What can you say about this classic film that hasn’t been said in the past 70 years?
It’s a spectacular film of greed and betrayal, the loss of sanity and the outer bounds of trust.
Shamefully, I admit to only recently seeing the film from start to finish. I’ve watched it twice now, simply to drink in all the nuances and textures in the characters and twists in the story.
This is a hot, sweaty film of desperation, of men who’s luck is a roller coaster, chasing a dream and having it snatched from from their hands. While it takes place in the dusty Mexican mountains, the film’s themes are found in the American Dream. In fact, the best known line from the film: “its the stuff dreams are made of.”
The story is fairly straightforward, two down-on-their-luck men meet up with an old prospector in Mexico, pool their meager resources, and seek to find gold in the Sierra Madre mountains. It’s the Great Depression and everyone is looking to catch a break.
The three men make an odd business team. Once they find gold, and they find a lot of it, their trouble really begins. Their good fortune is immediately tested. There are bandits in the mountains, an obvious threat, but it’s each other that provides the most dangerous challenge.
The film stars Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston and Tim Holt. All three deliver award-caliber performances, with Huston picking up both an Oscar and Golden Globe for his role. The film was adapted from a novel and directed by Huston’s son, John Huston, who picked up Oscars for in both categories.
If you want a detailed synopsis of the film, go here.
Finding gold was the easy part. Let’s just say, the trio have a difficult time hanging into their treasure. Besides contending with the bandits, another prospector, Cody, an American shows up to invite himself to be part of their club. He’s fast-talking and backs them into a corner. He a threat to their delicate unity and quickly raises unsavory behavior as they discuss murdering him as an option.
The three prospectors grapple with the decision to murder him, and struggle with pulling it off when bandits arrive. Their partnership conflict is immediately set aside, as all four dig in and fight until the bandits suddenly pull out. The Mexican army has appeared and have the bandits on the run.
In the battle with the bandits, Cody has been killed, thus saving them from doing the deed. Among his effects, they discover his letters. As they read them, they learn he’s a struggling man with a family, trying to survive the Depression. Like them, he’s hoping to strike it rich so he can return to his normal life. They may not have liked his technique of pushing his way into their group, but Cody only asked to be a full partner of the gold they found together. Reasonable terms, but now he’s dead, and there’s a cloud of guilt hanging over two of them.
Between Cody and the bandits, the prospectors felt threatened and it escalated their fight or flight reaction. Not only did this bring out thoughts of murder, but it has produced a crack in their relationships with each other. Dobbs, the Bogart character, is the least stable of the three, quick to pull a gun, he’s already begun his deep descent into paranoia.
The “treasure” in the title is more a metaphor for finding one’s destiny, rather than the sudden discovery of gold. The destiny of each man is different. For some, it is an unfortunately death, for others, it is purpose and fulfillment.
Bogart provides a grim and unnerving performance as Dobbs, with a quick-trigger temper and a feeling he is being taken for a ride. He’s used to getting the short end of the stick so he projects that victimization with even those he is supposed to trust. This is one of Bogart’s best performances, equally good if not better than The Caine Mutiny or The African Queen. Dobbs has an unfortunate end, perhaps it is required by the Motion Picture Code, that bad behavior must suffer the consequences. Strangely, Bogart was not nominated for an Academy Award for his performance.
Holt plays Curtin, who may be the most virtuous of the three, even though he votes to kill Cody. It is Curtin who Dobbs tries to murder and survives. Curtin wants to provide Cody’s widow a share of the gold, and in the end, decides to travel to the United States to find her. Is he feeling a responsibility to share what meager resources he has, or does he want to take the dead man’s place in her life? Either way, Curtin has a purpose and a sense of moral responsibility guiding him.
The elder Huston plays Howard, who seems to make the best of whatever life gives him. He’s more pragmatic than the others and is apt to play a con if it has purpose. He helps save a native boy and becomes revered by the villagers for his medical powers, even though he didn’t really do anything to save the boy, who recovered on his own. He likes his new status and decides to stay with the villagers in his exulted position. For him, this is the life.
The film shot on location in Mexico, went over budget and had a variety of production and location challenges. Recognized as a classic (although not at the time), it still had trouble earning back its production cost, the 50th grossing film of the year. One of the few films with a 100 percent critics rating from rottentomatoes.com.