Classic Films for Movie Night: The Treasure of Sierra Madre
Howard: “ I know what gold does to men's souls.”
In this second article devoted to classic films that you can screen at family movie night or for your film discussion group, John Huston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) is in the spotlight. This desperate hunt for gold in the mountains of Mexico stars Humphrey Bogart as Fred C. Dobbs, Walter Huston as Howard, and Tim Holt as Curtin. Other notable performances include Alfonso Bedoya as the bandit, Gold Hat, and Bruce Bennett, another American who wants to join in the hunt for gold. The film reminds us about the folly of greed and its devastating consequences.
The Treasure of Sierra Madre is set in the early 1920s. Times are tough, especially after Dobbs and Curtin are swindled out of their hard earned wages from their work on an oil refinery crew. Broke and nearly beaten in spirit, they spend a night in a flop house. There they meet a charismatic prospector who spins tales about fortunes made and lost. The three men hustle up the money to stake their plan to strike out to find gold in the remote Sierra Madre Mountains.
Mexico proves to be a lawless and unforgiving land. Bandits rule the rural areas, often posing as military police or federales. Dobbs, Howard and Curtin, to their surprise, strike it rich and plan how they are going to spend their windfall. However, the bandits, weather conditions and their own greed soon conspire against them returning to civilization with their fortune intact.
The film was directed by John Huston, following his success as the first-time director-writer of The Maltese Falcon. The novel, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, was written by B. Traven, a mysterious figure, whose book has an anti-capitalist theme. Huston toned that down in the screenplay. Huston would win an Academy Award for his direction and writing of the screenplay. Walter Huston won the Oscar for supporting actor. The American Film Institute ranks it number 38 in its 2007 list of Greatest Films.
John Huston (1906-1987) was highly skilled in casting his pictures, which he proved time and again in his 46- year career. In addition to The Treasure of Sierra Madre, his other most notable films include: The Maltese Falcon, Key Largo, The Asphalt Jungle, African Queen, Fat City, The Barefoot Contessa, The Misfits, Night of the Iguana,The Man Who Would be King, and Prizzi’s Honor.
Although prominent critic Andrew Sarris described Huston’s career as ‘less than meets the eye,’ in his book, The American Cinema: Directors And Directions 1929-1968, time has changed that perspective and most critics agree Huston was a singular filmmaker with a consistent style and life view. Late in life he received career achievement awards from the American Film Institute, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the juries at the Cannes and Venice film festivals.
You may be able to borrow the Treasure of Sierra Madre (DVD)from your local library or pick up some books on related topics. Check the bibliography at the end of this article for more suggestions. Your local librarians can guide you to resources.
James Naremore wrote the introduction to the screenplay of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre for the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, published by the University of Wisconsin Press. He is the author of five books and dozens of essays on film and modern literature, and is the editor of four volumes of film criticism and theory. His research deals with a variety of writers, directors, and performers, including such figures as Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, and Vincent Minnelli. Naremore’s publications on these and other topics have been translated into four languages, and his essays are frequently reprinted in anthologies.
He recently offered his thoughts about the film for the @ your library web site.
MG: Where does the film rank in Huston’s career?
JN: Many would say it’s Huston’s best film. Certainly it ranks among his best, which in my view would include The Maltese Falcon, The Asphalt Jungle, The African Queen, Moulin Rouge, Beat the Devil, Reflections in a Golden Eye, Fat City, The Man Who Would Be King, Prizzi’s Honor, and The Dead. In many ways it’s his most representative film, showing all his skills as writer and director, looking back to the themes of The Maltese Falcon and anticipating The Man Who Would Be King.
MG: How did the Warner Brothers studio come to make this film?
JN: TSM is an unusual picture by any Hollywood standard, completely lacking in glamour or romantic adventure and impossible to fit neatly into any generic category (although in some places it was marketed as a western). The studio had gained major status in 1927 with the first talkie, The Jazz Singer, and throughout the thirties, in contrast with Paramount and MGM, it tended to specialize in “proletarian” pictures with tough-guy stars like James Cagney and Bogart. Warner Brothers strongly backed FDR and the New Deal in the same period, and had a history of making social-problem films. Ironically, it was a studio that worked its employees very hard for relatively low wages, but it had an infrastructure of writers and directors who were inclined to take on gritty subjects. Huston, among the most talented of these, was respected by the studio and given a certain amount of choice over what he did. He was a rebel in some ways, and like many directors who had experienced World War II at first hand, he returned to Hollywood after the war with a desire to make films about serious subjects. It should be noted, however, that in relation to the Traven novel and Huston’s own initial script TCM isn’t as daring a piece of social criticism as it might have been.
MG: Was he a genius at casting?
JN: "Genius" is too strong a word, but like The Maltese Falcon this movie has an especially good cast, even in the supporting roles. At one point Warner Brothers wanted to cast Burgess Meredith as Curtin and Ronald Reagan as Cody, but Tim Holt and Bruce Bennett are better choices, the former suggesting a burly farm boy and the latter an intelligent, worn-down, obsessed prospector with tragic overtones to his character. In a major role, Walter Huston steals the picture by removing his false teeth and delivering every line at top speed. And who can forget Alfonso Bedoya?
MG: Was this Bogart’s most complex role?
JN: Arguably one of the most complex. Bogart is usually thought of as the leading tough guy of the 1940s. In real life he came from a well-to-do New York family—hence he’s very good as an old-money businessman in Billy Wilder’s Sabrina. He also played artists and intellectual types, as in The Barefoot Contessa. But throughout his career he tended to oscillate between romantically heroic characters, as in Casablanca, and characters that were neurotic or weak, as in The Cane Mutiny and In a Lonely Place, the last of which seems to me his most interesting role. Dobbs, his character in TSM, obviously belongs in the second category.
MG: How was Alfonso Bedoya discovered and why is he so effective?
Gold Hat: Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges. I don't have to show you any stinking badges.
JN: Bedoya had appeared as a character actor in two of the best Mexican movies of the 1940s, Donna Barbara and The Pearl. TSM was shot in Mexico, and Huston was no doubt familiar with Bedoya’s work. He’s indelible in this movie. He seems like an amateur who is having trouble speaking lines in English, but somehow that makes him even scarier. Huston apparently coached him very little, intentionally leaving him insecure, which may account for the volatility of his performance. He’s also wonderfully grotesque, which means that he’s both frightening and funny: his facial expressions never quite match his nervous eyes, and his tone of voice is alternately fawning, honey-sweet, and psychotic. To top it all, he’s got one of the most famous lines in movie history, the one about the “stinking badges,” which wouldn’t be as good without his accent.
MG: How does Walter Huston’s role drive the story?
JN: As Howard, Walter Huston is the exact opposite of Dobbs. He’s wise, experienced, even tempered, and he delivers the “message” of the film (“As long as there’s no find, the noble brotherhood will last, but when the piles begin to grow, that’s when the trouble starts.”) His Homeric laughter at the end, when the gold blows away, is similar to Sidney Greenstreet’s attitude at the end of The Maltese Falcon, when the black bird turns out to be lead. He’s is in danger of seeming a comic old geezer like Gabby Hayes, but he falls neither into that trap nor into the trap of becoming impossibly wise. He avoids these problems by underplaying most of the time, speaking his copious dialogue very fast, and looking genuinely weathered.
MG: Tim Holt—tell us about his career.
JN: Holt appeared in some important movies during the 1930s and 1940s. He had supporting roles in Gregory La Cava’s Fifth Avenue Girl (1939) and John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), and the leading role as a spoiled rich boy on Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). He was never a star and his acting style is a bit wooden, but his baby face was perfect for the Welles movie. In TSM he’s entirely plausible as a down-on-his-luck small farmer. Interestingly, in the late 40s and early 50s he became a cowboy star in B-budget westerns aimed at kids. I remember when I was a kid there was even a Tim Holt comic book!
MG: Was the film a satire?
JM: TSM isn’t entirely a satire, but it has veiled satiric aims. The Traven novel on which it is based is somewhat more pointed, but both the book and the movie can be read as satiric allegories or fables about social life under capitalism. John Huston’s first film, The Maltese Falcon, has some of the same qualities: it’s about a small group of characters teaming together and then falling apart in their search for a jeweled art object. TSM is about a small group searching for raw gold in the ground, before it becomes a commodity or an art object; as one of the prospectors says, the gold nuggets are “just crying for you to . . . make them shine in coins or on the fingers and necks of swell dames.” In the novel, Traven points out that once the gold is discovered, the prospectors are no longer “proletarians” but “property-holders,” and have reached “the first step by which man becomes the slave of his property.”
MG: Who was B. Traven?
JN: The identity of B. Traven is--or was--one of the big mysteries of literary history. We know that B. Traven was the pen name of a writer who published anti-capitalist novels in both German and English during the 1920s and who left Germany to live in Mexico before the rise of Hitler. Some people thought he was born in Chicago, others thought he was a Pole or Scandinavian whose true real name was Berick Traven Torvan, and still others thought he was a German actor and left-anarchist named Ret Marut. He had the same literary agent as John Huston but was a notorious recluse, more so than figures like J. D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon in our own day. Huston corresponded with him while working on the screenplay, and when the film company went to Mexico, a man named Hal Croves showed up with a letter from Traven designating him as the Traven’s representative. Both Huston and Bogart suspected that Croves was in fact Traven (an article identifying him as Traven appeared in Life magazine when the movie was released), but nobody ever knew for sure. Today, the consensus of historical opinion seems to be that Croves and Traven were indeed the same man.
Related resources on atyourlibrary.org
Interested in film noir classic? Read Apocalyptic White Heat and the career of James Cagney.
The Treasure of Sierra Madre (DVD)
directed by John Huston
The Treasure of Sierra Madre
by B. Traven
The Treasure of Sierra Madre
by James Naremore
John Huston's filmmaking
by Lesley Brill
John Huston : a guide to references and resources
by Allen Cohen, Harry Lawton
The Hustons : the life and times of a Hollywood dynasty
by Lawrence Grobel
by Lawrence Grobel
John Huston : interviews
edited by Robert Emmet Long
An open book by John Huston
John Huston, maker of magic
by Stuart Kaminsky
by Axel Madsen
The films of John Huston
by John McCarty
John Huston, king rebel
by William F. Nolan
Perspectives on John Huston
edited by Stephen Cooper
Reflections in a male eye : John Huston and the American experience
edited by Gaylyn Studlar and David Desser
"John Huston." In: Encounters with filmmakers : eight career studies
by Jon Tuska
"Undirectable director: John Huston" (1950) by James Agee, In: Awake in the dark : an anthology of American film criticism, 1915 to the present edited by David Denby