Tre Mand Søger Guld
How often do you see the leading actor of a movie be transformed from likable to tough guy to paranoid lunatic and finally die? Not that often I gather. But this is exactly what happens to Humphrey Bogart in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre from 1948. Bogart had made a name for himself up through the 40’ies as a tough, but fundamentally good guy in movies such as “The Maltese Falcon”, “Casablanca” and “The Big Sleep” and to see him fall to pieces as Fred C. Dobbs (Dobbsie) in “The Treasure…” must have been a near-traumatic experience for many moviegoers in its day. Yet Bogart was not unfamiliar with these roles. He started out as badass villain in movies such as “The Petrified Forest” and was part of Warner’s list of usual suspects. To see him return to scum was almost like watching him come home. He was an excellent villain.
“The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” was a ground breaking movie in several ways, not just for destroying its “hero”. As something entirely new it was filmed almost entirely outside the US on location in Mexico. Imagine this is a time where moving out of the sound studio and into the street was considered a daring move, which could usually be avoided with some back projection in the studio. But John Huston took his entire crew into the field and outback of Mexico and was rewarded with a gritty and dusty and most importantly an authentic feel. You can almost smell the grimy sweat of these characters and seeing real Mexican villages makes you wonder why anybody would put up with a studio creation. I have Huston suspected of watching some Italian neo-realism and wanting that same feeling of authenticity, but more likely it is simply a natural consequence of his general move towards on-location filming in his westerns and since this takes place in Mexico, well, that is where he had to go.
Huston also managed to spend some 3 million dollars on this film. A truly staggering sum of money in 48 and the studio, when they saw the result, thought the movie was doomed to absolute disaster. However everybody else seemed to like it and the movie earned itself back and was awarded 3 Academy awards (Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Direction and Best Supporting Actor (Walter Huston). I understand why. This is a great movie.
We start out following Bogart’s Dobbs bumming it in Tampico, Mexico in 1925. He is not alone there. Apparently there is an entire colony of expats bumming it in Mexico looking for odd jobs (there is a strangely familiar ring to that…) and he meets Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) and so they bum it together. At this point Dobbs may be gruff and useless, but he is not unlikeable and the way the camera follows him we understand that this story is centered on him. Curtin is merely a sidekick.
At the cheap dorm, they are staying at, they overhear an old man talking about prospecting for gold. This is no other than Walter Huston, John Huston’s father as old man Howard. He has been digging gold everywhere. Found it and lost it probably several times and gained an expert knowledge on prospecting. Now he is looking for someone to join him on one final attempt at striking gold. Dobbs and Curtin are game and with a lottery ticket win they are stocked and ready to head into the wilderness of the Sierra Madre.
What happens next is a sort of “Lord of the Flies” for adults. The three men leave civilization to live in a place where they only have themselves for company. Left to the rigors of the mountains their true characters start to reveal themselves. Curtin is the positive dreamer. He is looking for something, but do not know what, and through the experience in the mountain he gains integrity and confidence to reach out for that dreamy goal. Howard may start out as the natural leader with his massive experience, but it is his human skills as a diplomat we get to see. He understands people, not least his two companions and he becomes the oil that make this entire venture work. Without him Dobbs and Curtin would simply have imploded.
Dobbs is also developing, but entirely the other way. He develops a paranoid streak that only gets worse as their hoard of gold grows taller. It is obviously a trait that has been dormant with him for a while, but the stress and the loneliness triggers it and makes him see his partners as competitors rather than allies. He start to talk with himself and gradually sinks into a world where everybody is out to get him and his gold. Where the two other characters evolve Dobbs is consumed.
This is hard to watch. We do not like such behavior from Bogie, but without being able to say exactly where we realize that the biggest threat to this expedition is not bandits, competitors or starvation, but the gold itself, or rather the influence it has on Dobbs and he has become the villain. It is a very interesting and smart move, but also gutsy. If this is not handled well you risk losing your audience. But Huston plays his cards exactly right. Curtin and Howard are the men worth rooting for in the end and, when we have finally accepted Dobbs deroute, it is a joy to watch Bogart’s acting.
It was, however, not Bogart who got an acting Oscar, but Walter Huston and the reason must be that Bogart was billed as the lead actor and therefore not eligible as supporting act. I would have had a hard time choosing between these two. Do not get me wrong, Huston’s Howard is marvelous and a bliss to watch and listen to, but put a gun to my head and I would pick Bogie. Dammit he is good.
The theme of the movie is not so hard to decode. The treasure of the mountains is not the real goal, but merely the challenge to send the character on the voyage towards their real life’s goal. Material wealth is empty and corruptive while the social wealth in relation to other people is the real treasure at the end of the rainbow. It is a very banal story, but this retelling of it is damn good.