*Denny Ledger is a film historian and critic and his new book “A Reasonable Amount of Trouble…” The Films of John Huston and Humphrey Bogart can be purchased here.
You have to wonder how this film ever got made. Then again, with John Huston involved, I’d believe anything.
It broke every rule that existed for a film. It was bleak, there was no genre, no love story, no women, no happy ending, but a downbeat one by all accounts. There were many Mexican actors, who spoke Spanish and not English; one of the main characters also speaks a fair deal of Spanish and there were to be no subtitles. The main star would look like an unshaven hobo.
Oh yes, and Huston wanted to shoot the film almost entirely on location in Mexico. But not a picture postcard Mexico, but a grim, unforgiving, desolate, dry, dusty landscape.
At the time, location shooting was highly irregular, and certainly not for the virtual entirety of a film. In the end, he got his way, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre became one of the first American films to be shot almost entirely on location outside the U.S.
Jack Warner eventually agreed to all Huston’s demands, with the advertising department simply adding a woman to the adverts and playing up the ‘treasure’ aspect of the plot.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was published in Germany in 1927, with publication in America coming in 1935. It was the third novel by the mysterious B. Traven, a man as elusive as the treasure itself, whose books sold 25 million copies in more than thirty languages.
It was a story of three prospectors who search for gold in 1920s Mexico. It was not a story about gold, but the pursuit of it, the exploitation and cupidity that comes with it, and ultimately, the dissatisfaction it brings.
Like High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon before it, Huston’s script was extremely faithful to the book, and would follow the common Huston themes. Here was again a group of people on a quest. Here, they achieve it, yet they are changed and it is their weaknesses and obsessions that destroy them, with Huston examining the disintegration and change within the characters as they come under increasing pressure, with many harsh lessons being learnt along the way; that man is greedy, and this greed leads to dissatisfaction and unhappiness, deception, murder, cynicism and eventually death.
For the lead role, Fred C. Dobbs, Huston again called his friend Bogie. Dobbs is the character who allows greed and paranoia to get the better of him and is eventually killed by it.
Dobbs was a classic Huston / Bogie character. He was a born loser who would never change, despite the chances for change presenting themselves, he would ignore them, growing increasingly mean- spirited, greed-obsessed, and would only spiral further into suspicion and madness.
He does not start out this way however, as he is initially generous with money and water, two themes that parallel his downfall, as his reactions to and treatment of, grows more hostile and savage.
It is with the Mexican bandit Gold Hat, wonderfully played by Alfonso Bedoya, that Dobbs’ character is thematically linked with, in both his demise and his fate, as the greed for gold and riches is the death of both men.
The character of Gold Hat appeared only once in the book and it was Huston who expanded the role and made the connections between Dobbs and the character. Early on in the film the train Dobbs, Curtin and Howard are travelling on is attacked by bandits. Dobbs shoots at Gold Hat and the two make eye contact, syncing the two men and bonding their eventual fate and destiny. In the end, Gold Hat retrieves his sombrero before standing before the firing squad, which blows away after his death, just like Dobbs’ gold.
Joining Dobbs in the quest for gold is Curtin, a young, impressionable, likeable chap who, unlike Dobbs, keeps his sanity, and following a brush with death at the end, at the hands of Dobbs no less, eventually finds life more important than the riches they seek.
The role went to B-western star Tim Holt, on loan from RKO, whose father, Jack Holt, was a star of silent and early sound westerns. He would play a small role as one of the many down-and-outers at the El Oso Negro flop house.
He was not the only father to be at El Oso Negro, but Huston’s father, Walter, who would also play the third of the trio, as the grizzled, wise old prospector Howard. The soul of the picture, Traven had wanted Howard to look over 70, so Huston made his father, 63 at the time, play the role minus his false teeth.
Howard is a fast-talking, hard-bitten, worldly old prospector who knows nothing lasts. Having spent long periods of his life in solitude, he has seen what the promises of riches ‘does to people’s souls’ as he says.
There was also a small role for Huston, his first role in one of his own films, as ‘the man in the white suit’, an American who Dobbs keeps asking for handouts, and obliges with pesos.
In the end, Howard and Curtin survive, and find purpose and direction through self-preservation. There is no gold for anyone at the end of the film, whereas in the book Howard and Curtain are left with two small bags. Howard ends as a medicine man and Curtin goes to find Cody’s widow (Cody being another potential prospector who tries to join them, but is killed in an attack by Gold Hat’s banditos) and son in Dallas in time for the fruit harvest.
Huston had wanted to work with Traven on the film, and arranged to meet him at a hotel in Mexico City before shooting. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he did not show. No one had ever met the man himself, and letters were addressed to him at a post office in Acapulco.
Then one morning Huston woke to find a shadowy figure by his bed. He handed him his card: ‘Hal Croves, Interpreter, Acapulco, San Antonio’, and a letter from Traven saying he was unable to attend but this man knew as much about his work than himself and would represent him in every way.
The idea occurred to Huston that this was in fact Traven. He also considered the possibility that Croves became Traven after Traven died or that Traven was in fact two men. During the shooting Huston decided it wasn’t Traven at all.
The truth, or variations of it, would continue until long after Traven’s death, over 20 years later.
Upon release the film received good reviews and did well at the box office. James Agee would say of the film, ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of the best things Hollywood has done since it learned to talk.’
He wasn’t the only one to praise the film, with praise of the highest order coming from none other than Jack Warner himself, who said, ‘This is definitely the greatest motion picture we have ever made…’
It is a universal story that has not dated since its release. Walter deservedly won a Best Actor in a Supporting Role Academy Award for Howard, and Huston walked away with two awards, for Best Director and Best Screenplay.
For Bogie, it was another classic role and performance, perhaps unlucky not to be nominated himself, and albeit in a very different type of character he has played before, but with all the usual traits and mannerisms we come to expect and love from him.
Reports from Mexico City later found evidence that Hal Croves was in fact B. Traven.
*Take 2 is a recurring section of the Bogie Blog where guest writer’s get their chance to wax philosophic about about Hollywood’s greatest actor. Denny Ledger is a film historian and critic and his new book “A Reasonable Amount of Trouble…” The Films of John Huston and Humphrey Bogart can be purchased here.