Jumping off from Friday’s post for the Icebox Movies John Huston blogathon, I’d like to talk about gold and the havoc it can wreak in a man’s soul. Yes, it’s Huston’s masterpiece The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) starring Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt (of Magnificent Ambersons fame), and Huston’s father Walter. I’m going to keep discussing the themes that pervaded Huston’s work, but today I’ll be narrowing myself down pretty tightly to Sierra Madre because, well, I have a lot to say about this movie. It’s probably my favorite of Huston’s (though The Maltese Falcon is a close second); it’s just a gritty, intense piece of genius. (And yes, this post is going under the long-dormant banner of “My Favorite Movies”; you can read all previous MFM posts here.) The plot is simple and familiar: three down-and-out gringos in Mexico City decide to give gold prospecting a shot. They set up camp, evade banditos and a nosy Texan, and make a going concern of it… but then Fred C. Dobbs (Bogart) starts fearing that his comrades are plotting against him.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is based on a novel by the enigmatic author B. Traven, who was probably an anarchist from Germany. These origins alone should suggest that this is not your average 1940s Warner Bros. production. It’s offbeat, misanthropic, violent, and falls in a curious nether region of genre – it’s neither a western nor a film noir, but has traces of both. Huston’s Mexico isn’t like, say, John Ford’s Wild West, which was still America, and still retained the same cultural norms and values as the fully civilized east. In Mexico, the three prospectors are foreigners and must fend for themselves without a civic community to depend on. When Dobbs repeatedly approaches a well-dressed tourist (John Huston) and begs for money on the basis of being “a fellow American,” the tourist grows weary and insists that he’ll have to make do on his own from then on. Mexico is a place where relationships must be born anew, regardless of shared nationality.
Mexico, for the purposes of the film, is a wilderness.1 When Dobbs and Curtin (Holt) are scammed out of their pay by Pat McCormick (Barton Maclane), they don’t turn to the government; they beat the shit out of him themselves, and then take what they’re owed. The film’s premise is that three men develop a small community out of a mutual interest. But this community only functions at all because of all their safeguards and compromises. When they’re figuring out who should guard the gold, Howard (the elder Huston), the old man, declares himself “the most trustworthy” – not because he’s honest, but because he couldn’t possibly get away without the two younger men catching him. Compare this to the deals made between Peachy and Dravot in The Man Who Would Be King. Whether in central Asia or Mexico, there’s no higher power to enforce the terms of their compacts. Once an individual stops following the self-instituted rules of the group, everything – be it a bizarrely mystical monarchy or a prospecting operation – quickly falls apart.
In this case, what triggers the group’s collapse is Dobbs’ pathological paranoia. Although it only explicitly manifests itself about halfway through, we get subtle hints about his unstable, immature personality early in the film. He’s eager to gloat about whatever he can, be it a winning lottery ticket or killing more banditos than either of his compatriots. Howard quietly takes not of these little displays, and they give way directly into Dobbs’ all-encompassing mistrust as the film progresses. It’s most obvious when he first sees gold: with lust in his eyes, he says, “It don’t glitter. I thought it would glitter?” It’s only a matter of time before he grows so protective that he’ll resort to murder. His interactions with Cody, the intrusive Texan, reveal this steady decline; while Curtin and Howard sit and listen to Cody, Dobbs circles around him, babbling about how they want him to leave. As Dobbs slowly cracks up, the audience’s identification with him bleeds away, and as the role of protagonist shifts from him to Curtin, Dobbs becomes at once something darker and greater.
Bogart’s performance really is incredible, especially because of how radically different Dobbs is from iconic characters like Rick Blaine or Philip Marlowe. Those men were self-assured, discreet, and experienced; Dobbs is a greenhorn2 who needs to prove himself in terms of skill and intelligence. And although he exhibits his tragic flaws from the start – just look at his treatment of Pat McCormick as anticipating his ultimate breakdown – he’s still easy to like, since he’s just a poverty-stricken everyguy who just wants to eat. But for all Bogart’s finesse and fluidity, it’s Walter Huston who drives the movie. When he first appears in the Oso Negro (which is basically a homeless shelter), he’s like a feisty leprechaun talking about a rainbow he’s got stashed away. He’s fast-talking but sincere, with an edge of diabolical charm left over from The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941). He could be a former con man, or a street preacher gone apostate.
He overflows with charisma, energy, wisdom, and the sardonic humor that fills so many of his son’s films. He’s also weirdly self-aware, sometimes overacting in a calculated way, as if Howard is intentionally giving a performance – just look at his famously manic jig for an example. And toward the end of the film, while he’s being cared for by a Mexican woman, Howard glances up at the camera for a moment. It’s an unexpected nod to the fourth wall, perhaps signaling the character’s overarching comprehension of how the universe works.3 Howard knows about greed, fate, and the absurdity of life. In the end, as he tells Curtin, it’s best just to laugh at the cosmic joke that’s been played on them. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre abounds with noir-like fatalism, but this reaction – laughing at the caprices of God or destiny or whoever – is unusual, and the sheer abandon with which Howard laughs makes the ending even more disturbingly bleak.
Still, this laughter is a mark of wisdom in John Huston’s Mexico. At least it’s preferable to the futile rebellion of Roslyn at the end of The Misfits, or the alcoholic silence that clouds the end of Fat City. It’s comparable, though, to the plucky resignation of Caspar Gutman when he realizes the falcon is a fake, or that of Doc Riedenschneider in The Asphalt Jungle as he’s quietly recaptured. In John Huston’s films, you can’t win. But you might as well join in the fun that fate’s having at your expense. After partaking in a long, hearty laugh, Curtin and Howard decide to make their own futures, independent of their past suffering and loss. Howard has a cozy position as witch doctor; Curtin’s off to Cody’s widow in Dallas. In Huston’s films, the past is an anchor that keeps you from moving ahead. The Misfits‘ Pilot and his dead wife or Fat City‘s Billy with his lost dreams of greatness are just two examples. Sure, Sam Spade could’ve dwelt on his partner’s death, but he knew it would be of no consequence. Curtin and Howard don’t brood on their failure; they just walk away. In Huston’s films, that’s the best you can do.
As a final note, let me comment on the intriguing relationship between man and nature in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. This is one of Huston’s great obsessions; he was, after all, an avid outdoorsman. After Dobbs thinks he’s killed Curtin, we get this great moment where he’s searching for Curtin’s body, and it’s not there. He concludes that a tiger must’ve dragged it away, and then remarks with awe, “Done as if by order!” In this film, it’s always uncertain whether nature is working in tandem with the men, against them, or just randomly. The dust storm that consumes the gold would imply an antagonistic relationship, but it also recalls the conversation when the men are leaving the Sierra Madre itself. “You talk about that mountain as if she was a real woman,” says Curtin, and Howard replies, “She’s been a lot better to me than any woman I ever knew.”
I love this exchange, because it lays out the connection between these men and their environment in humanized and gendered terms. The men thank the mountain for its bounty, but, as Howard admits, “we wounded this mountain,” just so they could mine its resources. The mountain clearly has no ability to consent in the matter, yet they show gratitude. When you consider that Sierra Madre means “mother range,” a darkly oedipal reading of the scene emerges. In a film with no women, the process of extracting the gold itself is a displacement of the prospectors’ sex drives. In Fat City, the manager Ruben complains that his boxers waste their energy through, among other pursuits, marriage; similarly, Howard warns his associates, “if I were you boys, I wouldn’t talk or even think about women,” when metaphorically, that’s just what they’ve been doing the entire time. Thus, Dobbs’ excessive lust for gold is on some level a redirection of other excessive lusts. It’s an elided sexual dysfunction that’s just perfect for the Production Code era.
In adapting Traven’s novel, Huston loaded up the image of the gold prospector – a Horatio Alger get-rich-quick myth of the American west – with distinctly modern perversions, confusions, and absurdities. He told a story of three men who must make their own laws and mores, even if it means collectively killing an intruder,4 and are locked together in mutual dependence until they can trade in the gold. It’s also a story about self-definition. After Cody is shot by banditos, the men rush over and Howard says, “I wonder who he is?” This question can be applied to all the characters in Huston’s films. And tragically, Dobbs identifies himself only in relation to the treasure he so desperately desires. With its small but powerful cast, its immersion in the “uncivilized” strangeness of Mexico, and its revelations of how thoroughly gold can change a man, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of my favorite movies.
1 Huston’s use of Mexico clearly influenced Sam Peckinpah films like The Wild Bunch (1969) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1975). In the latter film, the money-hungry protagonist even uses the pseudonym “Fred C. Dobbs.”
2 Just look at the scene where Dobbs wastes plenty of water on what is actually fool’s gold.
3 And, for that matter, a Shadow-like knowledge of what evil lurks in the hearts of men.
4 Their attempt to simultaneously shoot Cody is just a microcosmic example of capital punishment – murder by the state.