By Scott Ross
“It isn’t the gold that changes man, it is the power which gold gives to man that changes the soul of man. This power, though, is only imaginary. If not recognized by other men, it does not exist.” —
“That’s the gold. That’s what it makes of us. Never knew a prospector yet that died rich.” — Howard (Walter Huston) in the film
If those two statements seem contradictory, John Huston’s adaptation of the 1927 novel (published in English in 1935) by the pathologically reclusive “B. Traven” is still one of those almost miraculous studio movies that somehow got made with minimal interference and compromise and likely represents a realization that was as close to its creator’s intention as it was possible, in 1948, to come. Nearly everything Traven gets at in the book is there, only with fewer lengthy parables and less Marxist hectoring. And if Huston slightly reverses the author’s message at the end, it’s not a fatal reinterpretation, or even a misinterpretation. It’s simply a means of making the best of things, and leaving the audience a little something to dream on: Traven’s survivors share a bitter joke, and defeat. Huston’s shoulder the black irony as well, but both are left with something to look forward to.
Traven’s economic Marxism is not incorrect, mind you, merely pushed at a bit too hard: The narrative itself is its own Marxist parable and doesn’t require such heavy editorializing. It’s the same problem one encounters so often with Brecht; when creative writers, even proven artists, become rigidly dogmatic their tendency to the pedantic militates against their artistry, and hammering home a point to make sure the slowest mind in the back stalls can grasp it sure plays hell with art. Traven isn’t as boringly doctrinaire as Brecht, but his digressive parables are overlong and all come to the same point: Where riches are concerned, men and women destroy each other, and themselves, pursuing them. Since the narrative arc of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre makes that abundantly clear, the parables become slogs to get through, even when they’re written with grace and peppered with sharp observation; we want to get back to the story, and the author isn’t going to oblige us without a lecture first.
The one digression that feeds directly into the action of the book, the appalling massacre by a cadre of bandits of passengers on a train they’re robbing, is foreshortened in the movie, the calculated murderousness elided. (Although one suspects that, if the brigands gained control of the train, a lot more than cash would be taken.) Huston makes his three protagonists direct participants in the defense of the train whereas in Traven’s book the incident is reported on to suggest that the bandits, although their ranks are gradually thinned out by the Mexican Federales, and while they are scattered about in smaller groups, are still a danger. The bandidos who bedevil Traven’s characters are random, and varied, while Huston has his actors encounter the central villain, referred to as “Gold Hat,” three times. That may make for easier audience identification, but it stretches credulity past the breaking point. That’s one of the few missteps Huston makes. Another is his using some of Warners’ rather poorly disguised outdoor sets and not really attempting to disguise them with better lighting. Reality, captured in more natural light, renders contrivance superfluous, if not in a way obscene; compared in the same picture to Huston’s vibrant location shots in Mexico, the manufactured outdoor sets look even phonier than is usual with these things.
If you weren’t aware that this was his first studio picture since 1942, you’d never know there was such a gap between Huston’s movies. Not that he had been idle; as a Motion Picture Unit officer, he made a number of documentaries for the armed forces and, even if most are tainted by Huston’s re-creating incidents depicted in them, he doubtless picked up invaluable experience on the ground that affected his post-war work, as well as emotional experience that expanded and deepened his point of view. Unlike John Ford, who as as result of his armed service activities became besotted with all things military, Huston left the European Theatre with a lifelong loathing for war. And it’s telling that his most anguished documentary, the 1946 Let There Be Light, about the treatment of emotionally damaged vets, was, following a single screening at the Museum of Modern Art, suppressed by the U.S. government for over 35 years. After all, we mustn’t let the mass public ever see the true human cost of allowing their sons to become cannon-fodder.
As the picture’s screenwriter, Huston honors the source, as he did with The Maltese Falcon, and although he takes more liberties with Traven than he did with Hammett, you don’t mind most of them. He streamlines a slightly unwieldy narrative, and focuses it, removing the digressions. On the negative side, although Huston adds little, those additions he does make are not necessarily felicitous: For example, the way Curtin (Tim Holt) reminisces about an Edenic summer spent working with migrants, a monologue of joyous hard labor that smacks of capitalist propaganda; or the convenient sentimental letter Bruce Bennett’s Cody (Lacaud in the novel, where he isn’t killed) has in his pocket, which is read aloud after his death and which sets the agriculturally-inclined Curtin to thinking about the man’s young widow.* And when Howard (Walter Huston) is kept at the Indian village, instead of chafing at his enforced vacation as he does in the book, his reverie is a virtual paradise of the senses: Fruit and melon fed to him by beautiful girls who coo over him as he lies in a hammock receiving gifts of squealing piglets. It’s poster-art tourism as a state of mind, and the mind isn’t really Howard’s. (Perhaps it was Huston’s?) Interestingly, while Gold Hat’s famous lines about badges are taken directly from Traven, Humphrey Bogart’s most well-remembered exclamation (“Fred C. Dobbs don’t say nothin’ he don’t mean”) is pure John Huston, as is the sequence with the gila monster. And if the writer-director softened Traven’s Socialism, and completely eliminated his intelligent and entirely justified anti-clericism, he left in the original author’s critique of unfettered capitalism, and of the way riches — or even the mere promise of them — alter human beings for the worse. Getting away with that, in the happily capitalist late 1940s, and under a Production Code that glorified bankers, was not nothing.
As a filmmaker Huston serves his screenwriter, and Traven. He fully captures the grungy milieu of post-oil boom Mexico, when American corporate interests had just about finished raping the land and carrying away the Mexican people’s natural treasure, leaving a gigantic labor void in their careless wake where stranded workers, many of them foreign, were ripe for exploitation by unscrupulous fly-by-night speculators like Barton MacLane’s Pat McCormick. (No wonder Traven laid his Marxist lessons on with a trowel.) Huston also evens things out a bit, as in the sequence in which Dobbs and Curtin brace their fellow American McCormick, who owes them their wages for weeks of back-breaking work and pretty obviously has no intention of paying, in a bar. In Traven, the pair subdue him quickly. In Huston, it’s a well-matched battle, McCormick giving as good as he gets until he’s finally overmastered by superior numbers. (Although the staging is sometimes awkward and some of the punches are too obviously pulled, lessening the impact of the action.) But it was censorship that flattened out what should have been the movie’s most dramatic moment, when Dobbs is decapitated by Gold Hat. If you watch closely and know to look for it, you can after the edit that follows see ripples in the water where his head, in the shot Huston was forced to cut, rolled into the river. The picture was already tough and unsettling; did the Hays Office imagine this moment was going to drive its viewers irrevocably ’round the bend?
One of the pleasures of the book, and especially of the movie made from it, is the conception of Howard, the old hand who leads Dobbs’ expedition in search of gold. He could have been a twinkling, saintly bore, too true to be good; perhaps aware of this, Traven (and even more so Huston) make Howard wise but not omniscient and, as he explains to Dobbs and Curtin, more trustworthy but not necessarily more honest than his companions. It’s a also role that could have been emptily and annoyingly garrulous if the hands of a lesser actor than John Huston’s father.
Walter Huston, while never a film-star, was often the best thing about any movie he appeared in and, in the 1936 William Wyler-directed adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ Dodsworth, gave one of the so-called Golden Era’s indisputably great performances — and in one of the truly splendid, and uniquely adult, American movies, not merely of its time but of any time. Huston’s voice was one which, as recognizable in its subtler way as that of Cagney or Robinson, could wind itself as easily around virtue as rascality. His range was so extensive he could play Satan (in The Devil and Daniel Webster) or Abraham Lincoln, a corrupt president or an honest banker (surely an oxymoron even for Frank Capra!), George M. Cohan’s dad or Ambassador Joseph Davis, and be utterly convincing as each. He even, while appearing as Peter Stuyvesant in the Kurt Weill/Maxwell Anderson musical Knickerbocker Holiday, had the late 1930s equivalent of a Top 40 hit in “September Song.” His rendition, as precariously pitched as a Gertrude Lawrence aria, remains definitive.†
At John’s suggestion, Walter removed his dentures for the role. On his own impulse, he spoke Howard’s lines very fast; he reasoned that, when a man is honest, he doesn’t have to think a great deal about what he’s saying. Although his son undermines him at a crucial juncture, lingering too long on Howard’s doubtful countenance when Dobbs and Curtin pledge their good faith to each other — the moment could have been twice as effective at a third the length — it’s nearly impossible to think of Walter Huston in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre without grinning at the sheer love of acting he displays. The moment when, taking a leaf from Traven’s description he begins dancing a jig (one Huston said was taught to him by Cohan) and letting loose with gales of wheezy cackling as he taunts his compatriots for their ignorance is one of the highest moments in American movies. (That it also lays the groundwork for Howard’s burst of what Traven called “Homeric laughter” at the end is surely not coincidental.) But it isn’t all mad dances and explosive laughter; Huston is equally good in calmer moments, when his quiet dignity commands attention. Think, for example, of that extraordinary sequence, so beautifully lit and shot by the cinematographer Ted McCord, in which the old prospector ministers to the little Indian boy whose puzzling coma is what brings Howard into the camp. Howard is no doctor; he knows that most of what he’s doing is dumb-show, and that the child will either recover or not without his assistance. Yet even his showing off has a gentle serenity that commends to him our rapt approval. Walter Huston won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar® for this performance, but even if he hadn’t, it would be still be among the imperishable treasures of American film.
Bogart, meanwhile, is Dobbs to the life. He fixes the character’s desperation, and his embarrassed awareness of his own extreme poverty, from the first moments, and his performance strongly suggests the actor knew, whatever the ultimate box-office returns of the movie, that this was going to be a career-high role. In the previous seven years, due in large part to the success of Huston’s debut as a filmmaker, The Maltese Falcon, Bogey had become a major star, at least the equal at Warners of Bette Davis if not indeed her superior at the box office. His public romance with (and later marriage to) Lauren Bacall deepened the new aura of sexiness that had surrounded him after his emergence as a romantic leading man in Casablanca, and while moviegoers liked him best as a tough hero Bogart couldn’t be limited that way; although he’d struggled a long time to get the sort of better roles (and better pictures) that led to this new popularity, he was too good an actor to be put into a box and, whatever the feudal qualities of the Hollywood system’s creative servitude, too valuable to his studio to be forced into roles he didn’t want in scripts he didn’t like.
Dobbs is the antithesis of Rick Blaine of Casablanca, or Sam Spade, or Philip Marlowe or even Harry Morgan of To Have and Have Not. He is closer, physically, to Duke Mantee, the scruffy gangster Bogart portrayed in the stage play (and, later, film) The Petrified Forest. Not that he’s a gangster, or anything close. But his unshaven state is not dissimilar, nor is his essential roughness of personality. Dobbs isn’t unlettered, exactly; in both the novel and the movie of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre you get the sense he’s at very least a high school graduate. It’s more a matter of his bitterness, and his degradation. Like many Americans at that time, he’s been stranded in Mexico with no means of getting back home for so long he’s more than begun to wonder if he’ll die in Tampico, or end up a complete derelict. That’s he’s relatively young — not as young as Curtin, but young enough — is no comfort; what do youth or health mean when you can’t find work? Dobbs’ situation is Traven’s ultimate rebuke of the notion of capitalism itself, in which your very existence depends on some rich bastard hiring you, usually for as little as he can get away with, and his paying you that only when you can catch him. Bogart gets all of this across, almost without speaking. And Huston, as the writer and director, deepens our appreciation of Dobbs, as when Bogart, seeing a lit, discarded cigarette in the street, hesitates and is beaten to it by a small Mexican boy.§
As in the novel, Dobbs’ change of persona in the movie is gradual. He isn’t presented, either by Traven or by Huston, as even potentially villainous, merely as a man on his uppers for so long his ideals (which may only be skin-deep anyway) don’t require much of a nudge to slip away entirely. Although he doesn’t admit to such thoughts, as Howard does, the very decent Curtin has his moment of temptation, when the mine caves in on Dobbs and he pauses before going to his rescue; you can see Tim Holt, as Curtin, weighing the odds and calculating how much richer he will be if Dobbs perishes. The difference between him and Dobbs, and between Dobbs and Howard, is that their basic decency intervenes. Dobbs is missing something fundamental in his psyche that might ward off his baser impulses, and Bogart is almost uncanny in the way he makes that lack work for him as an actor. It’s in the lines, of course, and the story’s rising action, but the final and most important push is his. The desperation Bogart lets us glimpse early in the picture, together with the character’s growing paranoia, prepares us for his ability to wrap his mind, increasingly unbalanced by the presence of the gold slung over the backs of their mules, around the idea of killing Curtin, and we’re not shocked by it when he shoots him. It says something fundamental about the idiocy of award races that Academy voters, faced with Bogart’s just about perfect performance, didn’t nominate him for its Best Actor Oscar® that year… although they did find room for Dan Dailey in a musical no one remembers. One would almost think the nominating members of the Academy in 1949 were 21st century Democrats.
It speaks well of Tim Holt’s innate resourcefulness as an actor that as Curtin he is able to not merely hold his own between Bogart and Walter Huston but manage as well to be nearly as fine in a far less showy part. The son of a silent movie personality, and a young man determined to be a Western movie star, Holt worked largely in B-movies (what Orson Welles referred to as “all sorts of six-day Westerns”) yet managed to be in several big pictures in roles of varying importance: Stella Dallas (1937), Stagecoach (1939), Swiss Family Robinson (1940), Back Street (1941), My Darling Clementine (1946, as Virgil Earp) and the two pictures for which he is best remembered, this one and Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, in which Holt is superb as Georgie Minifer, monstrously spoiled and eminently deserving of his “comeuppance.” In Curtin Holt assays Georgie’s antithesis, a man of a basic decency, and makes him memorable. Watch him especially in the scene where Howard laughs at the loss of their gold: Holt looks puzzled at first, then shocked, then frightened at Howard’s sudden hilarity, before slowly giving in to the cosmic joke of it. That’s one nice piece of acting.
While most of the movie’s running time concerns itself with Bogart, Huston and Holt, Bennett creates a strong impression in his brief role as Cody, and MacLane is typically blustery (Bogart and Huston fans will remember him as the surly police detective in The Maltese Falcon bent on nailing Sam Spade for… whatever he can) as the duplicitous contractor Dobbs and Curtin have to nearly beat into a coma just to receive their pay. Little Robert Blake (billed as “Bobby”) does a beautiful job as a hustling street urchin, Alfonso Bedoya is genuinely frightening as “Gold Hat,” John Huston makes a strong showing as a white-suited American whom Dobbs pandhandles once too often, and Jack Holt, Tim’s actor father, shows up in the last-rung flophouse where Dobbs and Curtin first encounter Howard.¶
In addition to the then-unusual amount of location shooting, which gives the picture much of its solid verisimilitude, Huston was abetted enormously by McCord’s rich black-and-white cinematography. McCord had a splendid eye for contrast, and his images are rich and resonant. The people involved in this project seemed to know it was special; even the often bombastic Max Steiner delivered a score that is more subtle than was his wont. Aside from his appropriately fable-like opening theme and a recurrent motif for the trio of gold-miners that has the feel of plodding uphill with burrows but without the sort of dogged literal-mindedness that spoiled Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite, Steiner’s finest accomplishment here is the way he scored the sequence in which the men watch, and wait, for the arrival of the bandits at their camp. He scores the onset with a long, sustained chord by harp and other strings and low rolling drums which, repeated, accentuates the tension nearly to the breaking point. It’s so effective it was later duplicated by John Williams for the sequence in Jaws where Quint prepares to hook the shark, and where it was equally successful.
Huston’s direction throughout is almost shockingly right. The camerawork is clean and effective, the pacing, despite an unusually long running-time for the period, is brisk yet never hurried, and attention is paid in exactly the correct proportions to place, and to people. This, I think, is part of the advantage of being a writer-director. And like Howard Hawks, or George Cukor, both filmmakers intimately involved in the crafting of their movies’ screenplays (especially Hawks, who like Hitchcock was usually an un-credited writer on his scripts) Huston seemed to know instinctively how to group his actors, and where to place his camera, to achieve the maximum dramatic impact, without calling attention to himself. If this translates as a lack of style among pure image junkies — if they cannot appreciate how a director can frame his material without distracting the audience with fancy camera moves — they deserve nothing better than a steady diet of Scorsese and Coen.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was fairly costly ($2,474,000) and it took in less than twice its budget, earning $4,095,000 on its initial release. But it was highly praised, by people who seemed to grasp that darker, less compromised movies than had been the norm for decades were now in the wind, and that John Huston was not merely a figure to watch, but very likely one of the people who would be pushing the medium hard in the future. Whoever B. Traven was, one likes to imagine he did not feel betrayed by the motion picture made, so lovingly and so well, from his most famous book.
*Curiously, although Curtin explicitly states that his golden summer was spent in California (the San Joaquin Valley), Max Steiner, the movie’s composer, called his music for this sequence “Texas Memories.” And while I am not fond of the letter Huston added, which strains to jerk tears for a character about whom we know little and care even less, the line about the crops (“the upper orchard looks aflame and the lower like after a snowstorm”) is lovely.
†I still can’t figure out what the progressive Weill was doing in collaboration with a reactionary like Anderson, especially on a show whose villain was a stand-in for FDR. But they worked together four times, so the playwright (and occasional lyricist) must have offered something to Weill in the way of artistic compensation.
§The boy seems to be Bobbie Blake — he wears the same sort of striped shirt and dirty overalls as Blake in his later scenes in the movie — but he’s on screen for so brief a moment it’s difficult to tell for certain.
¶Welles used, anachronistically, a poster for a Jack Holt silent during one of the street sequence in Ambersons, “just to make Tim happy.”
Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross