Top 100 Movie Review: No. 053: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

Ranked 053 on the IMDb Top 100 Movie List (as May 2017). Watched April 2020.

Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Fred C. Dobbs), Walter Huston (Howard), Tim Holt (Curtin), Bruce Bennett (Cody)
Director:  John Huston
My rating: 8.5 / 10

In 1925, in the Mexican town of Tampico two unemployed American drifters, , Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt), are surviving as best as they can begging spare change and taking whatever work they can get. They note that they aren’t allowed to do shoe shine jobs which get good tips, these jobs are reserved for Mexicans.

These drifters are recruited by an American labour contractor, Pat McCormick, to help construct buildings for $8 a day but after working weeks McCormick skips out without paying the men. Days later they run into McCormick and make him pay for bashing him and taking what they are owed but nothing more.

Before getting there money from McCormick they had encountered the talkative prospector named Howard (Walter Huston) in a shared dormitory. Hobbs talks about the lure of gold prospecting and how who many make money but then lose it was wanting more. After being paid Dobbs and Curtin think this is the way to make money instead of waiting around Tampico. Fortunately Dobbs wins a small lottery amount which he pools with their wages and Howard’s stake to create enough money to attempt prospecting. Dobbs doesn’t even want a bigger share despite putting in more money.

Departing from Tampico by rail, the three have to help repulse a bandit attack killing several bandits. At a small town the party is outfitted with gear and pack animals and begin their ascent into the remote Sierra Madre mountains.

Despite their initial expectations Howard proves to be the hardiest and most knowledgeable of the group, outstripping the younger men in his physical endurance and wisdom. After several days of arduous travel Howard finds an area with significant gold and he dances a little jig to celebrate, a dance copied in many later movies.

The men commence the exhausting process of extracting the gold, living and working in the harshest and primitive conditions. Dobbs is almost killed in a cave in but is saved by Curtin who did hesitate for a few moments. As they start finding more of the gold Dobbs starts to get suspicious of the other man and wants the gold divided each day so they can hid their earnings. This is the first sign that Dobbs is becoming paranoia and is no longer about sharing and trusting.

While on a resupply trip Curtin encounters a Texas named Cody (Bruce Bennett) who correctly guesses that Curtin has found gold despite the denials. Cody secretly tracks Curtin back to the gold mine. After a testy reception and overnight stay they tell Cody to leave but he states he will be staying and tells them they have three options; kill him, run him off but risk him telling the authorities, or let him become their partner but only split new gold found. The group are split on what to do, Howard is fine on the partner option but both Dobbs and Curtin vote to kill Cody. Before they can execute him however they spot bandits coming and group together to fight them off.

After a tense vocal exchange with the bandits a gunfight ensues, in which Cody is killed. Luckily a troop of Federales appears and pursues the bandits so they flee the encampment. The three prospectors examine the personal effects of the dead Cody. A letter he carries from a loving wife reveals that his motivations were to provide for his family, Curtin in particular is moved.

The gold finds start dropping so they decided to leave with what they have. While on their way back they run into ‘Indians’ who ask Howard to go to their local villager to help save the life of a seriously ill little boy which he manages to do. The next day the villagers insist that Howard return with them to be honoured so Howard complies and decides to leave his gold and mules with Dobbs and Curtin stating he will meet them later.

Dobbs, whose paranoia continues, and Curtin constantly argue especially when Dobbs says he will keep all Howard’s gold. After a wrestle Curtin gets Dobbs gun and keeps it aimed at Dobbs the next day to ensure Dobbs doesn’t kill him. Unfortunately at night Curtin falls asleep and Dobbs grabs the guns and then takes Curtin behind the camp shooting him and now grabbing all three shares of the gold. While Dobbs leaves Curtin for dead. he survives and manages to crawl away during the night findings the local ‘Indians’ who take him back to Howard.

Nearly dying of thirst, Dobbs is ambushed at a waterhole by bandits. Dobbs attempts to shoot them, but finds that he has failed to reload his pistol after it was emptied by Curtin – allowing the bandits to brutally kill Dobbs. In their ignorance, they believe Dobbs’ bags of gold dust are merely filled with sand, and they scatter the precious metal to the winds, taking only his burros and supplies.

The bandits try to sell the packing donkeys in town, but a child recognizes the branding mark on the donkeys (and Dobbs’ clothes, which the bandits are wearing) and reports them to the authorities. The bandits are captured and summarily executed by the Federales.

Howard and Curtin, arriving back in Durango to reclaim their goods only to find the severed and empty gold sacks. At first shaken by the loss, Howard, then Curtin, grasp the immense irony of their circumstances, and they share in peals of laughter. They part ways, Howard returning to the village, where the natives have offered him a permanent home and position of honour, and Curtin plans to return home to the United States, where he will seek out Cody’s widow in Texas.

What’s to Like
The exploration of the human soul and greed.  Walter Huston’s talkative style that draws you in.  The on location filming.

What’s not to Like

This is the only time a father and son have won an Academy Award on the same movie, with John Huston winning best Director and his father Walter Huston winning Best Supporting Actor.

No one is a winner in this movie.  Dobbs who at one points seems to be the ‘nice’ guy, down on his luck he puts in extra money puts doesn’t ask for an extra share and doubts that gold can change a man.  He slowly loses is sanity despite Howard’s attempt to keep him calm and agreeing with almost all Dobbs suggestions.  But even Howard and Curtin end up with little, certainly no gold but I guess Howard ends up in a nice ‘retirement’ home.

Paranoia and the loss of trust are a big part of this story, and seeing only short term greed hurting everyone, including the bandits who don’t even think that those bags of ‘sand’ Dobbs was protecting might be worth something.

Knowing the reputation of Humphrey Bogart as a major Hollywood star it was shocking to see him killed.  It’s rare the first named Actor is killed and especially one who is such a big star.

A very enjoyable movie.

Academy Awards

  • Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Walter Huston) – winner
  • Best Director (John Huston) – winner
  • Best Writing, Screenplay (John Huston) – winner
  • Best Picture – nominee

About Nathan

A World traveller who has so far experienced 71 countries (76 by June 2023) in this amazing world.
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