#208. Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

Speaking of John Huston: apart from a documentary I just saw on YouTube about the making of African Queen, and a slowly-blooming appreciation for Maltese Falcon (his directorial debut and the catalyst for Bogart’s screen persona), I recently saw The Other Side of the Wind, Orson Welles’s posthumously-released final film, super autobiographical, about an ageing maverick filmmaker, played by Huston, who appeals to his successful protege, played by Peter Bogdanovich (in a role that was clearly meant to mimic his personal relationship with Welles), to help get financing for the old master’s next project. Apparently Akira Kurosawa appealed to Francis Ford Coppola for the same sorta help, and Federico Fellini appealed to Martin Scorsese. Bogdanovich was fresh off the success of The Last Picture Show in 1971 and later on, while still in occasional production on Other Side of the Wind, enjoyed a pair of big successes with What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon. I’m eager to get to the point in Simon Callow’s biography where he explores what Welles was feeling to watch his protege’s star surpass his own

But yeah: there’s some of that cross-generational professional camaraderie going on here, in what might be John Huston’s masterpiece, where he casts his father, Walter Huston, in the charmingly avuncular, sage-like, nuanced role of a grizzled old prospecter who helps our two other heroes — played with glorious mania by Bogart and a doe-eyed earnestness by Tim Holt — to dig for gold int he mountains of Sierra Madre.

Bogart on the left and Huston on the right.

This is exactly the kinda desert-landscape dirty-feeling adventure movie that never appeals to me at a glance (like the Indiana Jones movies or The Mummy or, from the List, Mutiny on the Bounty) but always end up enthralling me. The experience of settling in for Sierra Madre, dreading it, make sit the most vivid experience of the bunch. I love it. Like with the action of Sergeant York and To Have and Have Not, was surprised again to find the shootouts and various confrontations not only exciting but anxiety-inducing. Bogart’s paranoid greed is totally convincing and menacing and refreshing, from a fan’s perspective, cuz we can see here that he’s not turning into Bruce Willis, resting on his laurels, trusting his performance’ll be accepted cuz we remember him from other, better work.

It’s definitely a blockbuster-style movie: a great yarn with exotic locations, big stars, a clear three-act structure with well-crafted character arcs. This’d easily appeal to a massive audience even today. Dominate the month of July or something. But it’s also weirdly visceral and grimy. Also very much a…boy movie. Men being MEN and succumbing to greed and violence, etc.

Our trio of gold diggers: Holt on the left, Old Man Huston in the middle, Bogey on the right.

And so I can see how John Huston is grouped with the likes f Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy and John Ford as creators of what my friend Steve refers to as dudebro storytelling. Few women on the scene, lots of attention on male bonding, an exploration of men’s ugliness that can sometimes look like a celebration of that ugliness.

The plot is pretty simple — some dudes go out looking for gold and succumb to greed and violence — but the story is delightfully squiggly. Starts off with Bogart and Holt getting cheated out of an honest wage by some scumbag (from whom they do end up getting some portion of their pay by beating the shit out of him and picking his pockets), so right away they’re screwed and looking for work; they meet the prospector and take him along to the mountain cuz he’s waxing so wise about how and where to find gold; now they’re searching for gold and finding nothing and then they find it; now comes a lengthy segment depicting how they start extracting it, perpetually on the lookout for federales who’ll confiscate it and bandits who’ll kill them; then some random white guy stumbles upon their camp, he wants in on the deal and he’s willing to work, but they don’t know his affiliations, they start debating as a group whether they should kill him; as they’re making up their minds to murderize the guy, some bandits show up, and a confrontation ensues — the story is like a barrel going down an ever-darkening hill. It satisfies the criteria for good storytelling that Tarantino maps in an old Charlie Rose interview: says that most American movies of the 1990s were about situations. A person gets into trouble in the first act and spends the next two acts getting out of trouble and delivering comeuppance to whoever put them there. A story, he says, is something that’s constantly unfolding. The situation keeps changing. Characters come and go. The stakes go higher and higher.

I’d heard the line before but didn’t even realize, when it came up in the movie, that this was the origin of it. Only went back and saw the scene again when i read Ebert’s review, where he talks about how often it’s misquoted.

Treasure of the Sierra Madre is exhausting, it zigs and zags, and features some of the finest work in the careers of everyone involved. Watch it.


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