Director John Huston makes a small cameo at the beginning of his 1948 masterpiece. He plays a gentleman repeatedly asked for money by the penniless Fred C. Dobbs. With his commanding presence, he gives Dobbs two pesos the third time around, tells Dobbs to stop pestering him and walks away. This scene subtly hints at the sense of command and control Huston has over this tightly constructed and engaging film. His onscreen appearance is brief, but his presence can be felt throughout the movie.
Humphrey Bogart stars as Fred C. Dobbs, a man whose greed and thirst for gold is at the center of the film. Tired of working dead-end jobs and begging for money, Dobbs bands together with young Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) and the much older Howard (Walter Huston, father of the film’s director) to find gold in the Sierra Madre mountains. The movie starts off as a Western-esque adventure with the three men searching for gold, but it soon becomes a serious look at greed and the darkest depths of human nature.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of the most visually impressive American films of its time. While many black and white films depicting the old West or Mexico feel flat, the textures of this film can be sensed through the screen with hellish campfires at night and suffocating dust in the air. Director Huston is largely known for film noirs like The Maltese Falcon, and the same atmosphere is present as the characters move through the night, untrusting of the men who are their partners. The visual compositions of this film reflect the weariness of the characters and the disturbing sense of paranoia always bubbling under the surface.
The characters are played with such authority and complexity by the leading actors. Bogart’s performance is much darker and crueler than anything else he has ever done. With his sand-caked beard, Dobbs mutters under his breath and laughs hysterically as he is driven to madness by his greed for gold. After walking through the mountains alone, he stumbles upon a dirty creek and rushes to drink water and wash his face. The performance teeters brilliantly between tragic hysteria and comical desperation. While Bogart did not receive the Oscar for his performance, Walter Huston grabbed the Academy Award for supporting actor with his turn as a wise but delightfully loony prospector. Few images in American film history are as memorable as old Howard joyously dancing over the gold Dobbs is too stupid to even notice under his feet. The casual tone with which he informs Dobbs and Curtin they have wasted water on fool’s good is characterized by great wisdom, but the madness with which he laughs at the end of the film is both humorous and disturbing.
These two performances are often talked about, and deservedly so, but I feel the brilliance of Tim Holt’s performance is overlooked. He offers a sense of steadiness compared to the dynamic characters of Bogart and Huston. Consider his deadpan look of confusion at Huston’s maniacal laughter or his cold expression when he takes out a deadly lizard with his handgun. His character acts as a crucial foil to the ever-present madness in the film.
This cynical film asks questions about obsession, probing into some of the deepest issues of the American Dream. At the same time, the movie is never unfair to its characters, and we never get the sense that director Huston dislikes people. He simply has a keen understanding of the capacity for man to corrupt. It is a film with dark humor, tragedy and even hints of optimism. Winning the Best Director Oscar for his work on this film, John Huston takes his delicious screenplay, the vivid sets and locations and the talented actors (including his own father), and he presents us with a piece of art that still resonates to this very day.