Two Dissolve writers keep the Treasure Of The Sierra Madre conversation going…
Keith: I’d like to turn the opening of this discussion over to guest critic James Agee, who in 1947 wrote the following in The Nation:
It is not quite a completely satisfying picture, but on the strength of it I have no doubt at all that Huston, next only to Chaplin, is the most talented man working in American pictures, and that this is one of the movie talents in the world which is most excitingly capable of still further growth. The Treasure is one of very few movies made since 1927 which I am sure will stand up in the memory and esteem of qualified people alongside the best of the silent movies. And yet I doubt that many people will fully realize, right away, what a sensational achievement, or plexus of achievement, it is. You will seldom see a good artist insist less on his artistry; Huston merely tells his story so straight and so well that one tends to become absorbed purely in that; and the story itself—a beauty—is not a kind which most educated people value nearly enough, today.
That’s a bold claim to make for any film, much less one whose director had enjoyed only one great success as a director of feature films—and that came six years earlier. Yet here we are in 2015 still talking about it, and I think for some of the same reasons that Agee points out.
He goes on, later in the review, to add “There is not a shot-for-shot’s-sake in the picture, or one too prepared-looking, or dwelt on too long. The camera is always where it ought to be, never imposes on or exploits or over-dramatizes its subject, never for an instant shoves beauty or special meaning at you.” Huston’s art is always in the service of the material, and not the other way around. That’s partly why he’s always been eyed with suspicion by the auteurist crowd. Scour his filmography—which includes everything from The Maltese Falcon to Annie—and you won’t find the kind of directorial signatures or obsessions of many contemporaries. Yet there’s nothing artless about what he does, either. Watching this again for the first time in years I was struck by how beautifully it flows, moving from episode to episode in the characters’ journey from poverty to wealth and back again (or worse), but also the assurance Huston brings to his choices. He frames these men together in ways that emphasize their intimacy—even when they come to hate each other. In their early scenes, it’s a comrade-like sense of unity. Later, they look like they’re wearing shackles. He never overdoes anything. He just does everything right.
How about you, Genevieve? Why do you think this film has endured?
Genevieve: That impeccable pacing you mention is a big part of it. As someone with minimal affection for Westerns, I admit I went into Treasure not expecting it to move as well as it did, and be so purely entertaining from start to finish. This is one of those movies that’s been on my “essential cinema-knowledge holes to fill” list for a while, but its storied reputation and allegiance to a genre I don’t much care for always made it seem a bit like homework. (I know, I’m the worst.) So I was surprised—and thrilled—to be so engaged with the film from beginning to end, and I think Huston’s ability as a storyteller deserves much of the credit for that.
But also, Treasure deals with some very sturdy, resonant ideas about humanity—our greed, our weakness, our resilience—and turns on the sort of great irony that makes this type of story stick long after it’s ended. It’s smart without being cerebral, a straightforward parable about both the corrupting nature of greed and the immutable nature of self. Gold corrupts, yes, but only to the extent people are able to be corrupted; it’s more accurate to say it reveals the depths, dark or otherwise, of one’s character, and provokes action based on those depths. We’d all like to think we’re a Howard, capable and fundamentally good (if a little passive), rather than a Dobbs, desperate, selfish, and prone to all-consuming paranoia; the best we can probably hope for is that we’re a Curtin, capable of recognizing our mistakes and striving to correct them. (I love the moment of hesitation Curtin has before rescuing Dobbs from the mine cave-in, which sets his character up as someone capable of doing the wrong thing, given the right circumstances, which manifests later in their decision to kill the interloper Cody, as well as Curtin’s guilt over that decision.) The fact that none of these men falls comfortably into a hero/villain dichotomy makes it easier to see bits of all of them in ourselves, which makes them, and the movie, exceptionally engaging on an intellectual level as well as a narrative one.
Having not read the 1927 B. Traven novel Huston was adapting here, it’s hard to say how much of that comes from the writer-director vs. the source material. Keith, you’re much more versed in both Huston and the genre Treasure is pivoting off of, so I’m curious to hear how you think this film’s themes reflect the broader intentions of both Huston and the Western.
Keith: Traven’s novel has been on my list to read for years, yet I’ve never quite gotten around to it. A side note, but a relevant one: Did you know anything about Traven’s biography? It’s shrouded in mystery, and may have involved a past in Germany that made him a political exile. That lends a certain autobiographical element to The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, with its ex-pats of unclear origin wandering a country that’s not their own. Where do these men come from? The only one we get the full story on is Cody, and then only after he’s dead. In some ways, that vagueness makes it easier to put ourselves in their shoes since, as you suggest, much of the power of the story comes from being disabused, alongside with the protagonists, of the idea that we couldn’t be corrupted by all that money and that we’d know when to walk away. They feel that way, too. And then the story shows them otherwise.
As for the Western, should we classify this as a Western? It takes place after the Mexican Revolution, which tends to be at the far end of the Western era. It lacks a lot of the traditional elements of the Western. And yet, it’s the sort of story so informed by the Western that it feels like one anyway. Heading for the hills of Mexico, Dobbs, Curtin, and Howard slip outside the borders of civilization and find themselves prey both to outlaws and their own worst impulses as they have to continually renegotiate the terms of their partnership in order to survive, all tropes of the Western. Some of those elements pop up in more than one Huston movie, too, from The Asphalt Jungle to The Man Who Would Be King.
Can we talk about how amazing the actors are in this? Everyone’s great, but the two stand-outs are obviously Walter Huston, who invests a lot of soul into a character who might have been a cliché, and Humphrey Bogart, who does a full-on, Colonel Kurtz-worthy descent into madness by the film’s end. Much of Bogart’s enduring appeal comes from roles that find him embodying cool, but part of what makes Dobbs so fascinating is that he’s not cool at all. He’s at best pathetic, and at worst a craven murderer, and Bogart plays him without a hint of vanity. He’s an ugly, sweaty mess for most of the movie, yet he looks no more comfortable in the scene in which he gets an overdue shave and a haircut. (In fact, he barely even looks like Bogart in those scenes.)
Genevieve: I’m a little embarrassed to admit that for a few moments after he got up from that shave, I thought we were being introduced to a different character. Seeing Bogey without the stubble is like seeing an infant with a fully grown beard; it just looks wrong. Thankfully it reappears with Homer Simpson-like quickness, and Dobbs gets back to being the barely concealed cad he is. In Sierra Madre’s opening scenes, before Dobbs meets up with Curtin, I think some of Bogart’s inherent coolness still comes through; he’s down on his luck, but he still looks damn good down there. But I think the moment where his character crosses over from a potential antihero to pathetic specimen he turns out to be is the scene where he and Curtin beat the living hell out of McCormick, the shifty contractor who bilks them out of the wages he promised them. That’s an incredibly rough and violent beatdown even by modern standards, and a lot of that has to do with the way Huston stages it, with wide shots and no soundtrack except the smack of flesh hitting flesh. Even though McCormick is a slimy cheat, it’s hard not to come out of that scene feeling like the punishment may have exceeded the crime. It gives you a sense of what Dobbs is capable of when he’s been cheated, and that plays out across his descent into gold-madness.
To return briefly to your question of whether this is a Western, “neo-Western” is the term I see applied to this movie most often, and I think it applies for all the reasons you list, as well as for the multiple interactions and conflicts with “natives,” of both the malevolent and benign sort. The bandits are an interesting presence throughout this film, both as the personification of the evil and greed the percolates beneath the quest of our so-called “heroes,” and as the dealers of the film’s great irony, when they pour out the bags of gold, thinking they’re worthless sand, when they steal Dobbs’ mules and kill him. Though they’re presented throughout the film as the “bad guys,” getting in multiple gunfights with our gold-seekers and killing the more-or-less innocent Cody, the bandits are the ultimate arbiters of justice, or what passes for justice, in Treasure Of The Sierra Madre. There are further echoes of that irony in the way the bandits are prosecuted and punished by the federales, who force the bandits to dig their own graves before shooting them; as Cody says to Curtain, “You’ve got to hand it to the Mexicans when it comes to swift justice.” Ultimately Dobbs is the recipient of such swift justice at the hands of the bandits, though neither party is fully aware of it.
But the bandits and federales aren’t the only Mexicans our trio of gringos encounter on their journey. Keith, what do you make of the presence of the natives who first seek Howard’s help, then force him to return with them to what turns out to be their idyllic village? How do they fit into Sierra Madre’s long game?
Keith: There’s some idealizing going on there, for sure. I think the natives are presented as being uncorrupted by the greed of what passes for civilization in the film. They may not have medicine, but they seem to have figured out a way to peace and harmony that the rest of the world hasn’t, or has forgotten. It’s no wonder that Howard ends the film headed back to their world. It’s a little surprising he even left it in the first place. But such is the allure of gold, right?
I think the scene where Curtin and Dobbs take down the contractor is interesting, too, though I’m not sure it’s a crossing-the-Rubicon moment for the characters. They’re brutal to him, sure, but they also only take what’s owed to them. It’s the last instance in which Dobbs plays fair. However flawed he is from the start, he doesn’t start to covet more than what he’s owed until he leaves for the mountains. That’s another way they film plays up the contrast between civilization and the wilderness: These men lose their way when they’re removed from the world they know. Howard takes comfort in the patch of paradise created by the native people, but Dodd just goes mad away from what he knows.
We’re nearing the end here, but we can’t wind things down without discussing one of the film’s great legacies: The happy prospector dance:
Genevieve: Between the happy prospector dance and the oft-misquoted “I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges” line, Treasure Of The Sierra Madre has really earned its pop-cultural cachet over the years, hasn’t it? As is usually the case when viewing the source material for something that’s become comedy shorthand over the years, it’s interesting to see how both of those moments play in context. The “stinkin’ badges” line—which is apparently taken directly from the novel—comes at one of the tensest moments of the film, and would probably never be considered comedic at all were it not for the intervention of Mel Brooks and Blazing Saddles a quarter-century later.
Howard’s happy little jig may have been intended as comedy from the start—and it certainly is very silly—but it’s possible to read a little bit of portent into it as well. Howard comes off quite mad as he does his jig; remember, at this point, neither we nor his compatriots really know what his deal is, other than that he has a long history of mining (and losing) gold. Dobbs and Curtain both look fairly alarmed at his behavior, and it’s hard to blame them, as their guide into the desert appears fairly insane at this juncture. We’ll go on to learn that of the three, Howard has actually built up the biggest tolerance to gold-madness over the years, but that moment gives a glimpse into how the promise of wealth can make men forget themselves. Of course, there’s a bit of a difference between goofily hoofing with abandon in front of two relative strangers and trying to kill someone in a fit of paranoia. But it all stems from the same basic impulse, an impulse that drives Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, and lends it continued relevance—beyond the jig and badges—67 years later.
Don’t miss Tasha’s Keynote on Sierra Madre’s unconventional look at Western masculinity, and how it’s appropriate for an unconventional Western. And come back on Thursday, when Emma Myers looks at Humphrey Bogart’s afterlife on film via features like Play It Again, Sam.