The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948, John Huston)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

The basic story thread of Treasure of the Sierra Madre doesn’t tell all. It merely suggests. And suggestion is the primary tool of John Huston’s direction and script. If you’ve not seen the movie, you still know the story, though you can hardly imagine the perfection of its narrative: Gold fosters all-encompassing greed in ordinary men, those being Humphrey Bogart (in his best performance ever and one of the few times he gets to play a bastard), Tim Holt (excellent), and Walter Huston (outstanding), father of the director. What makes the film so fascinating is what happens on the fringes, the telling details that give the story its depth: the letter from an adoring wife to an ill-fated gold miner, the saving of a young boy’s life, the battling for cash in the midst of squalor by working hard for nothing, and let us not forget the peach farming. The most important things, indeed, are all unsaid.

In other words, the film owes a huge amount to its actors, but it succeeds because the script is incredibly thorough, an apparently quite faithful adaptation of B. Traven’s novel. Huston manages to economically incorporate all possible angles of the story without sacrificing its thrust and immediacy. The action is enormous in scope, but so is the aching, the sadness, the loss. The anti-capitalism strain doesn’t quite make it to the film intact, but a vague sense of futility is everywhere, the futility wrought by a greed that permeates the lives of three good men, one seasoned, one earnest, and one naive and easily corruptible. Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole gets much credit these days as the most cynical film to come out of the studio system, but the much more popular Sierra Madre certainly can’t be far behind. It isn’t a nasty movie, but by no stretch of the imagination is it an optimistic one.

John Huston’s films sometimes show an aesthetic confusion; for instance, The Maltese Falcon, his directorial debut, is marred slightly by some editorial decisions that reduce the suspense, and even his later work rarely coheres perfectly, often outpacing story with ideas (witness The Red Badge of Courage, or even something more successful like The African Queen). But Madre is nearly perfect; the story comes equipped with ripe visual ideas, and Huston takes advantage of all of them, wringing greatness from every frame of the picture. Each scene is expertly written and mounted so that the impact is never diluted, and the film is completely absorbing from first to last frame.

That said, people do indeed remember the film for its actors. Both Bogart and Walter Huston deserved Oscars (Huston got one). Bogart shows that he is much more than a tough guy here, in a fearless performance that covers all the bases from sweetheart to opportunist to angst-ridden asshole. And Huston remains a startlingly natural actor; there is nothing he does in the film that doesn’t seem felt, logical, truthful. His sudden bursting of exuberance and glee when he discovers the gold, that little bizarro dance he does, is one of the most startling performance quirks captured on film.

And anyway, how often do you get to see a Hollywood picture in which the big star gets killed twenty minutes before the end? Bogart was courageous to take this role and he lives in it. How often do you see an adventure film in which the most memorable scene is just two men sitting down and contemplating the futility of their lives for the last year? Treasure of the Sierra Madre is some kind of a masterpiece; you can’t take your eyes off it. And it seems to grow in depth and sophistication as time marches onward around it. I can think of few films more completely universal. It may well be the finest of all action-adventure films, and even that seems too simplistic a distinction.

[Originally posted with slight modifications in 2007.]

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