#377) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
OR “Gold Diggers of 1925”
Directed & Written by John Huston. Based on the novel by B. Traven.
Class of 1990
The Plot: American Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) is a drifter in 1925 Tampico looking for work. He meets fellow ex-pat Bob Curtin (Tim Holt!) and veteran prospector Howard (Walter Huston), who talks about the blessing and curse connected with striking gold. After winning a small jackpot in a lottery, Dobbs convinces the two men to join him on a prospecting expedition in the Sierra Madre Mountains. When the group finds a large supply of placer gold, tensions start to rise between them, just as Howard predicted. Even with a suspicious Texan (Bruce Bennett) and a group of banditos on their trail, the men’s biggest threat may turn out to be each other.
Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film an “intense character study” and praises Bogart’s “outstanding” performance.
But Does It Really?: “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” is one of those movies that I knew was a classic before knowing anything else about it. I liked the film, and I understand and agree with its status among the classics, but it didn’t wow me the way I had hoped it would. Perhaps the film’s reputation raises expectations a little too high. That being said, “Sierra Madre” is a well-crafted character study with strong performances from Bogart and Huston, and has aged far better than many other films of the era. My indifference cannot dent “Sierra Madre” or its ongoing influence on film.
Everybody Gets One: “Sierra Madre” novelist B. Traven is one of the literary world’s most elusive characters. His true identity has never been verified, though the most widely accepted theory is that he was German socialist Ret Marut. During production of “Sierra Madre”, John Huston corresponded with Traven’s attorney Hal Croves, who served as the film’s technical advisor. Many, including Huston’s wife Evelyn Keyes, speculated that Croves was really B. Traven, but this could never be confirmed.
Wow, That’s Dated: While the Mexican characters are far more diverse here than in other movies of the era (and are played by Mexicans and Mexican-Americans), everyone still sounds like a Speedy Gonzales cartoon.
Seriously, Oscars?: A critical and commercial hit, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” received four Academy award nominations, and took home three. It was a big night for the Huston family: John won Best Director and Adapted Screenplay, and Walter won Best Supporting Actor, making them the first Oscar-winning father and son duo. In a surprise win, 1948’s Best Picture was Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet”, the first non-American film to win the top prize, and another step towards the fall of the studio system.
- “Sierra Madre” was among the first Hollywood films to shoot outside of the United States, in this case Durango, Mexico, with additional shots in Tampico, the novel’s setting. Production was briefly shut down in Tampico when a newspaper article suggested the film was slanderous to Mexico. It was soon revealed that the story was completely fabricated by a newspaper editor accustomed to receiving bribes from visiting businesses.
- John Huston cast himself as the American who gives Dobbs money. It’s a peek at Huston’s future second career as a character actor specializing in powerful figures.
- Speaking of cameos: the young boy selling lottery tickets is future actor/alleged murderer Robert Blake.
- How many film directors would cast their dad in a key role? Cries of nepotism are unnecessary with a performance as good as Walter Huston’s. John had to convince his father not only to play the part, but also to do so without his false teeth.
- During the trio’s trek to the Sierra Madre, you can clearly hear the oft-used Kookaburra noise. For the record, the kookaburra is native to Australia and New Guinea, not Mexico.
- I think Walter Huston’s goal was to say all his lines as quickly as possible. It definitely spices up the proceedings. And look at him dance!
- Bogie was pushing 50 during production, closer in age to Walter Huston than to Tim Holt, despite referring to Huston’s character as an old man. This supports my theory that Dobbs was written as a younger man.
- With its themes of greed and the power of wealth, this movie would make a good companion piece to “La Perla”.
- Athlete turned actor Bruce Bennett can be a little wooden in his scenes, but his natural stiffness works far better here than it did in “Mildred Pierce”.
- Mexican born Alfonso Bedoya emigrated to Texas in 1918, and after a series of odd-jobs, made it to California and became a character actor. After 15 years of steady film work in both Hollywood and Mexico (mostly playing banditos), Bedoya was cast as Gold Hat and uttered the immortal line, “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!”
- The juxtaposition from on-location shooting to studio reshoots is quite jarring.
- Humphrey Bogart nails Dobb’s descent into paranoia; a full 180 from his usual cool, stoic persona. Bogie’s lack of an Oscar nomination is still considered one of the Academy’s biggest oversights.
- Shoutout to Tim Holt, who is…also in this movie? It’s not that Holt is bad, his character just doesn’t get much to do. And placed alongside such powerhouses as Bogart and Huston, Holt is easily overshadowed.
- Just a reminder that this movie has virtually no female characters, and the ones it does have speak minimal, inconsequential dialogue.
- Uh-oh, Dobbs’ obsession is making him monologue in the desert. He’s gone full “Emperor Jones”!
- I’m very disappointed that during Dobbs’ final confrontation with Gold Hat he doesn’t say, “I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ matches!”
- “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” is one of those classic movies whose ending was spoiled for me long before I saw it. Perhaps this prevented my viewing experience from being more positive. Fortunately, the final shot still surprised me.
- “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” continues to be hailed as a classic and an inspiration to filmmakers, but its primary legacy is a line that’s not in the movie. “We don’t need no stinkin’ badges” first appeared in, of all things, a 1967 episode of “The Monkees”, and is now one of filmdom’s most iconic mis-quotes.
- A final reminder that John Huston, the Oscar-winning writer/director of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, would go on to direct “Annie”.