1948’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre saw the return of a pairing that had birthed two of the cinematic world’s greatest talents – John Huston and Humphrey Bogart. Seven years earlier they had made film history with the (hard)-boiled-down-to-the-core film noir The Maltese Falcon, Huston’s first film and Bogart’s first star-making role. It seems like the seven years apart was enough to make them hungry enough to throw Hollywood for a loop. That they did, famously so when Warner Bros execs initially hated The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. In creating the film, they had succeeded brilliantly with a narrative and mood never even really tried before: a noir Western, infused with the mythologizing and location-work of a Western but the stylish ironization and seedy, grimy exploration of human decay front and center in noir. Quite literally, it was a combination of the genre of American dreams and the genre of American nightmares. What they created not only gifted Huston two Oscars, for directing and writing, and re-cemented Bogart’s name (along with their other 1948 pairing in the also great Key Largo), but exceeded the then far grasp of both genres and served as a striking examination of human decay far more sinister than just about any film before or since.
It’s 1925 and Fred C. Dobbs is a down-on-his-luck American drifter unemployed in Mexico when he meets a fellow American, Bob Curtin (Tim Holt), on a job for a local American businessman. Shortly after the two beat up the businessman for skipping out on paying them, they meet old-timer Howard (Walter Huston, father of director John) who has made and lost a fortune prospecting for gold. Soon enough, they all agree to pool their earnings to purchase supplies for several months of gold prospecting, and wander off to “the mountain” to see their fortunes made. Or, as we soon come to suspect, destroyed.
Humphrey Bogart made a living out of playing tragic, beaten-down schmucks at odds with society, but he was never more worrisome and frightening than here. In some ways, Fred C. Dobbs is the quintessential Bogart type, a marker of a leading man who turned cool into self-critique and exposed the modern male for a sniveling, asocial brute. Early on, the film portrays Dobbs as a stubborn and unrefined but, on balance, kind figure. When he wins a little extra money and puts it up for the good of the three man expedition, he proudly states his intention for the findings to be split three ways equally despite having put in the most funding. In this light, the character is subtly different from many of star’s other roles: it’s one of the only films where we actually see the rise and the fall, rather than simply the aftermath. Many of his most memorable roles are suffused with subfuscous intimations of tragic pasts, from Casablanca to In a Lonely Place to The African Queen ( a rare sympathetic performance), but The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is more openly concerned with the present and the existentialism of the future, about the way the heat and the soil conspire with the soul to keel over the human spirit into something degraded and dejected. The film plays around with whether we should sympathize with Dobbs, with what lies in his heart, and it, and Bogart specifically, implicate us with our own greed and our own sympathy. The character’s endless self-monologuing, a form of narration that would be a throwaway in any other film, becomes a haunted marker of a man torn apart within himself. He is the anchor of the film’s salty, feverishly stewing morality play, and an actor who could beat himself up and down – an actor who could beat us up and down – with nothing but his thousand-mile petrified gaze and his thousand-day stubble so prickly it could cut an ego, his, down to size.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre isn’t a tease about it either; it slathers the tension on, with numerous sequences destined to test the might of armchairs everywhere. An early scene where the cracks in Dobbs’ façade become visible is especially contorted: Dobbs, after discovering Curtin trying to catch a gila monster that happened to wander into the hole containing Dobbs’ hidden money, threatens Curtin and has to stick his hand into the hole to prove he doesn’t believe a gila monster resides within. Later, the film’s standout sequence features Dobbs walking back and forth as he tries to decide whether to check on a body he believes he left for dead. Each direction change is agonizing, and just when we think it’s over, the film masterfully pulls the rug out from under us as Dobbs questions his choice again.
What makes these sequences work, however, is that they become part of an impressionist brew about choice and consequence, decision and indecision, and about the fate of the human consciousness. The film isn’t about whether these three live or die or strike it rich or not, but something more disconcerting: the anxiety of the soul, a question about who they will become, who they are, and what mystifying forces of social construction and happenstance conspire to shape our identities. Their fates are on the line, being tested by the unending, unnerving majesty of the mountain, itself a conjured force that seems to exist as part of the mind more than as a physical reality. It seems to exist just to tempt.
Thus, the star of the film is as much the mountain as any human character. It’s spoken about at length by the characters, defining their lives, actions, thoughts, hopes, dreams, breaths, and nightmares – it’s as if it can’t help but be mentioned no matter the conversation. It stumbles into the words, looming in the background and the foreground and swallowing the characters in its great wide emptiness. John Huston’s camera, however, tells the greater truths about the mountain precisely as it avoids the facts. We never get a sense of its size or its location in truth – we know almost nothing about it logistically, allowing the location a misty, fantastical, otherworldly vibe even as it attains a crucial, aching, husky earthiness. It attains a sense of place at once alien and all-too-real, a place that might occupy a physical space but plays out much more as the embodiment of the foolish dreams of men doomed to forever remain un-reached. It’s a place less physical and more crushingly abstract, serving less to be seen or heard than to ensnare and to confuse. It’s telling that, although the title of the film refers to its geographical location by name, the film itself, and its characters, never do.
The nature of the mountain and its agency over the men who try to assert agency over it is revealed most forthrightly through the film’s visuals. On one hand, Huston’s long-shots are key, capturing more evocatively than perhaps any other early-period Western the ominous, foreboding control of land over people, even as people try to disrupt the land through unheeding extraction. Many of the wide shots are careful to place people far away from the screen – they are always there and rarely absent, but painfully small as if rendered featureless ants or enigmas by the mountain’s dehumanizing pall. Elsewhere, when the camera is more close to Huston’s characters, it’s almost impossible to get a sense of its geography, rendering it a confusing open-aired labyrinth where men are trapped not by a physical maze but a mental one, aided, of course, by the oppressive openness of the location and the lack of space to do things like hide one’ s money, or to plot against one’s acquaintances, or to breathe. Huston threads both naturalism and dream-like artifice into his location, rendering it a battle or uneasy mixture between the two, being careful to leave a hole in between his styles ready to suck up anyone who dares threaten their precarious tension.
Huston displayed a deep affection for the natural geography he would capture on film and went to great detail to film on location, to capture its “truth”, and for this reason the stagey set-bound nature of many scenes here seems intentional. Especially in the later scenes, when the film shifts to night as the characters become more distorted and we enter into Dobbs’ increasingly befuddled gaping wound of a mind, the film is obviously, too obviously, lit by artificial light. Likewise, certain aspects of the nature seem too precariously placed, as if there not as part of a real geography but intentionally placed to torment Dobbs, as if by the very angry, defensive force of the Earth itself, illuminated by some teasing, impish, mock-sacred glow. And this seems the point – we are increasingly witnessing not a real mountain but Dobbs’ internal conception of it, a hellish artifice imposed upon him from within and rendered visually real around him. Even before Dobbs loses himself to the mountain, the location seems more like an abstracted reflection of “nature destroying man” than a real location. It is a trenchant and important rejection of the all-too-common Western motif of man conquering and living with nature, a noirish evocation of human decay more than a mountain.
Thus, visually the film captures the artifice of both genres, the Western and the noir, as well as how this unreality, this non-factuality (such as the non-factuality of the mountain) could reflect a greater truth. Herzog’s “Ecstatic Truth”, to be exact, found not in the minutiae of factoids and realistic detail but in peeling back the reality and exposing the truth of emotion and feeling underneath. For this reason, if the mountain is a nebulous construction, it never loses itself to the antiseptic thematizing of symbolism. It approaches us like a deeply and crushingly physical object of pure filmic energy and melancholy, with curated visuals of the Old West here not used to romanticize the West but to empty it out and showcase the piercing loneliness of a land that humankind can never fully know. In one scene, a perpetual moan permeates from the score, triangulating pure melancholy, inhuman warble, and the eternal soundtrack to limbo – simply one of the scariest and most indescribable noises ever to grace the screen – and it doesn’t intellectualize to us from afar. Instead, it pulses right up into our soul, passing through our body and having its way with us. Both the Western and the noir saw their narrative and characters reflected in the visuality of their landscapes, the sun which defined Western hopes and the angular buildings and shadows that conquered film noir fears. Huston manages something unthinkable – to read both genres off of each other and past themselves.
In turn, Huston is very much dealing with a classical Western theme – man vs nature. But here, unlike so many other Westerns of the time, he posits not mutualism, but parasitism, with men as the abusers of the mountain and the hurting earth in turn ready to defend itself at all costs. This is not a bedtime story meant to praise the wonders of the rugged individual, but to reveal the underside of that ruggedness, to expose the internal greed and despair that American men in the Old West could epitomize. The film positively destroys the romantic Western myth by reading it as a noir. It is not a bedtime story – it’s a brittle moral fable, a warning, and a cautionary tall tale of the most darkly twisted variety.
Thanks. Very pleased to have found your blog and this thoughtful review of a brilliant film. I’ll be back! Regards from Thom at the immortal jukebox (plugged in now).