Knight-errant on a mean street: “The Big Sleep” (1946)



“What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on the top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that, oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now.” — Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

By Scott Ross

The Big Sleep was Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not follow-up, a taut adaptation of — and, in some ways, although it’s probably sacrilege to say so, improvement on — the somewhat over-cluttered Raymond Chandler novel that, with John Huston’s adaptation of The Maltese Falcon (1941), was one of two war-era American pictures (three, if we count Casablanca) that cemented not only Humphrey Bogart’s tough-guy persona, but the image we carried then, and carry still, of Chandler and Dashiell Hammett’s detective characters. Others have played Sam Spade (on radio, anyway) and Phillip Marlowe (Robert Montgomery, Dick Powell, James Garner, Robert Mitchum and even, Heaven help us, Elliott Gould) but it’s Bogart we think of when we read those books, and Hawks’ conceptions of the “mean streets” Marlowe operated on we imagine.

The picture did not come together as easily as Falcon. There was considerable confusion in the minds, not only of Hawks and his screenwriters but, oddly, of Chandler, as to who killed the chauffeur or even whether or not he was murdered. It’s made perfectly plain in the novel, so why Chandler was fuzzy on it is baffling. (Unless his inability to remember was related to his alcoholism?) But the book has a tendency to meander, and doesn’t so much end as taper off. Worse, from Hawks’ perspective — and that of Warner Bros., which very much wanted to capitalize on the heat Bogart and Lauren Bacall generated in To Have and Have Not, and to save a suddenly valuable property from her own thespic incompetency — the daughters of Marlowe’s aged client in the novel are impossible. The younger, Carmen, is either psychotic or a moron, if not both, and the older, Vivian, a spoiled, manipulative, irredeemable rich-bitch. The screenwriters (who included William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman) were encouraged to get some of the teasing banter going between Marlowe and Vivian that sparked To Have and Have Not, and while Vivian may be insolent in the Chandler novel, she’s hardly encouraging, so they had their work cut out for them. Perhaps to make Vivian more available, they dropped her position in the book as the wife of a missing man and brought her into the climactic scenes as an ally for Marlowe, as well as a possible mate. When even that didn’t help, Hawks was required to re-shoot a number of scenes after the 1945 preview, and added some new ones. They improve the quality of the picture immensely, although some clarifying material was lost in the process, making the movie’s plot murkier than it needed to be.

The Big Sleep - Malone, Bogart

“Why, Miss Malone – without your glasses, you’re beautiful!

Hawks’ direction of the material, however, is first-rate. In tandem with his cinematographer, the gifted Sidney Hickox, who lit To Have and Have Not and would later shoot White Heat (1949), Hawks’ images are beautifully crisp and his staging immaculate, especially in some of the re-takes. He handles the Bogart/Bacall dynamic so well, and with such cheeky erotic command, it’s a shame the three never worked together again. (A thwarted would-be Svengali, Hawks was furious when he discovered Bacall had married Bogart.) Insolent sexiness was the one thing Bacall could do well, and her dialogue sequences with Bogie are small masterpieces of innuendo and insinuation, to a jaw-dropping degree when one considers the prevailing moral censorship of the time, as is the scene in which the bookshop proprietor (Dorothy Malone) entertains Marlowe, and her literally letting her hair down, accompanied by a discreet fade-out, tells us the two are doing a lot more in that bookstore than merely sharing a drink.

The Big Sleep - Bogart, Martha Vickers

There are other interesting sexual matters on the periphery of the narrative. In the novel, the murdered blackmailer Geiger is identified as homosexual, which was of course taboo under the Production Code, but you can’t escape the implication in the accurate design of his home in the movie, with its prissy Orientalist décor (Chandler: “a stealthy nastiness, like a fag party”), nor in the presence of the avenging angel, Geiger’s young boyfriend Carol Lundgren (Thomas Rafferty). Chandler, of course, makes his usual snide fetish of this, reassuring his (male, hetero) readers that, despite Carol’s deadliness with a gun and his butch physicality, no faggot (his word, not mine) can throw a punch. Presumably, his wrist isn’t stiff enough to land a good slug. And, just as Lundgren’s reasons for his revenge killing is obscured, his favored direction — presumably, based on the position of the em dash, “Go fuck yourself” — is diluted here as “Take a jump, Jack,” but I doubt a 1946 audience had difficulty translating it. And while Carmen visits Marlowe’s office she does not, as in the book, invade his bed, or attempt to trick him into letting her shoot him. Yet she’s still clearly a nymphomaniac, a word I use advisedly, in its psycho-medical sense, which is as one with her general air of (again, physiological) moronism. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything on The Big Sleep in praise of Martha Vickers’ quite eerie performance as Carmen, but her instincts are unerring, especially those blank looks she gives as her initial response to Marlowe’s sarcasm before she realizes he’s joshing her, and her impact is considerable.

Those who have only seen a couple of Bogart movies may think they have him pegged as a rough-edged romantic, and can see little difference between his performance as Sam Spade and this one. But Bogart’s Spade is, despite his tolerant amusement at the den of thieves he’s stumbled into, tightly coiled. He’s frustrated, and angry, not merely at the gallery of prevaricators with which he’s surrounded but by his loveless affair with his slain partner’s wife and perhaps over something else, some disappointment or betrayal we can only guess at. When he slaps Elisha Cook, Jr’s Wilmur, or, later, knocks him out, there is genuine fury there, as there is when he “pretends” to throw a violent fit of pique in the Fat Man’s hotel suite; you know it isn’t entirely an act. Bogart’s Marlowe is, by contrast, more laconic, and emotionally contained. He uses his fists, or his gun, only when there’s no other option, and does so dispassionately. And although he’s also amused by the outrageous, and as cynical as Spade, he has the ethics of a knight-errant. Spade admits he’s tempted by the lure of easy money, and turns Brigid O’Shaunessy over to the homicide cops for reasons of professional ethics even he doesn’t entirely understand. Marlowe keeps his reasons to himself, but is dogged both in protecting his client and in pursuit of what he has been contracted to do, and no matter how much personal danger that doggedness puts in his path. He’s easier with women (or at least with some women) than Spade and, even when he knows Vivian is lying her head off to him, is more intrigued by her than annoyed at her lies. You also sense that he expects to be lied to, even by his clients, and enjoys watching the process and trying to discover what they’re lying about. And while he’s no one’s fool, he seems to genuinely like people more than Spade, whether they’re agreeable to him, hostile, or trying to lead him down a false trail, something Bacall’s Vivian chides him about (“You like too many people”) when he’s tied up and wondering whether he’ll get away or be slowly tortured to death.

The Big Sleep - Bogart in bookshop (resized)

“You do sell books… mmmm?”

Bogart (and his screenwriters and director) have some fun with the process of detection, occasionally in ways that twit the Breen Office, as when Marlowe visits Geiger’s alleged rare book shop. In Chandler, he assumes the persona of a stereotypical, lisping pansy-type. In the movie Bogart raises the brim of his hat, lowers his shades and mugs in an outrageous, indeterminately effeminate manner one suspects Hawks figured would be just eccentric enough to defy anyone pinning it down definitely as gay. As with John Huston’s pulling off the various homosexual characters in Falcon, a contemporary viewer may feel less offense at the implication than amusement that the people involved got away with it.

Hawks honors his source as much as possible, albeit with some variations and elisions, even to the extent of replicating the autumn Los Angeles rains that are the novel’s near-constant atmospheric phenomena. The action of the book is necessarily compacted, and streamlined, as with Vivian no longer being the wife of the missing Sean (Rusty in Chandler) Reagan. Much of the dialogue, other than the suggestive byplay between Bogie and Bacall, comes directly from the novel, and the action follows it very closely. The only major change is the explosive, cleverly constructed finale which Hawks, with his habitual disregard for crossing the same river twice, recycled for the climax of Rio Bravo (also written by Leigh Brackett) thirteen years later, and since Rio Bravo is such a damnably entertaining picture, I suspect only those who dislike Hawks’ movies generally get worked up about that. There’s some marvelous repartee between Bogart and Bacall in the re-imagined sequences, including an improvised Ma-and-Pa routine between Marlowe and Vivian and an unseen police officer they confuse and antagonize in equal measure. (Bogart’s “Oh, I wouldn’t like that” in response to a buzz of a line over the telephone makes it clear the cop has just suggested something identical to Carol Lundgren’s preferred instruction in the novel.) And if the Marlowe of the movie is not as disgusted with his own, unwitting, complicity in the process of death as Chandler’s detective, neither is he indifferent to it.

The Big Sleep - Cook, Bogart

As usual with Hawks, the supporting roles are wonderfully cast, and the performances, however brief, perfectly modulated: Dorothy Malone’s sharp, sly bookseller, who never makes a wrong move even when required to remove her glasses and let down her hair to get a reaction from Marlowe; John Ridley’s alternately suave and dangerous casino proprietor who knows far more than he ever lets on; Peggy Knudsen as his supposedly estranged wife; Regis Toomey’s nicely judged police inspector; Charles D. Brown’s butler, less silkily insinuating than his coeval in Chandler; Sonia Darrin as a bad girl two men die for and who isn’t worth a beating let alone a murder; Charles Waldron’s strikingly honest and unself-pitying old reprobate; and, especially, Elisha Cook, Jr’s low-key hustler, hoping to parlay a little information into a payday. “Harry Jones” is almost the flip-side of Wilmur in Falcon, soft-spoken, un-threatening, courageous when it matters and even capable of being mildly offended at one of Marlowe’s nastier cracks; his understated reaction shames the speaker, who slowly (if too late) begins to appreciate the true-blue quality of the “little man,” even in the face of certain, and particularly unpleasant, death.

Max Steiner’s score is briefer and less obtrusive than usual, and he came up with a couple of very fine motifs, especially the minor-key love theme for Bogart and Bacall. When even as bombastic an auditory scene-stealer as Steiner can be inveighed upon to embrace subtlety, it’s a pretty good indication that something more interesting than normal was going on.

The Big Sleep - poster

Copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

What gold makes of us: “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948)


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.” — B. Traven, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

“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.

Treasure of the Sierra Madre - Bogart and Holt resized

Humphrey Bogart as Dobbs and Tim Holt as Curtin.

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.

Treasure of the Sierra Madre - Bedoya

No stinking badges: Alfonso Bedoya as Gold Hat.

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.

Treasure - Holt, Bogart, Huston

“Go ahead, go ahead, throw it. If you did, you’d never leave this wilderness alive.” Walter Huston’s Howard is unimpressed by Dobbs’ anger.

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.

Treasure of the Sierra Madre - Bogart and Blake

“You can take dat to da bank, señor“: Little Bobby Blake, about to have a glass of water thrown into his face by Humphrey Bogart.

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.

Treasure of the Sirra Madre - finale

Homeric laughter: Holt and Huston in the ironic finale.

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.¶

Treasure - Steiner (Rhino CD)

Steiner’s score on a Rhino/Turner CD release. Note the cleaned-up star portraits from the original poster, and the superfluous señorita promising the potential ticket-buyer a little sex with his treasure-hunting. Alas, the first third of the master tapes are missing, but the disc beautifully represents Steiner’s best score after King Kong and Gone with the Wind… and one of his least annoying. 

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.

Walter and John Huston - Oscars

Walter and John on Oscar® night 1949. The first, and so far only, father/son winners in the same year, for the same picture.

*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

The Letter (1940)


By Scott Ross

As the duplicitous wife of a British plantation owner in Malaya who shoots her lover, Bette Davis gives one of her most celebrated performances in this exceptionally well-directed adaptation of the Somerset Maugham story (and subsequent play). With this, his first produced screenplay, Howard Koch — whose pre-Hollywood credits included the basic script for Orson Welles’ apocalyptic “War of the Worlds” broadcast — mastered his craft with the sort of sparkling dramatic literacy for which American movies of the 1930s and 1940s were justly celebrated. It’s not his fault the Hayes Code stipulated that Leslie Crosbie die for her sins, a prerequisite that leads to a final sequence with, it must be admitted, a certain creepy existentialist fascination. In the fine supporting cast, which includes Gale Sondergaard as a murderous Eurasian (her anger is more justifiable than Leslie’s homicidal rage), Hebert Marshall is quite moving as the planter, a decent, uninspired — and uninspiring — man who simply doesn’t know the woman to whom he’s married. The sinuous, faux-Eastern score is by Max Steiner (of course) and the splendid direction is by the great William Wyler.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross