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.

The Red Shoes (1948)

Michael Powell | 2hr 14min

When the much-touted Ballet of the Red Shoes finally opens for Ballet Lermontov, Michael Powell sets us a good distance back in the audience to watch the majestic red curtains slowly part. For a brief moment we might believe we are going to watch a small excerpt of this adaptation of the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale play out from this angle, perhaps before fading into the bows, or the audience reaction afterwards. What we get instead is a 17-minute sequence of musical, cinematic bliss that may lay honest claim to the greatest demonstration of Technicolor on film in the 1940s. 
  
As the stage disappears, we are immersed in a vibrant, expressionist world that towers far taller than any regular theatre ceiling. The camera moves with vigour, following the young heroine as she dances through elaborate, layered compositions of carnivals, oceans, clifftops, and undefined, surreal nightmares. Forcing her to keep moving along are her magical red shoes, sold to her by a mysterious street peddler, whose long, daunting shadow later clutches at her when she tries to rid herself of the curse and return home. Canted angles, montages, visual effects which teleport the young woman from one setting to the next – Powell is throwing his full arsenal of stylistic techniques at this ballet, pulling us into the mind of both the bewitched young heroine and the woman who plays her, Vicky. Acting out this heightened, fantastical microcosm of reality, Vicky imagines the two opposing forces in her character’s life as the most important men in her own, marvellously super-imposed over their counterparts.

The proscenium arch disappears as Powell lets these expressionist, theatrical sets become an entire world.
Inexorable ambition, both in Vicky and the character she plays in The Ballet of the Red Shoes.
Still in the early days of Technicolor film, Powell was crafting all-time wonderful images such as these.
The challenge here is choosing only a few images to lift from this breath-taking 17-minute dance sequence, which disappears into boundless imagination.

This extended, wordless interlude splits the film into two halves, the first of which follows Vicky and her musical collaborator, Julian, along two intertwining paths of ambition. At first they circle each other in theatres and rehearsal rooms, and then over time their innocent interactions evolve into a kind, tender love. They are still set on their careers, but the sharp words of their strict mentor, Boris Lermontov, hang over Vicky’s head as she falls prey to her romantic desires. 

“The dancer who relies on the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer.” 

Regardless of whether this is universally true, Lermontov creates a self-fulfilling prophecy merely in speaking these words, forcing a gut-wrenching choice upon Vicky. By invoking the Red Shoes in his final temptation, he comes to personify them, setting in motion the same downfall as that suffered by her character. Powell often bridges scenes with elegant long dissolves, and after one particularly warm embrace between Vicky and Julian he uses such a fade to impose the next shot of Lermontov over the top, shattering the romance with his threatening presence. 

It’s not just Powell’s colours that astound, but also his long dissolves working to combine images as we see here.

Beyond the stage, Powell’s displays of rich colour and theatrical lighting make their way into offices, dressing rooms, and rehearsal spaces, surrounding our three leads in a world of spectacle. There is detail in the arrangement of hues as tiny as the fruits which lay across Lermontov’s desk upon his first meeting with Julian, and then on the corner of the table, our eyes are drawn to a vivid flourish of orange flowers. From here, blossoms continue to adorn almost every interior in this film, with the full spectrum of coloured petals growing in number as Vicky finds more success in her pursuit of greatness. 

From Julian and Boris’ first meeting…
…to Victoria’s final show. Flowers are everywhere, always vibrant in their multi-coloured beauty.
Matching costumes to the surrounding décor, 16 years before Jacques Demy would make it part of his stylistic repertoire in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

As for her internal struggle between lifestyles, Powell chooses to represent this with red and white patterns, splashing these colours of passion and tranquillity across her wide-eyed, sweaty face and lavish costumes. I don’t believe it is a coincidence that the same scheme is used to similar effect in Black Narcissus, or that these are two of the best displays of Technicolor in Powell’s career. His control over these very specific palettes all through The Red Shoes goes beyond the crafting of immaculate compositions, as it furthermore binds us so tightly to Vicky’s mental state, that we can’t help but be plunged right into the psychological depths of her pure, self-destructive ambition.

A pair of images from Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, Powell returning to his red and white colour palette in makeup and costume as a reflection of passion and purity.
A gorgeous melding of blocking, architecture, and colours in this stunning composition.

The Red Shoes is available to stream on SBS On Demand and The Criterion Channel, and available to rent or buy on iTunes.