Sunday, May 26, 2013

May Blind Spot: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

This month’s selection is another movie that I have been meaning to check off the list for quite a long time, especially considering it is a classic with such a high reputation. I was on the verge of going in the favour of Andei Rublev(1966), considering it was free on Hulu till this weekend. However, it’s three and half hour length scared me a little. I have never seen a Trakovsky film before. So before plunging myself into his world with one of the longest movies I have seen, I went for another film as a test drive – Solaris(1972). Unfortunately that failed miserably and detracted me further from it. I’ll get to it but just not this month. This month it has to be John Huston’s Western classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre(1948).

First and foremost, what makes this a Blind Spot movie? In other words, why is this film essential?
At the start of the year, when I was compiling this format for the Blind Spot posts I would do, I often wondered if as an answer to these questions I can just say – I don’t know, everyone says it is. I am pretty sure the reason I included this film in the list is because I have never heard anything other than praises for this movie. I literally have no other reason at all. So essentially what I am saying to this question is I don’t know, everyone says it is! I guess I will find out if I CAN say so.

So, what is the story about?
Two Americans, Fred C. Dobbs and Curtin, looking for a job in Tampico, Mexico meet one day by chance. After getting swindled for 2 weeks of hard work and no money, they return to one of the flophouses to seek cheap shelter. Here they listen to Howard talking to few other men about his adventures in gold digging. Next day, they beat their money out of the guy who cheated them and decide to get Howard’s help in trying their own luck in prospecting for gold. All three of them invest pretty much everything they have to have some decent chance of finding their own fortune. Dobbs even puts his money from the lottery he wins unexpectedly just as they are about to leave. As they head out into the wilds, Dobbs and Curtin soon learn that this whole prospecting game is not as easy as they thought it would be. They are also very lucky to have experienced Howard with them because just as they are about to give up the whole idea of finding any gold thanks to Howard and his experienced eyes they, quite literally, stumble upon their Gold mine. Back in the flophouse, Dobbs was very quick to ridicule Howard for saying he has seen what gold can do to a man. As they set up their shop on the Sierra Madre Mountain and the pile of gold collected starts to grow, ironically, Dobbs becomes the first one to give in to his paranoia and distrust of others. He starts imagining Curtin and Howard being in cahoots to swindle him of his share; he demands higher share as he put up major share of the cash to get them started even though they all agreed to split everything in equal parts. As much the other two try to put up with his mental instabilities, only way Dobbs can spiral from there is downwards. What follows is unflinching story of how fast moralities can go down in a gutter once man gives in to his greed and his insecurities to their inevitable ending.

What did I think of it? What did I like the most about it and what didn't I like?
What did I think of it? I loved it in almost every single aspect of it. Humphrey Bogart is excellent in as raw a performance as you would see from anybody. His downward spiral once he sets his eyes on gold is spectacularly pathetic and downright scary, as if he is setting an example of everything you should not be. It’s really great to see someone like Bogart, essentially a leading man and at least in my experience someone we are used to see as a voice of reason or someone who can do no wrong, shining as something diametrically opposite. And then on the complete opposite end of spectrum, is old, grizzled Howard, played by director John Huston’s father Walter Huston in his Oscar winning role. He is experienced in the ways of the world, with everything that comes as a part of prospecting. He is very enthusiastic, level-headed and as both Dobbs and Curtin soon realize, their greatest asset. He has probably seen people go down this path many times before and is much more equipped to handle that. Curtin, played by Tim Holt, is the third leg of this tent and probably the one that changes the least over the course of their expedition. He gets rather overshadowed by the other two performances but there is nothing there to fault him for. It’s this contrast between the three of them that highlights all the drama even more.

However, besides all this praise for it, there are couple of things I do want to mention here. None of them are complaints necessarily because in no way any of them bring the movie down as a whole. But still I think they are worth mentioning. First, I saw Stagecoach about a week ago which was released in 1939. This is 9 years after that but even then, the way fights were shot was so much better in Stagecoach and when I am talking about fights, I am not talking about the brawl in cantina but on the train. You would expect them to get better in 9 years, wouldn’t you? Second, again not necessarily a strike against the film but I don’t remember if there is even one female speaking part in the entire film. Being a western and majority of it spent on the top of certain mountain looking for gold, I certainly understand the male dominance but not even a single speaking character is rather surprising.

After having seen it, do I agree with its 'essential' status? And why?
Now this is a question worth answering, especially considering my egregiously ignorant answer to the first question. Well, there can be no two ways about it. It’s amazing, superb, fantastic. Add however many adjectives you want here because it is a near perfect film. It is very easy to see now why it is regarded as one of the best classics. John Huston won an Oscar for both Direction and Writing. I don’t know much about his competition that year but I’ve got no complaints about either. Off course, it is acting that shines the most in this film. But as great as Bogart and Walter Huston are in their respective roles, I think John Huston’s screenplay deserves equal credit for painting these characters so vividly with so contrasting styles but rich emotions and his directing for invoking those emotions in these characters. What makes The Treasure of the Sierra Madre a classic of such a high reputation even after so many years is combination of high quality acting, directing and writing. It sure is a ‘Must Watch’ movie for any film enthusiast.

Fun fact: My experience of being in US over the last four years has taught me that many people think that we, Indians, talk fast. Over this period, many times I’ve been told to slow down a little. There might be some truth to it but next time someone tells me that, I am going to tell him to go and watch this film and specifically watch Walter Huston in the scene where they first find the traces of gold on Sierra Madre. If you think I am fast, go and watch that.

Does it open few new doors for me? Does this inspire to watch any other movies?
This is another occasion I will have to little vague about. Most of the entries I chose for this list were chosen as some kind of gateway for me. In few cases it was a genre I wasn’t well versed with, in some cases a director or in some cases entire industry. This movie was chosen based on its own legacy, which doesn’t leave me much room for me to dive deeper into. However if there is a Blind Spot somewhere here worth exploring, it’s John Huston. I have seen The Maltese Falcon(1941) and The African Queen(1951) but I am not well-versed with his career. In the future, I will make sure to actively seek out some of his other notable titles.


  1. This is one of my favorite Bogart performances. That's saying a lot, because I tend to love Bogart's performances. I rank this with The Caine Mutiny and The Maltese Falcon.

    As for Huston, Fat City is interesting and The Asphalt Jungle is definitely worth your time. I didn't love The Man Who Would be King, but don't let that opinion stop you from seeing it.

    1. I haven't seen The Caine Mutiny but I think I'd rate this Bogart higher than The Maltese Falcon. At least it is more showy.

      I've heard about The Asphalt Jungle and The Man who would be King. Another one I have my eyes on is Prizzi's Honour. I will look into Fat City as well. Thanks for the suggestions!

  2. Glad you liked it. The performances, writing, and directing are, indeed, excellent, but I've always felt this film is slightly overrated. That said, you've inspired me to rewatch it this week. :)

    1. Maybe because I just watched it for the first time but I think it is deserving. Lets see if re-watch makes it any better for you.

  3. It's a very raw movie that went much further than most Hollywood films in depicting the extreme sides of life, personality, vices, and social reality.
    Huston was almost like the Bunuel of Hollywood. A wild man. It's no wonder Peckinpah saw Huston as his model.

    1. I agree completely with you on Sierra Madre. Its willingness to go one step further is what made it memorable, I guess.

      I like your comparison. As I said I haven't seen much of Huston but I think Bunuel aimed for higher authorities like religion and society. Huston seems more interested in your own psyche.

      Once again, Thanks for an insightful comment!


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