TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, THE - Blu-ray review treasure of a movie.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges. I don't have to show you any stinkin' badges!"
--Alfonso Bedoya, "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre"

It was daring of Humphrey Bogart to take on the role of a greedy, gritty, down-on-his-luck drifter as he did in the 1948 adventure yarn "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre." After all, he had spent most of the 1930's typecast as a movie gangster, finally breaking the mold with his cynical, hard-boiled private eye Sam Spade in "The Maltese Falcon" (1941) and reaching the zenith of romanticized, world-weary antiheroes with Rick Blaine in "Casablanca" (1942). Why go back to bad guys?

And why watch Bogey in anything but the best picture and sound. That would be this high-definition Blu-ray edition, which couldn't come along fast enough for me.

When Bogart learned that John Huston, who had directed him in "Falcon," was doing the picture, it didn't take much to persuade him to climb aboard. The role turned out to be among the actor's finest work, but at the time it didn't win him many new friends. Although the movie got good notices and received a ton of awards, it did not go over well with all audiences. Some fans considered Bogart's part too much of a contrast for those who wanted only to see him as a heroic leading man and the script too much of a downer to appreciate. "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" acquired most of its classic status years after its initial release, thanks largely to television, which is where I came to it in the late Fifties, more than a decade after Warners made it. I loved it immediately, as did a whole new generation of movie fans.

The movie's director, John Huston, wrote the screenplay, basing it on a best-selling, 1927 novel by the reclusive and mysterious author who went by the pen name "B. Traven." Huston had wanted to do the film for many years, but World War II had interrupted his career, and it wasn't until 1947 that production finally started, most of it shooting on location in Mexico.

The story is not so much an adventure in the action-adventure sense as it is an adventure of the mind. Not that it doesn't have its fair share of action, to be sure, but it's more of a character study, overall, a treatise on the effects of gold and the expectation of wealth on human nature. It's a profound examination of mistrust and avarice, leading to greed, deception, and murder.

The time setting is around 1925, the place Tampico, Mexico, where Bogart plays a scroungy, penniless, out-of-work fellow with the singularly unromantic name of Fred C. Dobbs. He's panhandling money from anyone he can find and cursing his bad luck. It's in Tampico that he meets an equally penniless young man, Bob Curtin, played by Tim Holt, and an old prospector, Howard, played by John Huston's father, the noted stage and screen actor Walter Huston. After several discouraging attempts at making money, including a wasted week working on an oil rig, the three decide to throw in together and look for gold in the rugged Sierra Madre Mountains. But finding the gold is easy; getting it back is the hard part. Their good fortune is both a blessing and a curse. Not only must they face bandits, they must face one another and their inner conflicts.

The movie owes most of its achievement to superior acting and direction. Audiences might best know Bogart for his role as Rick in "Casablanca," but as Dobbs he does his most intense work since "The Petrified Forest." It's a wonder of the screen to watch Dobbs's character deteriorate before our eyes as he slowly loses control and plunges into an abyss of madness. It's likewise a wonder why Bogart was not so much as nominated for an Academy Award for the role, one of the great and many oversights in the Academy's history.

Walter Huston, known to movie audiences for his acting in films like "Dodsworth," "Yankee Doodle Dandy," "And Then There Were None," "Duel in the Sun," and "The Devil and Daniel Webster," is ideal as the patient, optimistic, easygoing old-timer. The book's author, B. Traven, had wanted an even older man, but serendipity prevailed. Tim Holt may have seemed an odd choice for Curtin. Holt had played a series of B-movie Western heroes prior to "Treasure," and he would return to the B-movie fold when the film was over; but in the meantime he, too, is outstanding as the noble young man unwilling to compromise his values for the sake of money. His inherent naïveté provides a faultless counterpoint to the grasping Dobbs.

The supporting cast is no less formidable. Movie tough guy Barton MacLane plays the larcenous con-man Pat McCormick, who indirectly gives Dobbs and Curtin the impetus to go looking for gold. Bruce Bennett, formerly an Olympic shot-putter and a veteran of many Hollywood film roles, including that of Tarzan (as Herman Brix), plays Cody, the man who insinuates himself into the prospectors' lives, bringing a touch of poignancy to the story in the process. And then there's Alfonso Bedoya as Gold Hat, the Mexican bandito who utters the celebrated words about "stinkin' badges" that have become as famous as the movie itself. He is brutish and charming at the same time, a characteristic that might apply to the film as well.

Huston moves the proceedings along at a healthy clip, and although the picture is perhaps a trifle lengthy at 126 minutes, it doesn't seem that long. There are events toward the end of the film that I've always felt Huston could have trimmed to make the story line tighter, and there are a few studio-shot scenes that would have worked better if filmed on location along with so much of the rest of the film, but these are trifling matters in the long run of things. Seldom does perfection reach off the screen and grab a viewer so closely.

Now a word about the music. Critics unjustly overlooked the music at the time of the film's release, some of them thinking Max Steiner's score too theatrical and melodramatic for the seriousness of the subject matter. I quite disagree. Steiner had revolutionized the way we listen to movies over a dozen years before with his score for "King Kong," and he is no less triumphant here. In fact, his work for "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" is among the best movie music ever written, and if you want to hear just how good it is, I recommend the Naxos CD of the complete, restored score, performed by William T. Stromberg and the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. I know that a Russian ensemble seems an unlikely group to be recording Hollywood film music, but they have successfully recorded a whole series of classic film scores, and this is among the best of the lot. Listening to Steiner's music restored by John Morgan, the man responsible for many other Naxos/Marco Polo/Tribute Film Classics releases, one can picture every detail of the movie's plot and hear it in stereo sound of vivid clarity, impact, and depth.

Anyway, "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" is also unique in that it is the only motion picture ever to have won Academy Awards by both a father and son on the same night. Walter Huston won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, while his son John won for Best Director and Best Screenplay. It's an accomplishment no one is likely to duplicate anytime soon.

Finally, a few trivia notes, thanks to John Eastman and his book "Retakes" (Ballantine Books, New York, 1989): Look for cameo appearances by a very young Robert Blake as a Mexican kid who sells Bogart a lottery ticket; Ann Sheridan as a woman of the streets who passes Bogart on the sidewalk; Jack Holt, Tim Holt's actor father, as a down-and-outer; and John Huston himself as an American that Bogey hits up for money early on in the picture. Bogart directed Huston in the cameo, by the way, taking malicious pleasure in making him do his scenes over and over. Note also that the film's producer, Henry Blake, had wanted John Garfield for Tim Holt's role of Curtin, but Garfield was unavailable; and that Ronald Reagan had petitioned for the part that went to Bruce Bennett. As Gold Hat, Alfonso Bedoya was a choice made on impulse, the Mexican actor having had little experience in films, yet making a memorable appearance. It's said his fellow actors playing bandits (at least one of whom claimed to be a real bandit) took an instant dislike to him, terrorizing him throughout the production and at one point even beating him up. Fun stuff, this moviemaking.

The world was seeing a lot of film noir--dark, cynical movies--after the Second World War, but people weren't quite ready for anything quite so depressing as watching their heroic Bogart in a role so downbeat. Nevertheless, "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" easily made its leap to stardom in the half century after its release, and filmgoers now consider it a film classic, the movie placing high on the American Film Institute's list of Top 100 Films of all time.

WB transferred the movie to Blu-ray disc using a dual-layer BD50 and a VC-1 codec, with first-rate results. The screen is exceptionally free of lines, flecks, or age marks of any kind, and the image itself is almost uniformly excellent in terms of detail and definition. The black-and-white contrasts are strong and close-ups are sharp, with a light, natural film grain noticeable in some scenes more than others.

The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 monaural soundtrack is very quiet and very smooth, even in the loudest passages. Otherwise, there is little to talk about, except that mono or not, it's some of the best mono film sound you'll hear. Sure, it's one-dimensional and limited in bass and treble response, yet you'll find all the dynamics it needs. A lucid midrange for highly intelligible dialogue completes the picture.

The dual-layer Blu-ray disc provides most of the extras found on WB's earlier, two-disc DVD set. The first of these is a "Warner Night at the Movies," introduced by Leonard Maltin, that includes a theatrical trailer for "Key Largo," a vintage newsreel; a Merrie Melodies cartoon, "Hot Cross Bunny"; and the comedy short "So You Want To Be a Detective." Following that is an audio commentary by Eric Lax, coauthor of the book "Bogart."

Next, we find two documentaries: "John Huston: the Man, the Movies, the Maverick," a 1988 tour of the moviemaker's career, the feature lasting over two hours and divided into thirty-one chapters; and "Discovering Treasure: The Story of the Treasure of the Sierra Madre," a fifty-minute look at the making of the motion picture, narrated by John Milius and illuminated by comments from director Martin Scorsese, film historian Rudy Behlmer, and various other notable authorities on the subject.

After the documentaries is a classic cartoon "8 Ball Bunny," and a 1949 "Lux Radio Theater" broadcast of "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" with Bogart and Walter Huston recreating their famous roles.

The extras conclude with thirty-seven scene selections; English, French, German, Portuguese, and Spanish spoken languages; Danish, Finnish, French, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Swedish subtitles; and English and German captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Thoughts:
Bogart would play more disreputable scoundrels and outright villains in films like "The African Queen," "Beat the Devil," and "The Caine Mutiny" before his untimely death from throat cancer in 1957. He was an actor unafraid of taking chances, and with the chance of a lifetime in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" he made one treasure of a movie.


Film Value