The Treasure of the Sierra Madre - 1948
Director(s): John Huston
Writer(s): John Huston (screenplay) / B. Traven (novel)
Cinematography by: Ted D. McCord
Editor(s): Owen Marks
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt and Bruce Bennett
Synopsis: Two Americans searching for work in Mexico enlist the help of an old prospector to help them mine for gold in the Sierra Madre Mountains.
Mahatma Gandhi has a quote (so says the internet) that perfectly fits this movie: “There is a sufficiency in the world for man’s need but not for man’s greed.”. Huston and Traven take us through a man’s journey from having nothing to letting the idea of something destroy him. This January marks the 70th anniversary of this movie and the themes it explores are just as relevant today as they were back in 1948.
John Huston (Chinatown, The African Queen) won the Academy Award for Best Director and Best Screenplay thanks to this movie and you can clearly see why. The flow of the movie is extremely well executed as you see how the characters evolve from point A to point B. One of the things that stood out for me was the opening sequence of the film. Huston managed to set up time, location and our protagonist’s state of mind all under 2 minutes. We open with a shot of the newspapers from Mexico (location), with the date (time) and a hand looking at his lotto numbers while comparing them to the newspaper (state of mind). The camera pans up and we see our protagonist Dobbs, played masterfully by Humphrey Bogart. He is unshaven with dirty clothes and is begging for money from his fellow Americans. The set-up and character motivations are crystal clear from the very get-go as we understand that Dobbs is down on his luck and is looking for a quick way to get out of his predicament. This will play out perfectly as the third act of the movie ramps up.
Quick note: this movie is referenced as one of the favorite movies of Stanley Kubrick, Sam Raimi and Paul Thomas Anderson. If you like it you will be in good company.
The cinematography by Ted D. McCord is beautifully shot in black and white. Many movies from that era suffer a bit due to their look being constricted to a set location inside the studio’s lot. But this film was one of the first to be shot on location outside of the US in Mexico. Some scenes where shot in the studio, but the majority was on location, giving this film a distinct look from its peers. The shot of the empty desert and the huge mountains looked spectacular in black and white. The music by Max Steiner also helps elevate the visuals and the tone of the movie. There is something truly magical in how films from that era were scored.
As for the acting, you can always count on Humphrey Bogart to deliver the goods. His portrayal of a man being driven slowly into madness due to his greed is stellar and is the driving force behind this film. You can see it slowly eating away at him; as his wealth grows the envy, the distrust in his fellow prospectors grows as well. There is a scene prior to them going to the mountains in which he swears that he always knows when to quit and has never been driven by greed. But, when his eyes are set upon all the untouched gold they are digging out of the mountains his soul is fully corrupted and there is no amount that will quench his new-found greed. I loved the scenes where he is just talking to himself, giving empty threats to the air as he is 100% sure his partners are conspiring to betray him. It’s a shame he wasn’t nominated for an Academy Awards since this is one of his best and most unique performances. His co-star Walter Huston got that honor as he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting. He plays Howard, the old prospector hired by Bogart to go up the mountain. He is a bit crazy and a bit unhitched, but he shows them the ways of prospecting and always tried to do right by both men. He completely contrasts Bogart’s arc as he doesn’t let his greed get in the way of happiness.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a wonderful character study on how greed can corrupt even the most well-intentioned man. He starts off swearing he won’t let the greed get in the way and always said he would share his findings equally, and we see how, by the end, he ends up doing all the things he said he wouldn’t do. Beautifully directed, shot, and scored, this movie doesn’t feel or look 70-years-old and would go toe to toe with any of the movies being released today. Bogart is why I love movies.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is on VOD. Rent it and celebrate this wonderful moment of film history.
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