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revisit: the treasure of the sierra madre (john huston, 1948)

Back when I made my Fave Fifty list, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was one of my last cuts (#55, to be exact). It has been five years since I’ve seen it, and it’s always possible my opinion of a film will change over time.

I might have even been actively searching for reasons to change my mind, but ultimately that wasn’t possible, for John Huston’s skills as director and writer (and B. Traven’s skill in writing the original novel) meant I couldn’t even distract myself on purpose. It really is a terrific movie.

Now, if I was going to find fault in 2014, I’d note that Alfonso Bedoya’s iconic bandit is still iconic, but the icon isn’t exactly a positive one. There are other Mexicans in the movie, not all of them banditos, but Bedoya is so delightfully, happily sinister that he is the Mexican you remember. There’s also something a bit creepy about the way in which Walter Huston’s Howard is seen as a miracle worker by the good rural Mexicans because he knows more first-aid than they do. The Great White Savior is another stereotypical icon we can do without. And there’s no use talking about the women in the movie, for they barely exist … this is a man’s man’s movie. The attitude towards women is best expressed when Howard says, “If I were you boys, I wouldn't talk or even think about women. T'aint good for your health.”

The story of the three prospectors is what has always made The Treasure of the Sierra Madre so good, and the casting for those prospectors is just right. Walter Huston got the Oscar, even if he hams it up a bit too much (hell, that’s probably why he got the Oscar). Tim Holt is the perfect balance for the excesses of the other two. And then there’s Bogart. I saw a documentary once … don’t remember the name, it might have been a TV documentary … it purported to show changes in America in the post-WWII era. At one point, we saw some of Bogart’s more memorable heroes and anti-heroes from the earlier 1940s, Rick from Casablanca being most obvious. Later, they showed Bogart as Fred C. Dobbs, his paranoia bubbling over into madness, as if Bogart, who had once been an idealized America everyman hero, continued to represent America in 1948: greedy, near-psychotic. It wasn’t a success at the box office, despite the three Oscars, despite the presence of Bogart. Many have assumed over time that it was Bogart who kept the audience at home … no one wanted to see their hero reduced to Fred C. Dobbs.

It’s Dobbs that keeps bringing me back for another viewing. The story is beautifully told, there is memorable dialogue, with the Stinking Badges lines having entered the Pop Pantheon. But what grabs me is the gradual disintegration of Fred C. Dobbs.#222 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. John Huston made many good movies, but I don’t think he made anything as good as Sierra Madre after he’d finished that classic. 10/10. For good-not-great John Huston movies that don’t get talked about much, try The Bible or The Man Who Would Be King.

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