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Beyond the Usual Suspects

As everyone knows, Casablanca is an eminently quotable movie. Some of its lines—“Play it [again], Sam,” “Here’s looking at you, kid,” “We’ll always have Paris”—have permeated our cultural consciousness. I say “Round up,” you say “the usual suspects.” I say “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world,” and you know exactly which one she walks into. It is, if you’ll excuse the understatement, a well-written movie. So I figured, why not delve further into that rich screenplay and single out a few of its less oft-quoted lines? Below are five of my favorite moments from Casablanca.

I’m a drunkard.

This, in response to Major Strasser’s question “What is your nationality?” I’m a fan of this whole conversation, really. I love how Rick and Strasser lob quips back and forth over champagne and caviar, suggesting an atmosphere of bourgeois politeness belied by the contempt in both men’s voices. (Captain Renault steps between them, as always, with a dose of healthy good humor: “And that makes Rick a citizen of the world!”) This first answer, characteristic of the film’s dialogue, is double-edged: playful, a little expository, and a little melancholy too. Beneath this joke lies the painful truth that Rick’s a man without a country, a man who’s tried to blot out his every allegiance with alcohol. (By the way, I also love that spidery shadow on the wall behind Rick, courtesy of the huge lamps hanging throughout his café.)

I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.

The parallel structure gives this line a captivating rhythm. This is wistful storytelling with a dash of poetry—and humor too, given the incongruity of Ilsa’s dress next to the feldgrau Nazi uniforms. It’s so concise, distilling the agonies of wartime romance into a pair of opposed colors while priming us for Rick’s forthcoming flashback. Bogart delivers it all with a slouch, a restrained scowl, and as much bitterness as he can fit into his voice without being obvious about it. Whereas Ingrid Bergman is always lit for maximum glamour, the light on Bogart ensures that we see every scar and crease in his wounded face. He’s vulnerable in spite of himself. Rick keeps striking this pose of mild antagonism toward the rest of the world but you can tell here that his stoicism is breaking.

Mostly I remember the last one. The wow finish: a guy standing on a station platform in the rain with a comical look on his face because his insides have been kicked out.

We’re getting toward the bottom of the bottle with this third flavor of boozy self-pity. Although Casablanca is most remembered for its snappiest lines, the film has its share of monologues, too. Here Bogart rattles off his side of the story, bouncing through the words while near-invisibly tilting his head from side to side, then punctuating the speech with a swig of bourbon. This delivery as well as the dialogue’s wealth of prepositions (on, in, with, on) lend it an almost musical quality, which contrasts with the low, sour rumble of his voice. Not to mention the phrase “wow finish,” the kind of thing a screenwriter would say during a pitch meeting. All of these tonal wrinkles work together with the shot’s visual flair—its moody chiaroscuro, the smoke drifting up from the cigarette between Bogart’s fingers—to make what could’ve been a rote “guy bitching about past heartbreak” scene into something sly and artful.

I’m shocked, shocked to find out that gambling is going on in here!

Although I’ve primarily been highlighting Rick’s best lines in Casablanca, I’d be remiss if I didn’t cite something from Claude Rains’ Captain Renault, who seems to communicate entirely in hilarious bon mots. (Like “I’m only a poor corrupt official,” for example, or “That [my heart] is my least vulnerable spot.”) Here he’s at his most sublimely hypocritical, and Rains really sells it with his too-imperious delivery. A riotous punchline follows (“Your winnings, sir!” / “Oh, thank you, very much”) but the line’s still unforgettable on its own, and especially quotable thanks to the doth-protest-too-much quality of that second “shocked.” It’s Renault’s slimy yet endearing personal philosophy summed up in a single ridiculous sentence.

If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.

Kind of says it all, doesn’t it? That Rick’s making a sacrifice, that Ilsa’s facing a moral decision, and that the consequences of her decision will echo throughout the years to come. It’s just the two of them now, cloaked by fog, forced to finally resolve this love triangle. (A brilliantly crafted triangle, incidentally, that’s informed but never constrained by its wartime context.) Yet again, Bogart invests his dialogue with poetic meter, that bounce in his leathery voice. His every gift is bent toward persuading her to leave. Because while the act of letting go may be painful, it’s also cathartic, and by making the harder choice Rick’s gained a wisdom that lights up this line. This isn’t mere moralizing. It’s a rough-hewn love song in the form of a compromise.

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Bogart in Hell

I will pray to an avenging God and an unmerciful devil to tear my heart out, and roast it over the flames of sulfur. And lastly, may my soul be given into torment, that my body be submerged into molten metal, and stifled in the flames of hell. And that this punishment may be meted out to me through all eternity. In the name of God, our creator, amen.

This concludes Humphrey Bogart’s oath to join the Klan-like title society in Black Legion (1937). The film itself is typical of Warner Brothers’ working-class stories, told with the narrative rhythms of a “Crime Doesn’t Pay” short expanded to feature-length. But it’s also unusually intense: what other movie has its star promise to consign his soul to hell if he fails to uphold a white supremacist agenda? It’s suffused with a ripped-from-the-headlines immediacy, a Samuel Fuller-ish bluntness, that really makes it stick in my head. And wow, the intensity of that oath!

Bogart plays Frank Taylor, the schmucky, sour-faced patriarch of a Middle American family. The pressures of being a Depression-era breadwinner, it seems, have burdened Frank with free-floating resentment. But when he gets passed over for a promotion in favor a better-qualified coworker (of Polish extraction!), the resentment quickly finds a target: those fucking immigrants. Deep down, Frank’s a good guy; we know this because he has a sweet, loving wife and son. But his economic shackles, with the aid of some inflammatory rhetoric, harden his heart. He joins up to “protect his home and family”—i.e., become a race-obsessed domestic terrorist.

That’s where the oath comes in. Bogart gets dragged, like a humble frat house pledge, into a desolate field. By the light of a bonfire, surrounded by dozens of his robed comrades, he recites a rambling, pseudo-religious script: “In the name of God and the devil, one to reward and the other to punish, and by the powers of light and darkness, good and evil…” Yes, he wants to be a member, but he’s still intimidated by all this nocturnal pomp and circumstance; as the only one whose face is visible, he’s still technically an outsider. (The superfluous gun pointed at his head sure doesn’t help.)

The oath itself is pompous and grammatically messy, full of redundant flourishes like the refrain of “my heart, my brain, my body, and my limbs…” Bogart plows through its ten-dollar words with his proletarian New York accent, stumbling over “extermination” and “hierarchy” but carrying tremulously on. It takes two straight minutes to read. At the end he’s tense, exhausted, and beyond the spiritual threshold. He’s signed his soul over to racist hatred. No one can save him now.

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The Foxy Grey Fox

By Andreas

Howard Hawks mystifies me. A former pilot and avid outdoorsman, Hollywood’s “Grey Fox” was tight-lipped in interviews and is popularly viewed as the poster child for Hollywood classicism. By and large, his movies are old-fashioned genre fare about teams of professionals in tough situations (a synopsis that covers 4/5 of the movies on this list). Whereas some filmmakers give me an impression of flamboyance or eccentricity, Hawks feels vanilla and taciturn—the strong silent type.

But this vague sketch is totally insufficient when it comes to Hawks’s films. I’d rank his masterpieces alongside those of his modernist collaborators, like Hemingway and Faulkner; they’re sublime works of art made by an utter genius. Clearly, more was going on beneath the surface than Hawks chose to give away. This extends to the realm of sexuality: on the surface, Hawks was just a thrice-married heterosexual filmmaker who specialized in action/adventure movies. But buried in his work were strange, compelling sexual undercurrents. I’ve already discussed the queerness of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, so here are a few other Hawks films with surprisingly sexy moments…

Throughout Hawks’s gangster classic Scarface (1932), anti-hero Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) is pretty preoccupied with the sexual comings and goings of his sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak). He slaps her around for daring to dance with other men, and is consistently abusive and controlling. Yet in the film’s last scene, as he’s holed up in his steel-shuttered bunker and surrounded on all sides by cops, Cesca is there for him. When he asks why she didn’t kill him (he did murder the man she loved, after all), she explains that it’s “because you’re me, and I’m you.” This scene blazes with incestuous tension, and when Cesca dies moments later, it does not play as a brother/sister death scene. “I’m no good without you,” says Tony as his sister breathes her last. It’s pretty obvious what he means.

As Sugarpuss O’Shea in Ball of Fire (1941), co-written by Billy Wilder, Barbara Stanwyck is a firecracker of compressed libido. She’s a stripper on the lam who stumbles upon a coven of academics working on an encyclopedia, and decides to tap into their latent desires… especially those of the lanky, sexually unaware Bertrand Potts (Gary Cooper). He’s an easy mark, as Sugarpuss introduces him to the wonders of “yum yum,” a slang term that becomes a running joke. You get one guess about who gives the film its title. (1941 also saw Stanwyck seducing the professorial Henry Fonda in Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve, which is a better film and contains a hotter seduction.)

Hawks had the rare privilege of working with Hollywood’s hottest couple twice, first in To Have and Have Not (1944) and then in his noir masterpiece The Big Sleep (1946). Both films contain scenes of explosive sexual tension: the former has the infamous “You know how to whistle, don’t you?” exchange; The Big Sleep has the brilliant horse-racing conversation. Bogey and Bacall throw double entendres back and forth, metaphorically mixing sex and detective work with talk of being “rated” and “who’s in the saddle.” When Bogey says “I don’t know how far you can go,” they’re not discussing horses anymore. It’s a remarkably crude-but-subtle way to undermine the Production Code in the name of sexy, sexy art.

I think this image from Hawks’s Red River (1948) gets the erotic point across pretty well. Matt (the very gay Montgomery Clift) and his potential rival Cherry (John Ireland) have just met and, knowing one another by reputation, decide to test their “sharpshooting skills.” To do so, they trade “guns” and evaluate how well each “gun” handles. Maybe, just maybe, you can detect some subtext. As usual, Hawks’s use of sexual metaphors is unobtrusive and undeniable, saying exactly what he wants it to say with minimum fuss and maximum erotic power.

Although credit for directing The Thing from Another World (1951) technically goes to Hawks’s frequent editor Christian Nyby, everyone and their grandmother agrees that it’s covered in Hawks’s auteur earmarks. So I’m including it for its bizarre but fun example of fairly explicit bondage. Kenneth Tobey, playing a tough military man stationed in the Arctic, expresses a romantic interest in the only woman at the base, played by Margaret Sheridan. He offers to let her tie him up, if she has a drink with him, and she takes him up on it. The hand-tying always strikes me out of nowhere: so much of The Thing feels conventionally 1950s, and then it’s like, “Bondage!” Oh, Howard Hawks, you perverted devil.

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Link Dump: #9

Dwain Esper’s exploitation film Maniac (1934) is not kind to cats. They get thrown into rooms, forced to fight with each other, and are the subject of much bizarre dialogue. Even though vaudevillian-turned-fake-scientist Don Maxwell (Bill Woods) insists that he won’t use cats in experiments, he nonetheless plucks out his cat Satan’s eye and eats it. Thankfully, it’s obvious that they’re switching between a black cat and an already one-eyed tabby, but it’s still disconcerting. The film manages to butcher Poe by making his story’s far, far weirder. Anyway, here’s some links!

  • Oh my God, plushies and embroidery can be cute sometimes! Behold: Mr X Stitch. My favorite is the Catwoman.
  • The dating site OkCupid has aggregated statistics from their gay and straight customers. Some of their astonishing revelations: all gay people aren’t actually promiscuous sexual predators hungering for converts. Also, not all straight OkCupid users are totally straight all the time. (Shocking, right?!)
  • Jessica Winter of Slate writes about “The film career of David Bowie.” This includes plenty of The Man Who Fell to Earth. “Get out of my head!” (And speaking of Bowie’s film career…)
  • Really, MPAA? “Male nudity“? (Apparently, yes.)
  • Good ol’ cuckoo puff Armond White took a shot at bloggers and Rotten Tomatoes a few weeks ago. Man, is his critique scathing! It cut me to the bone, emotionally speaking. I think my favorite part starts here:

“Attacks from bloggers—crude interlopers of a once august profession— are not about diversity of opinion. What’s at root is an undisguised rivalry. Every moviegoer with a laptop claims equal—vengeful—standing with so-called professionals. This anti-intellectual backlash defies the purpose of the Circle’s founding in 1935. Professional dignity is the last thing Internetters respect.”

  • Oh my, no! I’m such an anti-intellectual Internetter! You know, White’s persecution complex would be a much more valid argument against online film journalism if his writing weren’t nonsensical shit. (I really dropped the sarcasm there.)
  • Apparently we were supposed to have some visitors from the stars on Wednesday. A retired NORAD officer said so!
  • These outtakes give some cool insights into Humphrey Bogart’s acting process. (For example: when he missed a line, he’d say, “Goddammit!”)
  • Adam Zanzie and Ryan Kelly, of Icebox Movies and Medfly Quarantine respectively, have announced a Spielberg Blogathon for mid-December! You’ve got two whole months to prepare.

On the search term front, we had a few good ones this week. The people looking for pictures of animal genitalia are getting more specific; this time around we had not only “frog pussy,” but also “chinese frog vagina.” What, American frog vaginas aren’t good enough for you? In the “Deeply Unpleasant” department, we had the classic “most excruciating climactic screwing of.” I prefer my climactic screwings of to not be excruciating, if you please. To the person who searched for “sex war 1945 pussy,” I’m sorry to inform you that the war from 1939-45 was actually a World War, not a Sex War. And finally, I can only stare in befuddlement: “sexy wig for masturbation.” Yes. That says what it looks like. “Sexy wig for masturbation.” Thanks for reading, folks!

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One More Look at John Huston

Since the Icebox Movies John Huston Blogathon concluded yesterday (sort of), I hope now to wrap up my meandering thoughts on Huston’s expansive career. (For previous meanderings, see my posts on the director’s modernist tendencies and his film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.) Since I’ve only seen a fraction of his films, it’s difficult for me to make any kind of grand statement about Huston’s obsessions or visual style. But I’ll at least take a stab at identifying a few definite preoccupations I’ve noticed and, finally, at that beloved question of the latter-day cinephile, “auteur or not?” So, to put it in appropriately daring Shakespearean terms, “Once more unto the breach!”

As I glanced over some of Huston’s films for this blogathon, one consistent feature of his mise-en-scène struck me: an emphasis on faces. I’m not talking about Bergmanesque portraiture, where it’s about the face’s subtle power of expression. I’m talking about the use of faces as another visual piece of the total film, akin to the costuming or the landscapes. Look at Clark Gable in The Misfits. This is Gable’s last role, and in it you can make out phantom images of his past stardom. Gay, with his rambunctious youth soured into whiskey-drenched obsolescence, could be It Happened One Night‘s Pete Warne, 30 years down the line. And it’s all embedded in his dirty, cavernous visage. He looks just as tired and ready for the end as his poor dog, Tom Dooley, or the mustangs he’s rounding up. Gable’s face here is that of a once-handsome icon who’s teetering at the edge of death, and that real-world anguish gives the film additional gravity.

But Gable as Gay is just the most obvious example I saw of Huston using faces as crucial scenery. Really, every face in The Misfits is loaded in one way or another; just look at Perce – played by Montgomery Clift, a victim of ongoing tragedy – with his glassy stare from drunkenness and brain damage, his broken nose, all topped with an incongruous cowboy hat. Similarly, some of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre‘s effectiveness toward the end is inherent in Bogart, Holt, and W. Huston’s ragged, sand-swept faces. I’m not proposing this as the crux of visual artistry or acting in Huston’s films; rather, it’s just a curious method of harnessing actors’ appearances, of highlighting facial features with perhaps a caricaturist’s sensibilities. For further evidence, just see The Maltese Falcon‘s villains and how they’re shot: Peter Lorre, the egg-headed, bug-eyed puffball; Sidney Greenstreet, the eyebrow-raising, belly-patting Santa Claus; and Elisha Cook, the compact, long-faced hothead who never smiles.1

So in short, Huston’s depictions of human bodies had a slightly cartoonish quality to them, as if endeavoring to sum up personality traits through the right camera angle or simple gesture; he needed such forms of visual shorthand, because he made movies about ideas reified and in action.2 Tonally, Huston’s films strike an odd balance, coupling severe visions of mortality with the sense of boozy, mordant humor I described in my Treasure of the Sierra Madre piece. But even with this edge of humor, even in a film as jokey as Falcon, one pervasive attitude joins nearly all of Huston’s characters: desperation. This might be the most common thematic thread in Huston’s entire career, since rarely can I describe his characters’ actions or desires without terming them “desperate.” They’re frequently backed into financial or ethical corners and are scrambling to find any way out. Certainly this fits the whole food chain of The Asphalt Jungle, and it’s just this desperation, on the part of criminals and cops, that leads our protagonists to jail.

Or look at Billy in Fat City: he just wants one more opportunity, and he’s sure he can make it count. Ruben is desperate enough to spread hype about every one of his prospects, and struggles to believe it. Everyone in Stockdale is either frantically looking for a new dream, or else resigned to the fact that none of them will ever come true. With such thick fatalism, Huston’s films could easily turn dour if they weren’t leavened by the saving grace of dark humor – supplied, in this case, by the perpetually soused Oma.3 Ultimately, this omnipresent mood of desperation is a direct product of that persistent modernist/existentialist crisis of self-definition, of determining one’s own beliefs and values independent of any absolute authority. Because even at their most downtrodden, his characters are possessed of a raw, primordial energy; the question they’re desperate to resolve is, how to use that energy? And why?

Consider The Asphalt Jungle‘s famous quote, “Crime is just a left-handed form of human endeavor.” This is the underlying ethos I’m getting at: Huston’s characters have the potential to embark on these ambitious endeavors,4 but the issue is whether they’re right- or left-handed. Judging by these films, I get the sense that Huston saw human nature as capable of good or evil, but always driven by an innate compulsion to just act. These people can compete in the rodeo and boxing ring, despite defeat after defeat; they can dig and hunt and head down the river; they can stage massive, clever con games. These are all possibilities. The question is what personal, self-motivated beliefs guide these actions.

Some of these conclusions may be too broad, and some of my analysis might be wrong-headed, but these are the ideas I find at the core of Huston’s filmography. I’ll be interested to view more of his films and see how well they synch up with these theories. And so, since his films display a unified creative personality with a distinct vision of mankind, told cinematically with elements of a clear visual style, I believe – based on my understanding of the term, as used by Truffaut and Sarris – that John Huston is, in fact, an auteur. Thank you for reading my contributions to the John Huston Blogathon, and thanks to Adam of Icebox Movies for providing the spark that flamed into these analyses. Now get thee to a DVD player and watch The Asphalt Jungle, if you haven’t already.

1 I could happily go on supplying examples, but I’ll restrain myself outside of mentioning Sam Jaffe’s professorial benevolence and Sterling Hayden’s hulking presence in The Asphalt Jungle.

2 Given these conclusions, maybe it’s strangely fitting that Huston directed and starred in a segment of Casino Royale (1967), a film that took James Bond’s premise to nonsensical comic-book extremes.

3 However, the greatest embodiment of this kind of humor is Thelma Ritter in The Misfits; she served a similar role in films like Rear Window and, more sadly, Pickup on South Street.

4 Like criss-crossing the globe in search of a jewel-encrusted statue, or journeying into the wild to spend months digging for gold, or single-handedly taking down and tying up an angry stallion…

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My Favorite Movies: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

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.

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