The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) – A classic morality tale masterfully directed by John Huston

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There are two kinds of Humphrey Bogart fans: those that prefer him in those tough, debonair, private eye roles that he is most famous for and those that wish he had done more films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I belong to the latter. It took me a long time for me to make up my mind to see this film as I was not a big John Huston fan. It had to do with my experience with a very popular film of his – The Maltese Falcon. I never understood the appeal of it and found it to be a very overrated film. As a result, I had almost made up my mind to not watch another John Huston film. But for some reason, I got very curious after learning that this is one of those rare films in which Bogart plays an ugly son-of-a-bitch (both inside and out).

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I sat down to watch the film and to my surprise, I found myself really enjoying it. My aversion to the thought of watching another John Huston film vanished into thin air. Since then, I have watched Huston’s Key Largo, The Man Who Would Be King, The African Queen, The Ashpalt Jungle and Fat City. All these belong to my favorite films list now. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is an adventure film that is immensely absorbing and satisfying right from the very beginning through the end.

Humphrey Bogart plays Fred Dobbs and Tim Holt plays Bob Curtin, two down on their luck Americans looking for work in a Mexican town called Tampico. Fed up with the lousy wages and cheating employers, they come up with the idea of gold prospecting. With whatever meager earnings they have left, they join hands with an old prospector named Howard (played by Walter Huston, father of John Huston). Their destination: the Sierra Madre mountains. That’s where the gold’s at and Howard seems to know a lot about the place. He also seems to be very wise. They find the gold alright but that’s not the problem. Dobbs brings up the question of splitting the gold. And that’s where all the problems begin.

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The film is a classic morality tale of the first order. By throwing the character of Dobbs into the mix, Huston is able to conjure up an almost Hitchcockian level of suspense. The story moves along like a ticking time bomb, all thanks to Dobbs. This is a character who not only reveals flaws in himself but tries to reveal those in others as well. Right from the beginning, this character gives off bad vibes. He is constantly moaning about one thing or the other. This is a character who wants us to believe that the other characters are out to get him and wants us to be as paranoid as him. But eventually, the dark mushrooming cloud of greed engulfs him and we start to worry about how this is all going to end.

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I think this is John Huston’s finest film. This opinion of mine was once shared by Jack Warner, the head of Warner Brothers at the time. I also think this is Bogart’s best performance. He is phenomenal here and excels in this role better than all his other roles. Even better is Walter Huston who, through the character of Howard, has given us a sublime character study. The film is famous for one of it’s lines: “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!” which is often misquoted as: “Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges!” (a line that actually appeared in Mel Brooks’ Western parody, Blazing Saddles). Also, the black-and-white cinematography is rich and gorgeous.

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