A spellbinding look at what greed does to men’s souls in one of Hollywood’s greatest films
In a Mexican flophouse, an old weathered prospector explains digging for gold to a down-on-his-luck fellow American: “I know what gold does to men’s souls… Going it alone is the best way, but you got to have a stomach for loneliness – some guys go nutty with it. On the other hand, with a partner too is dangerous – murder’s always lurking about... As long as there’s no find, the noble brotherhood will last. But when the piles of gold begin to grow, that’s when the trouble starts”. These foreboding words captivatingly play out in one of Hollywood’s true masterpieces, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, a provocative adventure film widely considered to be among the best ever made. Winner of three Oscars (and a Best Picture nomination), the American Film Institute (AFI) named it the 30th Greatest American Film of All-Time and the 67th Most Thrilling. A timeless movie I’ve loved since I was a kid, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” always proves to be as entertaining as a movie can get.
Set in Mexico in 1925, the film opens as we meet penniless American drifter "Fred C. Dobbs” repeatedly begging for pesos. He befriends the equally downtrodden "Bob Curtin", and desperate for money, the two join forces with an old wise prospector named “Howard”. Together the three search for gold in the remote Sierra Madre mountains on a journey riddled with harsh weather, bandits, shootouts, paranoia, and mistrust, in what can easily be described as an action-packed psychological epic. Themes of deception, longing, avarice and insanity blend so well into the story that “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” can be viewed solely as a nail-biting adventure or if you choose, as a rumination on materialism and what’s truly important in life. Either way, it is one exhilarating experience.
The film is an adaptation of a B. Traven novel by the same name first published in Germany in 1927, and then in the US in 1935. Because the novel is very much anti-capitalist and anti-religious, no Hollywood studio would touch it. However, screenwriter John Huston read it in 1935 and thought it would make a great film. Having lived in Mexico in his late teens, Huston developed a love for Mexico which lasted his entire life. In 1941 he directed his first feature, “The Maltese Falcon”, which was a major hit. Planning next to write and direct “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, he contacted veteran Warner Brothers producer Henry Blanke, and the two convinced the studio to obtain rights to the book. In the meantime, Huston directed two more films and then with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, was called to serve in WWII and left Hollywood almost immediately. Huston served in the Photography Unit of the Army Signal Corps where he made three war documentaries, which included footage from the frontlines. During that time, Warner Brothers tried several times to make “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, but Blanke was never happy with the scripts (some believe it was his way of stalling until Huston returned from military service). Once back, Huston discarded the other drafts and wrote his own version of the screenplay, toning down the novel’s politics.
Huston managed to contact the book’s author Traven, who was hiding in Mexico. Through a lengthy correspondence, Traven gave Huston suggestions regarding the script, casting, and other elements, and finally agreed to meet Huston in Mexico City, but didn’t show. A week later, a man appeared in Huston’s hotel room introducing himself as Hal Croves, Traven’s translator. Croves presented Huston with what he claimed was power of attorney for Traven, and became a technical advisor on the film paid a weekly salary. Many of the cast and crew believed Croves was actually Traven (including Huston at first, who later said he didn't think they were one and the same). Though there are many theories as to who B. Traven really was (it is largely thought today that he was an exiled German anarchist), to this day his true identity is still not certain.
Writer/director John Huston loved making films about people facing hardships while in search of the unattainable, and “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” is a quintessential example. Nature plays a significant role in the film (whether it be heat, mountains, high winds, or the gold itself), and Huston never fails to keep the characters tied to it. Without specifically showing their location, his choice of shots clearly paints a picture of three men in isolation near the top of a mountain in Mexico surrounded by brush and wilderness. He expertly keeps the three prospectors distinct from one another, and uses the strengths of each to stir emotion and intrigue while forwarding the plot. A simple example is when “Dobbs” puts up money for “Curtin” in their search for gold, assuring him it’s no big deal, and they shake hands on it. Rather than show the faces of “Dobbs” and “Curtin”, Huston shows a close-up of “Howard’s” knowing face, with their handshake in the foreground –ominously putting the focus on what’s to come.
Because of Huston’s skilled hand at directing, this film doesn’t lag for one second. For his work, Huston took home two Academy Awards, one for Best Director and the other for Best Screenplay, and the film is often cited as his greatest. These were Huston’s only two Oscar wins out of fourteen career nominations. Huston also appears in the beginning of the film as an American in a white suit who keeps giving “Dobbs” pesos (reportedly playing the role at the suggestion of Traven).
Having just made war documentaries, John Huston wanted to have as authentic a feel to “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” as possible and insisted it be filmed in Mexico. A somewhat radical idea (location shooting was not common for Hollywood films at the time), with the help of Blanke, he managed to get the okay from Warner Brothers. A lover of adventure, Huston traveled 8,000 miles through Mexico until he found a wild mountainous region near the village of Jungapeo near San Jose Purua. Much of the film was shot in this remote location in what turned out to be a grueling experience. Filming also took place in the actual town of Tampico, which was seamlessly combined in the final film with shots taken on a recreated set of Tampico at the Warner Brothers studio in Burbank, California. While in Mexico, a Mexican crew was hired alongside those from California, Mexican stunt riders were hired, hundreds of locals were paid as extras, and a few established Mexican actors were used in smaller roles. As the film ran over-budget, the production was summoned back to California, where the scenes at the campsite were filmed (in Kernville). Even with all these locations, the film certainly looks and feels as if it were entirely shot in Mexico, which adds to its bewitching appeal.
During filming in Mexico, Huston grew fond of a homeless orphan named Pablo who hung around the set. Unbeknownst to his wife at the time, actress Evelyn Keyes, Huston made arrangements to adopt Pablo. According to his autobiography, “An Open Book”, Huston claims Keyes first learned about Pablo upon meeting him at the airport. Shocked and unprepared, she did her best to be a good mother. Huston was an unconventional man who loved risk, gambling, alcohol, and women, and many of his films in some way reflect his nonconformist adventuresome approach to life (including this one). Actress Lauren Bacall (wife of Humphrey Bogart) wrote of Huston in a 1956 issue of Look magazine: “He lived life the way many of us would like to but don’t and never would or could. He has great integrity about his work, and when it comes to making motion pictures, directing them as well as writing, there’s no one better. He’s as talented as anyone I’m likely to meet in my lifetime. He has a terribly active and restless mind and he is very provocative in his use of it. Figuratively speaking of course, he has left his friends' bodies strewn all over the world. Where ever you might be for the moment you have his undivided attention and all his thoughts, that is, you have them until he feels the need to move on. Then there you are with egg on your face, and lucky to be, if you ask me”. A very talented and unusual man, you can read more about John Huston’s life and career in my posts on three of his other classics, “The Maltese Falcon”, “The Misfits”, and “The African Queen”. Click on the titles for more.
Humphrey Bogart stars as "Fred C. Dobbs”, the down-and-out American just trying to survive in Mexico. In a remarkable performance, Bogart shows us the steady disintegration of a man’s mind losing its grip on reality. One gets the sense from the start that “Dobbs” is a lost soul, and as he begins his descent into madness he becomes quite a wretched character. But Bogart makes him richly human and his loss of sanity so convincing that what could easily have been a one-dimensionally cold, vile character, becomes a poignant portrait of man overcome by irrational thoughts. Bogart’s compellingly real portrayal grounds the film in reality and gives it much of its power. There are scenes in which “Dobbs” rambles aloud to himself, which Bogart handles exquisitely – further evidence of his immense acting talent. Though he was snubbed for an Oscar nomination (which caused a bit of a stir), this performance is often cited as his best. As New York Times critic Bosley Crowther said in his review, “…his performance in this film is perhaps the best and most substantial that he has ever done”.
Humphrey Bogart’s performance didn’t fair well with everyone. At this point in his career he was one of the top stars in the world (and Hollywood’s highest paid) playing romantic leads and detectives in such films as “The Maltese Falcon”, “Casablanca” and “To Have and Have Not”. Fans expected to see him in a romance or a trench coat, and playing such a darkly unsympathetic character as “Dobbs” turned them off. That is believed to be part of why the film didn’t perform well at the box-office. Another reason was that “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” was a bit of a conundrum to market. It has no romance (let alone any true female characters), Bogart looks disheveled in most of it, another lead character has no teeth, it’s not a “true” western, and it doesn’t sport a Hollywood ending. But over the years the film caught on with the public and long ago became certified as a classic (and made its money back). It also began a new phase in Bogart’s career in which he tackled more complex and challenging roles. He even got to play another iconic character whose mind was coming apart at the seams in 1954’s “The Caine Mutiny”, which earned him a Best Actor Oscar nomination (his third and final). Before filming “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, Bogart experienced rapid hair loss, and by the time of filming, was completely bald. He wears three different hairpieces in the film.
Bogart and Huston were a great team. They boosted each other’s careers and their collaborations produced some of Hollywood’s best films, including this one. They had worked together several times before, most notably in 1941’s “High Sierra” (written by Huston and Bogart’s breakthrough role), and “The Maltese Falcon” (which established Huston as a powerful writer and director and made Bogart a star). They were good friends and drinking buddies. Huston directed Bogart in three more films after this one: “Key Largo” immediately after (also in 1948); “The African Queen” in 1951 (for which Bogart won a Best Actor Academy Award); and what has become somewhat of a cult classic, “Beat the Devil” in 1953. I’ve written about the life and career of Humphrey Bogart in three previous posts – “Casablanca", "The Maltese Falcon" and "The African Queen”. Please check them out for more on this iconic actor.
While Bogart’s inspiring performance grounds the film, it is Walter Huston as “Howard” the old prospector who practically steals the show. This colorful character speaks at a breakneck pace, has no teeth, and crackles with energy and dry humor. The world-weary “Howard” has seen it all before and takes life as it comes. Walter infuses this man with so much spunk it becomes infectious. The film’s most famous moment (an iconic one in movie history) is his reaction when they find gold. He laughs and dances a jig, and I can’t help but laugh along every time I watch it (he later said he learned the jig from playwright Eugene O’Neill while appearing in his play “Desire Under the Elms”). Walter was John Huston’s father (I'll refer to John as Huston, and Walter as Walter), and Huston wrote the part with Walter in mind and told him to remove his false teeth for the role. Although “Howard” speaks some Spanish in the film, Walter didn’t speak any and learned his lines by listening to them on a recording.
For his outstanding performance, Walter earned a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award. To date, it is the only time a father and son have won Oscars in the same year for the same film. In addition, Huston is the only person to have directed a parent and a child to Oscar wins (he directed his daughter Anjelica Huston to a Best Supporting Actress win for “Prizzi’s Honor” in 1985). In his Oscar acceptance speech, Walter said, “Many years ago, many, many years ago, I raised a son and I said ‘If you ever become a director or a writer, please find a good part for your old man’. He did alright”.
Canadian born Walter Huston made his stage debut at the age of 19 and then toured in several productions. After performing in vaudeville with his second wife, he began a successful career on Broadway in 1924 with "Mr. Pitt". He began appearing in films in 1929, with a standout role as the villain in "The Virginian”, followed by the title role in the 1930 film, "Abraham Lincoln". Now a leading man, he starred in such films as "The Criminal Code", "The Beast of the City", "Gabriel Over the White House", and "Rain". He continued to work in films and on Broadway, and one of his major Broadway successes was starring in "Dodsworth" in 1934. Two years later he starred in the film version and earned his first Best Actor Oscar nomination. His second nomination came with the 1941 film "All That Money Can Buy", and his third Oscar (this time for Best Supporting Actor) was for "Yankee Doodle Dandy" in 1942. His win for “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” was his fourth and final Oscar nomination and only win. A highly respected actor, other films from his 57 credits include "Duel in the Sun", "The Outlaw", "Dragon Seed", "The Great Sinner", and his final film "The Furies" in 1950. He made uncredited appearances in two other films directed by his son, "The Maltese Falcon" and "In This Our Life". He married three times and Huston was his only child. When Walter divorced Huston’s mother, Huston lived with her and reunited with Walter later in life. Once reunited, they got along famously. Walter Huston made only three films after this one, as he died in 1950 at the age of 67.
Beautifully rounding out the prospecting trio is “Bob Curtin” played by Tim Holt. Huston wanted an actor to contrast the hardened “Dobbs” and the sharp, old and weathered “Howard”, and he found the perfect choice with Holt. Holt has a youthfully endearing naïveté about him with an upbeat quality that perfectly balances the other two leads, providing the film with a more sweeping look at humanity. Even with questionable morals, “Curtin” is a dreamer, and Holt keeps his glimmer for a hopeful future constantly shining. Though the least flashy of the three lead roles, Holt does a fine job fleshing out a distinctly real and complex character. “Curtin” is largely regarded as Holt’s best known role.
Los Angeles born Tim Holt was the son of silent and early sound film star John Holt, who was primarily known for westerns. Like father like son, Tim also became a big western star (primarily B-movies). His first screen appearance was as himself (playing John Holt's baby) in the 1923 silent film, "Hollywood". After a few more uncredited appearances, his true film debut came in the 1937 classic "Stella Dallas". By the following year he was starring in B-westerns and by the early 1940s became a top western movie star. In addition to westerns, Holt occasionally appeared in supporting roles in A-list films, most famously as the second lead in Orson Welles' 1942 masterpiece, "The Magnificent Ambersons". Some of Holt's other films include "Stagecoach", "My Darling Clementine", "History Is Made at Night", "Fifth Avenue Girl", "Hitler's Children", and "The Bandit Trail". As his career waned in the early 1950s, he met and married a woman in Oklahoma and retired from acting, coming out of retirement for the 1957 horror film "The Monster That Challenged the World", and later appearing in one TV show and two more films (his final being the 1971 film "This Stuff'll Kill Ya!”). He was married three times. His sister was also an actor who appeared primarily in western films, Jennifer Holt. Tim Holt died in 1973 at the age of 54 from bone cancer.
Bruce Bennett plays “James Cody”, a man who wishes to join the trio. As with everyone in the cast, he creates a living, breathing character whose individuality helps make the world of "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" seem real. Washington-state born Bruce Bennett began as an athlete. After playing football and becoming a track and field star in college, he won a Silver medal in the 1928 Olympic Games, four consecutive AAU titles, the NCAA title, and set a world indoor record in 1930, all for the shot put. He moved to Los Angeles to compete in athletics and befriended movies star Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who helped him get into films. Bennett was set to star as "Tarzan", but while appearing in his first film "Touchdown!" in 1931, he broke his shoulder (and swimming champion Johnny Weissmuller got the part and became famous playing “Tarzan” in twelve feature films). Bennett did play "Tarzan" in the 1935 film serial "The New Adventures of Tarzan" and the 1938 serial "Hawk of the Wilderness". After being typecast in Tarzan-type roles, Bennett studied acting and became a contract player at Columbia Pictures. After serving in WWII, he returned to Hollywood and continued a film career (mostly in small and supporting roles), accruing 151 film and TV credits which include "Dark Passage", "Sahara", "The More the Merrier", "Sudden Fear", and as Joan Crawford's husband in "Mildred Pierce" (a film on this blog). He was married for nearly seventy years until his wife's death. Bruce Bennett died in 2007 at the age of 100.
Alfonso Bedoya makes an indelible appearance as the Mexican bandit, “Gold Hat”. The character’s uneasy charm and devilish smile have become immortalized by this film, as Bedoya delivers the film’s most iconic dialogue (and one of the most famous in cinema, which AFI named the 36th Greatest Movie Quote of All-Time): "Badges? We ain't got not badges! We don't need no badges! I don't have to show you any stinking badges!”. Mexican born Alfonso Bedoya traveled throughout Mexico as a child and emigrated to the US when he was 14 years old. He began a film career as a character actor beginning with the 1935 Mexican film "Todo un hombre". By the time "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" rolled around, Bedoya had already appeared in approximately 60 Mexican films. His small but memorable role in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" brought him attention from Hollywood, and he began to appear in American films (mostly westerns) including "Streets of Laredo", "The Black Rose", "Man in the Saddle", and his final film "The Big Country" in 1958. He married once. Alfonso Bedoya died of a heart attack in 1957 at the age of 53.
While there are other known actors in the film, I’ll mention just a few more small parts. The Mexican boy selling lottery tickets is none other than American child star Robert Blake. Blake went on to appear in over 150 films and TV shows (approximately 100 of which came before "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre"), most notably as one of the "Little Rascals" in the "Our Gang" short films of the 1930s and 1940s. He became a household name as the star of the 1970's classic detective TV series "Baretta", for which he won an Emmy Award. His other films include "In Cold Blood", "Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here", "This Property Is Condemned", "The Greatest Story Ever Told", and "I Love You Again". As of the writing of this post, he is 88 years old.
John and Walter Huston were not the only father/son duo in the film. Making a cameo appearance is Tim Holt’s father Jack Holt, who is very briefly seen in the flophouse talking to “Howard” and asking him, “So what are ya doing here?”. The New York born granite-jawed Jack Holt was a very popular leading man of silent films and early talkies, primarily known for westerns. He appeared in 192 films between 1913 and 1951, including "Submarine", "Dirigible", "Whirlpool", "The Donovan Affair”, "San Francisco", "Cat People", and "They Were Expendable". Jack Holt died of a heart attack in 1951, at the age of 62.
A cameo that is up for debate is that of the prostitute who passes by “Dobbs” after his haircut. Some believe she is played by major Warner Brothers’ movie star, the "Oomph girl” Ann Sheridan, who did the walk-on as a good luck gesture – though it hasn’t been proven it’s her. The speculation comes because of a publicity photo of Sheridan on the set with Huston and Bogart, wearing the same dress worn by the prostitute. During filming it was publicized that it was her in the film, but that could easily be Hollywood trying to drum up interest. Another possibility is that Sheridan filmed it, but it was reshot (for any number of reasons) with another actress. Because the character walks off-screen and the camera pans to show her again in the distance, some rumors pervade that it’s Sheridan at the end of the shot in the distance. The closer view looks like Jacqueline Dalya (and to me it is still Dalya in the distance). I’ll let those of you familiar with Ann Sheridan decide for yourselves.
The film’s score was composed by a name that should ring familiar to my blog readers, Max Steiner. Known as the “Father of Film Music”, the legendary Steiner is credited with creating the first completely original film score for the 1933 classic “King Kong”. I wrote more about him in my post on that classic and “Mildred Pierce”. Having composed music for well over 200 films including many classics, to date he has scored ten films on this blog (including "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”): "Bringing Up Baby", "King Kong", "Mildred Pierce", "Gone with the Wind", "Casablanca", "The Searchers", "White Heat", "Now Voyager", and "Arsenic and Old Lace”.
Nominated for Best Picture and winner of Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor Academy Awards, this film has it all - drama, suspense, humor, adventure, a spectacular blend of characters, fantastic performances, flawless direction, beautiful cinematography, and a spellbinding, thought-provoking story. It is an exemplary example of what the talented people who made movies during Hollywood’s Golden Age could produce. Enjoy a movie I love, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”!
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