Bogey Gets the Gold

As I sit and type in this infernal LA heat I feel it only appropriate to write about The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The great John Huston (Moby Dick, Wise Blood) directed this golden classic in 1948 which was based on the novel of the same name written by the mysterious B. Traven. Much of it was filmed on location in the sweltering heat of Mexico. The film starred Humphrey Bogart (Casablanca, The Big Sleep, The Caine Mutiny), Tim Holt (The Magnificent Ambersons, My Darling Clementine), and John’s father Walter Huston (Abraham Lincoln, The Devil and Daniel Webster) as a ragged trio of down-and-out fortune hunters seeking to find gold in a cruel 1920s Mexican desert. It is a rich and complex film that boldly neglects sentimentality in favor of a delirious story about greed, betrayal, paranoia, and the death of human decency in the face of all three.

John Huston and Humphrey Bogart had teamed up previously for Huston’s first film and solid noir classic, The Maltese Falcon (1941), and would pair up again after Sierra Madre for more unmissable classics, Key Largo (1948) with Lauren Bacall and Edward G. Robinson and The African Queen (1951) with Katherine Hepburn. Treasure of the Sierra Madre is another first rate character drama loaded with tension and texture. Its a fantastic classic not to be missed.

The gunfire from Federales executing bandits rings in the distance. People peddle their wares on every corner and all around is the inescapably dense feeling of stifling heat and the odor of too many humans living too close to each other. A sweaty, grizzled hobo, Fred C. Dobbs (Bogart), begs for pennies in the chaotic and colorful post Mexican Revolution town of Tampico. He is a self-professed “fellow American who is down on his luck” who sleeps on park benches and lives from drink to drink. Dobbs finds a fellow homeless American named Bob Curtin (Holt). Together they take a construction job from a shifty American who cheats his workers and runs off with their pay. Life is going nowhere for Dobbs and Curtin until they meet an old, penniless prospector named Howard (Walter Huston in his Academy Award winning role) in a seedy hostel. Howard jokes about the horrors he has seen and the wisdom he has gained from his many years on the trail mining gold. Dobbs doesn’t buy into the magical power of gold. He understands it all depends on what kind of a man finds it. Though he seems to be a bit cracked, the good-natured Howard is welcomed into the group of gringos by Curtin. The three invest all of what little they have attained during their cruel lives to obtain burros and supplies for a long journey and hopefully a profitable dig for gold in the Sierra Madre.

Much trekking and much sweating leads them into the wilds of untamed Mexico. Jungles, deserts, banditos, and sore feet all urge them to turn back, but the hearty old prospector puts their young muscles to shame as he jovially bounds onwards and upwards as sure-footed as a mountain goat. Just as exhaustion sets in and Dobbs and Curtin prepare to turn back, Howard cackles maniacally and calls them a couple of jackasses as he claps and performs an impromptu jig, for lo and behold the very dust beneath their feet sparkles with the tantalizing hues of that which they seek: gold. They quickly set up a mine and begin their panhandling. Always wary of strangers—for the perch is precarious—they proceed to extract riches from the earth. Without permit or claim they could be run off by the government, bigger mining companies, or slaughtered by banditos. Before long the old man’s words of warning about greed and mistrust set in and Dobbs, concerned about his share of the prize requests they begin dividing up the goods every night. Howard amiably acquiesces. Soon each man is hiding their share at night, lest they get ripped off by their partners. Howard seems to be the only one who retains a peaceful, logical, level head about the matter as he has seen this sort of thing many times before. Curtin regains his balance after he rescues Dobbs from a cave in, but Dobbs has become noticeably shaken by the discovery of gold. Dobbs mutters under his breath and talks to himself and exhibits apparent mistrust of the other two men.

More gold is being taken from the weary mountain every day and the beards grow thick on the three gringos and their clothes grow more tattered and dirty. Curtin returns from running errands in the nearest town and is followed by another would-be treasure hunter, Cody (Bruce Bennett). Dobbs will have no intruders to divide his share of the gold and convinces Howard and Curtin that they need to kill him, but they wind up needing all the guns they can get when a group of banditos who “don’t need no stinking badges” show up. Their leader (Alfonso Bedoya) toys with Dobbs before a desperate fire fight ensues.  Following this skirmish it becomes increasingly apparent that Dobbs cannot be trusted and has indeed sold his soul to the treasure of the Sierra Madre. Things only heat up when the team is separated. Howard is asked to stand in as medicine man for some Indians who have a little boy who nearly drowned. The pure-hearted Curtin is then left alone with the old man’s share of the loot and a crazed Dobbs (in full on greedy Daffy Duck mode). Betrayal, paranoia, greed, and violence all permeate from the scenes that follow. The film throws a few more shocks and shots of human and moral deterioration at us before it comes to a bittersweet conclusion that truly satisfies like a punch in the guts…but it tickles a little too.

This is a stand out film for the period. It is decidedly more dangerous and cynical. Huston and his amazing cast manage to conjure so many internal emotions and build so much tension in every scene. This film feels as hot and desperate as the three protagonists must feel. Real danger lurks in the shadows when a cluster of quiet Indians approach a campfire. Real terror prods one’s heart when the banditos show up and outnumber our “heroes.” There is suspense and devastation within each frame. There is an unflinching crazed look in Bogart’s eyes that continuously grows throughout the film and is difficult to shake. There have been many films about greed and the loss of humanity in the face of such greed, but perhaps The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of the finest examples of the subject.

It’s easy to see the inspiration P.T. Anderson must have gotten from this film for his own There Will Be Blood (2007). Anyone who only knows Bogart as the hard-boiled detective needs to see this film. From each characters’ shrouded uncertain background and their even further cloaked futures, this film develops its own greatness. We follow the lives of “fellow Americans who are down on their luck” and we hope they will overcome the maddening heat and the ecstasy of gold because we really journey alongside them. John Huston won Academy Awards for Best Screenplay and Best Director, losing Best Picture to Lawrence Olivier’s Hamlet. As a big fan of both Huston and Humphrey Bogart I cannot recommend this great film enough. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a truly unforgettable movie experience and amply worthy of its classic status.

Top 10 Reasons to See Treasure of the Sierra Madre

1. Humphrey Bogart plays against type and is awesome.

2. Great early location filming in Mexico.

3. Guys grow beards in it.

4. Considered a top ranking classic for many critics, film buffs, and directors.

5. It’s uncharacteristically bleak for the time it was made.

6. John Huston is a movie making beast.

7. It influenced many films to follow.

8. Bugs Bunny references Bogart’s Dobbs character in several cartoons (mostly the ones with the penguin who cries ice-cubes).

9. Walter Huston’s character is iconic and unforgettable—the quintessential crusty, old prospector guy.

10. Four Oscar nominations and three wins.

BONUS 11. The little boy next to Bogey in the first picture is Robert Blake.

picture references:

ign.com; tinypic.com; thecityreview.com; mattalgren.com

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” July 20, 2010

Dan’l Webster Examines the Details

devil webster4We folk hear tell of stories of the supernatural; of encounters with vile critters from far beyond this plane. Faust made a deal with Beezlebul, and Tom Walker did too. Charlie Daniels commemorated Mephistopheles’ trip to Georgia in song and Tenacious D challenged the Prince of Darkness to a rock off.

Taking cues from the Faust and Tom Walker legends, there was written yet another tale; the tale of the unfortunate New Hampshireman, Jabez Stone, who departed with his soul for two cents and bestowed it upon cunning Old Scratch himself. Stephen Vincent Benét’s classic short story, “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” reminded the reader of the pride of being a real, red-blooded American and warned of the dangers of taking the easy path. It was a fable as simple, earnest, and true to the spirit of America as the words of Twain or Irving.

What’s up, Doc?

The 1941 RKO adaptation was a special sort of film. Directed by William Dieterle (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and starring Edward Arnold (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) as Daniel Webster and Walter Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) as the devil, The Devil and Daniel Webster was one of those unflinching American movies that celebrated legendary ideals in much the same way John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) or Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) did. They hearken back not to the current America we know and picket, but the magic in what it all was supposed to be once upon a very long time ago. There’s a profound sense of patriotism in these movies and so what better foe for a proud American orator like Mr. Webster than the devil himself? If he can beat Satan and save Jabez Stone’s soul then perhaps there is hope for the rest of America.

devil webster2

Get off my back.

Jabez Stone (James Craig) is an unlucky New Hampshire farmer in the 1840s. He dreams of being a lucky man. This is just the kind of thing that Scratch waits for. [Scratch was a regional colloquialism for the devil, which adds such sumptuous local atmosphere to the story, don’t you think?] Scratch (Walter Huston) is as subtle a Satan that ever graced the silver screen. He’s tattered and unassuming, yet somehow diabolical and refined. He seems like just another kooky old coot, but there’s a sinister confidence that broadcasts all too loudly just how much sharper he is than you. He has an oily grace and a malevolent grin full of ingratiating teeth. His tricks and entrances are subtle but subtly disturbing. He accepts Stone’s soul and promises him seven years of good fortune, but as we good folk all know, the devil does not soon forget a deal and he always comes to collect. Jabez Stone loses his humanity and happiness and even pushes away his wife (Anne Shirley), mother (Jane Darwell), and friends all in favor of the acquisition of wealth. He builds a mansion and bankrupts fellow farmers and spends more and more time with a crafty demon maid (Simone Simon) while his young son becomes increasingly bratty and malicious.

I’m not a witch.

When Jabez Stone’s poor wife can take it no more she gets the only person who can help him: the great senator, statesman, and New Englander, Daniel Webster. Attack of the history!

I enjoyed this movie the whole way through. Up until the final act it’s a splendidly solid film about the trap of greed, but in the homestretch it just gets awesome. Famous historical orator, Daniel Webster, will defend the fallen Jabez Stone against Scratch in a trial in Stone’s barn on the very spot where the deal was initiated and the judge and jury will be a court of the damned. The jury are all famous condemned Americans (pirates, chiefs, traitors, murderers, and madmen) brought back from hell to judge whether or not Jabez Stone and Daniel Webster will keep their souls or be turned into moths and kept in Scratch’s pocket. Them’s some high stakes. How awesome is this? The answer: pretty awesome.

You sicken me.

The great Walter Huston (father to John and grandfather to Angelica) was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, but lost to Donald Crisp in How Green Was My Valley. Mr. Huston was full of wonderful characters. Fortunately he did win best supporting actor for Sierra Madre (directed by his son). Huston really is one of the best movie devils. Some movie devils are quietly unnerving like Robert De Niro (Angel Heart) or corporate and bombastic like Al Pacino (Devil’s Advocate). Sometimes they’re more sinister businessmen like Peter Stormare (Constantine) or Billy Crystal (Deconstructing Harry). Other times Chuck Norris can round-house kick the devil in the face (Hellbound). I like ’em best when they’re merely amorally mischievous like Peter Cook (Bedazzled) or Danny Elfman (The Forbidden Zone). Another shout out goes to Tom Waits’ superb portrayal of pure evil in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. Trey Parker’s gay Satan from South Park is another favorite. F. W. Murnau had a particularly grand representation of the devil for his adaptation of Faust (Svankmajer’s version is a bit weird). And yes, yes, Tim Curry had good makeup in Legend but I like my Lucifer more subtle. The devil is always a fun character in movies and while we might never know who’s is the most accurate depiction, we can all have our opinions of who is the most fun to watch.

devilwebster

You’re next.

It must be said: I love this movie. The Devil and Daniel Webster is fantastic. It’s wonderfully produced with some great photography, lighting, music and many lines of dialogue (particularly those of Scratch and Webster) were taken directly from the short story. As a fellow New Englander (and someone who loves history), I enjoyed much of the feel for the location and the attitudes of the characters. It feels distinctly American, but perhaps moreso the pure America of legend and folklore. It’s as refreshing and pure as a slice of apple pie. Read Benét’s short story and go watch this movie.

http://vitagraphamerican.blogspot.com/2011/04/vital-graph-devil-and-daniel-webster.html

http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/dvdreviews10/the_devil_and_daniel_webster_.htm

http://michaeldemeng.blogspot.com/2010/02/deal-with-devil.html