Wednesday 17 August 2011

Movie Review: The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (1948)

A classic tale of greed and the influence of sudden great wealth on those ill-equipped to handle it, The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre is a marvellous achievement. Director John Huston crafts an epic exploration of human nature, Humphrey Bogart is spellbinding in a transformational performance, and Walter Huston, lovingly directed by his son, delivers a career-defining performance.

Dobbs (Bogart) is an American drifter, scratching out a living in a small Mexican town in the 1920s. He meets Curtin (Tim Holt), a younger American in much the same situation. The two men appear to meet some good fortune when they are hired for a few days of well-paid labour by the businessman McCormick, but he cheats them out of their wages. Reduced to sleeping in a shelter, Dobbs and Curtin meet Howard (Walter Huston), a grizzled gold prospector who has found and lost several fortunes. His talk of heading to the hills and striking gold resonates with the younger men as an adventure if not a plan.

The three men head off into the surrounding hills and as the remote terrain gets harder, the older Howard is in his element. Eventually he hits the bull's eye, finding a rich deposit of gold deep in the mountains. Once the three men start mining, Dobbs' real personality emerges, causing deep divisions and mistrust. Prospector Cody (Bruce Bennett) shows up uninvited and offers to help, but trouble in the form of Mexican bandits is not far behind.

Huston directed and wrote the screenplay based on the book by the mysterious B. Traven. The narrative cleverly steers Howard, Dobbs, and Curtin to their chosen destinies, although not on any path they selected, the treasure proving to be a passageway but not an objective. Howard, of course, knows this already. Whether he is monetarily rich or not makes no difference, his life's pleasure fueled by sequential quests.

It's a different story for Dobbs and Curtin, who are new at the prospecting game. They will both discover for the first time who they really are, as the gold accelerates the revelation of the men's hidden values.

Huston composes every frame with artistic flare, finding camera angles to enhance the storytelling and add to the growing tension. The initial scenes of interaction between Dobbs, Curtin and Howard are brilliant examples of a master director's unobtrusive hand. Dobbs and Curtin are always in the frame together, facing Howard as the third point of the triangle, the catalyst who will help them understand their true selves.

Humphrey Bogart is captivating as he embarks on a dark descent into Dobbs' soul. In one of his most complex and satisfying screen roles, Bogart keeps Dobbs' anxieties well hidden until the discovery of the gold, then expertly and gradually delves into the corners of the psyche where self-destructive evil thoughts are harboured.

Walter Huston as Howard is the heart of the movie, an old man who has long since learned the impact of gold on weak personalities. Huston conveys the thrill of looking for and finding treasure; what happens afterwards is almost inconsequential, as he is just as happy losing a fortune to start the process of finding the next one.

Tim Holt, who spent most of his career in western movies, plays an earnest Curtin, and emerges as the perfect counterbalance to Bogart's Dobbs. Younger and less saddled with life's disappointments, Curtin is the innocent subject of Dobbs' growing lack of trust as it deforms into violence. Curtin has to first find and then hold onto his principles, and the gold adventure leads him to his dream but along a most convoluted path.

With masterful artistry, The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre exposes gold's most important property: reflecting back the character of the men who hold it.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

No comments:

Post a Comment

We welcome reader comments about this post.