If the boxoffice is currently ailing from an over-diet of films that look too much alike, then this production is what the doctor ordered. “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” is not only radically different, but it’s a distinguished work that will take its place in the repertory of Hollywood’s great and enduring achievements.
The picture has a compelling honesty. It’s a grim and brutal slice of life whose raw elements have been ordered onto the plane of tragedy through a terrific twist of irony. There’s a magnificent joker hidden at bottom, but spectators will find it so grisly and so bitter that this film moves out of the class of simple entertainment into the realm of vivid experience. With Humphrey Bogart as the marquee lure, however, strong positive reaction at the wickets is even assured from rank-and-file filmgoers who insist upon their happy fadeouts.
“Sierra Madre,” adapted from the popular novel by B. Traven, is a story of psychological disintegration under the crushers of greed and gold. But director John Huston, who also wrote the lean and brilliant screenplay, has completely avoided the cliche structure of the whilom psycho dramas. The characters here are probed and thoroughly penetrated, not through psychoanalysis but through a crucible of human conflict, action, gesture and expressive facial tones. Huston, with an extraordinary assist in the thesping department from his father, Walter Huston, has fashioned this standout film with an unfailing sensitivity for the suggestive detail and an uncompromising commitment to reality, no matter how stark ugly it may be.
Except for some incidental femmes who have no bearing on the story, it’s an all-male cast headed by Bogart, Huston and Tim Holt. They play the central parts of three gold prospectors who start out for pay dirt in the Mexican mountains as buddies, but wind up in a murderous tangle at the finish. Lensed for most part on location, the film has, at least, a physical aspect of rugged beauty against which is contrasted the human sordidness. The location shots combine with the pic’s realistic focus into a powerful authenticity, but director Huston skirts the documentary’s trap by sacrificing depth for realism.
Bogart, who was getting tired in his repetitious assignment as the indestructible private eye, comes through with a performance as memorable as his first major film role in “The Petrified Forest” was in 1935. Bogart is no hero, which may prove disappointing to his fans. In this film, he’s a surly panhandler with a moral fibre as run down as his heels. After the three prospectors strike gold, Bogart is the first to sink into a bog of fear, suspicion and hatred for his comrades. In a remarkably controlled portrait, he progresses to the edge of madness without losing sight of the subtle shadings needed to establish persuasiveness.
Walter Huston, as an old miner who guides Bogart and Holt out of a Tampico flophouse to the Sierra Madre’s treasure, contributes a performance that would have stolen the picture if director Huston had not been so careful in marshalling all the players in a superbly balanced team. But Huston’s crusty characterization merges with the terrain as naturally as Mexican cactus. His energy and mobility are immense, and his warmth and humor provide the only pleasant spots in the film.
As the third fortune-hunter, Tim Holt also registers effectively in a simple but honest portrayal of a good-hearted Texan cowhand who finds himself in a nasty predicament. In a lesser part, Bruce Bennett, as a wandering prospector who strays onto the others’ stake, shows a highly polished talent. Among the film’s many notable qualities is the skill with which all of the bit roles are played by the anonymous Mexican and Indian personnel.
The plot mechanism winds up with a growing hatred between Bogart, on one hand, and Huston and Holt on the other. Bogart, after an attempted murder of Holt, makes off with all the piles of gold dust only to meet some Mexican bandits who kill him. The ironic jest is sprung with the bandits’ ripping open of the saddle bags and finding only dirt instead of animal skins, scatter the gold to the winds. It’s a sort of grim joke the film public will remember but won’t laugh at.
1948: Best Director, Best Supp. Actor (Walter Huston), Screenplay.
Nomination: Best Picture