There’s a telling anecdote that helps explain the creation of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, John Huston’s 1948 masterpiece. Humphrey Bogart, who would soon star in the film, ran into a film critic in New York. “Wait till you see me in my next picture,” he said. “I play the worst s*** you ever saw.” Bogart had become one of Hollywood’s top leading men since the early 1940s, buoyed by his romantic turn in Casablanca and following years of journeyman work as dastardly gangsters. The turn toward leading roles mostly stuck, but Bogart would occasionally get the itch to play a villain again — only now they would be villainous leads. It’s too simplistic to call him a villain in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but it’s safe to say that it is his most daring role, the one that most displays and expands his talent. Greed has rarely looked so compelling.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre opens in Tampico, Mexico, where Dobbs (Bogart) is a homeless American scrounging for food (and booze). It’s a version of Bogart that we rarely see: tattered clothing, messy hair, a dark stubble threatening to become a beard. Dobbs is also a bitter man. After meeting Curtin (Tim Holt), a fellow American, Dobbs confesses that he’s never even considered the only work that’s easily available to him — shining shoes — because no American would ever hire a shoe shiner to do a more substantial job. And he’s not completely wrong. When Dobbs makes the mistake of asking the same well-dressed American (a Huston cameo) for money more than once in a day, he gets a well-worn speech on the importance of an honest day’s work. Dobbs accidentally asks for money repeatedly because he’s too ashamed to look the wealthy man in the face, but it’s also clear that the wealthy man doesn’t see Dobbs and the reality of his circumstances.
While holed up in the Mexican town, Dobbs and Curtin meet Howard, a former prospector (played by Huston’s father, Walter Huston). With barely enough money to survive on, the idea of striking it rich on gold appeals to them — particularly Dobbs. Howard will teach them how to find it in the Mexican hills outside Durango. Along the way they encounter bandits, federales, and prospectors desperate for a piece of their fortune. None of the men will behave particularly admirably, but for Dobbs the search for riches will drive him insane.
The story of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre will sound familiar to many, even those who haven’t seen the film. It has been adapted and parodied numerous times, whether in cartoons or other films. Paul Thomas Anderson watched Huston’s film every night before working on the screenplay for There Will Be Blood, and continued to watch it throughout that film’s production. But unlike There Will Be Blood, Treasure of the Sierra Madre is more interested in examining greed on a micro scale. Huston doesn’t completely ignore the big picture, as evidenced by his heartless wealthy American and the contractor who stiffs Dobbs and Curtin on weeks of construction pay, yet rather than castigate society at large, he focuses on a single man, Dobbs, who is transformed into a creature of base desires by a lust for riches.
Dobbs’s fate is foreshadowed in a pivotal fireside chat between the three prospectors. Curtin and Howard are both men of passions, and they hope to use any future riches to achieve them. But Dobbs can only think of the first few luxuries he’ll want to buy before trailing off listlessly. There’s a sickness inside him that money will never assuage. He’ll find other things to purchase, but eventually he’ll run out of things and be no happier.
Bogart, never a naturalistic actor, at least had a reserved screen presence, but here he goes all out in his portrayal of encroaching madness. He’s constantly grimacing or muttering to himself as he begins to think that Curtin or Howard will try to steal his share of the gold. There are moments that may elicit laughs from younger viewers, but Bogart is as chilling as he is over the top. In his other great performance, In a Lonely Place, Bogart is all about interiority, about the passions that roil him but can’t be expressed. In The Treasure of the Sierra Madre they’re out in the open, and it’s terrifying.
Bogart’s performance is so commanding that it’s easy to overlook the subtle work of his costars. Holt gives the best performance of his career behind his astounding turn in The Magnificent Ambersons, playing Curtin as a bit of a naïf, but one who’s mostly respectable. His gee-golly demeanor from some of his lesser films is mostly absent here, and he’s the crucial measure by which we gauge Dobbs’s descent into insanity. Walter Huston’s Howard is the closest the film has to a true moral center. When a young member of an indigenous tribe nearly drowns, Howard is willing to leave his share of gold with Dobbs and Curtin to try to resuscitate the boy. In a film anchored by Bogart’s malevolence, Huston’s kindness is utterly disarming. But even he can become nearly as unmoored as Dobbs when a prospector arrives and threatens to reveal their gold vein.
John Huston has never had as secure a place in the pantheon of great Hollywood directors as some of his contemporaries. It’s partly understandable — Huston made a terrible film for every great one he completed. When French critics (who would go on to become filmmakers themselves) reevaluated directors like Preminger and Hitchcock and Mann, Huston was notably absent. Yet Huston had a special talent for filming stories of obsession. The theme is present starting with his first film, The Maltese Falcon, and it reappeared again and again, from The Asphalt Jungle to Moby Dick to Wise Blood.
Even today, Dobbs’s fate can still shock (spoiler alert for a 70-year-old film). Everything about Humphrey Bogart’s career leads us to believe his character won’t end up beheaded in the middle of a Mexican desert. It’s also a surprising ending given the vagaries of the production code censorship. Criminals were required to have some sort of comeuppance for their crimes (usually death), but Dobbs has a relatively clean rap sheet. His real crime is a metaphysical one — he has destroyed his soul in pursuit of gold. Bogart is the murderer, but also the victim. The film’s ending is perhaps a bit too sweet, but it can never erase from our minds the dead look in his eyes.