With the epic outdoor action-drama THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948), based on a novel by enigmatic writer B. Traven, Humphrey Bogart once again joined with director John Huston and his father Walter (after THE MALTESE FALCON) for a grueling tale of the devastating effects of greed on average men. And during the film's arduous shoot in the wilds of Mexico, any hint of Hollywood glamour would soon become a distant memory.
As Fred C. Dobbs, Bogart loses himself in one of his grittiest and least sympathetic roles. Dobbs is an American stuck in a small Mexican town with no job or money, wandering the streets and begging for pesos. (The younger Huston has a funny cameo as a well-to-do man Dobbs keeps hitting up for change.) Dobbs will fling his glass of water in the face of a small boy (Robert Blake) pestering him to buy a lottery ticket, yet we sense a modicum of decency somewhere beneath his gruff exterior.
This early sequence of him trudging his way through life, getting bad haircuts, chasing after prostitutes, etc. lets us sit back and watch Bogart at work creating one of his finest characters. Dobbs hooks up with a fellow American named Curtin (Tim Holt) for a job in which they're cheated out of their pay by a crooked foreman (Barton MacLane of THE MALTESE FALCON) whom they beat senseless after he attacks them in a bar. (This well-choreographed fight scene is brutally effective.) Then, after meeting grizzled old prospector Howard (Walter Huston) in a flophouse, they take his advice and set out with him to find gold in the mountains of the Mexican desert.
Walter Huston enjoyed recounting the story of how he told his son John that if he ever became a filmmaker to "write me a good part." The old gold-hunter Howard is that part, a role the elder Huston, sans dentures, inhabits so fully that he almost manages to steal the picture right out from under Bogart. (He would go on to win an Oscar for it.) Howard is a goodnatured, level-headed old man, and we believe him when he warns of the evil effects gold can have on weak-willed men.
Dobbs blusters against such talk, thinking himself above any negative influences. Yet without missing a beat, he will fulfill each of Howard's admonitions one by one as the lure of gold transforms him into a paranoid, resentful, and ultimately dangerous man. By the time he's gone over the deep end, he's a frightening character, convinced in his mindless desperation that everyone's out to get him and that he's justified in whatever heinous act he may commit to protect himself and his newfound fortune.
When Dobbs and Curtin finally find themselves locked in a life-or-death battle of wills in the middle of the desert, the film almost takes on the eerie inevitability of a horror movie. The only thing that undercuts it, along with much of the rest of the film, is one of Max Steiner's worst musical themes--a loping, folksy motif that I find jarringly out of place.
In addition to being a fascinating character study, TREASURE is a terrific action-adventure. Alfonso Bedoya is unforgettable as the ruthless Mexican bandit Gold Hat, whose gang attacks our heroes' train during their trip into the mountains and then later stumbles upon their mining camp, leading to a blazing gunfight. Gold Hat may be a monster, but Bedoya manages to make him funny, especially with his immortal response to Dobbs' question "If you're federales, where are your badges?"
"Badges? We ain’t got no badges...we don’t need no badges...I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!"
Tim Holt is solid in the less flashy role of sturdy, dependable Curtin, who shares Howard's dismay at Dobbs' growing instability. Walter Huston is a delight in a truly wonderful performance--he even gets to break the fourth wall and give us a sly look during one sequence in which he's being given the royal treatment by a tribe of Indians after doing them a good turn. We don't even hold it against Howard when he votes along with the others to execute another man, Cody (Bruce Bennett), who tries to horn in on their find.
But it's Bogart, as a man susceptible to bouts of pure, wild-eyed insanity, who makes the film as truly memorable as it is. No matter how low he sinks and what horrible things he does, we always remember the relatively decent guy he was before gold changed him, and feel some remorse for what he's become. And just like Dobbs, I'd like to think gold wouldn't make me act that way--but who knows?
Read our review of the BEST OF BOGART COLLECTION