The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

John Huston | 2hr 6min

At times it feels as if every post-1940s representation of greed on film in some way comes back to that immortal figure of madness at the centre of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The image of Fred C. Dobbs talking to himself as he spirals into a whirlwind of paranoia bleeds into the characterisation of Gollum from The Lord of the Rings and Spike Lee’s screenplay for Da 5 Bloods. John Huston’s writing of a potentially great man whose hollow pursuit of riches leaves him with a corrupt, rotten soul also manifests in the arc of Jordan Belfort from The Wolf of Wall Street, as well as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. There is something distinct about Dobbs’ treachery though, especially with it being so rooted in Western genre archetypes that form part of a greater narrative about humanity’s attempts to tame wild, natural lands beyond their control.

The adventure and shooting typically found in other films of this genre is not entirely missing here, though it does play a secondary role to the drama unfolding among the three American prospectors traversing Mexican mountainsides, and their conflicts with the locals. They do not belong in these parts, but the older ex-miner Howard possesses a little bit more experience, providing sage counsel and wisdom in their endeavours. “I know what gold does to men’s souls,” he warns ominously, and Huston thus sets in motion a cautionary tale that turns the weak-willed Dobbs into a mistrustful, insatiable, and vindictive creature, prepared to kill his friends in anticipation of their betrayal, as well as to enact his own. As he lays down behind the campfire with a haunted, wide-eyed expression, the flames continue to flicker up higher and higher, roasting him in a hellish image of spiritual damnation.

A striking, hellish image as Dobbs descends deeper into his madness.
There is a solid argument for this as Bogart’s single greatest performance, and one of the best of the 1940s.

With such magnificent direction backing it up, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is hugely significant in solidifying Huston’s status as an all-time great filmmaker, though it is just as much a major achievement for Humphrey Bogart who steps far outside the realm of hardboiled detective roles to deliver a ground-breaking performance of pure insanity. He is in full command of his rambling monologues, many of which are directed to no one but himself, and in close-ups Huston sticks us with his sweaty, tanned face, at times twisted in wicked, cackling expressions. In the darkness Dobbs appears as a truly formidable figure, though in the broad light of day Huston’s superb use of deep focus cinematography and open, natural spaces allows some remarkable formations in the blocking of his actors, painting out this web of thorny relationships in great detail.

Magnificent blocking integral to Huston’s visual storytelling.

Perhaps the most important element of Huston’s staging is the framing of Dobbs and his companions against these graceful yet imposing mountains, wearing them down with bandits, deadly animals, and collapsing goldmines. Even as Dobbs digs deeper into his delusion, there remains an organic, circular flow to this environment. While the younger prospectors don’t dwell too long on the damage they have caused, Howard recognises the need to respect to the ecosystem he has plundered by closing up the “wounds” he has made in it.

Staggering actors through the foreground and background, making use of the landscape’s natural terrain.

Even then though, there remains a strange, auspicious mysticism in the earth’s efforts to claim back that which was taken from it. Friends and strangers alike murder each other to claim ownership over those tiny grains of gold extracted from the mountainside, and yet all their self-centred efforts are so quickly undercut by the simple winds of fate blowing in from across the ranges. “The gold has gone back to where we found it,” Howard roars with laughter, recognising in equal awe and amusement the absurd joke that the universe has played on them. Not everyone gets off so lightly, especially as Dobbs finds himself cowering beneath the lethal blows of bandits who send him to an end fitting of his obsessive mistrust. In this way, poetic justice finds its way home in each of Huston’s character arcs, orchestrated by some omnipresent force of nature that gives and takes in cyclical motions, ultimately carrying The Treasure of the Sierra Madre through to an end that leaves almost everyone no better or worse off than before – minus those individuals who tried and failed to exploit the earth’s resources in order to build self-serving worlds of delusion and greed.

Dobbs’ fate catching up with him, revealed in a single haunting reflection.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

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