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One of the two greatest films ever made about pure greed
on January 31, 2004
Along with the great Erich von Stroheim classic GREED (which tragically exists only in a greatly abridged version, and which was based on the haunting Frank Norris novel MCTEAGUE), this is the most powerful movie ever made on the destructive power of greed.
THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE is rightfully considered one of the greatest American films, and is also yet another in a string of first-rate collaborations between John Huston and Humphrey Bogart. Although Bogart made many superb films in the forties and fifties, a disproportionate number were with Huston, including the film that made him a star, THE MALTESE FALCON, and the film that garnered Bogie his only Oscar, THE AFRICAN QUEEN.
The cast consists primarily of three drifters who want to hit it rich in Mexico. Bogart plays Fred C. Dobbs, in one of the greatest roles of his career. The character of Bob Curtin is played by Tim Holt, a "B" actor (in the quite literal sense of having acted in scores of "B" pictures) who nonetheless managed to get parts in some exceptionally great films, notably this one, THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, and MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, as well as a small role in STAGECOACH (he plays the cavalry commander who rides a short distance with the stagecoach before departing). Both Bogart and Holt are excellent, but the film is more or less stolen by the great Walter Huston, John's father, in the last great role in a long and distinguished career as the veteran prospector Howard.
The film was based on a very great novel by the same title by one of the most reclusive authors in the history of literature. During his lifetime, the identify of B. Traven was unknown. If you find dust jackets for printings of his novels from the forties and fifties and sixties, the biographical details are something out of science fiction. Some even claimed that he was Jack London, living in Mexico after having faked his own death! Eventually, investigators went to Mexico after his death and searched exhaustively for the secrets to his identity. He turned out to be an ex-patriot German (not a surprise, since his books were always published in Germany before the United States) named Rex Marut. When John Huston went down to Mexico to film THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE, he attempted to arrange a meeting with B. Traven, but was informed that he was to meet with Traven's representative Hal Croves instead. There is a wonderful photograph that exists of John Huston and "Hal Groves" talking. As he talked with Croves, Huston began to suspect that he was in fact B. Traven himself, though he was unable to voice his suspicion. Years later, it was confirmed to Huston that Hal Groves was yet another alias for Ret Marut a.k.a. B. Traven. Given this fascinating story, it would have been wonder if they could have included as one of the extras for the DVD set the 60-minute documentary THE MAN WHO WAS B. TRAVEN. The extras are good, but this would have been a wonderful addition.
Filming THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE in 1948 was a fascinating choice by John Huston. In 1947, when they were filming, a sharp shift to the political right was clearly discernable. Whereas Hollywood in the 1930s had been largely leftist, in the late forties it was unquestionably right wing. Among directors especially, there were virtually no exceptions, though two prominent directors persisted in their leftist beliefs: one was the great Billy Wilder and the other was John Huston. B. Traven himself was a liberal anarchist populist (it is widely thought he was self-exiled in Mexico because of previous political activity), and the book, as does the movie, is an attack on the materialist values driving Western civilization. Not many directors would have had the courage in 1947 (it was released in January 1948) to make a movie about the evils of greed, but Huston was one who did. Likewise, Bogart was one of the more politically liberal actors in Hollywood, and was unafraid of being in a movie with the message that this one contained.
The film is highly unusual in having been filmed primarily on location in Mexico, unlike most Hollywood films, which would merely film in some southern California location. This imparts a look to the film that sets it apart fromAlso unlike most Hollywood films, Huston actually employed Hispanic actors in Hispanic roles. This allowed one veteran Mexican character actor, Alfonso Bedoya, to deliver one of the most famous lines in the history of the movies, when he tells Fred C. Dobbs, "Badges? We don't need no stinking badges!"