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The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – Review

16 Aug

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.

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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.

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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.

Chinatown – Review

7 Apr

Throughout the 1930s and the 1940s, film noir was a major genre/style in Hollywood. It was so influential that even after the height of its time, there were still film makers who were eager to implement its style and themes into their own films. Probably the most iconic neo-noir film to ever be made is Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, released in 1974. With hard lighting, a twist on the femme fatale, and an anti-hero that would stand the tests of time, Chinatown wasn’t just an experiment to see if the genre could hold up thirty years after its peak, but it was also a brilliant film that is remembered today as a classic.

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J.J. Gittes (Jack Nocholson) is a private investigator hired to figure out if Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling) is cheating on his wife. After the news story and Gittes’ photographs end up on the front page of the newspaper, he sets out to uncover why this has garnered such media attention, but soon learns that Hollis has been found dead in a reservoir, presumably having drowned. The real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) soon approaches Gittes with the intent to press charges after the story leaked into the newspaper, but soon decides to help him with his own personal investigation into the death of Hollis Mulwray. What Gittes uncovers, however, could never have been expected with a web of deceit and corruption that has links to L.A’s water supply, familial abuse, and thousands of acres of land that are worth millions.

It’s very easy to watch Chinatown and picture it as a black and white noir film from the 1940s, but the fact remains that it is from 1974 and there are elements from it that would never fly 30 years earlier from when it was made. Much like how Sam Peckinpah’s film The Wild Bunch could be considered an anti-Western, Chinatown could be considered an anti-noir. That’s not just because there are things in the story that never would have been allowed with the code that was established in the early days of Hollywood, but also because there are certain plot points that would have been very unconventional for the times to the point that audiences would have been quite disturbed. Instead of calling it an “anti-noir” it would be more appropriate to call it a “revisionist noir.” Revisionist movies were actually very popular in the late 1960s and early 1970s because the film makers took genre conventions, flipped them upside down, and made their own films that would redefine Hollywood in the years to come.

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It may seem pretty obvious to say that the performances in this movie are all fantastic. Looking at the credits of talent that are in this film, it should really go without saying with Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston. Even though the acting is all top notch, Chinatown is really a victory for the screenwriter, Robert Towne. It’s not everyday that I watch a movie and just get completely blown away by how masterful the screenplay is written. Throughout the entire run time of this movie, I was being twisted, turned, dragged, and mislead with Gittes always one step ahead of me. Even when the plot was starting to thicken, it felt like a seamless transition and I never felt like I was being jolted out of place.

After saying how excellent the screenplay is, I still need to touch on Roman Polanski’s expert direction. Recently I’ve reviewed Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion, but Chinatown really takes it to a whole other level. One thing that really stuck out to me was the use of long takes while shots of dialogue were being filmed. Instead of cutting up a scene, Polanski would let the camera run, catching the actors in these long bits of dialogue that really got to show just how good they really were. Meanwhile, cinematographer John A. Alonzo, who went on to be the cinematographer on Scarface, made sure that the lighting was exactly right and hearken back to the golden age of cinema where detectives were the only thing keeping big cities safe from sadistic murderers.

Chinatown is one of those movies straight out of film history that will exceed your expectations. It’s easy to call a movie a classic, but it’s not quite as simple to explain why it is a classic. This film is a classic because it takes from the old and makes it feel completely new, while exploring themes of big business and corruption that were way ahead of its time. Add in some excellent performances, direction, and writing and you got yourself a movie that will never be forgotten. If you haven’t gotten the chance to see Chinatown, make sure you see it, maybe even more than once.