[box cover]

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre: Special Edition

Warner Brothers Home Video

Starring Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt, Walter Huston,
Bruce Bennett, and Alfonso Bedoya

Written and Directed by John Huston

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Review by Clarence Beaks                    

"The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of the best of the best things Hollywood has done since it learned to talk."

— James Agee

"One of the strongest of all American movies."

— Pauline Kael

The critical firmament is in near total agreement on John Huston's paean to the destructive power of greed, and it is precisely in the face of such allegedly inarguable greatness that the determinedly independent thinker often expects to find a wild, streaking emperor. Look elsewhere. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) is the goods; a model of clean narrative invention, unimpeachably great acting, and unfussy direction so devoid of ostentation the viewer is immersed in the story without ever feeling the need to utter "great shot." This is not to say the film isn't shot through with visual genius — it is, but its money-shots are economical transitions, or subtle framing best appreciated on repeat viewings after one knows the tale's every twist and turn. Until that level of familiarity is reached, it's merely one of the bleakest assessments of human nature to ever escape Hollywood's conforming grasp.

Such cynicism wasn't exactly what audiences in 1948 expected from a Humphrey Bogart picture, causing the film to initially underperform at the box office even as the critics swooned. Adapted by Huston from the novel by B. Traven, the film had been a long time in the making, languishing in development while Huston was serving in World War II. In his absence, the project drew the interest of several potential directors, all of whom were chased off the film by in-house Warner Brothers producer Henry Blanke, who was adamant that the picture go forward with Huston, or not at all. Also remaining loyal to the director was his good friend and collaborator Bogart, who, rather advantageously to the film, spent the war becoming the top star in Hollywood through his iconic work in Casablanca and To Have and Have Not. By the time Huston returned from serving in the Signal Corps, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was given an excited go ahead from Jack Warner despite the script's obdurate pessimism.

Yet, even after the film won several Academy Awards — a real Huston family affair, with John taking home the statuettes for direction and screenwriting, while his father, Walter, snagged Best Supporting Actor — the public still couldn't be bothered to brave its unyielding depiction of the worst aspects of the human condition. And while critical enthusiasm has not dimmed in the decades since the picture's release, there's still a sense that The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is beloved more by the buffs than the casual fan. This is likely attributable to the quick deterioration of its ostensible protagonist; a descent made all the more jarring by the intensity of Bogart's fearless performance, the uniqueness of which is the real reason the movie sticks in memory.

*          *          *

Fred C. Dobbs is a down-on-his-luck American stranded in Mexico, prowling crowded streets — not for work, but for handouts, his desire for which is driven not so much by need, but instant gratification. Dobbs also plays the lottery to the same success as he does everything else, and his constant losing exposes a mean streak within him that lashes out at anyone and anything, even the enterprising adolescent (a young Robert Blake) selling him the ticket. When work does unexpectedly come his way, he takes it, but as he bakes for a week in the hot Mexican sun erecting an oil derrick with dozens of other laborers, Dobbs, along with his fellow countryman, Curtin (Tim Holt), is quick to complain about the hours and the pay, the latter of which has been promised as soon as they set foot off the boat back in town. It turns out he had reason to fret over this particularity; the contractor disappears within minutes of their return, leaving the men penniless, exhausted, and used. It isn't long, however, before the pair happen upon the scoundrel boldly waltzing down the street with a comely young lass on his arm. Having nothing to lose, they brusquely approach the contractor, who unconvincingly pleads to being duped himself, but offers to buy Dobbs and Curtin a drink to make amends. This situation is clearly headed in the direction of physical confrontation, which is precisely what occurs in a two-on-one fistfight (which is thrillingly authentic in its staging). At the end of the scrap, Dobbs and Curtin take from the contractor's wallet only what is owed them, leaving behind a sizeable wad of cash. The implication is clear: They may be desperate, but they are still honest.

Though hardly a windfall, the several hundred dollars could buy a trip back to the States, or, at the very least, sustain them long enough until the next job came their way. But their thoughts quickly turn to the promise of gold as it was talked up the previous evening by a toothless old prospector named Howard (Walter Huston). Suddenly, the men are dreaming of striking it rich, which, with Howard's help, is exactly what they intend to do. Though Curtin is a couple hundred short of the scratch required to buy in on this fortune-hunting expedition, Dobbs generously kicks in for the rest of his initial investment. Spirits are high all around, with the men paying little mind to Howard's warnings about gold's warping influence on one's mind, which grows all the more pernicious as the haul gets larger.

First, though, there needs to be a haul, and, as the men set out into the baking Mexican back-country, Dobbs and Curtin struggle to keep up with the spry old-timer, who's not so much irked as he is delighted by their difficulties, enthusiastically making light of their greenhorn discovery of pyrite, and sending up their lack of resolve by laughing in their face and dancing a crazed, antagonistic jig. But while Howard may not be all there, he's the one with a nose for the gold, and, sure enough, he delivers. Thus, the men dig up a mine and begin their excavation that, hopefully, will make them all very rich.

"How rich?" is the question that will fairly quickly send this operation spinning off into an accusatory turmoil, as Dobbs's eyes get big at the first indication of a healthy haul. Ignoring Howard's advice that they stick to a pre-set goal, Dobbs wants more, greeting his compadres' temperance with scornful invective, and reminding Curtin of his debt even after the man saved Dobbs's life by dragging him out of the collapsed mine (though it should be noted that Curtin, battling his own rapacious demons, nearly turned his back on Dobbs upon realizing that he was trapped). But the longer they remain up on the mountain, their chances of inviting trouble increases. Sure enough, this trouble comes calling in the form of a nosy, calculating plunderer, Cody (Bruce Bennett), and a murderous swarm of banditos led by the smiling Gold Hat (Alfonso Bedoya), who gets the film's famous (and, as such things often go, famously misquoted) line about not needing to show any "stinking badges."

The pivotal moment in the film finds Dobbs, Curtin and Howard conferring amongst themselves over how to deal with Cody, who has, essentially, left them with little option, but to split up their successive earnings four ways, or to kill him. Before turning the matter over for their deliberation, he warns them, "You start bumping people off, just how far are you prepared to go with it?" Since Cody's arrival at the camp, Dobbs has been bucking to do him in, so it's not surprising that he votes in favor of execution, but the other two haven't compromised their morals so absolutely. Howard argues that taking on a fourth wouldn't necessarily be too much of a burden, particularly since Cody has asked only for a share of the pie henceforth, but Dobbs quickly fires back that if they take one on, it could potentially open the floodgates for more participants, at which point they'd never get off the mountain. Howard concedes this possibility, but, after being goaded by Dobbs over whether he has the stomach to kill a man, he skillfully passes the buck to Curtin, saying that he'll go along with "majority." Imbued with the gentle, innocent-eyed manner of Tim Holt, Curtin has been the audience's sane surrogate ever since Dobbs slid off the rails, and when he regretfully agrees to murder in order to protect his illegally gotten riches, the tenor of the film suddenly shifts. As the men slowly stride up the hill, brandishing their pistols, the viewer watches in shock as the picture's moral compass begins to go askew. But Cody is granted a reprieve by approaching banditos. A standoff and gunfight ensues in which Cody is killed, but while the banditos, through sheer good fortune, have taken care of the trio's dirty work, they have not erased the air of intended transgression. All three men are now tainted by avarice; their honor cheapened.

Huston cannily, and swiftly, wins back the audience's sympathy by having the men find a note from Cody's wife in which she conveniently paints the humble picture of paradise that Curtin yearned for earlier. Touched by her tender words, Curtin resolves to send a portion of his earnings to this newly-minted widow, as does Howard. Dobbs, however, thinks them foolish and sentimental; having cheated death by surviving their outgunned battle with the banditos, he is possessed by a self-obsessed delirium given voice in frantically muttered soliloquies where he refers to himself grandiosely in the third-person. When Howard is separated from the group after being enlisted by a group of Indians to save a nearly drowned boy, Dobbs's condition worsens. He tries to tempt Curtin into cheating Howard out of his share. When Curtin refuses, he begins seeing all sorts of angles, believing that everyone is conspiring against him. Finally, Dobbs becomes the kind of fortune-mad lunatic Howard warned against, the kind he condemned himself to being when, early in the film, he fatefully uttered, "It wouldn't be that way for me."

*          *          *

That there was never any question as to the man's destiny is why Humphrey Bogart's portrayal of Fred C. Dobbs is perhaps the finest example of a movie star fearlessly going against type in the history of film. At first, Dobbs is merely a pathetic bum, getting by thanks to the shamelessness of his begging (at the outset, he consciously cadges a handout from the same mark three times over the course of the same day), but, as the potential of a massively lucrative payday becomes more tangible, he is almost instantly transformed into a shifty-eyed paranoid who gradually becomes more deranged and suspicious, projecting on his compatriots his own weaknesses. When he finally goes mad enough to commit murder, he's still too craven to do it decisively or even competently. By the end, Dobbs is the littlest of men, a spineless shell of unrepentant, selfish humanity, and he is all the more memorable because Bogart evinces not an ounce of squeamishness in filling the character out, never once playing at the kind of dignity or goodness that might engender audience sympathy. Though he is loved, and rightly so, for his heroic cynicism and unflappable tough guy bravado, Dobbs is Bogart's crowning achievement. His greatness only looms larger when considered alongside what has passed for movie star risk-taking since. Though Jimmy Stewart's Scottie Ferguson in Vertigo or Paul Newman's eponymous Hud come close, this is still the gold standard.

The closer to perfect a work of art gets, the easier it is to discover and elucidate its flaws. In Sierra Madre, they are as follows: Max Steiner's memorable score is clearly mismatched to the tone of the film, often undercutting its ruthlessness; the pace goes slack whenever Huston cuts to the admittedly amusing scenes of Howard being pampered by the Indians; and Holt, while unquestionably well cast, is a bit of a cipher compared to the full-bodied likes of Bogart and Huston, though that mostly has to do with the way Curtin's character is written as the complacent counterpart to Dobbs and Howard.

John Huston loved tales of wildness, stories where man's eternal struggle with his own imperfect nature are juxtaposed against his losing struggle with the unruly, unpredictable, and unforgiving hand of Nature (gender-specific terms are fully intended, as Huston was never terribly interested in his women characters; that is, when he bothered to write them). And in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, he found that most perfect mixture of controlled chaos: a bold human endeavor undone by the gale-force winds of man's myriad weaknesses, and exacerbated by his adversarial relationship with the world around him. When at last all is lost, Curtin and Howard do not lament their failure, but celebrate it with rich, howling laughter, laughing not only because they should've known better, but because they can't wait to roll the dice and lose this rigged game all over again.

*          *          *

Warner Home Video presents The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in a full-screen, digitally cleaned-up transfer that, as with some of the studio's recent releases, looks positively stunning; at least, given the director's unpretentious visual palate, as stunning as a typical Huston production can be. The audio is monaural Dolby Digital 2.0, and it's safe to say that Fred C. Dobbs has never muttered so thunderously. And Steiner's score, no matter how out of place, sounds absolutely majestic.

The extras on this two-disc special edition are mouth-watering, and it's a pleasure to report that they're immensely satisfying and entertaining from top to bottom. Starting with Disc One, the feature-length commentary from Bogart biographer Eric Lax is terrific — the writer proves enlightened about nearly every aspect of the production and is not limited to insights on the star alone. The track is without lulls, with the information zooms by at such a rapid rate that a repeat viewing might be in order to absorb all of the pearls. But this disc's most ingenious feature is "Warner Night at the Movies, 1948" (25 min.), which is designed to give the viewer a feel for what it would've been like to plop down in a theater and view the film as it would've been presented over a half-century ago. This feature includes the theatrical trailer for the next Huston and Bogie collaboration, Key Largo, a newsreel, the Joe McDoakes comedy short subject "So You Want to Be a Detective," and the Merrie Melodies cartoon "Hot Cross Bunny," which pits Bugs versus a doctor who'd like to switch his brain with a chicken's. Rounding out Disc One is a great collection of 12 trailers for Bogie's Warner Brothers efforts.

Disc Two begins with the exhaustive 1989 documentary John Huston: The Man, The Movies, The Maverick (128 min.), which is as comprehensive as its run-time and title suggests. Filmed shortly after the director's death, it's a cradle-to-grave story of Huston's life, narrated by Robert Mitchum and fleshed out with revealing interviews from Lauren Bacall, Paul Newman, Arthur Miller, Michael Caine, Anjelica Huston, and many other notables. It's pretty candid at times — Lauren Bacall, discussing his possible misogyny, states, "I would've hated to be in love with him." — and it acknowledges his late '60s to early '70s decline, when the director was going through the motions with a listless stream of paycheck gigs. But, as should probably be expected for something produced so closely to his death, it offers mere glimpses into his dark side that beg for further exploration.

The disc's other documentary is the briefer, but nonetheless engaging "Discovering Treasure: The Story of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" (50 min.). A straightforward recounting of the film's lively legacy, from its protracted development to its eventual Oscar triumph and place in film history, it can't help but be a little redundant if viewed after the commentary and the Huston bio, but there are enough juicy tidbits, particularly those pertaining to the identity of novelist B. Traven, to make it more than worthwhile. Narrated by John Milius, the interviewees range from Hollywood historians Rudy Behlmer, Leonard Maltin, and Robert Osbourne to Huston admirer Martin Scorsese, and it's invaluable for if only for disclosing that Walter Huston's jig was actually taught to him by Eugene O'Neill for a Broadway production of the playwright's Desire Under the Elms.

Closing out the extras on Disc Two, there's the classic Looney Tunes short "8 Ball Bunny," which uses the continual appearance of Fred C. Dobbs as a running joke. There's also the 1949 Lux Radio Theater broadcast of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre with Bogart and Walter Huston delving once more into their characters. Finally, there are a number of stills galleries divided up into "Cast/Crew," "Dressed-Set Photos," "Storyboards" and "Publicity Materials."

— Clarence Beaks

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