Thursday, March 7, 2013

Seeing Is Believing #1 - "The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre"

No matter how much we learn and try, humans beings often end up making the same moral mistakes and end up falling into the same holes repeatedly. The Seven Deadly Sins are probably the best example of this. We can try our whole lives to be the moral and goodhearted people we possibly know, yet we will often fall pray to things like pride, envy, lust or even greed.

Have you ever wanted something so bad that you’d be willing to do anything to get it? Congratulations, you just experienced a feeling of greed. Granted, most people feel this way when they’re young and desire a new toy or their favorite box of cereal, even though their mother says it’s bad for them. What if you were an American living in 1920s Mexico, shortly after the Mexican Revolution, and you have little more than the clothes on your back?

This is the dilemma of three down-and-out characters in John Huston’s 1948 film “The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre.” These three characters are Fred C. Dobbs, an American who can’t catch a break played by Humphrey Bogart, Bob Curtin, a more happy-go-lucky type played by Tim Holt, and Howard, an experienced grizzled and old prospector played by Walter Huston (as in the director’s father).

The film starts in a bustling Mexican city, where Dobbs asks every American he can find to pay for his next meal, which ends up being the same guy three different times. Dobbs ends up mostly buying things like a trip to the barber shop and as much whiskey as he can get his hands on. By the end of the day, he’s flat broke again and finds Curtin at a homeless shelter. 

The next day, Dobbs and Curtin find work helping a “wealthy” Texan build houses. When it comes time for the Texan to pay up, he bails out and refuses to pay a cent to anyone. Dobbs and Curtin find this man in a bar and pulverize the man to get the money that was coming to them. 

The problem is, now they have no idea what to do. They’re surely going to be reported to the police and they’d run out of their money eventually. Suddenly, a stroke of golden fortune hits them, when they recall talking to an old coot in the shelter about an area not too far away that was nearly untouched and had gold as far as they eye could see.

Dobbs and Curtin find Howard back in the shelter and all three put up all of their money to buy the necessary supplies, food, water, mules and guns to go hunting for the treasure of a lifetime in the high mountains of the Mexican terrain. 

One of the main draws to this film is its portrayal of how much greed and paranoia will effect a man’s mind and soul. At the beginning of the film, Fred Dobbs seems like an average relatable guy. He’s in a difficult situation by being an American in a town full of people who just finished a revolution and don’t want to associate with outsiders.

“Some town to be broke in,” says Dobbs. “You know, 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 'til you're three-quarters can beg from another can even commit burglary. You try shinin' shoes in the street, peddlin' lemonade out of a bucket, and your hash is settled. You'll never get another job from an American.”

As the film progresses towards the mountains, Dobbs becomes more relatable as bandits try to rob the train and begins to boast about how many of them he shot down, while Curtin remains rather unaffected by the whole ordeal and Howard just moves on like nothing happened.

It isn’t until the signs of gold start to appear that Dobbs takes a turn for the worst. After their first full day of work, he immediately asks to start splitting the gold into three even piles, and that each man should be responsible for his own stash, including hiding it from the other two.

“This is the country where the nuggets of gold are just crying out for you to take them out of the ground and make 'em shine in coins on the fingers and necks of swell dames,” says Dobbs.

The man that was relatable at the beginning of the movie has turned into a twisted greedy and sort of evil caricature of his former self.

“I think I'll go to sleep and dream about piles of gold getting bigger and bigger and bigger,” says Dobbs. 

The thing that suddenly makes the film a bit more scary and intense is that Dobbs transformation into this monster is realistic and feels like it could happen to someone if they were put in similar situations. Nearly anyone would do the same thing to get that much gold and be set for the rest of their natural lives. It’s the impulsive need within all of us to be greedy.

The scene that personifies this feeling is when one of the three gold hunters has to go into a nearby town for supplies, but none of them are willing to go, especially Dobbs. He’s afraid that if he goes, he’ll be gone for a few days, giving the other two ample time to find his stash of gold. Howard points out that he should take his gold with him then, but then Dobbs becomes paranoid about the lurking murderous bandits nearby and that the gold would only give them more of a reason to rob him.

“If you was to run into bandits, you'd be out of luck anyway. They'd kill you for the shoes on your feet,” says Howard.

Dobbs replies with, “Oh, so that's it. Everything's clear now. You're hoping bandits will get me. That would save you a lot of trouble, wouldn't it? And your consciences wouldn't bother you none, neither.”

Critics often regard Fred C. Dobbs as one of Humphrey Bogart’s best roles, which has tough competition from other classic Bogart films, such as “The Maltese Falcon,” “In A Lonely Place,” “The African Queen” and “Casablanca.”

Eleanor Quin of Turner Classic Movies describes Bogart’s performance as, “[A]n opportunity to shed his suave leading man image created seven years prior in The Maltese Falcon. His character undergoes a moral metamorphosis - from a congenial, average guy to a murderous monster gripped by paranoia.”

By the end of the film, Dobbs reflects on some of the terrible actions he has done to get the gold that he feels rightfully belongs to him, leading to a soliloquy that Roger Ebert believes is up there with many things William Shakespeare wrote. 

“Conscience. What a thing,” says Dobbs. “If you believe you got a conscience it'll pester you to death. But if you don't believe you got one, what could it do t'ya? Makes me sick, all this talking and fussing about nonsense.”

“The Treasure Of The Sierra Made” is a film that John Huston wanted to work on personally since 1941, but because of World War II, it had to be put on hold until after Huston returned from the war. Upon returning, Huston almost immediately flew down to Mexico and wanted to film nearly the entire movie on set, much to the dismay of Jack Warner, the head of Warner Brothers, who has funding the movie. It also didn’t help that the film went way over budget, costing more than three million dollars by the end and took much longer to film than it was expected to. 

Yet Warner was still willing to let Huston continue to make the film his way, mostly because he trusted Huston as a director and because he believed that what they were making was “definitely the greatest motion picture we have ever made."

While it took more than twelve years to make the film, the result was a film with diverse yet interesting characters, a tight and focus story with a crisp and realistic approach, balanced and superb acting from the three main cast members and a message that spoke directly to the human condition of greed and paranoia. That year at the Academy Awards, Walter Huston won the award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Howard, John Huston won for Best Director and Best Screenplay, making it the only year in Academy Award history where a father and son both won awards on the same night.

When I first watched “The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre,” I wasn’t entirely impressed by it. As time went on, I began to appreciate the subtly and underlying tones and themes of the film, as well as the well-written dialogue throughout the film. It was very pleasant to hear and came off very naturally and powerful.

“A thousand men, say, go searchin' for gold. After six months, one of them's lucky: one out of a thousand,” says Howard. “His find represents not only his own labor, but that of nine hundred and ninety-nine others to boot. That's six thousand months, five hundred years, scramblin' over a mountain, 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,”

Ultimately, there is something for everyone to enjoy in “The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre,” wether its the action and suspense throughout, the witty dialogue, the fantastic acting from Bogart and Huston, or the underlying message of how greed can turn respectable and regular people into psychotic and crazy monsters.

“I know what gold does to men’s souls,” says Howard. By the end of the film, you will know what it does as well.

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