11 February 2008

Movielog, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, 1948
Written and Directed by John Huston
Based on the novel by B. Traven
126 minutes

One of the problems with writing these reviews is that the films or books in question just don't compress well. Try summarizing Treasure of the Sierra Madre, for instance. "So there's this drifter in Mexico, right, who comes into enough money so that he and a friend of his and this grizzled old prospector who may be more than he seems go off into the middle of nowhere in Mexico to search for gold. So they get there, and then the guy gets greedy, and they run into a bunch of people who might or might not want to take their gold, and then..." That's about the first half of the movie, and I've left out a lot of stuff, like the lottery ticket, and the guy and his buddy getting cheated out of their hard-earned money, and and and....

So let me just say that this is a movie that's about a character, Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart). He's down on his luck, homeless, struggling just to have enough money to eat, begging for change, when his fortunes change just enough to give him the money to go gold prospecting with a good friend Curtin (Tim Holt) and Howard, a grizzled old prospector who knows all the ropes (Walter Huston, director John Huston's father). They go out into the desert to prospect for gold, and over the course of the film you see the depths to which Dobb's greed and obsession will take him, in a truly stunning performance by Bogart, widely considered to be his best.

Yeah, okay, that's the story, but there's so much more. The old prospector at first seems to be a stereotypical character seen in countless films, but there's an intelligence and a knowing quality behind his eyes that suggest he adopts that persona primarily as a way of protecting himself from men like Dobbs. He goes along with Dobbs's paranoia -- he's been down this road before and knows where it will lead. Holt is also particuarly good as Curtin, who lends the kind of common humanity to the movie, acting as one of the best men seen on-screen. Well, maybe.

This film is over two hours long, which would be somewhat long today, but was considered epic back in the forties, when movies tended to be shorter than they are now. Huston gives his characters time to breathe -- he lets us watch them, to see what makes them tick, and none of them are perfectly angelic or perfectly evil. But as the end approaches and the hands of fate work their magic on these three men, we see what they're really made of. Bogart is shorn of his romantic image here, playing a character who quickly begins to look more and more disshelved and dirty as the desert heat gets to him. He spends most of the movie with a dirty mangy beard and a haunted look in his eyes -- when the craziness begins to set in, we are not surprised.

Treasure of the Sierra Madre has aged particularly well, and while it uses some film techniques that are not in wide use today, it's thoroughly entertaining and is well worth a revisit. Paul Thomas Anderson said that he studied this film when constructing There Will Be Blood, and it shows, as both movies contain similar sequences of greed and corruption against harsh desert landscapes. The photography is black and white, but it still manages to capture the dried-out feeling of heat and desolateness that permeates the film.

This is a quality film, nearly sixty years old but still very relevant to modern pictures, and deserves its reputation as a masterpiece. See it for the direction, for the writing, but most of all for that central performance of Bogart as Dobbs, as he demonstrates the lengths that men will go to possess a bit of that glittery substance that bequeaths wealth.

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