The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, 1948, Warner Bros. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt. Directed by John Huston. B&W, 126 minutes.
After being cheated out of their fair wages and finding themselves dead broke in a foreign country, Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) look to the gold hidden in the hills of Mexico as the way out of dire circumstances. They turn to a crusty old-timer, Howard (Walter Huston), to lead them in their search for buried treasure.
It’s dangerous in 1920s Mexico to search for gold; banditos and federales lurk behind every corner and will likely kill you before asking questions. But Dobbs and Curtin are determined, and Howard reluctantly agrees to go along as their guide.
The story isn’t in the search, however, it’s in the minds and motivations of the men seeking what they are unlikely to find, the drive that keeps them moving toward their goal of wealth and satisfaction, and the greed, fear and paranoia that soon accompany them in their quest.
Bogart was given his big break in John Huston’s directorial debut, The Maltese Falcon, and this film proved to further his career in yet another fashion with its grisly reality and harsh characterization. That Bogart was the top-rated actor of his time is no surprise, given his versatility and intelligent performances, and he played his unlikable character in such a way one is fascinated by the performance and drawn into the story despite the growing realization that Dobbs is truly unsavory and at times, malevolent.
Walter Huston, father of the film’s director, played bit parts in some of his son’s other films (he was seen as a “good luck charm,” although his appearance did not guarantee success), but this is the only movie of John’s in which he played a major role. John Huston had long wanted to bring the novel of the same name to the screen, and he always envisioned his father in the role of Howard. As fate would have it, both father and son won Academy Awards for their parts in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Walter for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, and John as Best Director and for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Tim Holt, best known for his likable performances in Westerns, rises to the occasion and proves himself to be far more capable an actor than many gave him credit for throughout his career. That likability comes through in this character, but he’s as tough as the rest, and is a fine contrast to Bogart’s roughness.
Critics of the day had nothing less than effusive praise for the film, and summed up its nature eloquently. The New York Times movie critic made note of the film’s grim yet redeeming theme in this manner: “Mr. Huston has shaped a searching drama of the collision of civilization’s vicious greeds with the instinct for self-preservation in an environment where all the barriers are down…he has done a superb illumination of basic characteristics in men.”
Variety stated, “It’s a grim and brutal slice of life whose raw elements have been ordered onto the plane of tragedy through a terrific twist of irony. There’s a magnificent joker hidden at bottom, but spectators will find it so grisly and so bitter that this film moves out of the class of simple entertainment into the realm of vivid experience.” James Agee wrote of the movie in The Nation, “ominally an adventure story, this is really an exploration of character as revealed in vivid action.”
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre has stood the test of time with of its insightful view into human nature set in the backdrop of a Western tale. The cinematography, with its stark and simple nature, captures the mood (John Huston once said of the detached style of filming, “I just wanted them to look like they were stewing in their own juices”). That, together with the real-life settings of Durango and Tampico, Mexico, the all-to-authentic performances and the story itself, make it a classic worth watching.