There’s a thrill in seeing an actor you’ve come to associate with gentle kindness or sterling heroism play a complete heel. The soft-spoken Albert Brooks is about two-thirds of the reason you should watch Drive. Henry Fonda’s leering killer Frank makes Once Upon a Time in the West unforgettable. People lost their minds over Nicole Kidman in Snow White and the Huntsman, or Angelina Jolie as Maleficent. Even Jet Li seems like he’s having more fun when he’s being a villain (and nobody’s bitch). All of them have the range to pull it off, no doubt, but it feels transgressive precisely because, most of the time, their on-screen personas are heroic or sympathetic roles.
Part of what makes The Treasure of the Sierra Madre a cut above its pulp plot is that it’s got another great heel turn: Humphrey Bogart’s Dobbs. The difference is in how the ratty, desperate, manic vagrant-turned-prospector somehow seems like it fits Bogey like a glove. There’s rarely been an actor since who plays wounded as well as Hollywood’s most distinctive leading man of 1948. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was a chance for the actor who had already given the world antiheroes like Casablanca’s Rick Blaine and The Maltese Falcon’s Sam Spade to become a character whose flaws actually sink him for good. He looks gritty and gaunt and miserable the whole picture, and you wonder how the studio was convinced to sign off on it.
In the 1920s in Tampico, Mexico, an American, Dobbs (Bogart), has lost everything and is bumming around on the streets, begging fellow Americans for pocket change. He eventually falls in with Curtin (Western B-movie stalwart Tim Holt), and the two take on a grueling job offered by a slick-talking American that sees them loaded on a boat to go out to oil platforms. The man swears up and down that he’ll pay them, then vanishes. Curtin and Dobbs eventually stumble across him. The stiffed workers get their money, and their former boss gets an infamous mention in the greatest beatdowns in cinema history.
The two sleep off their hard-fought earnings in a seedy flophouse alongside an old prospector, Howard (Walter Huston, director John Huston’s father, and an actor known for playing everything from a terrifyingly earnest fascist dictator to the devil himself). The wheel of fortune has turned many times for the old tramp, but the two younger men decide that his stories of prospecting for gold are worth a shot. After all, with his forewarnings about how greed destroys men, they couldn’t possibly fall prey to it. Right?
The trio scrape together the money they have and head into the wilds of Mexico to seek gold. If the movie looks rough and wild, if the actors look sun-baked and exhausted, it’s because it was actually shot on location in Mexico, one of the first Hollywood films ever to do so. You might think, as you watch this, that actual Latino actors portraying the characters, Huston speaking pretty decent Spanish (he learned phonetically, following the lead of a dialogue coach) and a fairly respectful portrayal of the local culture are pretty refreshing for a 1948 film! Consider then, that because it was coming off of World War II, the United States had a very deferential policy toward Mexico in the interest of promoting good relations with Central and South America, a policy upheld even by the likes of Donald Duck.
After dragging ass through the wilderness for days and days, the boys strike gold. If you’ve ever wondered where the stereotypes of the crazed, knee-slappin’, dancin’ prospector who’s struck GOLD, GOLD, GOLD!!! come from, well, it was Walter Huston in this movie.
Soon, the three have filled their sacks with gold dust: Mundane in appearance, but worth the kind of money that will make the men rich for the rest of their days. As their piles accumulate, Dobbs begins to become distrustful and covetous. It’s here, finally, that his performance becomes interesting. Bogart was such a compelling hero precisely because he never looked or acted like one: There’s barely been a meaner mug since, and it’s hard to think of an actor today who fills the same kind of role with a background as hard. Born in 1899, he called himself a “last century man,” and he joined the Navy in 1918 after dropping out of prestigious schools. War for an 18-year-old was, he reflected, “great stuff. Paris! Sexy French girls! Hot damn!” When Bogart played men of the world beaten down by hard times in piano bars alongside refugees and cads, you got the impression it wasn’t a stretch.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is the appearance where Bogie’s gritty heroism turns into gritty villainy, and it feels natural, like this was always something that might’ve happened to Rick or Spade if you’d put them in this same exact situation. But Dobbs isn’t the only one soured and twisted by greed and self-interest. When a fellow American follows Curtin back to camp and demands a cut of the mountain’s yield as hush money, the three collectively decide to bump him off: Even the gentle and wise old Howard decides to go along with his younger colleagues’ murderous decision. In one of the great ironies in American film, their plot is interrupted by banditos, and the four must fight alongside one another or die. In the course of driving off their common enemy, their extorter is killed anyway, and they read the last heartbreaking letter his faithful wife sent him.
You think for a bit that this has taught Dobbs the lesson of the film: Gold comes and goes, but fellowship and love are things money can’t buy. He does not learn it, and in the final reel betrays his comrades and tries to make off with all $105,000 of their spoils. By the time Howard and Curtin catch up to him, Dobbs has lost literally everything, and the two faithful companions are left with nothing. But as Curtin ruefully points out, he had nothing when he began the expedition, and he at least still has his life. Howard, meanwhile, has inked a deal with the local indigenous tribe to be their Mighty Whitey, and who could ask for more?
The true identity of the author B. Traven, who wrote the 1927 novel on which the film is fairly faithfully based, has never been confirmed: The writer submitted their manuscripts through intermediaries, nobody confirmed their identity, and the matter was mysterious enough that the BBC aired a documentary film about it in 1980. It’s been posited that the author may have been a German anarchist, and it should be said that the book is more explicitly anti-capitalist than the movie, which shifts its indictments away from industrialism and more toward the inherent greed of man.
Where the novel made things clearer was in drawing a distinction between greed and desperation, the former a primal human affliction and the latter a condition imposed upon us by those so afflicted. We can say circumstances drove Dobbs out into the desert and to gold-induced madness, but the circumstances, in the novel, are that capitalism and industrialism are conquering the world and the Mexico of the 1920s is beginning to fight back: Part of the book is about how Mexican workers are suddenly less attractive to assholes like the foreman who swindled Dobbs and Curtin because those Mexican workers now demand eight-hour workdays.
The film obscured some of that, but the subtext and the context are still there in its setting, still inherently part of Huston, Holt and Bogart’s performances. Here in 2023, when eggs are for no credible reason expensive enough to pay in installments, companies are fighting unions tooth and nail, and the tech and media sectors have decided to lay off 130,000 people in a year of stratospheric profits, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’s 75-year-old take on the matter still looks a lot like the greed, and the desperation, of today.
Kenneth Lowe is so dumb there’s nothing to compare him to, he’s dumber than the dumbest jackass. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.