John Huston directs Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston and Tim Holt in this adventure where three bums risk their lives and last dollars prospecting for gold in Mexico.
There is a delightful dichotomy when watching The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. In one respect you are watching a classic Hollywood production… a culmination of five decades of technical expertise and a miracle of studio innovations. The storytelling is so solid yet artful, so unpretentious yet impactful that you can only marvel at the craftsmanship on display. In that respect Treasure is like The Great Escape or Sleepless in Seattle. A faultless product that elevates and improves on all the cinematic entertainments that came before them, distils and celebrates their finest features and becomes a showcase for genre perfection.
But in that other respect, the second aspect of Treasure, is that you are watching something not just classical but a beast that feels way ahead of its own time. Sure, the misanthropy of the world created here is akin to the mood and attitude of contemporaneous Film Noirs but they were never in the service of such a humanistic and philosophical film. The sophistication of the characters here, the intelligence put in to detailing their ethical shifts is more a piece with far later mature masterpieces like Sweet Smell of Success, The Godfather or Network. Bogart’s lead is not just corrupted by his lust to protect his wealth but we see the psychological knots he ties himself in to justify his misdeeds. He is neither criminal nor hero here. Worse or better than both, he is a true human. You can read his actions as a gold madness… or maybe you are familiar with those who alters events and reinterpret the actions of others to warrant their own violence, betrayals and paranoia? Sociopaths. All of us in our weakest, most exposed moments. It is a brave and complex lead turn – one that retains our attention if not our sympathies as bandits descend and action interrupts his unearthed bastard instincts. Treasure is one of the few films where shoot outs actually delay the tensions that have been reaching boiling point rather than resolve or vent them.
Walter Huston is a wonderful saintly counterweight to Bogart’s mammonistic protagonist. Wise, warm, willing to see a problem from all sides, even if it is a problem created by one man’s greed. He has resigned himself that men cannot help the evil that they do or give in to the fear that drives them. The fact Howard accepts it as a non-negotiable factor to be considered when surviving this rough terrain is maybe the most pessimistic statement on humanity made, more damning a judgement than any of Dobb’s moral contorting to permit himself to murder, steal and abandon his own word. Man is craven to the point of self destruction… when prospecting you need to accept that as part of the deal as much as hard work or external threats.
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