Thursday, July 9, 2020

True Gold and Fool’s Gold

The biggest flaw in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), one of the Hollywood studio system’s mysteriously wrought miracles (the mystery is how people of exceptional talent were occasionally able to beat back the deadening forces of a mass-market industry and bring personality and vision to the screen), is a flaw that really doesn’t affect your enjoyment of a damn good movie. Sierra Madre is a superb adventure picture, but the character transitions (largely in Humphrey Bogart’s Fred C. Dobbs) from decency and generosity to greed and sociopathy seem a little forced and abrupt. These dramatic transitions occur in five or six specific scenes in which two characters confront each other—Dobbs and Howard (Walter Huston), Dobbs and Curtin (Tim Holt), and occasionally Howard and Curtin, who, in a scene of comedy that rises to classic French farce, eye each other warily from their bed rolls at night as they take turns getting up to “check on the burros.” In fact, the movie is better at dramatizing Dobbs’s cynicism and violence in the opening scenes, in the way he interacts with the Mexican boy (Robert Blake) trying to repeatedly sell him a lottery ticket and the work overseer McCormick (Barton MacLane, in an oily, great performance). With premonitory irony, Dobbs whips around on the young boy and yells, “Get away from me, you little beggar,” only to walk up to a mysterious tourist in white (John Huston) and ask three times for a handout. The movie is filled with a number of sophisticated layers of irony; the story’s richest veins are mostly comedic, not mineral.

Once Dobbs, Howard, and Curtin are out in the wilderness on their trek for gold, the action is handled beautifully by the script, which doesn’t freight the story with premonitions of catastrophe like a ponderous Robert E. Sherwood play—whose style Hollywood often mistook for depth—but instead adds casual, comic ebullience to scenes so that the audience isn’t tipped off to expect failure early on.

But back to the flaw: the script mishandles the character transformations, and the movie perhaps overemphasizes this theme and becomes more of a position paper than an adventure story. The theme—of a seed of barely suppressed greed slowly sprouting deep within a character’s psyche, nourished by the desolate environment—strikes me as too insistent. Instead of the measured, insidious spread of greed across the picture, Huston and the script give us brief exchanges of dialogue in which one man says something reasonably “innocent” but is immediately misconstrued by his partner, whose face scrunches up with too-sudden animosity. You know what the movie is trying to dramatize, obviously, but you see the grinding mechanics of overinsistent dialogue spoil the believability of the effect, which not even a John Huston at the top of his game can make fully convincing. 

One other, very minor, flaw is the bandit attack on the train. The action inside the railroad car seems unsteady, not timed quite right—the rhythm a little off. It’s a shoot-’em-up that looks under-rehearsed. I couldn’t help thinking that John Ford would have aced the scene.

Character disintegration. Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston
The story goes that the original scene of Dobbs’s death was much more graphic than what the censors allowed in the movie—that Huston filmed the decapitation and you saw the murdered man’s head roll into a muddy watering hole. I wish that recent restorations of the film for home video would restore that scene because, knowing Huston, it was probably a macabre, witty comment on the greed theme of Dobbs losing his head.

These flaws are quibbles. To paraphrase perhaps the movie’s clearest-eyed fan, James Agee, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is bursting with energy and intelligence and talent. The performances—even the minor performances, like the barber (who snips and trims with panache and self-satisfaction at his grooming skill while toweling Dobbs’s face)—benefit from Huston’s economy and clear eye. Part of an effective screen performance is where the camera is situated, and Huston and his cameraman, Ted D. McCord, keep the camera where it belongs; the best adventure movies of the era excelled at action sequences, not exchanges of dialogue, but Sierra Madre is equally great at both. The camera angle, slightly askew and off to one side in closeup, adds both lyricism and naturalism to the exchange between Walter Huston and Jack Holt in the flophouse. In scene after scene, the action unfolds beautifully, and inspiration is abundant everywhere, from the jig that Howard dances in front of a disbelieving Dobbs and Curtin to the terrifically tense interactions with James Cody (Bruce Bennett) and the bandit honcho Gold Hat (Alfonso Bedoya), whose grotesquely grinning face and crooked teeth have become one of the iconic images in movie history. Bedoya and his idiot posse unknowingly dump the gold all over the desert floor, but they’re abundant providers of many of Sierra Madre’s truest, most lasting riches.

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