The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a film that’s been lurking in my brain since childhood, having been on the BBC’s regular repeat cycle in the 70s and 80s. ‘We don’t need no stinking badges’ is a famous misquote from the movie, which has been replayed everywhere from Broadway plays to videogames, and which was mis-mis-quoted during my childhood whenever we drove over Mexican Bridge, near our home in Lincolnshire. The film tells the story of three down-on-their luck drifters who pool their limited resources to buy the equipment they need to go prospecting for gold in the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range in Mexico. Relying on the expertise of the perpetually chipper old-timer Howard, played by director John Huston’s father Walter, they manage to accumulate a considerable amount of gold, but their natural greed leads to jealousy and paranoia, particularly on the part of Humphrey Bogart’s character, Fred C. Dobbs.
The film can be understood as a kind of Western, although it is set in 1920s Mexico. Despite its setting, and the absence of quick-draw gunfights, the themes and conventions of the genre are front-and-centre, with the characters set against a large empty landscape in which law-enforcement is minimal, and the only ethical framework they must adhere to is the one they bring with them. What it lacks, unusually not just for Westerns, but for any commercial movie in the late 1940s, is a ‘white hat’ hero figure. The best you can say about his two companions is that they are not bad guys, but Bogart is an out-and-out villain. The film is about a failed attempt to get rich, and it’s hard to avoid speculating that it may have been an influence on the modern trend for thrillers subverting narrative closure—although this narrative has a very clear moral closure, and a very clear moral—‘greed is bad’.
Bogart does what Bogart does, which is to dominate the camera with his charismatic presence, and he does a good job of acting his part; but the real star here (and the recipient of the Oscar for best supporting actor) is Walter Huston. He was apparently dubious about taking a supporting ‘character’ role, as he still saw himself as a leading man—that much of the studio politics is clear from the clean-cut, heroic figure he cuts on the poster. But the grizzled, loquacious, indefatigable and ultimately sanguine Howard is one of the most memorable characters in the Golden Age of Hollywood.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a dark film, which presents a pretty jaundiced take on human nature, but it’s written with a good deal of humour, and it’s far from miserable. As with all of Huston’s movies, it’s visually meticulous, and although it appears to be very sharply edited, Huston’s painstaking planning actually left Owen Marks very little spare footage to play around with. What’s seen on the screen is almost exactly what Huston shot. Some classical Hollywood movies were directed on the basis that if you put some actors on a set and gave them a script, then all you needed to do was point a camera at them, but The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is an intricately crafted essay in the art of cinema.
Huston, as Hollywood’s resident auteur, was responsible to a large degree for forging the language in which later directors would speak, and although many of the speeches here seem wooden or contrived by modern standards, aspects of the film have hardly dated at all. Although it underperformed at the box office on its initial release, it has come to be regarded as one of the best and most important films in the history of Hollywood. I’m not sufficiently versed in the history of cinema to interrogate that claim, but I do know that I enjoyed watching it as a child, I enjoyed re-watching it recently, and I certainly plan to watch it again.