Wednesday, October 31, 2012

10 reasons to watch Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

Title: Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Director: John Huston
Language: English and Spanish
Rating: PG

Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) are down on their luck in Tampico, Mexico when they team up with Howard (Walter Huston), a cheerful, motormouthed old miner who's made and lost several fortunes hunting for gold around the world. They head into unexplored territory to look for gold, and though they're beset by many external threats - heat, harsh terrain, bandits, and other miners who might kill them for their loot - the worst danger they face is from each other.

Tim Holt, Walter Huston and Humphrey Bogart as Curtin, Howard and Fred C. Dobbs

10 Reasons to Watch It

1) Walter Huston's happy prospector dance.

2) Bogart's eyes: in turns weary, suspicious, angry, wild, lit with gold-lust, and paranoid.

Fred C. Dobbs is getting suspicious

Dobbs' paranoia is a beautiful example of psychological projection. As time passes he wants to ditch or kill his partners and make off with all the loot, but he won't admit to such a horrible desire, not even to himself. Instead he projects all his greed and traitorousness onto the others and justifies his own actions as self-defense. I love Bogart's performance in this movie.

3) Alfonso Bedoya as Gold Hat, the head bandit. I like him as a villain - and as Fred C. Dobbs' nemesis - because he's both ruthless and ridiculous, a symbol of the greed Dobbs wrestles with and loses out to.

(Reportedly some of the people playing Bedoya's henchmen in the movie were real-life bandits, while he was a regular actor. Even though he got to boss them around on-camera, off-camera they bullied him.)

4) The movie raises the question about what matters more - character or external circumstances - when it comes to how a person acts in any given situation. In regards to miners killing and robbing each other, Howard is more inclined to say that gold and its pernicious influence make good men go bad, while Dobbs dismisses that idea and says that character is what counts. I think what comes across in the movie is how it's a complex mix of both.

You see this most strongly with Curtin, who tends to get overlooked as a character. Curtin is a gentler, more even-tempered man than Dobbs and better able to withstand temptation, but even he can be pushed to the point of ruthless murder in certain circumstances. He has his own struggles as a character, but it's easy to lose sight of him and focus on Dobbs and Howard.

Tim Holt and Humphrey Bogart

5) In one of my favorite scenes the three discuss what they'll do with the gold once they return to civilization. Their plans are spot-on reflections of their values. Howard says he'll fix up a quiet place for himself and never go looking for gold again, showing that he's peaceable and wisely knows his limits. Curtin wants to invest in an orchard and farm, which will not only make him richer but also help him make jobs for people and a means for them to form a happy community where they'll be treated well and work together peacefully; Curtin can be tempted by money, but he's also motivated by kindness and sentimentality, a desire to spread his good fortune among others. Dobbs' plans are to buy sex, good food and liquor, and nice clothes. Unsurprisingly it's Dobbs who's the most cutthroat of the three.

6) Early in the movie, Dobbs and Curtin are hired for a couple of weeks of back-breaking labor, only to have their boss disappear without paying them. They confront him in a bar, and a desperate fight follows. Most fights in movies are over-the-top and glamorize the violence, but this one shows the reality of two exhausted, underfed men trying to take down a beefy well-fed opponent who could easily beat them and walk out with their pay.

7) Cody (Bruce Bennett) - I like how the filmmakers introduce him as a mysterious figure tracking the three miners. He's also a test of character for them. What will they do to this stranger, whose motives are unclear?

8) You can taste the grit, dirt and sweat filling up the screen as the men lose their civilized manners and go at each other's throats.

9) Back to Walter Houston's portrayal of Howard - I love how he talks in this movie. Nuggets of wisdom in a long stream of jabbering.

Walter Huston as Howard

10) The compelling, straightforward story-telling, which touches on issues of character and fate that don't have easy answers.

Further thoughts
You can see a relationship between a person's attitude towards money and attitude towards other people. Howard, who is the most relaxed about the gold, is able to connect with people across cultures - he's open to others and capable of sympathizing with people who are unlike him. Curtin, on reading the letter of a miner's widow, feels a connection with her, and the thoughts and feelings she expresses. Dobbs's relationships are less about intimacy and fellowship than they are about acquisitiveness - he's looking for prostitutes and people to wait on him. In some ways his closest relationship is with Gold Hat; maybe he sees a lot of himself in the bandit.

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