The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

Directed by John Huston

There is little to add to all that has been written and said about The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. It’s one of Hollywood’s great films; the DVD presentation (the 2 disc Special Edition) is a great package, great image, very good bonus materials.

So maybe I’ll just ramble a bit and see what I come up with.

First off, this is a guy movie, in the sense the Clint Eastwood movie Unforgiven was. With the exception of Ann Sheridan making a brief appearance as a passing prostitute (miss it if you blink), I can’t think of a single woman in the movie. There are certainly no female characters in it.

The movie is very much about men, especially men when they’re together. It’s kind of a macho movie, though turned in on itself. Rather than masculine bravado and muscle flexing, it’s about masculine insecurities and paranoia.

It’s interesting to contrast director John Huston with director John Ford (or, to a lesser extent, Howard Hawks). The three form a triumvirate of Hollywood “manly” directors. Women, when they appear in the films, are largely props. Their movies are all about men, and they’re informed by a kind of sexual self-centred quality.

Huston was a bit different than Ford, though. Where Ford’s movies were essentially informed by a masculine romanticism, Huston’s tend to be informed by a sense of tragedy and realism (or reality as perceived by Huston).

In The Treasure of the Sierra Madre we get the essence of Huston’s take on men: essentially lonely and plagued by doubts.

In what is likely his best performance ever, Humphrey Bogart nails these qualities exactly. His Fred C. Dobbs literally comes apart on the screen. What happens to him seems inevitable and unfolds inexorably. The more he acquires of what he perceives to be life’s essence, the acquisition of wealth, the more divorced he becomes from the life around him, and the more inward he goes, the closer to inevitable tragedy.

The one caveat I would throw out (no so much a caveat as a wonderin’-out-loud thought) is this: given the way the movie begins, the broke, impoverished status of the Bogart and Tim Holt characters, is the ultimate tragedy the result of character (as most take it to be) or is it a result of social status, the lack of wealth in a material world?

I don’t think it is the latter but I do think it’s worth keeping in mind that the characters in the story begin from a position of poverty. It’s worth asking if what happens would have happened had they been better off materially.

(Posted October, 2003)

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