Sunday, January 15, 2012

Director's Spotlight #3.2: John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. January’s director is master craftsman and storyteller John Huston. Next, 1948’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Grade: 98 (A)

The Maltese Falcon was a surprise hit and an instant classic, and John Huston was dubbed one of the most exciting directors of his time. But as World War II hit, he took a job directing pro-America films like Across the Pacific (which reunited Maltese Falcon stars Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, and Sydney Greenstreet). Huston’s true follow-up to his noir classic didn’t come until 1948 with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The film combined Huston’s established talents- an economical shooting style, clearly developed relationships, and tales of doomed quests, doomed love, and the dark side of capitalism- and brought in what would become one of the director’s greatest assets: great use of location. The result is Huston’s finest film, and one of the greatest movies ever made.

1925: Fred C. Dobbs (Bogart) is “an American down on his luck” in Tampico, Mexico. He’s dirty, sweaty, and he lives by begging for cash (the increasingly irritable man he begs for is actually Huston), which he squanders on drink, gambling, and a shave. He and other downtrodden Americans, including Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) find a construction job, but their employer cheats them out of their wages. One night Dobbs and Curtin meet Howard (Walter Huston, the director’s father), an eccentric ol’ coot who has some experience prospecting. The three band together to go digging for gold on the Sierra Madre, a mountain plagued with heat, wild animals, and bandits. But that’s the least of their worries; their greatest danger is their own greed and paranoia, particularly that of Dobbs.
At two hours, Sierra Madre is twenty minutes longer than The Maltese Falcon, but Huston’s pacing is as strong as ever, and, as usual, he doesn’t waste a shot. Every frame has a purpose, every scene moves the plot along. The film is as rousing and as alive as they come. Huston’s talent with relationships is still terrific- we always know where everyone is, why they’re doing what they’re doing, and what the consequences are. Each scene is packed with danger, whether it’s because bandits are nearby or because Dobbs is losing his cool.

The film is one of the earliest examples of a studio allowing a director film on location, and Huston doesn’t blow the opportunity. The early scenes in Mexico are caked with dirt and sweat, and the heat throughout the film feels real, which only adds to the intense performances. And yet, Huston’s Mexico isn’t total hell. When Howard saves a young boy and becomes a guest of honor at a village, he lives it up, eating watermelon while relaxing in a hammock. Under the right circumstances, it’s a beautiful country. Under the wrong ones, it’s deadly, and Huston wastes no time to show how dangerous it can get, whether it’s the men getting dehydrated or bandits finding their camp, giving way to the film’s famous line after Bogart tells the “federales” to prove who they are by showing their badges: “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges. I ain’t gotta show you no stinkin’ badges!” Perhaps most impressive is Huston’s decision to film certain scenes in untranslated, unsubtitled Spanish; it gives a true sense of place, and the clarity of everyone’s actions prevents the audience from getting lost.

Huston always said that most of his directing came from good casting, and Sierra Madre is no exception. John and Walter Huston were both true eccentrics, men who were destined to appear on the silver screen (the younger Huston proved himself a terrific actor in Roman Polanski’s masterpiece Chinatown). The director gave his old man the part of a lifetime (he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor while his son won Director and Screenplay), allowing him to play up what a character he could be. Howard is the life of the party, an old man with a great sense of humor and a distinct vocal pattern (Huston convinced his father to take out his false teeth). Holt provides an everyman medium to Huston’s eccentricities and Bogart’s ravings.

A bit about that: Bogart, like all the great movie stars, tended to do variations on his famous screen persona (with that distinctive voice and face, how could he not?), but Sierra Madre gives him a chance to show real range: he’s an all out scoundrel and villain. Dobbs is the classic American corrupted by greed. He’s never satisfied with what he has, and he learns to distrust his partners from damn near the beginning. When the three men say what they’ll do with their gold, Howard and Curtin want simple pleasures, while Dobbs wants to spend, spend, spend and “light his cigars with $100 bills”. Howard claims to know “what gold does to men’s souls”, and Dobbs is the perfect example. In the final act, he devolves into a paranoid, bleary-eyed mess, no doubt helped by Bogey’s discomfort on location. He “owes [Curtin] his life” for saving him from a mine collapse, but it hardly matters later on: he shoots and nearly kills him to “protect” himself. Bogart’s frame shakes with laughter and animalistic grunts when he thinks he’s gotten away with it. It’s a truly frightening moment to see one of the great heroes of the screen go this bad.

Huston’s look at Americans abroad allows him to explore certain themes that other directors of the era had little interest in. Dobbs and Curtin’s employment by a scoundrel of a man- a construction job for men down on their luck- is one of his first looks at Western imperialism. The trio’s journey for gold is hardly noble either. Dobbs in particular won’t be satisfied with $25,000, but rather expects to find $50,000 or $75,000, and he’s willing to do terrible things to get at it. Huston even manages to sneak some environmentalism in there, without being overtly preachy. As the men pack up to leave, Howard suggests they take some time “close the mountain’s wounds”, as it gave them prosperity.

Ultimately, though, this quest was doomed from the start: Howard and Curtin picked the wrong third man and formed a doomed alliance. The film’s depiction of the ugliest side of capitalism shares The Maltese Falcon’s deeply ironic ending where no one gets what they want: Dobbs takes the gold for himself and nearly kills Curtin, only to be killed (beheaded in an original cut before the censors got to it) by bandits, who, thinking the gold dust is just bags of dirt, drop them. They’re arrested, but Curtin and Howard get to their treasure too late: the gold is scattered in the wind, never to be found. Yet, like the rest of the film, it’s not so bad they can’t enjoy a hearty laugh. It’s a final moment of Huston’s wry humor in his masterpiece: at the end of the day, all you can do to stay sane is laugh.

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