I suppose the opening of my The Paths of Glory Article is as good an intro for the other entries in this series as any:
The title of this article isn’t meant to be a command. It’s not “you” the reader so much as it is a proverbial “you.” Movies a movie fan is meant to watch. I’ll tell you a secret: I hate talking about those kinds of movies. If everyone already knows they’re great, classic, significant movies, what the hell can I add to the conversation? Other than to stammer and say yeah that was good. “Classic for a reason.” Hate it. Bothers me to no end. So like a good little self-aware artist monkey I decided to tackle my weakness head on. That tends to be a good approach, at least for me. Fosters growth and increased skill and all that nonsense. So I’ve decided to really tackle it. I’m always trying to watch these sorts of movies, because I’m a movie fan and it seems necessary, but I figured I’d embrace the challenge and make it one of my ongoing dinky little series.
Today we are talking about an entirely different movie, of course. Although there are connections to be found, chiefly the fact that The Paths of Glory director Stanley Kubrick sited today’s film as one of his all-time favourites. At least he did at one point. He’s only ever scribed one Best Of list, and it lacks several directors he expressed fondness for later in life. It seems likely if he’d ever revisited this list for publication it would’ve looked rather different. The movie is John Huston’s classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Which, if you can humour me for a moment, is not about boats. I’m not sure why I was under that particular mistaken impression, but I was. Some half blurred conversation about two different movies maybe? Just a dumb kid misinterpreting something? Whatever the reason I’ve just always thought “The Sierra Madre” was the name of a boat and that this entire film was vaguely nautical. My solecism proved especially comedic when I very swiftly realized this story was going to unfold in a barren desert, or what is colloquially called “the opposite of a damn ocean.” This had absolutely no bearing on my reaction to the movie I just want to quickly establish you should have absolutely no respect or trust in my opinion, so I guess it’s good I’m hiding under the security blanket that is a movie already putatively declared a classic.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre came out in 1948, and was directed by John Huston. The movie stars Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, and Tim Holt. Bogart and Holt play Fred C. Dobbs and Curtin respectively. They’re both down on their luck Americans stuck in Mexico without a cent to their name. They get scammed into doing some construction work for a conniving magnate before ending up back in boarding houses. There they meet Walter Huston’s character, Howard. He’s an old prospector who fills their heads with stories of gold-lust and squandered fortunes. This causes a little coruscation inside their heads. After beating up that same manipulative tycoon and taking the money they’re owed, they find Howard and decide to set off on the hunt for gold.
At first all the stars seem aligned for the team. All the pieces seem to have fallen into place, like some sort of predestination. Not only do they run into a seasoned prospector willing to help them, but Dobbs wins the lottery, receiving exactly the amount of money the group still needs for gear. They set off knowing the risks facing them. The elements, bandits, wildlife, and greed are all looming ominously over the party, but they seem confident they can handle it. The universe seems to be backing their venture all the way. Little do they know it’s really setting up an elaborate joke at their expense.
The danger becomes real quickly. Even before they make it to their dig site they’re attacked. When they’re on their way to the mountains Howard has selected, they run into bandits. Their train pulls over as swarms of bandits fire at the locomotive. Fred, Curtin, and Howard pull their guns and hold the bandits off rather cheerfully. They compare body counts afterwards and Dobbs bemoans the bandit he missed – an important seeming fellow in an aureate hat.
Which sets up part of what makes this movie so brilliant – pay-off. The more one looks at great classic movies the more one sees the same recurring pattern repeating endlessly over and over like some powerful fractal. Most great movies have, at their heart, a very well structured story. One replete with well shaded characters and set-up and pay-off. The bandit with the gold hat in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre appears not once, not twice, but three times. Each time with increasing effect on the plot. He ends up being a key feature of the apical part of the film. The movie opens by immediately establishing the slightly problematic nature of Dobbs character. He sits at a bar after begging for change. A kid comes up offering him a lottery ticket, and Dobbs threatens to douse him with water if he doesn’t leave. The kid persists and Dobbs lives up to his promise, hurling his glass at the kid’s face. The kid keeps haggling until Dobbs concedes and buys a ticket, which much later proves to be a winning ticket. It’s a clear depiction of a character struggling with his own moral compass, and it’s colourful and entertaining. Although perhaps what truly differentiates a classic from a merely great movie is the deep tissue linking of effective story structure with interesting thematics. When engaging story and substantive themes are interwoven and twisted together like lisle into such an effective and limpid form it makes for a truly great film.
The themes of greed and the corrupting power thereof might be a pretty traditional topos. John Huston still gives it a new life, enlivening it with a healthy dose of nihilism and Zen-like mentality. The overwhelmingly ironic and grim series of events, that eventually land the surviving characters back where they started, are delightfully macabre and cruel. I was reminded a bit of the occasionally overwhelming nihilism and untraditional narrative style Cormac McCarthy applies to the western. John Huston provides the whole thing with a much more trenchant approach, but there are still scenes that feel like they could exist simultaneously in either of the artists’ work. Specifically I can’t help but imagine the image of a fortune of gold being casually dumped into the Mexican desert by bandits as appearing in the climax of a McCarthy work. What helps set The Treasure of Sierra Madre apart are the characters of Curtin and Howard. When faced with this cruel irony Howard starts laughing, albeit slightly maniacally. Curtin looks confused, and Howard attempts to explain that it’s all they can do. Realization slowly dawns and Curtin starts to chuckle, remarking “You know, the worst ain’t so bad when it finally happens. Not half as bad as you figure it’ll be before it’s happened.” The two talk about the future and part ways, cheery and effulgent as the camera pans down to an empty bag of gold dust wrapped around a cactus.
Of course no movie can be a classic with just one great element. The script for The Treasure of Sierra Madre might be brilliant, but so is everything else. Humphrey Bogart is wonderful as Dobbs, which is fairly unsurprising, but Curtin and Howard are also both perfectly cast. Even the recurring bandit is engaging and well performed. The cinematography is wonderful. The Treasure of Sierra Madre was one of the first American films to do this type of extensive location shooting, and it shines through. The Mexican landscape is evocative. The perfect grim and complex setting for this thrilling morality play. Even scenes that would normally feel slightly dated in a movie of this age feel alive and fresh. Like the bar fight early on, that at first feels like the typically stagey, stiff, quiet affair you’d expect. As the scene unfolds however there’s a surprising grim realism and violence to the scene, that doesn’t even remotely feel dated.
The dangers faced by the characters in the film seem real and risky. Their slow mental disintegration, driven by greed, comes across as real and compelling. Fred C. Dobbs especially is quick to fall down this path, and before the end of the film the characters are holding each other at gunpoint and trying not to sleep. Everyone is trying to defend themselves or run away with three times their share of the gold.
It’s one of those movies that just feels almost ineffably classic, if that makes sense. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre certainly provided me with the writing challenge I was looking for. It’s just an excellent movie, plain and simple.