Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Nine

9 treasure

#9 — The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston, 1948)

I find it weirdly wonderful that one of the greatest films about the corrosive greed at the core of the United States identity doesn’t take place within the nation’s borders at all. Instead, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre finds broken citizens scuffling around within a northern neighbor, looking to make their fortunes by yanking out some of the gold they just know is up in them thar Mexican hills. The story artfully explores basic human emotions that range across vast swaths of people in very different cultures, but it feels like a pure expression of the capitalistic character of the U.S., especially as minor suspicions simmer and then boil over into catastrophically destructive impulses. Paul Thomas Anderson reportedly watched The Treasure of the Sierra Madre repeatedly while working on his There Will Be Blood. The reasoning for that unique preparatory choice is abundantly clear: Anderson’s compulsion to create cinema that spoke to the totality of a country’s foundational development — in his case, both capitalism and religion — already had a blueprint. If he wasn’t necessarily going to follow precisely the same plan, he had the instinctual wisdom to realize it could only help if the earlier film’s reflected essence was somehow imprinted on his psyche.

Adapted from a 1927 novel of the same name (written by B. Traven), it’s easy to see the underpinnings that could have been a fine but plain drama, the sort of grimy potboiler than Hollywood turned out with production line efficiency in the nineteen-forties. Simplicity fell away as an possibility once the project found it’s way into the hands of John Huston. An already well-seasoned screenwriter when he made his directorial debut with The Maltese Falcon, released in 1941, Huston was working from his own script for the first time since that auspicious opening to his career literally calling the shots. He brings to the project a rascally cunning and a blazing cynicism. As the fragile alliance between a trio of prospectors (Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt, and Walter Huston) begins to blister and burst, Huston adopts a brilliant tone of florid gallows humor, pushing the characters into ever-increasing heights of highly fraught dismay. Maybe more than any of his rough contemporaries, Huston had a skill for bringing a muscular sense of urgency to his work, and that serves him especially well here. The film itself seems to sweat.

Throughout his career, Huston was also a marvelous director in his work with actors. That gift was rarely more evident than it is here (I’d argue that only his late career triumph Prizzi’s Honor tops it). The director’s last name is there in the cast list as well, and his father, Walter, deliver’s a marvelous, Oscar-winning turn as the senior member of the crew, the one who’s actually got significant experience mining for gold. The character could have been little more than a colorful figure at the fringes — throughout a lot of his career, Walter Huston was relegated to exactly that position — but there’s a shared commitment to instilling it with real insight and pathos. And then there’s Bogart, one of Huston’s great collaborators. The steeliness and confidence that defined his usual film persona is cast aside here. Bogart’s embodies his character’s disconcerting edginess, the vestiges of wiliness that have rotted into ugly need. Without abandoning the star power on his natural onscreen command, Bogart plays a largely unsympathetic character with brutal honesty. He carries the very thesis of the film on his tensed shoulders. Given the ambition of Huston’s vision, that’s an especially impressive feat.

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