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The Treasure of The Sierra Madre

Directed by John Huston and starring Walter Huston, Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt, Bruce Bennett and Barton Maclane, 126 minutes, black and white, 1948

DVD cover

"Stinkin badges!"

 

By Carter B. Horsley

"The Treasure of The Sierra Madre" is a depressing tale of desperate men in a desolate environment: survival ain't easy and not always nice.

The 1948 film was based on a 1936 book by B. Traven, one of the great mysterious men of 20th Century letters whose real name supposedly was Berwick Traven Torsvan.

It was directed by John Huston and starred his father, Walter Huston, Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt.

Walter Huston dancing a dusty jig

Walter Huston dancing a dusty jig

John Huston had directed Bogart before in "The Maltese Falcon" and "Across the Pacific" and "Key Largo" and would direct him again later in "Beat The Devil" and "The African Queen." They were a natural pair of crusty middle-aged men not quite over the hill and crazy enough not to care. Bogart should have won the Academy Award for his gutsy performance as a craven, cantankerous coward and greedy madman, but probably lost because the movie is "stolen" by Walter Huston whose brief jig in the middle of the movie is one of the most joyous moments in the history of film.

Walter Huston, as Howard, had been a leading man in the movies and is well remembered for his very popular rendition of "The September Song" and for his brief appearance in "The Matlese Falcon" when he delivers the "black bird" to Sam Spade's office and then dies. In this film, he is the fount of knowledge, experience, goodness and reason, while Bogart, as Fred C. Dobbs, is the incarnation of paranoia, avarice, stupidity and evil.

John Huston wrote the screenplay for which he won an Oscar. He also won the Oscar for best director and Walter Huston won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. The Best Movie Oscar that year went to "Hamlet" with Laurence Olivier.

As the movie begins, a scruffy Dobbs is down and out in a small, dusty Mexican town. He asks a well-dressed American for money and gets a coin with whim he gets a meal, coffee and cigarettes and buys a lottery ticket from a young boy just so he doesn't "have to look at" his "ugly face." He then strikes up a conversation with another out-of-work American, Curtin, played by Tim Holt. In his fine and lengthy review of the film, Tim Dirks notes that Dobbs laments that a white grino without work is doomed to lower-class status," adding "it's some town to be broke in."

Dobbs see his recent "patron" and successfully approaches him again for another coin with which he gets a shave and a haircut and then longingly eyes, according to Mr. Dirks, "a passing Mexican lady/prostitute? (an unlikely, unbilled appearance by actress Ann Sheridan)."

Dobbs then begs for some money from another man, Pat McCormick played by Barton MacLane, who offers him a construction job with an oil-rigging concern. Dobbs then discovers that his new acquaintance, Curtin, is also a member of the work gang and they toil together at the job for about two weeks. When they go to get their pay, however, McCormick gives then only ten pesos as an advance and promises to meet them later with their full pay.

McCormick does not appear and Dobbs and Curtin then run into Howard extolling about gold to a few men: "Never knew a prospector yet that died rich. Make one fortune, you're sure to blow it in trying to find another. I'm no exception to the rule. Aw sure. I'm an odd old bone now, but say, don't you guys think the spirit's gone. I'm all set to shoulder a pickax and a shovel anytime anybody's willing to share expenses. I'd rather go by myself. Going it alone's the best way. But you got to have a stomach for loneliness. Some guys go nutty with it. On the other hand, going with a partner or two is dangerous. Murder's always lurkin' about. Partners accusing each other of all sorts of crimes. Aw, as long as there's no find, the noble brotherhood will last, but when the piles of gold begin to grow, that's when the trouble starts."

Later, Dobbs tells Curtin that "gold don't carry any curse with it," adding that "gold be as much of a blessing as a curse."

The next day, they run into McCormick and demand their pay. He claims he hasn't been paid for the contract yet and tries to entice them into working on another job. They demand their money and McCormick strikes Curtin with a bottle and almost gets away but finally succumbs to a beating and Dobbs and Curtin find money in his wallet and take what they are owed and fling the rest on the floor. They discuss going prospecting for gold and Curtin muses that they "might have real use for an experienced guy like that old-time" and Dobbs agrees, urging that they "hunt him up right away."

They find Howard and he agrees to join them but warns that "meat's one thing and bandits another," adding that "bandit country is where we'll be going. We ought to have six hundred bucks between us." Dobbs and Curtin have $150 each and Howard has $200 and Dobbs's hopes begin to fade but the boy who sold him a lottery ticket then recognizes him and tells him his ticket won 200 pesos and they set off on a train to "where there's no trails at all - where you can be positive that no surveyor or anybody who knows anything about prospectin' has ever been there before."

The train, however, is then attacked by bandits, led by Gold Hat, played by Alfonso Bedoya). Dobbs and Curtin and Howard shoot at the bandits who eventually are driven off.

They get off the train at Durango and pick up supplies and some burros and set off towards the distant mountains. After a few days, Dobbs and Curtin are exhausted, bedraggled and frustrated as well as amazed at Howard's stamina. Howard makes fun of them and Dobbs tells him to shut up or he'll smash his head. "Go ahead," Howard replies, adding that if he did, "You'd never leave this wilderness alive; without me, you two would die here more miserable than rats." Curtin tells Dobbs to leave Howard along: "Can't you see the old man nuts?"

They move on and eventually Howard tells them that they've found some gold and they build a sluice and work hard at gathering up as much gold dust as they can carry.

In the mine one day, Dobbs is trapped and hurt when the ceiling collapses and is pulled out by Curtin. Dobbs tells him he owes him his life "partner" and Curtin replies "forget it."

At night, they tell each other their plans. Howard reckons he "settle down in some quiet place" and "spend the better part of my time readin' comic strips and adventure stories. Curtin says he plans to buy some land and grow fruit. Dobbs states that "first off, I'm going to a Turkish bath and I'm gonna sweat and soak till I get all the grime and dirt out of my system. Then I'm going to a haberdasher's and I'm gonna get myself a brand new set of duds...a dozen of everything. Then, I'm going to a swell cafe - order everything on the bill of fare, and if it ain't just right, or maybe even if it is, I'm gonna bawl the wait out and make him take the whole thing back."

Howard tells them they should pull out when their shares are worth about $25,000 but Dobbs protests that he is young: "I need dough and plenty of it."

Dobbs argues that he should get a bigger share because he put in more and Curtin measures out part of his gold and gives it to Dobbs who then flings it into the fire proclaiming that he "just don't like being called a hog!"

Dobbs's paranoia mounts: "You can't catch me sleepin'"

Curtin goes into town to get provisions and witnesses some Federal troops execute some bandits. He is followed into the general story by a tall American stranger named Cody, played by Bruce Bennett. Curtin tries to pretend he's a hunter, but Bennett suspects he's seeking "pay dirt" and proposes that he join him, but Curtin turns him down.

When Curtin returns to the camp, he tells the others he thinks he has been followed and that Cody will probably show up soon and, sure enough, Cody appears only to be told by Dobbs that "We're full up, no vacancies." Dobbs offer Cody beans but tells him to leave in the morning. Cody, however, insists on staying, Howard is tempted to let him join the group but Dobbs says he's not "a guy likes bein' taken advantage of - do the mug in, I say." Curtin reluctantly sides with Dobbs and as they approach him to kill him Cody warns them that bandits are approaching.

The bandits are led by Gold Hat and he tells Dobbs that "we are Federales" and Dobbs asks "if you're the police, where are your badges? Gold Hat replies: "Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges. I don't have to show you any stinkin' badges!"

A gun fight ensues and Cody is killed but the bandits depart when they hear the arrival of the Federales. Howard finds a letter in Cody's clothes from his wife and reads it and Howard, Curtin and even Dobbs are moved by it. They decided to leave but not before Howard encourages them to "put the mountain back in shape": "we've wounded this mountain and it's our duty to close her wounds."

Curtin decides that he will give Cody's widow and son a "partner's fourth" and Howard agrees, but Dobbs protests that "you two guys must've been born in a revival meeting."

Some natives then approach them and believe that grizzly old Howard is a medicine man and ask him to return to their village to tend to a dying boy. Howard agrees and asks Dobbs and Curtin to look after his goods and gold until he returns. He revives the boy and rejoins his partners but the natives return to invite them back to the village. Dobbs declines but Howard agrees.

Dobbs and Curtin squabble and Curtin objects to Dobbs's plan to take Howard's gold and go north rather than back to Durango. Dobbs pulls his gun on Curtin but Curtin disarms him and empties his gun of bullets and suggests they part ways in the morning and Dobbs bets him he will fall asleep before he does. Dobbs shoots Curtin and then wonders whether he really killed him. Curtin is wounded badly but escapes and is found by some Indians. Dobbs can't find Curtin's body the next morning and thinks maybe a "tiger must have dragged him off to his lair."

Curtin is brought to the village where Howard is now highly honored and Curtin indicates he wants revenge.

Howard, however, says that he reckons "we can't blame him too much." "He's not a real killer as killers go. I think he's as honest as the next fella - or almost. The big mistake was leaving you two fellas out there in the depths of the wildnerness with more'n a hundred thousand between ya. That's a might temptation, partner, believe me. Maybe if I'd been young and been out there with either one of you, I might have been tempted too."

Howard and Curtin ride off in pursuit of Dobbs who has stopped at a waterhole only to be confronted by Gold Hat and some of his gang. Gold Hat asks if he is along and Dobbs says his friends are coming. Dobbs draws his gun and tries to shoot Gold Hat but there are no bullets in the gun and he is killed and stripped and the pack mules run off and when they are caught the bandits tear open the sacks and let the dust fall the ground. They do not realize it is gold dust and take the mules to Durango to try to sell them only to be recognized and caught by the Federales just as Howard and Curtin arrive. They are told that the bandits mistook the gold for sand and left it on the ground not far away. They rush to the place only to realize that a wind storm has made recovery impossible.

"Oh laugh, Curtin, old boy. It's a great joke played on us by the Lord, or rate, or nature, whatever you prefer. But whoever or whatever played it certainly had a sense of humor. Ha! The gold has gone back to where we found it! This is worth ten months of suffering and labor!"

"The worst ain't so bad when it finally happens," Curtin says and Howard asks Curtin to take his left-over money and give it to Cody's widow as he now plans to return to the Indian village and be worshipped.

While the film obviously is a classic study in greed and paranoia as well as the impatience and inexperience of youth and the wily wisdom of the elderly, it is also a story about love and redemption and chance and the fickleness of fate. Everything in the film is first rate: the story and its plot twists, the direction, the cinematography and the acting.

This film, which ranked 30th in the 2005 American Film Institute list of the Top 100 Movies, is ranked 54th in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films and 65th in the Top 250 list of the Internet Movie Data Base as of December 10, 2010.

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