—Arguably One of Bogart’s Best—
Your Bogie Film Fix:
Director: John Huston
Two down-on-their-luck men (Bogart and Tim Holt) pool their resources with an old prospector (Walter Huston) to search for gold in Mexico.
What I Thought
There are so many great stories to be told in and around this film that it’s hard to know where to begin.
This had been a passion project for Director John Huston for over a decade.
Ronald Reagan was supposedly considered for the role of Cody, the broke and desperate prospector who complicates things for Bogart, Huston, and Holt.
Both father and son Huston won Oscars for their work.
The film was based upon a novel by an eccentric author, B. Travern, who was offered a high paying job as an advisor for the film but refused – only to supposedly appear onset pretending to be his own “associate” who worked for much less.
It was the most expensive film that Warner Brothers had ever produced up to that point, and despite his angry attempts to reign in the budget and schedule, Jack Warner considered it one of the best films ever made by the company.
I love the film from beginning to end. Director Huston had a wonderful way of bringing out the best in his actors, and the triangular dynamics between each of the three main actors works on so many different levels. (This has to be the highlight performance of Tim Holt’s career as he gets to share so much screen time with both Bogart and Walter Huston.) Perhaps one of Director John Huston’s greatest gifts is his ability to create an environment for his characters that allows them to believably flip between sympathetic and villainous from one moment to the next. Could anyone else have played both sides as well as Bogart did here?
The ultimate story though, is that this is Walter Huston’s film to steal. Playing the angel to Bogart’s devil upon the shoulders of Tim Holt’s everyman, Huston is pitch perfect. Anyone who can steal virtually every scene that he’s in, especially when he’s alongside of one of Bogart’s most crazed roles, deserves as much credit as they can get. Bogart wisely eases back and let’s Huston shine, giving the older actor room to anchor the entire film.
And in my second big disappointment at a fictitious cameo (the first being Bogart’s supposed appearance in In This Our Life), despite being listed for a cameo in this film, Ann Sheridan does not appear as a woman walking past a storefront as Bogart exits. It’s clearly a Hispanic actress, and no, I don’t think that the makeup effects of the time could have transformed Sheridan that much. How do these rumors get started?!?
I can’t imagine that too many Classic Film fans or Bogart devotees haven’t seen this one yet, but if you’re one of them, get on it!
The Bogart Factor
While I wouldn’t consider Bogart’s portrayal of Fred C. Dobbs to be quite as evil as some reviews have made it out to be, there’s no doubt that this is one of the most darkly realistic characters that he ever played. Slowly consumed by greed, Dobbs is a man that is primed and ready for something to send him over the edge.
And yet the tightrope that Bogart and Director Huston are able to walk here with Bogart’s likability is pretty astounding. Even after attempting to murder Tim Holt, we watch – and continue to hope – that Bogart will somehow make it through his final desert journey and evade the bandit Goldhat one more time in order to claim his fortune. Dobbs is the good friend that we all know and continue to root for despite the fact that he occasionally makes some really despicable life decisions. It’s the same likability that Bogart brought to so many of his earlier criminal roles, and to the cynical loners later in his career that refused to stick their necks out for anyone.
How drastically different would this film be if someone other than Bogart had been cast as Dobbs? Perhaps someone more typically villainous? Having all three main characters start out as protagonists on equal footing lends a powerful punch to the film’s climax and the final moments between Walter Huston and Tim Holt.
While it’s not my absolute favorite Bogart performance, I don’t argue too hard with people who do claim that it’s his best. It’s certainly got to fall within the top five for me.
Tim Holt plays Curtain, the generous-to-a-fault partner to Bogart as they head out in search for gold. I absolutely loved Holt here, and I’m a little surprised that this seems to be the biggest film in his career. He’s listed on IMDB for Stagecoach, and I’ve seen Stagecoach more than once, but doggone it if I don’t remember exactly who he is in that film. It’s a testament to Director Huston’s ability to find greatness in his actors that Holt is so good here. By the end, you’ll want to see a sequel made just so we can see if he fulfills the challenge that Walter Huston gives him in their last scene together.
Walter Huston plays Howard, the older and more experienced prospector that helps Bogart and Holt find a fortune in gold. The word “superb” doesn’t do enough to describe his presence here. Especially take note of the wonderfully gentle scene where he revives a drowned little boy in front of an entire village. He’s the friend, father, grandfather, and mentor that everyone wants but will probably never find. His final moments with Holt in the film are painful and hilarious at the same time. Both Hustons find a way to take a tragic circumstance and spin it into a great deal of hope.
Bruce Bennett plays Cody, a desperate and hungry prospector who stumbles upon the main trio of gold hunters. The last time I watched Bennett in a Bogart film, I thought that he was underused and underwritten in Dark Passage. Before that, he had a small but solid role in Sahara. Here he gets a great chance to shine as the man who threatens to ruin the three protagonist’s plans. Did I really find myself wishing they’d bump Bennett off so that they wouldn’t have to share their loot? Maybe . . . but I’ll just chalk it up to Director Huston’s skill at making me sympathize with characters that have bad intentions.
Bogie Film Blog favorite Barton Maclane appears here as McCormick, a less than reputable foreman who cheats Bogart and Holt out of their wages. It’s a chance for Maclane to be a bit more blowhard and a bit less tough than how we usually see him in Bogart films, and it all leads to a great great bar fight between Maclane, Bogart, and Holt.
Robert Blake makes a small appearance as a boy who sells Bogart a lucky lottery ticket!
Classic Bogie Moment
Tell me you don’t see just a bit of ‘Duke’ Mantee here:
Hands at hips, raised just enough to make us think that he’s ready to either draw a pistol or strangle someone.
The Bottom Line
Put it on a 24 hour loop and let it run. It’d be a few months before I’d get tired of it . . .