"Badges? We ain't got no badges…We don't need no badges…I don't have to show you any stinking badges!"—Gold Hat
Who was B. Traven? The anti-capitalist/anarchist expatriate American author whose second novel was The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1927), the source material for director John Huston's classic film.
Who was B. Traven? An enigmatic literary figure whose obsession with privacy was so extreme he makes J.D. Salinger look like a media whore.
Who was B. Traven? Well, he may have been Hal Croves, a technical adviser on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre who claimed to be Traven's agent but whom Huston suspected of being Traven himself.
Who was B. Traven? Who cares? If Croves was Traven, Huston found him about the dullest person he'd ever met, so maybe Traven was right in insisting his books speak on his behalf, and we should just leave well enough alone.
Let's forget about Traven and talk about a magnificent film instead…
Facts of the Case
Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) are hard-luck American expatriates scratching out livings in Tampico, Mexico by taking the odd construction job or begging for food money from their wealthier countrymen. The two meet an old prospector named Howard (Walter Huston) in a flop house, and Dobbs gets the idea of hiking into the roughlands of Mexico to find their fortune in gold. Despite his warnings about the degenerative effect of gold on the human psyche and on friendship, Howard agrees to lead the younger men out where wealth can be coaxed from the ground.
When the trio strikes it rich, they find themselves warding off danger from local Indian tribes, a possible claim jumper named James Cody (Bruce Bennett), and a gang of bandits led by Gold Hat (Alfonso Bedoya). Bob and Howard soon discover, though, that their biggest challenge is managing Dobbs' increasing paranoia and greed. The three men work the claim together, but each becomes more and more isolated by his growing fortune and the need to protect his own interests at all costs.
The Maltese Falcon's Sam Spade elevated Humphrey Bogart's cynical anti-hero screen persona to leading man territory. Casablanca's Rick Blaine refined and perfected that persona to such a degree that Bogart attained superstar status. Fred C. Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre proved for all time that Bogart was not merely a star, but an actor with surprising range. Dobbs so shattered the Bogart persona (he's more the sort of weasel Peter Lorre would play) that blame for the film's financial failure during its initial release is often placed solely on filmgoers' rejection of this distinctly un-Bogey-like Bogey. That's an oversimplification, to be sure, but Dobbs' failure to meet audience expectations certainly contributed to the flop. Bogart wasn't even nominated for an Oscar for his fine performance in the film, but The Treasure of the Sierra Madre set the stage for the late period of the actor's career. In film's like 1948's Key Largo and 1951's The African Queen (both directed by John Huston), Bogart would play more complex and vulnerable, less on-the-ball versions of his anti-hero, while in The Caine Mutiny (1954) his psychologically unstable Lieutenant Commander Queeg was an even bigger break from type than Dobbs. Maybe because he died so young (he wasn't yet 60), Bogart never reached that stage we so often see in the careers of aging actors in which each performance is phoned in, a retread of earlier, better efforts. Bogart went out acting, stretching his abilities, and his work with Huston in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre seems to have been partly responsible, opening the actor's eyes to the potential of new directions and approaches in his craft.
It's convenient for the purposes of this review that John Huston was the man behind two films crucial in the development of Humphrey Bogart's career because similarities between the films in question—The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre—provide insight into the unique storytelling sensibilities that made Huston a true auteur during the artistically narrow days of the Hollywood studio system. On display in both films is Huston's fascination with bleak irony. He tosses his characters into the hard work of gaining possession of the tales' maguffins (the famed falcon in the former, and a treasure of gold in the latter), only to kick their legs out from under them in the end with the cold revelation that their quest has been for naught, that their idea of fortune has been wrong all along: the falcon's a fraud and the gold blows away in the wind. But Huston wasn't simply a cynic. Though his films defy the neat, happy ending normally demanded by the studio heads of his day, there are always characters who find themselves able to laugh in the face of their own losses. In The Maltese Falcon it's Bogart's Sam Spade who laughs even as Peter Lorre's dandy Joel Cairo weeps; and Curtain learns from old Howard that the only thing to do in the face of losing their fortunes after the weeks of back-breaking labor spent to attain it is laugh it off—at least they're alive. These are Huston's heroes. It's a sensibility he likely picked up from Ernest Hemingway, who tells us again and again in his writing that a man is a man only when he's been through the fire, suffered loss, and chooses to keep on with the chore of living anyway.
Like Hemingway, Huston was bigger than life, a raconteur and adventurer who liked to shoot on location because he liked the wilds as much as he liked being out of the sight of prying studio eyes. He had that vast appetite for life we associate with genius, though his films belie it. Even the best of them, brilliant as they are, don't display the comprehensive genius of, say, Orson Welles. The dual grasp of storytelling and technical innovation aren't there. His shot compositions, for instance, don't express a unique vision in filmmaking but, like Howard Hawks', they get the job done. It's strange to level such a criticism given the huge number of truly classic films Huston wrote and directed, but I only do so because all the signs of an even greater genius surround his person. His son, Danny, notes in one of the documentaries on disc two of this DVD set that Huston's true love was painting but that, faced with the prospect of having to give himself entirely over to it, Huston gave it up in favor of a life filled with drink and parties and wives and children and friends…and film. It's a scary thought, but filmmaking may not have been this great director's true calling.
Perhaps it's difficult today to fully appreciate what Huston gave to cinema. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre has always been my favorite of his films and the highest compliment I can pay it is that, even after having seen it more times than I know since the age of seven or so, it doesn't feel like a film of the '40s to me. It plays as psychologically true and uncompromisingly modern as a film of the late '60s or early '70s, a product of the New Hollywood. Which prompts an interesting question: without the Bogart anti-hero Huston helped create, would there have been a Marlon Brando? Erase Brando and you can forget about Dennis Hopper, Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, and so many others. Perhaps the post-studio system revolution and what it's wrought up until today is Huston's lasting legacy. Film may not have been Huston's true medium, as it was Welles', but his impact on everything that followed him is incalculable.
One can't talk about The Treasure of the Sierra Madre without mentioning John Huston's father, Walter, and his career-defining performance. The Hustons are the only father-and-son team to win Oscars for the same film (John won for writing and direction, Walter for acting in a supporting role), and none of the awards were tokens doled out as sentimental pats on the back. Walter Huston had been a stage actor and notable film character actor since the '20s, but it took his son to fully unleash his powers: he is the soul of Treasure. That his performance, even to this day, is considered by many the strongest in the film despite its being set against one of the great turns by Bogart is a far greater testament to his work than anything I can muster on my own. In a way, it was up to Walter Huston to carry the film in the face of Dobbs' lunacy: old Howard is the story's moral center. Without him, we'd be adrift. Huston, looking grizzled sans dentures and sporting a gray beard, exudes wisdom and experience. If we, the audience, are spared the discomfort of most identifying with Dobbs and drifting with him into paranoia and insanity, it's only because Howard steers us clear, warns us in advance of the psychological dangers inherent in men's quest for wealth (it's worth noting, too, that the only character we ever see living in the lap of luxury the prospectors dream their digging will grant them is Howard, and not as a result of the wealth he's obtained but because of his kindness to a local Indian tribe). Even if Bogart weren't in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Huston's work would make it worth seeing.
For me, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre has been one of those wish list titles for a DVD release ever since I bought my first player. I mean, why have the format at all if you can't even watch Treasure? Well, now we can, and it was worth the wait. In keeping with Warner's two-disc Special Editions of titles like Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and Singin' in the Rain, this release of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre combines a whiz-bang presentation of the film itself with a beautiful array of supplements. The transfer is full screen (in keeping with the original theatrical ratio of 1.37:1) and, while not as awe-inspiring as the titles I've just mentioned, it's still plenty impressive. The black-and-white image's contrast is subtle and gorgeous. Flaws in the image related to damage to the source are minimal. There are some isolated shots riddled with a fair amount of grain, but they're few and far between and perfectly acceptable based on the age of the film. This is the best I've ever seen the movie look.
The disc's audio maintains the film's original mono sound. While hardly impressive in the grand scheme of things, it's historically accurate and gets the job done.
In addition to the feature itself, disc one of this special edition set offers an enlightening, if mannered and dry, commentary by Eric Lax, who co-wrote the book Bogart. It's a very solid track in the film school style, providing background on the production, the cast and crew, and analysis of the film's story. Also on disc one is Warner Night at the Movies 1948, a feature that seeks to replicate the movie-going experience at the time of the film's release. When this option is selected, the feature is preceded by a trailer for Key Largo; a newsreel; a comedy short called So You Want to Be a Detective; and Hot Cross Bunny, a Looney Tunes short featuring Bugs Bunny. It's a surprisingly entertaining supplement that adds to the viewing experience. Finally, disc one contains a Humphrey Bogart trailer gallery with previews of 12 of his films—good stuff.
Of course, most of the extras are housed on the second disc:
Clocking in at 128 minutes (two minutes longer than the feature), and indexed in 31 chapters, John Huston: The Man, the Myth, the Maverick is the centerpiece of disc two. Produced in 1989, just two years after Huston's death, the documentary provides an excellent overview of the writer-director's life and career. Among those who provide insight are ex-wife Evelyn Keyes, children Danny and Anjelica, Lauren Bacall, Michael Caine, Paul Newman, and playwright Arthur Miller. Plus, the whole thing is narrated by Robert Mitchum. The only complaint I have about the documentary is its poor image quality, which is riddled with grain and uneven color. The substance more than makes up for any stylistic shortcomings, however.
Discovering Treasure: The Story of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, runs approximately 50 minutes, and provides excellent background on the film's genesis and production, as well as its central importance in the careers of both Huston and Bogart.
8 Ball Bunny is another classic Looney Tunes short starring Bug Bunny. In an homage to Treasure, the cartoon features repeated appearances by Fred C. Dobbs who asks the famed rabbit if he can "help out a fellow American who's down on his luck."
In the days before television, it was common practice to create radio adaptations of popular films. The 1949 Lux Radio Theater adaptation of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is included on this set and features Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston recreating their roles in the film. It's a charming extra, entirely worthy of preservation and inclusion here.
Supplements are rounded out by a plethora of still photo galleries divided by topic as follows: Storyboards; Dressed Sets; Cast and Crew; and Publicity and Posters.
Let's pretend you're a misguided soul who hates old movies because they're in black-and-white, people smoke, and men wear fedoras and call women "dames." I urge you to give The Treasure of the Sierra Madre a chance. I promise you it won't feel like an old movie.
If you're a fan of the classics, you're already aware of the film's merits. This DVD release does it justice. Warner Brothers has done it again.
Verdict? I don't have to give you no stinkin' verdict!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Feature-Length Audio Commentary by Eric Lax, Co-Author of Bogart
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