Sunday, October 17, 2010

Don't Make a Scene: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

The Story: "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" is one of THE great adventure stories.*  It has all the elements: a struggle against Nature (the mountain, and its denizens), struggles against participants (the internal squabbling of the trio of gold-scrabblers—The Old Man, Curtin and Dobbs**), and internal struggles of self (Curtin, particularly, who must find the proper path, influenced by Angels on each shoulder—The Old Man, the better angel of the two, who sacrifices, despite potential loss, and increasingly third person Fred C. Dobbs, who greedily succumbs to a paranoid sociopathy).  Which Angel will lean more heavily on Curtin, determining where he turns?  How will forces both external and internal shape the man?

Like all great John Huston films, it is a test of spirit and mettle, with an indifferent Nature hammering on the nature of Man, creating a Hero's Journey, fraught with peril, ending with a lesson learned, a goal reached, if not necessarily the one that started the trip. A treasure, to be sure, just not the one had in mind.

Today's scene is one of the creepiest in the film—but not the creepiest—where, due to circumstances, the "Good Angel" of the group is separated from the others to perform a Samaritan act, and Curtin is left alone with the "Bad Angel" in the dark night of the soul, when temptation and greed grins from ear to ear, and the twisted logic of Fred C. Dobbs—in the words of Jim Morrison, his "brain is squirming like a toad"—exasperates and confounds the conflicted nature of Curtin.  You can't argue with the devil, and Bogart's Dobbs is so deep in the Dark Side, that it actually garners a kind of evil strength in the exhausted gold-miner.

Bogart's great in this.  He loved playing complex characters who spent time in both sun and shadow, and Fred C. Dobbs may be his best role, and his best performance.  Oh, sure, we love Richard Blaine, and Charles Allnut won him the Oscar, but there is so much raw evil power emanating from Bogart's small frame, that Dobbs seems almost supernatural.  And when he laughs, in his words, he laughs like the devil.  And the fade to the next scene—on Dobbs' full-throated demonic cackle—leaves an audience in dread for what can happen next.

In 1990, this film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

The Set-Up:  In Mexico's Sierra Madre mountains, full of hidden bandits and gold dust, three vagabond prospecters—Howard (Walter Huston), Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Curtin (Tim Holt) are making the way out of the hills with their riches.  But, Howard is called away to administer to a sick child in a nearby village, and the two expatriate Americans have had carry the burden alone for the first time.  Now, exhausted, they make camp for the night.  But Dobbs' increasing "gold fever" has made him greedy and suspicious.  The scene it will end...with his laughter.

It can't come to any good, can it?

And yet the movie also ends with laughter—bracing, cleansing, and purging of all demons.



CURTIN: I wonder what the old man's doing now?
DOBBS: Finishing a meal of roast turkey and a bottle of tequila most probably.
CURTIN: This is the first day we've had to handle everything without his help.

CURTIN: Once we get the hang of it, it'll be lots easier.

DOBBS: How far from the railroad do you think we are?
CURTIN: Not so far as the crow flies.

DOBBS: But we ain't crows.

CURTIN: I figure we can make the high pass in two days more. Then it'll be three of four days before we get to the railroad. That's figuring no hard luck on the trail.

Curtin puts more wood on the firs. Dobbs sits staring into space. All at once he laughs.

CURTIN: (looks around at Dobbs): What's the joke?

Dobbs laughs again, louder this time.

CURTIN: Won't you let me in on it, Dobbsie?

DOBBS: In on it? Sure I will. Sure. (he keeps on laughing)
CURTIN: Well, go ahead. Spill it. What's so funny?
DOBBS: It just came to me what a bone-head play that old jackass made when he put his packs in our keeping.
CURTIN: How do you mean?
DOBBS: Figured to let us do his sweating for him, did he? We'll show him! (he laughs again)

CURTIN: What are you getting at?
DOBBS: Man, can't you see? It's all ours now. We don't go back to the port, savvy. Not at all.

CURTIN (unable to believe his ears): I don't follow you, Dobbsie.
DOBBS: Don't be such a sap. Where'd you grow up?

DOBBS: All right, to make it plain to a dumb-head like you---we take all the good and go straight up north leaving the old jackass flat.
CURTIN: You aren't serious are you?

CURTIN: You don't really mean what you're saying?
DOBBS: Fred C. Dobbs never says anything he don't mean.

Curtin puts another stick of wood on the fire then he gazes up at the clear night sky.

CURTIN: (finally): As long as I can stand on two legs you won't take a single grain from the old man's goods. You understand?

DOBBS: (craftily): Sure, babe. Sure, I do. I see very plainly what you mean.

DOBBS: You want to take it all for yourself and cut me out.
CURTIN: No, Dobbs. I'm on the level with the old man. Exactly as I'd be on the level with you if you weren't here.

DOBBS: (takes up his pouch and starts filling his pipe): Maybe I don't need you at all. I can take it alone. I don't need no outside help, buddie (he laughs)

CURTIN: (looks him over from head to foot) I signed that receipt.

DOBBS: So did I. What of it. I've signed many receipts in my life.

CURTIN: I guess I've signed things, too, which I forget about before the ink is dry. But this case is different. The old man worked like a slave for what he got. It was harder on him old as he is than it was on us. I don't respect many things in life, but one thing I do respect -- a man's right to what he's worked and slaved for honestly.

DOBBS: Get off your soapbox, will you. You only succeed in sounding funny out here in the wilderness...

DOBBS: Anyway, I know you for what you are. I've always had my suspicions about you. Now I know I'm right.

CURTIN: What suspicions are you talking about?
DOBBS: You can't hide anything from me, brother. I see right through you.

DOBBS: For some time, you've had it in your mind to bump me off at the first good opportunity and bury me somewhere out here in the bush like a dog...

DOBBS:'s you could make off not only with the old man's goods but mine in the bargain.

Curtin shakes his head in a dazed way. His pipe drops from his fingers.

DOBBS (continuing): When you reach the port safely you'll laugh like the devil, won't you, to think how dumb the old man and I were not to guess what was brewing. I'm wise to you, babe.

Curtin looks into Dobb's eyes, at once fascinated and terrified by the malignancy he sees. He tries to pull his eyes away from Dobbs - cannot. To cover his agitation he bends down to pick up his pipe. Dobbs, mistaking this for hostile, draws his gun.

DOBBS: Another move, brother, and I pull the trigger.

DOBBS:  Get your hands up. (shouting) Up!

Curtin raises his hands

DOBBS: Higher.

Curtin obeys. Dobbs smiles, satisfied, nods his head.

DOBBS:  Was I right or was I?  You and your Sunday school talk protecting other people's goods. You.

(yells suddenly)

DOBBS: Stand up and take it like a man!

Curtin rises slowly, his hands still in the air.  Dobbs reaches for Curtin's gun.  As he does so his own gun goes off.  For a fraction of a second, he is surprised.  Curtin, instinctively sensing his opportunity, lands Dobbs a hard blow, knocking him to the ground. 

He throws himself upon Dobbs quickly and disarms him.  Then he springs up and steps a few paces back.

CURTIN (two guns pointed at Dobbs): The cards are dealt the other way now, Dobbsie.
DOBBS:  So I see.

CURTIN (calmly): Listen to me.  You're all wrong.  Not for a moment did I ever intend to rob you or do you any harm.  Like I said, I'd fight for you and yours just as I'd fight for the old man.

DOBBS:  If you really mean what you say then hand me my cannon.

Curtin waves the gun in his hand, then breaks it open and empties the cartridges out.  He throws the gun in the air and catches it, cowboy fashion, then holds it out towards Dobbs. Dobbs looks at it sneeringly.

DOBBS:  My pal.

He spits, then retires to his former place by the fire.  A long silence follow, broken only by Curtin.

CURTIN: Wouldn't it better, the way things stand, to split up tomorrow---or this very night?

DOBBS: That would suit you fine, wouldn't it?
CURTIN (perplexed):  Why me more than you?
DOBBS:  So you could fall on me from behind, sneak up and shoot me in the back?

CURTIN: I'll go on ahead.

DOBBS: And wait for me on the trail and ambush me?  My pal.

CURTIN: Why shouldn't I do it here and now if I meant to kill you?

DOBBS:  I'll tell you why.  You're yellow.  You don't dare pull the trigger while I'm looking you in the eye, that's why.

CURTIN (shakes his head again): If you think that, I can't see any way out but to tie you up every night.

DOBBS (sneering): Come on and try and tie me up.

Curtin and Dobbs sit looking at each other. Both men are exhausted after the hardships of the day. Curtin knows he is in for a night of horror.  He cannot afford to go to sleep even if Dobbs does for how is he to know if Dobbs is really asleep.  Or, on the other hand, if Dobbs is not feigning, what is to keep him from waking up.  Curtin yawns.

DOBBS (laughs): I'll tell ya what.

DOBBS: I'll make you a bet.  Three times thirty-five is a hundred and five. I bet you a hundred and five thousand dollars you go to sleep before I do.

He laughs again.

"The Treasure of the Sierra Madre"

Words by B. Traven, Robert Rossen *** and John Huston

Pictures by Ted D. McCord and John Huston

"The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" is available on DVD from Warners Home Video.

* Written by one of the great "mystery men" in letters, B. Traven. The Wikipedia article on him is fascinating reading. His widow just died in 2009, and there is still one late novel, written in 1960, that has not been published in English.

** The Wiki articles on both book and film amusingly describe Curtin and Dobbs as, respectively, "penurious," and "impecunious." I suppose they're being polite, but those are $5 words for bums without a penny to their names, or in the words of Fred C. Dobbs "a fellow American down on his luck." Dobbs makes a couple cameos in Chuck Jones' Warner Brothers cartoon "8 Ball Bunny," ("OOO! I'm DYYYYY-in'!!") which is included in Warner Home Video's encyclopedic DVD of the film, featured in the Amazon ad above.

*** The transcript of the scene is taken from Rossen's "First Temporary White" script (found on-line) dated January 1, 1947.  Huston won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for his polish of it, as well as Best Director for the film.  Best Picture went to Laurence Olivier's production of William Shakespeare's "Hamlet."  Rossen would go on to win, the next year, for his work writing-directing "All the King's Men," which also won Best Picture.  There is, no doubt, much hearty Hustonian laughter over all of this around the bar in Director-Heaven.

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