Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures, the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind and greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the U.S.A- Gordon Gecko, Wall Street
Spoiler Alert: Some key scenes may be discussed in the article.
I always had been having a high regard for John Huston’s movies, 3 of his movies- The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of Sierra Madre and The African Queen have been all time classics. But it is not just his filmography, to me it is the fact that as a director he has been one, way ahead of his times. He was the one who started the Noir Genre in Hollywood with The Maltese Falcon, and then made some of the greatest works in that genre with movies like The Ashpalt Jungle and Key Largo. A fiercely independent maverick who took on the studios, had his own way and was one of the best technicians ever in movie business. When i was watching The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and later went through some of the stories related to the movie production, what struck me was the fact, that much before Sergio Leone and the revisionist Westerns, this was a movie that was in fact one of the earliest revisionist Western of it’s kind.
No, it was not the fact that Huston took on Warner Bros, and insisted that the movie be shot on actual locations in Mexico, instead of studio lots as was the practice those days. This was a Western adventure, which did not have the usual cowboys, Sheriffs, marauding Indians theme. The main characters here were a bunch of down and dirty prospectors, searching for Gold in the mountains of Mexico. But more than the adventure aspect what really made this movie a classic, was the intense character study of it’s protagonists, the complete absence of black and white characters, the greyish world of morals they lived in. And one of the best movies ever made on the subject of human greed.
At it’s heart lies the main character of Fred.C. Dobbs aka Dobsie( Humphrey Bogart), an unkempt, straggly looking bum, who is searching for that elusive fortune, which could change his life. In the opening scene of the movie set in Mexico, we see Dobbsie, tearing up a lottery ticket, which he believed could have changed his fortunes. He is literally a beggar, begging fellow Americans for a meal. But more important is that Dobsie happens to be neither White nor Native Mexican, he is a “gringo” , somewhere in between, and whose status is at the bottom of the ladder.
If I was a native, I’d get me a can of shoe polish and I’d be in business. They’d never let a gringo. You can sit on a bench to get three-quarters starved. You can beg from another gringo. You can even commit burglary. But try shining shoes in the street or peddling lemonade out of a bucket and your hash is settled. You’d never get another job from an American.
Interestingly the American man from whom he begs, was played by John Huston himself in a cameo. Quite a poetic touch, considering that it was Huston’s Maltese Falcon, that made Bogart one of the top heroes, in Hollywood, and established his “anti hero persona”, after a whole lot of movies, where Bogart either played the bad guy or the sidekick. The Huston-Bogey
combination was one of the great actor director combos on par with John Wayne-John Ford one.
Aw, gold’s a devilish sort of thing, anyway.
Dobsie attempts to earn some money, by working for an oil rigging contractor Pat Mc Cormick, who promises him “Eight bucks American a day”. However Mc Cormick proves to be a fraud, and leaves their camp without paying them the money. Looking for a place to spend the night Dobsie and another younger American Curtin( Tim Holt), overhear the conversation of an older prospector Howard( Walter Huston, the director’s father), about “Gold in Mexico”. This is the movie’s critical point, where both Dobsie and Curtin, are now tuned into Howard’s ramblings about the Gold in the mountains. I would say critical, because this is where Huston, sets up the entire motif of the story, the “Greed” factor, around which the movie revolves. Howard warns the listeners, about how greed could make them want more than what they have.
Here in this joint, it seems like a lot, but I tell you, if you was to make a real strike, you couldn’t be dragged away. Not even the threat of miserable death’d keep you from trying to add ten thousand more. Ten you want to get twenty-five.
And that is where Dobbsie steps in arguing that he would be satisfied, with what he got, and would not seek more. I would actually say the entire piece of dialogue which Howard gives to the listeners, is one of the best written, where he warns us against the perils of instant fortune, how prospectors have never really been able to keep the money, and how they have quickly bankrupted themselves. In a way alluding to his own life as a gold digger all over the world. But to me it is the way Curtin and Dobbsie react after listening to Howard’s philosophical rant of the evils of wealth, that shows how different people view greed in their own way. Howard an old veteran, who has seen and experienced it all, realizes the futility of greed. But for a young Curtin, he would not mind getting into trouble, while for Dobbsie, he would rather dream of more and more gold. 3 different POV’s all of them right in their own way, each looking at the situation from their view point.
Why not try gold diggin’ for a change? Well, it ain’t any riskier than waitin’ around here for a break. And this is the country where the nuggets of gold are just cryin’ for ya to take ‘em out of the ground and make ‘em shine in coins and on the fingers and necks of swell dames.
Dobbsie is still optimistic, that whatever Howard says, the Gold would not corrupt his soul. He takes a rather objective view saying that that Gold could be a blessing as well as curse, and it depends on the man. But was his view point stemming from a desire to search for the gold? It is generally seen that when we are enthusiastic to undertake a mission, the risks do not appear to be as great to us, as it is for some one who has been through it. Dobbsie is now even further enthused by the prospect of digging out for the gold, he sees that as a much better option than the life they are leading right now. And having already got back the money from their contractor, they can now afford to get the necessary equipment too. Dobbsie and Curtin decide to take the plunge, along with Howard, whose experience is vital for the mission. It is a risky mission, travelling in mountains infested with bandits, and it could either result in a win all or lose all situation.
After a brilliantly shot scene, of bandits attacking a train, and Howard shooting back at them, the trio arrive at the mountains, and begin to make their perilous journey. One of the interesting scenes is where Dobbsie expresses his frustration at having to keep up with Howard’s energetic and jaunty travel, through the mountains. Quite ironical, considering that in an earlier scene, he was sceptical about taking an “old man” like Howard on the trial. One of the best moments comes here, when both Dobbsie and Curtin feel they have discovered Gold, seeing a yellow lode, and jump around, splashing water. Howard examines it, and their joy is short lived, that was actually fools gold, and he cautions them against being too eager.
On the surface of it The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, has the elements for an adventure story, 3 men out in search of gold. And for adventure movie lovers, there is enough to keep them occupied, the bandits attack on the train, a huge storm in the desert, the trio cutting through the thick jungle and a shootout with the bandits. But what differentiates this movie from more conventional adventure movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark or King Solomon’s Mines, is the deep pyschological character study that Huston undertakes. The biggest danger the trio face is not the mountains or the jungles or the desert storm, it is something far more ominous, themselves. To me the best part of the entire movie is the arc traversed by Dobbsie thr0ughout the movie. Howard is the old veteran always warning against excessive greed, Curtin is the young greenhorn, just wanting his share. The key point in the movie is not finding the gold, it is how the discovery of the treasure, begins to transform Dobbsie. From a person who claims that he would be satisfied with what he gets, the way greed takes over his persona, is brilliantly depicted in the movie.
Again another excellent scene, is when the trio begin to divide the gold among themselves, the first ominous signs of how greed would be affecting Dobbsie. Watch Bogart’s expressions, here the look in his eyes, conveying the greed, as well his insecurity related to other two partners. As also the part where the 3 men discuss among themselves what they would do with the gold, but it is the moment that follows, that sets it up all. Howard proposing a limit on the amount, and Dobbsie for the first time wishing to increase it. For a person who had stated that greed would not affect him, that one moment, sums up his character transformation arc. In a sense, Dobbsie is one of the most anti heroic Western character, compared to the mostly “White” nature of the characters played by John Wayne or Henry Fonda. Not just the fact, that he happens to be a down and out gringo, but for the way, he leads himself to his own downfall, when he begins to cheat on his conscience.
In that sense, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, could also be taken as an anti capitalist statement, but to me it was more about the corrosive nature of excessive greed. Gold is desired by all the 3 characters, but where Curtin is satisfied with his lot, Dobbsie begins to yearn for more, turning him into a paranoid, insecure individual. To me more than anything, the movie was a fascinating portrayal of human downfall, as shown through Dobbsie’s character, counterpointing it with Curtin’s more balanced, sensible character. All the while Howard being the wise old sage, whose words prove to be prophetic. The movie is also helped by some fabulous acting, especially by Humphrey Bogart as the Dobbsie, one of the most anti heroic Western characters. Watch his expressions in the scenes, where greed begins to take the better of him, superb. Another great performance is by Walter Huston as the wizened old Howard, the prophetic soothsayer, the man who has seen it all, outstanding.