#30 The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
I’m sure I’ll say this a few more times before I finish all 100 films but here goes: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is the best film I’ve watched so far.
After enduring the agonizing three-hour course on boredom that is The Birth of a Nation, Madre felt like the cinematic equivalent of a trip to Disney World. That’s a lame compliment, because I’d say the same thing about three hours of VCR snow. Seriously, though: Madre is the pants.
Bogart is Fred Dobbs, a down on his luck American looking for work in Mexico. We meet him asking fellow Americans for handouts to fund his next meal. He’s greasy and a bit dim. We watch him and nice guy Curtin (Tim Holt) get swindled by a fast talking foreman that offers them a job but then stiffs them come pay-day. Dobbs and Holt have to offer the mug a beating in a bar to get their pay which they take from his wallet. But they only take what was coming to them, though they could have robbed the guy blind. They’re honest men, at the beginning.
They meet up with an old coot of a prospector called Howard (Walter Huston), and the three decide to give it their best shot at gold prospecting. Howard warns them of gold’s “devilish tricks”, how it plays on a man’s mind, making him hungrier and hungrier for more until he can never be satisfied. Gold, Howard says, can rob a man’s soul. Dobbs disagrees. He believes gold isn’t necessarily a negative force; it’s conditional on the man who has it. It won’t be my master, he says.
What plays out is a brilliant character dram examining what happens when desperate men are pushed to their limits, when the corrosive nature of greed erodes the soul until a man is left a shell, a paranoid and empty version of his former self. It’s surprisingly philosophical, asking a lot of questions about morality, human nature, and avarice. It’s a modern American fable, really. One with a tragic and darkly humorous ending. God I love this movie.
The acting is great. Bogart is excellent in this unfamiliar role. I think of Bogart as Sam Spade, a no-nonsense straight-shooter. But here he’s this tragic character, brimming with flaws and vanity, and very little smarts. Another standout is Walter Huston as Howard, father of the film’s director John Huston. His fast talking performance is a lot of fun to watch and pretty much sets the standard for every other “grizzly old prospector” type character.
One of my favorite moments is when the trio finally find the mountain’s gold. Walter Huston insults his buddies with such silken grace, and then does the greatest dance ever filmed. An absolute joy.
For some reason I thought about Duck Tales while watching this. Probably because Bogart gets the gold fever. But I often ending up thinking about Duck Tales. Does there really need to be a reason?