Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) is a down on his luck American trying to make ends meet in Mexico. He can’t get a job, and lives day to day by begging for handouts from other working Americans he sees around town. After a particularly bad stroke of luck, he and his friend Curtin (Tim Holt), who is in a similar state of fiscal disarray, hatch the idea to go prospecting in search for gold. They convince Howard (Walter Huston), a former prospector, to come with them and offer advice, and he warns the pair of the dangers of too much gold amongst friends, but Hobbs in particular is adamant that wealth won’t change him. That is, until they find some, and discover other people might be after it too.
This film was nominated for me by T Sorenson of T Sorenson 1001 Movie Blog. He has (pardon the pun) struck gold with me in the past by recommending the excellent Whisky Galore!, so I had high hopes for this film. Also, Humphrey Bogart is an actor I’ve enjoyed in the past and have been meaning to watch more of. I’m happy to report that, whilst not quite as enjoyable as Whisky Galore!, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is still great, if a little heavy handed.
The major moral to be taken is to be wary of the corruptive power of wealth, particularly that obtained quickly and via legally questionable means. This is spelled out very early on, when Dobbs and Curtin meet Howard in a hostel, and he tells of men he’s seen who turned on their best friends when gold was involved. Dobbs swears that, if he were in such a position, he would firstly never let gold get in the way of a friendship, and secondly he’d never become greedy, never striving for more than he initially sought out for. These points are made so blatantly clear and spelled out in the largest font imaginable that, of course, later in the film Dobbs will find himself with a lot of gold, turning on his friends and refusing to turn down the opportunity to increase his new found wealth far beyond his expectations. Yet when this eventually happens it was still satisfying to watch, despite me all but knowing it was going to occur, mainly because of the performances.
Bogart is excellent in a role that begins as a bit of a louse, begging for scraps and being taken for a ride, takes a rise in the middle when he discovers the value of hard work and the rewards available to those willing to strive for them, but eventually sees him caught up in a web of his own anxieties and paranoia. Bogart makes the transitions smoothly, and always allows for that glimmer of hope that there could still be good in him and everything could turn around and be alright again, right up until it can’t. The real star acting-wise, however, is the man of who picked up the Best Supporting Actor for his work here, Walter Huston. Not only is he the father of the film’s director, John Huston (who, by winning the Best Director Oscar for this film, made Academy Award history for being the only father-and-son duo to win at the same ceremony), he also one of the most ambiguous characters I’ve seen for a while.
Early on in the story Dobbs and Curtin are scammed by a man who employs them to work construction for him and, once the job is finished and it comes time to get paid, the guy scarpers with barely any money entering the possession of the two men. Some time later they run into him again, and justifiably beat the living heck out of him. They ransack his wallet, but only take the money they are owed, leaving the rest. This whole interaction allows for three things. Firstly, it shows that Dobbs and Curtin are just and trustworthy men. They could have quite easily made off with all the money – it looks like there was almost double what they were owed in the wallet. Secondly, Dobbs will, if given the chance, get to be a badass because, and I think this is the real reason they didn’t take more money, he gets to drop a fan of paper money onto the bloodied face of a guy he just beat up, which is the kind of thing you always see in the movies but thankfully never seems to happen all that much in real life. And thirdly, it shows that Curtin and especially Dobbs are wary of con artists and being taken for mugs again.
So what does all this have to do with Howard? Well, Huston plays him as someone who could very easily be playing them for fools, and the needle on the dial of his deviousness meter never settles for pretty much the entire movie. There was never a point at which I’d have been surprised for him to either turn around and shoot the other two men, or turn around and give them his share of the loot because he wants to go and live in the trees. He dances the line masterfully, and it was a joy to behold. There were times when he seemed to be actively driving a wedge between the other two men, asking them questions that he would have had a fair idea would provoke them into an argument, or bringing up issues he’s dealt with in the past that have become problems down the line, such as who guards the loot whilst they camp on the mountains, outlining exactly how they could turn on one another at a moment’s notice, and just how untrustworthy everyone is, yet a scene or two later he’s building strong relationships with them. You really get a sense of the unease Dobbs and Curtin may have felt about whether they could trust this guy they barely know.
The final scenes took some turns I didn’t see coming, which is always welcome in films previously written off as predictable, and the ending is perfect, right down to that shout-at-the-screen infuriating final shot. Thus, other than some initially heavy-handed setup points in the plot, I highly recommend seeking this one out.
Choose Film 8/10