Before I start I’d better explain something to you. I’m biased. Humphrey Bogart is my favourite Hollywood actor of the 1940s and 50s, if not of all time. In fact, don’t take my word for it – he was actually voted the greatest movie star of all time by Entertainment Weekly. I love his films so much because all his performances have a degree of honesty in them, and for those who doubt the range of his talent you need to watch The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942), To Have and Have Not (1944), Beat the Devil (1953), Sabrina (1954), In a Lonely Place (1951), The Caine Mutiny (1954) and The African Queen (1951) to see the variety of roles he was capable of playing. And although he received a well-deserved Oscar for his role as the drunken river boat captain Charlie Allnut in John Huston’s The African Queen, it’s his performance as gold-crazy Fred C. Dobbs in another Huston film – The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – that is his true masterpiece of characterisation.
Fred C. Dobbs is a down-and-out American surviving from day-to-day by bumming small change out of rich Americans in a small Mexican town during the great depression of the 1920s. He gets a break when he teams up with Curtin, a young down-and-out (Tim Holt), and Howard, a grizzled old gold prospector played by John Huston’s father, Walter. Together they raise enough money to set off for bandit country in the Sierra Madre’s to strike it rich with the promise of gold in them thar hills. And strike it rich they do. But that is where the problems start. Dobbs becomes obsessive about his share and mistrust, paranoia and madness begin to set in. Bogart’s portrayal of a weak man’s descent into insanity and murder is astounding and during the film’s 126 minutes the viewer never once doubts the authenticity of his performance. By the time the supremely ironic ending comes around you believe that Bogart is Fred C. Dobbs.
Bogart’s masterclass in acting does not detract the viewer from the other two main performances. Tim Holt as the good-natured Curtin gives probably the most effective performance in his career as a supporting player. But it’s Walter Huston’s Oscar winning turn as Howard who shines as brightly as Bogart in a performance that is so convincing that you end up believing that the actor actually went prospecting for gold in his spare time in between movies.
The film’s director, John Huston, was responsible for Bogart’s first real starring role in 1941 (as morally dubious private eye Sam Spade) in his excellent adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, the only version worth watching (there were two others before 1941) and it’s a movie so perfect that it never needs to be remade – ever. Huston, who was best pals with Bogart, made six films with his great friend and drinking partner. He also directed the brilliant but underrated Sterling Hayden in the classic crime thriller The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable in their last film, The Misfits (1961), Sean Connery and Michael Caine in The Man Who Would Be King (1975), Sylvester Stallone, Bobby Moore and Pelé in WWII footballing POW breakout Escape to Victory (1981) and Jack Nicholson, Kathleen Turner and his daughter Angelica Huston in the excellent Prizzi’s Honor (1985). He was also a gifted actor, most effectively as threatening businessman Noah Cross in Roman Polanski’s classic neo-noir thriller, Chinatown (1974). His son, Danny Huston has also carried on the family tradition as both director and actor, delivering telling performances as a corrupt diplomat in the adaptation of John LeCarré’s The Constant Gardner (2005), a vicious vampire leader in horror flick 30 Days of Night (2007) and, best of all, as the psychotic Arthur Burns in Nick Cave’s superb Australian western The Proposition (2005).
And speaking of westerns, the casual viewer would be mistaken in thinking The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a western. I’ll admit it looks like a western, but trust me, it isn’t. What it is, though, is film noir right through to its core. Why? Because it’s bleak and fatalistic with a main character on a downward spiral and it’s all shot in stark, crisp black-and-white. But, I hear you say, it can’t be film noir because it doesn’t have a femme fatale, and there you would again be mistaken because the femme fatale in this amazing film is that most cruel and deceptive of mistresses – gold.
Amazingly, Bogart wasn’t even nominated for an Academy Award in 1948 – it went to Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet – and neither did the film win best picture – that went to All the King’s Men – although John Huston did receive awards for best director and best screenplay (which he adapted from the mysterious B. Traven’s novel). Not surprisingly though, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is featured in the top 250 films of all time at #104, a list in which the two aforementioned films do not get a mention, and IMHO it should be placed higher, but that’s just me being biased again. For those unaware of the FLAS I just used, it stands for In My Humble Opinion and I do apologise for using it. I keep reminding myself to stop using FLAS’ (that’s Four Letter Abbreviated Statements for the uninitiated) but I sometimes forget.
There are no women in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and it’s a relentlessly bleak and unforgiving story of men who are trapped on the periphery of life, constantly taken advantage of because of their dire situations, and for the most part there are only the three main characters on screen. They are briefly joined by a fourth character, Cody (Bruce Bennett), but he is quickly killed off by bandits. Despite its small cast it’s still a riveting story of desperation and determination told by one of Hollywood’s finest actor/writer/directors and performed by three brilliant actors at the very top of their game.
And just to set the record straight, the Mexican bandit leader, Gold Hat (played to perfection by Alfonso Bedoya), does not say “Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges,” at any point during this film. That is a line used by Micky Dolenz in the TV series The Monkees. What Gold Hat actually says is this: “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinking badges.”