Classic Movie Review: The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948)


Title: The Treasure of Sierra Madre
Release Date: January 6, 1948
Director: John Huston
Production Company: Warner Bros. – First National
Summary/Review:

This movie is technically a Western but it also functions as a psychological drama and a study of masculinity.  Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) are a pair of American drifters, working odd jobs and panhandling on the streets of Tampico, Mexico.  They meet an old man, Howard (Walter Huston), who tells them of the possibilities (and dangers) of prospecting for gold in the Sierra Madre mountains.

The trio put together an expedition and face the physical trials of hiking into the remote mountains and extracting the gold, as well as outside threats from bandits and another American, Cody (Bruce Bennett), who tries to elbow his way into joining their team.  But the greatest threat is greed, which most strongly affects Dobbs who goes mad with the paranoia that the others are after his gold. Dobbs is clearly a deeply-flawed character from the start despite being the main protagonist, and Bogart accurately stated “I play the worst shit you ever saw!”

The three leads are all excellent in their roles.  Bogart carries off the performance of a man constantly teetering on the brink of madness well. Huston does a great job as the goofy, old prospector but also makes it clear that Howard is also acting, quietly manipulating the behavior of his companions.  Holt plays more of the straight man and his acting may be overlooked, but he provides an important balance to Bogart and Huston. He plays a character clearly with a moral compass, and yet he’s still willing to go along with the plan to assassinate Cody.  I’d be interested in seeing Holt’s other movies (apparently he starred almost exclusively in Westerns).

The movie feels very modern to me.  I’m surprised (and pleased) that it hasn’t been remade recently by someone like the Cohen Brothers, but it definitely would not feel dated. The only part of the movie that doesn’t really work is a subplot where Howard helps a community of indios save the life of a child and then is seen reclining in a hammock being fanned by young women. It smacks of colonialist fantasy.

Otherwise though, the movie is gripping as it both lays out an adventure and deconstructs masculinity.  The movie is full of iconic moments that feel familiar from their parodies in movies like Blazing Saddles and City Slickers. I actually cheered when it got to this part with Alfonso Bedoya as Gold Hat after hearing this line (mis)quoted all these years:

Rating: ****1/2

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