The last of the three Humphrey Bogart films in the Warner Bros. 50 Film Collection is The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, from 1948. This is an older, more grizzled Bogey, partially due to simple aging, and partially due to the role. Unlike Sam Spade or Rick Blaine, Bogart’s Fred C. Dobbs is a downtrodden mess.
I said that The Maltese Falcon was based on a book, but felt more like a play, and that Casablanca was based on a play, but felt more like a book. Well, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was based on a book, but feels more like an episodic television show or serial.
Directed by Falcon‘s John Huston (who has a small part, and whose father Walter co-stars), this movie happens in a series of phases that can almost be separated out into discrete bundles of activity. I’ll explain that in more detail in a moment, but this is what the episode guide for a television show based on this exact story would look like:
1.1 – Two down-on-their luck Americans, Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Curtin (Tim Holt) are broke in a Mexican town.
1.2 – Dobbs and Curtin and new ally Howard (Walter Huston) go searching for gold.
1.3 – Dobbs suddenly goes insane, causing trouble for their prospecting efforts and tracking the warnings about the power of gold of which Howard spoke when Dobbs and Curtin first encountered him.
1.4 – A trip by Curtin into town helps a stranger find the prospectors’ camp, and the trio must debate how to deal with him.
1.5 – The camp is assaulted by bandits.
1.6 – Dobbs, now sane again, says they should pack up camp and go home. On the way back, mysterious Amerindians arrive and request Howard’s help in reviving a boy who almost drowned. Howard stays with the Indians who insist on “thanking” him.
1.7 – Dobbs flips his sanity switch back to “nuts,” plotting to steal Howard’s share while Howard is with the Indians. He goes on to try to kill Curtin—but fails. Dobbs still thinks Curtin’s dead, and just keeps getting crazier.
1.8 – Back at the Indian village, the injured Curtin manages to reunite with Howard. Howard is surprisingly non-judgmental about Dobbs’ actions. Nonetheless, the two set out to find Dobbs as he descends further into madness.
1.9 – Dobbs coincidentally runs into the remaining members of the bandit outfit that previously tormented the group. They kill him and take his goods and animals. They think the gold is worthless dust.
1.10 – (Season Finale) Howard and Curtin get to Durango as the bandits are caught and executed by federales. They discover what happened, but yet another coincidence—a windstorm—blows away the gold dust as the two try in vain to save it.
Dust in the wind, man. Dust in the wind.
The movie ends with Howard and Curtin (improbably) laughing over their misfortune, with Howard deciding to become a medicine man for the rest of his life, and Curtin agreeing to travel to Dallas to visit the (now-dead) stranger’s wife.
The biggest problem I had with this film is how it treats gold, or the pursuit of same, as an actual agent that turns Dobbs insane. Then, once the death of the stranger seems to snap Dobbs back to reality, he just as quickly goes crazy again. That’s one reason why I say this flows more like a TV series: Anyone who has ever binge-watched a show knows that week-to-week changes that don’t seem particularly abrupt suddenly become jarring when viewed without that six-day buffer between episodes.
So it goes in this case, as we watch coincidences pile up alongside Bogey’s flip-flopping mental health.
I didn’t dislike this movie. It’s interesting to hear Bogart’s character, as a poor American improbably living in Mexico during the Roaring Twenties, talk about how difficult it is for a gringo to make a living there. He winds up joining a work crew and getting swindled out of his rightful earnings, and there’s a dusting (no pun intended) of Marxism worked into the movie’s underlying anti-wealth theme. As always, that philosophy is not persuasive, but it’s a bit fascinating to see that angle sewn into the film in the time just before McCarthyism began.
I think the audience winds up as frustrated with Dobbs as Curtin is, though. This movie currently holds a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and I suspect the reason for that universal acclaim was Bogart being able to play against type, to the point of portraying someone who has completely—and fairly inexplicably—descended into paranoid madness.
As with all of these films (so far), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a “must” for film buffs, but I would rank it behind both of the other Bogart movies in this collection, particularly the fantastic Casablanca.