March 15, 2011

#38: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

John Huston's 1948 adventure The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is not, thankfully, a Western, as I expected. Yes, it takes place in a time and region adjacent to the Old West (south of the border in 1925), but the story, while chronicling revenge, paranoia and personal destruction, doesn't lump this into that dreaded category. I'm hard on Westerns, but they've given me little but grief! So this turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

Company: Stephanie, moderately interested sister and appreciator of soup

Cuisine: homemade potato soup (hearty! winter! veggies!) and coffee

The basic story goes that Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart, lacking the suave he normally exudes and trading it instead for sneers and scruff), down on his luck in Tampico, Mexico and asking strangers for money or lunch, stumbles upon Curtin (Tim Holt, much the same) and they hatch a scheme to head south in search of gold. Luckily (or unluckily?) for them, they happen to meet Howard (Oscar winner Walter Huston, father to the director!), an old prospector who predicts trouble for them but agrees to accompany them.

Hey, old man -- this is an AB conversation, so why don't you C your wa-- wait, you know about gold??

Danger lies around every corner for our trio -- bandits, huge lizards, thirst, delirium, frustration -- but with Howard's help they finally find... a dusting of gold!!?? Yes, as it turns out, this part of the terrain is not too lousy with gold, and prospecting takes time and patience, the latter of which is particularly lacking in Dobbs.

Howard, the only experienced prospector in the bunch, stays positive and chipper while the others begin to show signs of greed and duress, and seems bemused by their bickering. He also has this habit of dancing wildly just when things get serious. Give the movie some levity and you get an Oscar!

The outside world threatens to capsize their plans when an intruder (Bruce Bennett) follows them up the mountainside one day and demands inclusion in the scheme, threatening to expose them to the town and alert the locals to their presence and stash. He knows the men can just kill him, but warns that his execution will start a hierarchy of distrust among the prospectors. The logic is messed up but nonetheless, we start to see the men, especially Dobbs, weigh their gold against their own skewed moral conscience. Gold messes you up, you guys. Bandits invade and famously "don't need no stinking badges" (who knew?), disposing of the intruder. But the seed of distrust among the men has been planted with or without that threat to their gold.

Humphrey, you got a little crazy on your face.

When Howard is called away to help some nearby villagers (?), it's Dobbs v. Curtin at the campsite. Greed, paranoia and gold-blindness take over -- and without spoiling too much of the ending, let's just say that in its own way, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre has a lot to say about materialism in our culture.

Have we learned anything from the moral of this film? Or is longing for riches something inherent in us in a capitalist society? Shouldn't we be able to make something out of nothing, to make riches appear out of nowhere and claim ownership over them? Reading the Wikipedia entry about this film, I found that P.T. Anderson watched this film to prepare for filming There Will Be Blood, another prospector film (this time oil replaces gold) about a man whose greed destroys him. Maybe it's timeless, the insatiable need for wealth. Is that an American trait, or a human trait? Are we presumptuous to assume that striving to obtain riches beyond our need is a specifically American hunger? I think maybe.

Well, laugh it off, chumpies. Ob-la-di, ob-la-da. Not a lot to say in the way of film critique here -- it's ably (and Oscar-winningly) directed and acted, but the moral truth of it is what sticks with me. In light of this weekend's devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan, I'm seeing that all the gold in the world, metal or otherwise, can be taken away in the blink of an eye. Let that be a lesson to you all! /preach

Next up: another in a series of films I know little about. Isn't that what I was excited for in this list? The Best Years of Our Lives. We'll see if it is. Spring is approaching and I've gotta get moving on this blog, because heaven knows this summer will be spent almost entirely outside.

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