject of greed, but even more so on the issue of trust and character.

Dobbs is never a particularly nice guy but he seems decent enough and he has some reasonable limitations and goals when we first meet him. Curtin, the character played by Holt is similar in circumstances but maybe just slightly less jaded, at least until both of them are betrayed by a man who gives them jobs but refuses to come up with the money he owes them. This plants the seeds of distrust in both of them, but Dobbs seems to be the most vulnerable to suspicion after that incident. The third member of their partnership is Howard, an American who has found and lost riches as a prospector all over the world. After a couple of lucky breaks, they manage to put together a grub stake and travel into the mountains of Mexico in search of gold.

Walter Huston won an Academy Award as Howard, the old prospector with a ton of wisdom concerning both mining and human nature. The difficulty of the project takes its toll on the two younger men, but they struggle along, managing to overcome brief periods of suspicion but building greater and greater pressure as the film goes along. Huston is a joy to watch in his performance. He is wizened and gleeful and disparaging from scene to scene. His performance is memorable, and even though he admits to having some of the same faults as the other two, he is the most sympathetic character in the story.

If there are two characters that define Bogart as a cinema figure, the first would be Rick Blaine from Casablanca, but a close second would be Fred C. Dobbs. Here is a clip from a Bugs Bunny cartoon that first introduced me to this character.

The opening section shows a beaten man, but one who still has a sense of morality about him. Bogart tightens his belt from hunger, licks his lips from thirst and keeps his eyes downcast from shame as he begs for assistance from fellow Americans. Still he is generous enough to share a cigarette with another man down on his luck and to pick up a bigger share of the grub stake when the project starts. We can see in his manner however that he is becoming more paranoid by the minute once fortune smiles down on them. All three have a moment of morality failing when they choose what to do about an interloper on the trail, but they are spared having to live with the consequences by luck. Holt has a moment of weakness when he considers the idea of allowing Dobbs to stay buried in a mine collapse, but ultimately pulls himself out of it. Bogart just can’t get out of those doubts. Two or three times he is shown how wrong he is to be suspicious but he never learns to get over those doubts and he succumbs to a failed moral choice. Huston’s was the stand out performance but Bogart is no slouch. I suspect that the nature of his character prevented as much praise as the performance probably deserved.

The music by Max Steiner is another outstanding feature of the film. And let’s not forget that the movie contains the frequently misquoted lines about badges.  The film is playing two more times in theaters this week. For some reason those screenings are on Tuesday instead of the usual Fathom/TCM Wednesday schedule. So all you old movie weirdos out there, put on your stinking badges, travel back 70 years, and enjoy a classic on the big screen.

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