"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 1930s 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 in "Casablanca" (1942). Why go back to bad guys?
But 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 a ton of awards, it did not go over well with audiences. Bogart's part was considered too much of a contrast for viewers who wanted only to see him as a heroic leading man, and the movie's script was too much of a downer to appreciate. "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" would not acquire its classic status until many 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 it was made. I loved it immediately, as did a whole new generation of movie fans.
Based on a best-selling book by the reclusive and mysterious B. Traven, the movie's screenplay was written by its director, John Huston. The writer/director/actor 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 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 the easy part; getting it back is what's hard. 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 its superior acting and direction. Bogart might best be known 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), was well chosen for 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 could have been 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. It was unjustly overlooked at the time of the film's release, Max Steiner's score thought to be 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 music for "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" is among the best ever written, and if you want to hear just how good it is, I recommend the 1999 Marco Polo CD of the complete, restored score (Marco Polo 8.225149), 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 and the Marco Polo label (a subsidiary of Naxos) have been successful doing a whole series of classic film scores recently, and this one is the best of the lot. Listening to Steiner's music, restored by John Morgan, the man responsible for many other Marco Polo releases, one can picture every detail of the movie's plot and hear it in stereo sound of vivid clarity, impact, and depth.
"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 unlikely to be duplicated 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 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 it's now considered a film classic, placing thirtieth on the American Film Institute's list of Top 100 Films of all time. It's a deserving winner.
The packaging announces that the all-new black-and-white DVD transfer is made from "restored picture and audio elements," but the transfer does not appear to have been restored frame-by-frame. I suspect WB found the very best print they could lay their hands on and reconstructed it as best they could. There is a point about ninety-five minutes in that looks scratchy and worn, but things clear up quickly. The rest of the transfer is exceptionally free of lines, flecks, or age marks of any kind, although the image itself is not entirely perfect in terms of definition. The black-and-white contrasts are a bit faded, and while close-ups are excellent, backgrounds tend to be a tad blurry. Should you worry about it? No.
The Dolby Digital, single-channel, monaural soundtrack is very quiet and very smooth, except in the loudest passages, where it gets somewhat edgy. There is little to talk about here, but there is little to complain about, either. The audio is one-dimensional, limited in bass and treble response, but dynamic when needed. Voices are lucid and intelligible, and music is well rendered, given the circumstances.
I really appreciate these Warner Bros. Special Editions for their comprehensive documentaries, rather than the dozens and dozens of tiny bits and pieces you need a road map to navigate through on sets from other studios. This two-disc set has its fair share of individual clicks, too, but they are easy to find and rewarding to watch.
Disc one contains the movie, of course, with its Dolby Digital monaural soundtrack, English as its only spoken language, and English, French, and Spanish subtitles. In addition, there's an audio commentary with Eric Lax, coauthor of the book "Bogart"; a Bogart trailer gallery that includes trailers for twelve of his most-famous movies, including "Treasure of the Sierra Madre"; a Warner Night at the Movies, introduced by Leonard Maltin, that includes a theatrical trailer for "Key Largo," a vintage newsreel, a comedy short, "So You Want To Be a Detective," and a Merrie Melodies cartoon, "Hot Cross Bunny." Disc one concludes with a cast and crew list, an awards list, and thirty-seven scene selections.
Disc two contains, among other things, two excellent documentaries. The first is "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. The second documentary is "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. Disc two also includes a classic cartoon, "8 Ball Bunny"; more on the cast and crew; a photo gallery; storyboards; publicity materials; and a 1949 Lux Radio Theater broadcast of "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" with Bogart and Walter Huston recreating their famous roles.
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 along with the two Hustons he took the chance of a lifetime on "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre." He made one treasure of a movie.