"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Warner Bros 1948)

What a treasure


Whether this film is a Western is open to debate. Set in Mexico in 1925, it does not fulfill the purists’ criteria but it is nevertheless often regarded as one. It deals with men in the great outdoors battling with bandits and each other and using guns to do it, so that's pretty Western. But Western or not, it’s a truly great movie.

Mexican settings finely photographed by Ted McCord in a glowing black & white combine with an outstanding screenplay by John Huston, who worked the basic B Traven novel, with its Marxist theme of the evils and final futility of capitalism, into a subtle, powerful, riveting script, to make this film into a magnificent picture. If you add to that outstandingly good acting, you are close to a masterpiece.

The pick of the actors is undoubtedly the director’s father, Walter Huston as ‘Pops’ Howard, the grizzly old timer who leads the greenhorns Fred C Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart in one of his finest ever roles) and Curtin (former juvenile cowboy star, now Pavarotti-lookalike Tim Holt) out into the Sierra Madre bandit country between Tampico (where the story starts) and Durango to look for gold. They find it. But the point of the tale is that wealth picked up from the ground is never free and causes more evil than good.

Huston père is magnificent: wise, wily, witty. Holt does a surprisingly good job (who knew he could act?) as the basically decent Curtin (who nevertheless votes to kill the stranger) and Bogie is superb as a paranoiac gradually descending into madness and violence. There are some terrific supporting actors too, such as Alfonso Bedoya as the unforgettable smiling bandit chief, ex-Tarzan Bruce Bennett as the shrewd but unlucky interloper (a role first slated for Ronald Reagan), Western expert Robert Blake (then only 13) as the boy who sells the lottery ticket and the director, Huston fils, who appears in an almost Hitchcockesque cameo (directed by Bogart) as an American in a white suit. Great stuff.

The film is curiously prudish even for the late 40s. All the deaths happen discreetly off screen. In the book Dobbs is decapitated but in the movie we only see him fall behind a mule and a machete descend. Similarly, the firing squad victims are tucked away out of sight and only a sombrero rolls across our sight as the volley rings out.

There are some great touches such as the toothpicks stuck in Bogart’s manky hatband. There’s a very modern eco-message as Pops insists that they repair the mountain after they have extracted the gold.

The Max Steiner music is OK, although there are annoying Hollywood angels when the old man brings the Indian child back to life. The ending is maybe too ‘happy’ as Pops goes off to a life of luxury in the Indian village and Curtin to find the widow with the peach orchard. But these are niggles.

The movie won three Oscars and was nominated for Best Picture. Rightly. John Huston won an award both for the direction and the writing. His dad was best supporting actor. No other father-and-son team has done that. It was Budd Boetticher’s favorite Western so that has to mean something.

Brian Garfield wrote, “It is one of the very few genuine works of art in the Western movie genre.” That puts it up there with The Searchers or Bad Day at Black Rock. 5 revolvers, pards.


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