WB Top 100: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.

“The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” is the last Humphrey Bogart film on this list. It is also his best. Diane and I both loved this movie. While the first quarter of our list has had its ups and downs, this film is an incredible start to our next set of movies.

The film follows the down on his luck and homeless Fred C. Dobbs (played by Bogart). As he begs his way around the Mexican city of Tampico, he meets Bob Curtin (played by Tim Holt), a man of similar prospects, and a gold prospector named Howard (played by Walter Huston). The three eventually decide to pool together all the money they have to leave civilization behind and go search for gold in Mexican bandit country.

This newspaper is actually in Spanish too. Muy authentico!

As the first Hollywood film shot on location in a foreign country, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” bleeds authenticity. But, before we get into our praise and appreciation of the film, let me get through its one blemish. In the movie’s later act, it leans too heavily on the white savior trope and it really took me out of the movie. Despite this, I felt the movie did a good job of depicting Mexicans and other native peoples without dehumanizing anyone or deeming them savages or less civilized.

Blemish aside, the overall arc of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” is perfect. Early on, the film foreshadows its themes of greed and it also begs the question, “When is enough wealth enough?” Dobbs and Curtin are lured into a job by an American labor contractor who ends up skipping out on paying them. Their free labor helps improve his bottom line and with the oil boom in Tampico attracting more and more people looking for work, there’s always another sucker.

Despite falling for the contractor’s trap, Dobbs and Curtin eventually corner the man in a bar and steal from him what they are owed after a fight. By modern standards, the fight scene was lackluster, but for the time and in comparison to what we have watched thus far, it was incredible. I loved how the camera stayed panned out the entire time. Rather than a flurry of closeups and cutaways, the fight felt more real despite the punches obviously missing because you could see all the actors. The camera let the actors do the work rather than adding the action for them.

Easily my favorite fight scene yet in this series. Panned out camera, relatively few cutaways or cuts, and it lasts about as long as an actual fight.

Before the fight, Dobbs and Curtin met Howard, a gold prospector, at a hostel. Here is where we first encounter the film’s theme of greed. When Howard goes on about the perils of gold prospecting and how dangerous it is to go with others, Dobbs remarks that he would only take enough and not an ounce more than he needed to minimize the risk. Compared to the greedy contractor who repeats his scheme of extracting free labor from idiots despite the risk of getting cornered later, Dobbs holds himself up as a man capable of knowing when enough is enough and sticking to it.

This is in contrast with Dobbs as the story has already presented him. While no character gets any background, Dobbs spends the first 15 minutes or so of the movie begging for money. In a humorous twist, he ends up begging the same man three different times and each time the man gives him a peso. However, though the movie doesn’t call your attention to it, each time after Dobbs is depicted spending the money in a wasteful way. He spends some on a lottery ticket, some on a more extravagant meal, and some on a haircut. To me, Dobbs seems exactly like the kind of man who has no idea when enough is enough. He is content drifting from pleasure to pleasure on any dime he can get to do it.

“I’d only take what I needed,” is a great setup to any story about greed.

With what they are owed burning a hole in their pocket after the fight, the pair find Howard again and the three agree to prospect gold in the remote mountains. The movie plays it funny while Dobbs and Curtin have several comedic scenes of falling behind the older but more fit Howard as he easily climbs hills “like a goat”.

Once they finally strike gold, the movie truly begins. Dobbs and Curtin thought it would be hard to find the gold and easy to leave with it, but the opposite is true. Howard has them setup camp so they can start a small mining operation. Dobbs and Curtin eventually take to the work, but early on we see Dobbs drifting into paranoia. The three men trust one another enough, but because of Dobbs, they decide to hide their portion of the gold they mine each away from one another.

I won’t ruin everything, but Dobbs slow descent into madness is fantastically depicted in “The Treasures of the Sierra Madre”. Humphrey Bogart does a fantastic job. In all of the roles we have seen him in thus far, he has played the romantic lead while also being handsome and intelligent. Once the haircut from early on in the film gives way to Bogart, bearded, sun-baked, and covered in mud, the transformation is nearly complete. By the end of the film, Dobbs is a tragic figure, akin to Gollum, in Lord of the Rings who allows his greed to swallow him whole and gives himself over to madness completely to protect his precious gold.

I really loved all three of these characters and for entirely different reasons.

From the cover art, I had expected something more in the vein of an adventure film, but “Sierra Madre” is a Western film with depth and substance. In addition to Bogart’s turn, Tim Holt as Curtin does a fantastic job garnering your sympathy as he maintains reason and loyalty to nearly his own end. Walter Huston’s Howard nearly steals the show from both of them with his perfect depiction of a crazed, old prospector. In a sense, Howard’s arc is the reverse of Dobb’s as he initially seems quite mad, but turns out to be a reasonable, intelligent, and kindhearted fellow.

In addition to the compelling story, great characters, and great acting, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” is shot beautifully. This is one of the few films thus far that has extensively used the location in which it was shot and it shows. It gives the movie a timelessness that painted backgrounds would not have.

Maybe I need to make a D&D homebrew for Patron of the Great Joke, a warlock always on the regrettable end of fate or destiny.

As you can imagine, Diane and I both recommend this movie. It easily tops “Casablanca” as my personal favorite Bogart film and does a great job showing his overall range which we have only seen in his role as a supporting actor (“Dark Victory”, for example).  The fact that he is surrounded by a great supporting cast and the film has a compelling story to tell only adds more to its value. If you haven’t seen it yet, watch “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”.

For other reviews, make sure to check out the Warner Brother’s Top 100 Film’s page.


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One response to “WB Top 100: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)”

  1. I’m glad that you both enjoyed this one. John Huston was a magnificent film maker who understood the complexities and frailties of people. As and when, do checkout The African Queen, Moulin Rouge and The Man Who Would Be King. All are great studies in obsession.

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