Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
Pages: (1) (2) (3) (4)
Background

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) is a classic tale of the elusive search for gold in the Sierra Madre Mountains by a trio of ill-matched prospectors that meet in Tampico, Mexico. Director John Huston's third feature film, is a combination adventure story and Western shot almost entirely on location (one of the first). [It was shot in Tampico, San Jose de Purua and in Durango. The night scenes were shot in the studio.]

The expensive-to-make ($3 million), over-budget film is also an intense character study showing the corruptive and cancerous effects of greed on the souls of men. It is the definitive film on greed, although Wall Street (1987) with Michael Douglas' Best Actor-winning role as Gordon Gecko comes close. Although the film did poorly at the box-office when first released, its critical success and a number of re-releases eventually brought it financial returns.

Huston often directed films with the theme of a disparate group on a quest/search for wealth, e.g., The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Beat the Devil (1953), The Kremlin Letter (1970), and The Man Who Would Be King (1975). This was Huston's first post-war film. One of the film's posters clarified the theme: "The Nearer They Get to Their Treasure, the Farther They Get From the Law!"

After the group strikes it rich, warnings from a crazy but sage old prospector (Walter Huston) about the ways that gold makes a person suspicious and avaricious fall on the deaf ears of a mean, wary and sneering Dobbs (Bogart) - and he meets his just and greedy end at the hands of bandits. One of the bandits delivers one of the most famous lines in film history, briefly spoofed and misquoted in Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles (1974)):

Badges? We ain't got no badges! We don't need no badges. I don't have to show you any stinkin' badges!

(Note: The bandit never actually said, as in Brooks' film: "Badges? We don't need no stinkin' badges!")

The screenplay, written by Huston, was based upon the 1936 novel of the same name by B. Traven (a pen name for Berwick Traven Torsvan), an elusive and mysterious individual who showed up during the filming under an assumed name (as Hal Croves, Traven's representative and 'attorney'), and served as one of the film's technical advisors after claiming that he had been sent by the reclusive author.

The Hustons (John and father Walter) received the film's three Academy Awards - out of four nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Walter Huston with his sole Oscar win after three previous losses), Best Director (John Huston), and Best Screenplay (John Huston). Its sole losing nomination was for Best Picture (it lost to Laurence Olivier's Hamlet). With his award, Huston became the first to direct his own father to an Oscar, and it was the first instance of a son and father winning in the same year. [Huston had previously directed his father in a small, unbilled role in The Maltese Falcon (1941), his first film. At 78 years of age, he would go on to direct his daughter Angelica in his 40th film Prizzi's Honor (1985) - she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. This made the Hustons the first family with three generations of Oscar winners. And John Huston became the only person to direct both his father and daughter in Oscar-winning roles.]

Unbelievably, Humphrey Bogart's quintessential role as a paranoid, vicious, and murderous gold-prospector named Fred C. Dobbs (a tremendous, against-type, richly-layered performance) was missing from the nominees. [Director Sam Peckinpah paid homage to Dobbs in Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), including a character with the same name.] Also lacking was a nomination for the great cinematography by Ted McCord. [This was Bogart's third collaboration with Huston, after The Maltese Falcon (1941), and Across the Pacific (1942). He also appeared in Key Largo (1948), his second film with Huston in 1948. Curiously, Claire Trevor won the Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Huston's Key Largo (1948) in the same year. Bogart would go on to make two more films with Huston in his career: The African Queen (1951), in which he won his sole Best Actor Academy Award, and Beat the Devil (1953).]

The Story

After the credits, a close-up of a lottery list shows the winning numbers drawn in the Mexican National Lottery, dated February 14, 1925. The camera pulls back to the hands of a man holding a lottery ticket and comparing his number with the posted winners. [Mariachi band music provides soft background ambience.] The scraggly-looking bum, an unkempt, dirty, unshaven and ragged scrounger [later identified as Fred C. Dobbs "Dobbsie" (Humphrey Bogart)] who is betting on a fortune, tears his losing ticket to pieces and throws it away in anger and disgust. Defeated once again, he turns and walks into the busy, filthy Mexican street and down under a marketplace's archway, where he asks an American for a handout: "Say buddy, will you stake a fellow American...?" The man disregards Dobbs, turns away, moves on and tosses his half-smoked cigarette butt into the street. After pausing - when he stares at it and considers his pride, Dobbs loses the butt to a Mexican street urchin who beats him to it. The youngster, without any hesitation, picks it off the ground and struts away puffing smoke.

The disgruntled, hard-luck panhandler quickens his pace after another American, a Man in a White Suit (director John Huston). He asks the affluent gentleman: "Hey mister, could you stake a fellow American to a meal?" To his surprise, Dobbs is handed a coin. At an outdoor sidewalk cafe after ordering coffee, a meal and smokes, a ragged Mexican beggar boy (a young Robert Blake) tries to sell Dobbs another lottery ticket, but he turns surly and irritable. He bursts into a rage at the scamp: "Beat it. I ain't buying no lottery tickets." He projects his own annoyance and resentment of beggars at the boy (although he is one himself):

Get away from me, ya little beggar!

To get rid of the kid, he becomes a bully and flings a glass of water in the boy's face. But then feeling compelled to buy the ticket from the persistent boy and believing (against all hope) that he might win ("Add the figures up, you get thirteen. What better number could you buy? It's a sure winner"), he is persuaded to purchase a minuscule part of a ticket for a drawing three weeks off: "All right. Give me a twentieth so I don't have to look at your ugly face."

Leaving the restaurant, Dobbs walks across the street to the park where he sits down on one of the benches in the plaza's square next to a fellow vagrant struggling under similar circumstances. Sharing a cigarette and grousing small talk, the two befriend each other in the hot, mid-1920s Tampico, Mexico, on the edge of newly-discovered oil fields. They are both broke, out-of-work, starving and reduced to the humiliation of begging. Dobbs laments that a white gringo without work is doomed to lower-class status. If he was to shine shoes or sell lemonade on the street, that would guarantee his ostracism by fellow gringos, or worse, discrimination (by hounding and pestering) from the natives. He bemoans his isolation and inability to function within the alien culture ("It's some town to be broke in"):

If I was a native, I'd get me a can of shoe polish and I'd be in business. They'd never let a gringo. You can sit on a bench to get three-quarters starved. You can beg from another gringo. You can even commit burglary. But try shining shoes in the street or peddling lemonade out of a bucket and your hash is settled. You'd never get another job from an American.

Seeing the generous Man in the White Suit reading the paper while having his shoes shined, Dobbs goes over and again asks for a hand-out. He turns speechless a second time when handed a coin from the scowling man.

In the next scene in the local barber shop after treating himself to a shave and haircut, the dramatic barber unwraps Dobbs' head, douses his face with after-shave and powder, raises the seat and then combs his greased-down hair. Dobbs inspects the barber's handiwork - his entire slickened head - with a mirror and non-verbally expresses his satisfaction. Out on the street after emerging from the shop, the seedy-looking bum notices how his hat fits more loosely. After spending part of the handout on improving his appearance, he longs to purchase sex for hire, but his poverty inhibits him. His eyes follow a passing Mexican lady/prostitute? (an unlikely, unbilled appearance by actress Ann Sheridan) who retreats up into a two-story structure - labeled with a sign in Spanish: "CUARTOS AMUEBLADOS" (meaning "Furnished Rooms for Rent").

When the white-suited American is asked a third time for money, he becomes irritated and rebukes him for his parasitism. The dejected panhandler apologizes, explaining that he is ashamed to be asking for pesos and cannot look his marks/benefactors in the eye. He is given two more pesos coins so that he won't forget his promise to "never put the bite" on him again. Dobbs is warned by the Man in the White Suit that his philanthropy will cease:

White Suit: Such impudence never came my way. Early this afternoon I gave you money. When I was having my shoes polished, I gave you more money. Now you put the bite on me again. Do me a favor, will ya? Go occasionally to somebody else. It's beginning to get tiresome.
Dobbs: Oh, excuse me, mister. I never knowed it was you. I never looked at your face. I just looked at your hands and the money you gave me. Beg my pardon, mister. I promise I'll never put the bite on you again.
White Suit: (He hands over a peso.) This is the very last you get from me. Just to make sure you don't forget your promise, here's another peso. (He hands him a second peso.) ...But from now on, you have to make your way through life without my assistance.

[The in-joke is that the director often provided the livelihood for Bogart by having him star in six of his films, including The Maltese Falcon (1941), Across the Pacific (1942), and Key Largo (1948). Incidentally, Huston also wrote the screenplay for High Sierra (1941), another Bogey vehicle.]

Outside a cantina, the bum panhandles from another mark - an entrepreneur with an oil-rigging outfit who instead offers him a construction job to rig a camp - "it's hard work but good pay...Eight bucks American a day." Dobbs is enticed to accept work from the seemingly-benevolent contractor Pat McCormick (Barton MacLane): "I'm your man." As they walk to the ferry, they pass a store display with stiff male and female mannequins dressed in wedding attire - lifelessly advertising and selling love to the masses. At the landing, Dobbs recognizes one of the work gang, a motley, haggard crew of drifters and soldiers of fortune, as the man with whom he had a conversation on the bench during the morning. In the darkness of night, the ferry whistle blows, the gate swings closed, and fifty men are ferried into the jungle.

They work long, back-breaking hours in the steam, smoke and hellish, tropical heat of the camp rigging and erecting an oil derrick: "It's a hundred and thirty in the shade an' there ain't any shade up there on that derrick." Their pay is withheld until the job is done, but they are promised a bonus if they finish within two weeks. When they "step off the ferry" in Tampico after the job is done, McCormick promises the two panhandlers that he must go to the office and pick up the payroll. He gives them ten pesos in advance and promises to meet them about an hour later at the cantina right off the Plaza.

By seven o'clock that evening, the two have been drinking in the cantina waiting for McCormick - and they're left high and dry. Another customer has experienced the contractor's reputation for absconding with funds and lets them know about McCormick's shady character - he fleeces "foreigners and half-baked Americans." Early on, they share tribulation together - having learned the lesson that when money is involved, no one can be trusted:

Only foreigners and half-baked Americans fall for McCormick's tricks...I mean he hires dumb guys like you to work for him, and when it comes time to pay off, he takes a powder.

The younger American, named Curtin (B-movie actor Tim Holt), asks the mangy American drifter Dobbs how many centavos are left between them and wonders whether they can afford a bed in a cockroach-infested flophouse. Dobbs tells Curtin about some cheap sleeping quarters for the night: "I know a joint that's full of rats, scorpions, and cockroaches. The cots are only fifty centavos a night." In Dormitorio "El Oso Negro," the two check in and move down the narrow aisle between rows of cots on which other disinherited Americans are sitting or lying.

They pass by and overhear a scruffy, experienced, eccentric, toothless old gold prospector named Howard (Walter Huston, the director's father) who has gathered an enthralled audience while describing the adventurous hunt for gold:

Howard: Gold in Mexico? Why sure there is. Not ten days from here by rail and pack train, there's a mountain waitin' for the right guy to come along, discover her treasure, and then tickle her until she lets him have it. The question is, are you the right guy? Aw, real bonanzas are few and far between that take a lot of finding. Say, answer me this one, will ya? Why's gold worth some twenty bucks an ounce?
Another man: I don't know. 'Cause it's scarce.
Howard: A thousand men, say, go searchin' for gold. After six months, one of 'em's lucky - one out of the thousand. His find represents not only his own labor but that of 999 others to boot. That's uh, 6,000 months, uh, 500 years scrambling over mountains, goin' hungry and thirsty. An ounce of gold, mister, is worth what it is because of the human labor that went into the findin' and the gettin' of it.
Man: Never thought of it just like that...
Howard: Well, there's no other explanation, mister. Gold itself ain't good for nothin' except for makin' jewelry with, and gold teeth.

The shrewdly wise, grizzled and garrulous Howard continues to regale the others (including Dobbs and Curtin now) with his lighthearted tales about the seductive, "devilish" lure of gold. The old prospector's stories of gold-mining fire their imaginations as he describes how greed usually takes its toll on treasure-seekers:

Aw, gold's a devilish sort of a thing anyway. You start out to tell yourself you'll be satisfied with 25,000 handsome smackers worth of it, so help me Lord and cross my heart. Fine resolution. After months of sweatin' yourself dizzy and growin' short on provisions and findin' nothin', you finally come down to 15,000 and then 10. Finally you say, 'Lord, let me just find $5,000 dollars worth and I'll never ask for anything more the rest of my life.'...Yeah, here in this joint, it seems like a lot. But I tell you, if you was to make a real strike, you couldn't be dragged away. Not even the threat of miserable death wouldn't keep you from tryin' to add $10,000 more. $10,000, you'd want to get 25. $25,000, you'd want to get 50. $50,000, a 100. Like roulette. One more turn, you know, always one more.

Half-drunk, Dobbs can't restrain himself and interrupts the conversation:

It wouldn't be that way with me. I swear it wouldn't. I'd take only what I set out to get, even if there was still a half a million dollars worth lying around waitin' to be picked up.

The crusty old Howard looks at Dobbs and then continues with stories to his fellow "down-and-outers." He recalls his past gold quests all over the world - as though he hadn't been interrupted. He ends his tales of experience (when he witnessed "what gold does to men's souls") by describing how the noble, friendly, and solid intentions of gold-seekers vanished after gold was discovered:

Howard: I've dug in Alaska and Canada and Colorado. I was with the crowd in the British Honduras where I made my fare back home and almost enough over to cure me of the fever I'd caught. Dug in California and Australia. All over the world practically. Yeah, I know what gold does to men's souls
Another man: You talk as though you struck it rich sometime or other, Pop. How about it? Then what are you doin' in here, a down-and-outer?
Howard: That's gold, that's what it makes us. Never knew a prospector yet that died rich. Make one fortune, he's sure to blow it in tryin' to find another. I'm no exception to the rule. Aw sure, I'm a gnawed old bone now, but say, don't you guys think the spirit's gone. I'm all set to shoulder a pickax and a shovel anytime anybody's willin' to share expenses. I'd rather go by myself. Going it alone's the best way. But you got to have a stomach for loneliness. Some guys go nutty with it. On the other hand, goin' with a partner or two is dangerous. Murderers always lurkin' about. Partners accusin' each other of all sorts of crimes. Aw, as long as there's no find, the noble brotherhood will last. But when the piles of gold begin to grow, that's when the trouble starts

After listening to the philosophical old-timer speak about the destabilizing effects of wealth, Curtin and Dobbs share their own reactions:

Curtin: Me, now, I wouldn't mind a little of that kind of trouble.
Dobbs: I think I'll go to sleep and dream about piles of gold gettin' bigger and bigger and bigger...

The next afternoon on the Plaza bench while they lounge about, Curtin and Dobbs contemplate Howard's warnings of what lusting for gold can do to a man's soul. Although Howard has wisely warned them that the desire for wealth is tremendously destructive (causing greed, distrust, and hatred), they haven't been persuaded by his prophetic remarks to stop dreaming about sudden wealth. They deny their own vulnerability when Dobbs asserts that gold isn't inherently evil ("gold can be as much of a blessing as a curse"). He is assured that he will be the unique "right guy" - the one who won't be affected by gold's perennial curse:

Dobbs: Do you believe what that old man who was doin' all the talkin' at the Oso Negro said the other night about gold changin' a man's soul so that he ain't the same kind of a guy that he was before findin' it?
Curtin: Guess that all depends on the man.
Dobbs: That's exactly what I say. Gold don't carry any curse with it. It all depends on whether or not the guy who finds it is the right guy. The way I see it, gold can be as much of a blessing as a curse.


Next Page