Welcome to I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, my weekly article to prove that I have it in me to go from movie buff to film critic. With each column I try to better understand the art of filmmaking. As these can be longish discussions, spoilers follow. For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.
“I think I’ll go to sleep and dream about piles of gold gettin’ bigger and bigger and bigger…” – Fred C. Dobbs, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Tunnel vision rarely does a person good. In director John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the down-on-his-luck and single-minded Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) chases wealth at all costs. His growing desperation and greed lead him down a dark path, one that ends in violence, insanity, and death.
Beating a Huston-Bogart collaboration is hard to do. The two did arguably their finest work together, including this film, The Maltese Falcon, and The African Queen, among others.
Huston’s taught script forms the backbone of a crackerjack story, but it is Bogart and costars Tim Holt and Walter Huston (the director’s father) who drive home the themes.
Bogart in particular plays a character unlike any other in his oeuvre, a shaggy, miserable, and altogether desperate human being without many redeeming qualities. Gone from his performance is the breezy romanticism of his star making turn as Rick Blaine in Casablanca, and Treasure benefits all the more for it. Never mind the jaded seen-it-all-ism of Sam Spade; Dobbs has had it all done to him and he’s perpetually on the lookout for an escape from his troubles, however weaselly they may be.
Holt’s practical Curtin likes the money, but does not succumb to greed and violence like his friend. At times, he even appears to enjoy the work. This is not a life to hate; it may not be perfect, but he makes a lot of money doing something he doesn’t find so bad. Dobbs would be well served to take a look at his buddy.
Walter Huston’s Howard has reached the point of his life when he’s done railing against injustice. He could not care less about the money, but a chance for adventure? He needs something to live for, and finding action meets that need. The joy on Howard’s face at life itself gnaws at Dobbs, triggering his jealousy and desire to grab everything for himself.
John Huston’s abilities as a writer-director were already prodigious by the time he made Treasure. His debut film, The Maltese Falcon, is rightly considered one of the finest film noirs ever made, but it rarely finds itself in the open air. That film’s hotel rooms and offices create a sense of claustrophobia that makes a viewer worry about the key players’ safety. After The Maltese Falcon, he spent time making documentaries on the battlefields of World War II, which points toward the opening up of his style in Treasure, a moment that solidifies him as a great.
For a film made in 1948, that openness is striking. Location shooting, natural light, and local flavor are everywhere in the movie. While still utilizing multiple sets, Huston’s incorporation of real life elements shows an aesthetic that indicates the direction Hollywood would soon take with their trend of epics in the 1950s and ‘60s.
But those are just wonderfully rendered trappings. The film would be nothing without displaying Dobbs’s greed, that sniveling selfishness wholly absent from Bogart’s other work. The story works because of these characters and their slowly deteriorating relationships; a microcosm of human nature’s worst elements.