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 begins...as 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: What are you getting at?
Curtin obeys. Dobbs smiles, satisfied, nods his head.
DOBBS: If you really mean what you say then hand me my cannon.
DOBBS (sneering): Come on and try and tie me up.
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.