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.

Day 2 TCM Film Festival Friday April 7 (Part 2)

Beat the Devil

If you have never seen this odd film from director John Huston and Star Humphrey Bogart, you are likely to be thrown for a loop when you do. It is not at all what you would expect. It started out as a serious project but some of the circumstances are odd and after Truman Capote signed on to work the script, it becomes an outright comedy.

Jennifer Jones is really interesting as a woman who is fickle in love and has a tenuous relationship with the truth. The oddball characters start stacking up and although there is murder in the air, the drama of the story never seems to be the focus. Instead we are anticipating the next outrageous turn of events or quip from Bogart.

The first half of the film takes place onshore as the cast of characters awaits repairs to the vessel they are supposed to sail on. We take in local ruins, and the cast mistakenly think that characters have died. When you have Gina Lollobrigda and Jennifer Jones as romantic interests, you are a lucky guy. At least in love, but the scheme seems to be going off the rails at times. Bogart’s partners include Robert Morely and Peter Lorre and Italian actor Marco Tulli. Everyone is double crossing everyone else and you will have a hard time following the plot and scheme, but that is mostly not relevant to enjoying the picture.

The program featured a discussion of the filming by script supervisor Angela Allen, who told several amusing stories about working with the cast. Apparently, one day when they were shooting at sea, the captain misunderstood the directions and had the ship sailing off to North Africa for a couple of hours before anyone realized it. The cast and crew did not get back into port until many hours into the night and they were lucky they did not wake up in Tunisia.

TCM Fathom The Maltese Falcon

I love an opportunity to see classic films on the big screen. Today the film was “The Maltese Falcon”, celebrating it’s 75th Anniversary. TCM provides a nationwide venue through Fathom events and the theater was relatively full for a Sunday afternoon.I’ve seen this dozens of times but I was lucky enough that the first time was in a revival theater back in the 1970s.

 

There have been a thousand things said about this film, most of them said by people far more eloquent and learned than me, but maybe not as enthusiastic. I love this movie for the dialogue, the performances and the production design. It makes me want to live in San Francisco in 1941.  Today I watched every time Sam Spade rolled a cigarette and then lit it with a match ir lighter that was right on the desk, table or nightstand where he found himself. Each of those beautiful items looked at home on the sets and in the offices of that world. I never smoked but I want to have those items of elegance spread out over my house.

Even though I’ve seen each movie more than a dozen times, today was the first time I realized that Miles Archer was also the DA in “Miracle on 34th Street”. It’s a bit like driving down the same road every day for a year and then looking up suddenly and seeing that there is a bookstore or restaurant there on the road that you never saw before. You feel a little foolish at first but you are glad to be out of your stupor for a moment. Everyone else in the cast is always so memorable, and Jerome Cowan had just the one scene (and his death) so early in the movie that I guess you sort of forget he was there.

Every little moment with Peter Lorre is worth the price of admission. He is so fey and belligerent and feckless but at the same time lethal. When Bogart slaps him around and tells him that he’ll like it when he does so, you can see the fear and anger in his face. Elisha Cook Jr. was a familiar character actor in movies and TV shows all my life and I remember when I first saw this how young he looked in contrast to his more grizzled later years. Ward Bond is in so many John Wayne and Errol Flynn pictures, you might forget he was also in “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Gone with the Wind”. Sydney Greenstreet explaining all the kinds of men he does not trust would make a good set of memes for any social media site.

The best part of the film though is Humphrey Bogart trying to figure out Mary Astor and playing with her lies the whole time.

 

” We didn’t exactly believe your story, Miss O’Shaughnessy. We believed your 200 dollars.”

 

Mary Astor was terrific as the bad girl trying to pull the wool over the eyes of everyone in the story and playing coy the whole time. She and Bogart are terrific in the movie and they worked together again in Across the Pacific a couple of years later. The TCM intro and exit were the usual well crafted moments that give you just enough to anticipate and then remind you of what it was you just enjoyed.