The golden age of Hollywood is a very unique time for American film. This was a time when actors were a commodity for a studio and the idea was more important than a director’s vision. While this is true for most films of this time, there were exceptions to that rule. With that said, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of the biggest exceptions, and took major risks for that time period. When I think of character arcs that grow and eventually take a turn for the worst, while also showing the viewer what’s wrong with society, I think of the movies of the 1970s by auteurs like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. The fact that The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was released in 1948 and featured this level of dark development and cynical humor made this film something that would live on forever with lovers of the medium.
After failing to find any real kind of income in the Mexican oil-town of Tampico, Mexico, two drifters named Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Curtin (Tim Holt) are close to giving up their efforts. Luck starts to shine one them, however, when Dobbs wins a small lottery and the two meet a prospector named Howard (Walter Huston), who tells them of the abundance of gold hidden deep in the Sierra Madre mountains. The three men soon set out on their adventure to dig up the gold and make their fortune. Trouble waits for them along the way, including a gang of ruthless bandits, but that’s just where their troubles begin. The trio soon begin to get very suspicious of each other and how much they can all trust each other. It soon boils down to a game of last man standing to determine who will get the gold and the fortune that goes along with it.
Like I said before, this is a pretty dark and cynical movie that certainly didn’t pander to audiences of the time period. Anyone who looks at the posters or trailer for this movie when it was first released could swear that The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was a straight up adventure story. Well, they’d be surprised to find out that it most certainly wasn’t. Jack Warner was very excited about this movie and gave writer and director John Huston complete control over his film, but Warner was also very concerned with how to market the movie once it was finished. This movie is more of a character study of Dobbs more than it is anything else, and at times, the film got pretty cerebral which was unexpected. A lot of the success of this movie, along with John Huston’s superb direction, can be associated with Humphrey Bogart’s thrilling performance.
Now, I’m going to say something that may sound pretty outrageous, but I’m not really that huge a fan of Humphrey Bogart. His acting in most things is pretty standard and I find him to be a little overrated. He pretty much plays the same range of character in any movie I’ve seen him in. Of course, the theme of this movie’s history can be titled “exceptions to the rule” and this is another one. Bogart is simply outstanding in his performance as Dobbs, a character who goes from one trouble to another and by the time the movie’s over, it’s all finally caught up and has become too much for him to handle. At first, Bogart plays the role pretty subtly, but as the story progresses, he lashes out more and more and becomes almost unrecognizable by the end. This is one of the finest character changes in this history of film, and it’s all thanks to Bogart’s ever changing demeanor and this rare time that he literally seemed to become somebody else entirely.
While The Treasure of the Sierra Madre isn’t an adventure movie per se, it does have it’s fair share of adventure. There’s plenty of shoot outs and tense interactions that give this movie some real excitement. It’s interesting to note that at the time this movie was being shot, it was relatively new for Hollywood film makers to shoot a film on location, especially when the location is as brutal as it was for this film. Some of these scenes were shot on back lots and in the studio, but a lot of the film was actually shot in the deserts of Arizona and Mexico. This made for a really grueling shoot filled with loaded tempers, but it all paid off in the end. Shooting this movie on location gives it a sense of realism that adds to the darker, more realistic tones of the movie as a whole. I couldn’t have seen it working as well as it did if it were all shot in studio.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a movie far ahead of its time that shares similar themes and characterizations that would become more known with movies of the 1970s. There’s plenty of adventure and entertainment stuffed in the story, but the most fun I had watching this movie was seeing an average character fall way too deep into his own head and become paranoid beyond repair. This film works best as a character study, but that doesn’t mean it can’t have thrills along the way. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre has certainly earned the right to be called a classic and named one of the best American films of all time.