DVD - Image A Sound B+ Extras A+
BD - Image A- Sound A- Extras A
starring Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt, Bruce Bennett
screenplay by John Huston, based on the novel by B. Traven
directed by John Huston
by Walter Chaw John Ford isn't America's Akira Kurosawa, John Huston is, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, an intimate epic that unfolds against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution, is Huston's Throne of Blood. Huston also draws comparisons to Ernest Hemingway, not just for being a man's man in life, but for his precision and economy in art. There isn't any flab on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre--it's as sleek as a dancer in its waltz between complex character drama on the one side and broad social commentary on the other. There haven't been many better American films (it's Huston's best film next to Fat City and maybe The Misfits, and it boasts of Humphrey Bogart's best performance without question), and when it's spoken of, it's spoken of in terms of one of those films that decided careers in the cinema for generations of filmmakers.
Just a discussion of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre requires an examination of the Apollonian/Dionysian divide, of the ways in which the cult of man breeds animalism even as it restrains it and the ways in which politics can sometimes bolster a film rather than unhorse it. It's also beautifully photographed with what feels like awe and affection for the blasted saguaro landscape. As the picture's central trio of Dobbs (Bogart), Howard (Walter Huston), and Curtin (Tim Holt) make their way up the side of a mountain in pursuit of the titular vein of gold, there is an authenticity to the location that makes of its vaguely socialist tale of greed and madness a microcosm before the insensate harshness of the setting.
Dobbs is an American in Tampico, Mexico, the prototype for Ratso Rizzo, a dreamer and a big talker crushed by the immenseness of his failure. He hits up the same sharp-dressed guy three times for a little help (director John Huston, in one of the many classic cameos in his films), receives a tongue-lashing, and hunches down a little more, recouping a little bit of "big" in offering a cigarette to Curtin, another Yankee down-and-outer on a park bench. Duped by an oil speculator, the two team up to beat the living hell out of him in a saloon, justifying their brutality by only taking enough to cover their salary owed from the felled man's wallet. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre can in a way be discussed in terms of its rationalizations: there are reasons galore for Dobbs begging from the same guy three times, for Dobbs and Curtin beating a guy up, for Dobbs, Curtin, and Howard deciding that they're going to kill a man who wants to help them prospect their claim. As the film progresses, it becomes clearer that the road to hell is littered with these kinds of quailing equivocations and troubling self-delusion.
Bogart delivers one of the silver screen's most memorable bastards in Dobbs, a braggart who boasts of his immunity to the charms of gold only to be unable to list one noble thing he'd do with his cash besides play the big shot for people who've wronged him. Walter Huston (who won an Oscar for his work, as did son John as both director and screenwriter) is something of a force of morality even as he's a force of nature. A Vaudevillian known primarily for his button-down work in stuff like Dodsworth and Yankee Doodle Dandy, Walter had the role written for him by his son (mysterious B. Traven, the author of the source novel, reportedly envisioned someone older), with the caveat that he had to perform it sans teeth. His Howard, by the end of the film, is as constant and alive as the Mexican landscape: note his attempts to slow Dobbs's descent into madness and the moments when he looks at him--more importantly, the moments he doesn't. And though Holt is the most often ignored of the three leads (too many dismiss him out of hand as a B-movie staple), in watching a scene where he struggles with whether or not to save a partner from a cave-in one is reminded that Holt spent time in films like My Darling Clementine and The Magnificent Ambersons.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is so good that writing about it is embarrassing. One is tempted to call nearly every aspect of it perfect, yet perfection is boring enough that a new term needs to be found. Better to say that The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is as imperfect as life--an organic beast that breathes and pulses like a thing alive and spry today as it was in 1948. The performances pound with a dirty intimacy: studio bosses spent sleepless nights watching dailies in which Bogart, then the most popular actor in the Warner Bros. stable (and, arguably, in America), looked like forty miles of rough road. It's a courageous movie, one that should never have been made in a Hollywood that has frankly never embraced (save for a brief, delirious period from 1968-81) films with ambiguous heroes and unhappy resolutions. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was a popular failure at the time of its release, a fact that has something piquant to say in itself about the venal considerations that still drive the moneymen to produce a film--and the delicate thread of treasure that sometimes emerges pure despite all that.
Warner presents The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in another of their remarkable Two-Disc Special Editions. Leonard Maltin--a hell of a historian, if only a mediocre critic--gives background to the standard "Night at the Movies" simulation that includes in this instance the trailer for Bogart and Huston's Key Largo, a newsreel, the comedy short So You Want to Be a Detective, and the Looney Tunes cartoon Hot Cross Bunny (featuring an ape on Lionel Barrymore, whom audiences would have just seen in the Key Largo trailer). A film-length commentary by Bogart biographer Eric Lax is academic but accessible and informative, while the first disc is rounded out with a gallery of trailers for the Bogie flicks The Petrified Forest, Angels with Dirty Faces, The Roaring Twenties, They Drive By Night, High Sierra, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, Key Largo, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Picture quality for the film proper (presented in 1.33:1 fullscreen, as intended) is fabulous, audio quality (Dolby Digital 2-channel mono) is fine.
The second disc sports a feature-length documentary from 1988 called John Huston: The Man, the Movies, the Maverick. Lovingly narrated by Robert Mitchum, it encompasses the whole of the title subject's career in a way more engrossing than the now de rigueur A&E Biography style. The segment on The Misfits was of particular interest to me (sort of obsessed with that movie), but there's something for everyone in the piece. "Discovering Treasure: The Story of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" is a new documentary, about an hour long, that features an introduction by Martin Scorsese before going on to talk to an impressive array of historians and confidantes. Another Looney Tunes short, 8 Ball Bunny (featuring a certain Dobbs-ian drifter), a radio broadcast of the source material wherein Bogart and Walter Huston reprise their roles, and the usual suspects--talent bios, set photos, storyboards, and publicity stills--finish out this tremendous, definitive presentation. Originally published: February 4, 2004.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Warner brings The Treasure of the Sierra Madre to Blu-ray in a single-disc consolidation of their two-DVD Special Edition. The 1.33:1, 1080p transfer of this black-and-white film boasts a highly cinematic appearance, though the grain tends to go slightly clumpy on out-of-focus backgrounds. Detail's a little "thick" but not overenhanced, and occasionally it's extraordinary: both the crosshatching Mexican brush and complex textile patterns such as Tim Holt's checkered shirt have supple clarity and sharpness that, furthermore, simply weren't possible with analog video formats. (Said shirt seems striped on DVD.) Too, Bogey's malodorousness is almost tactile. Black is crisp but not too dense, with night scenes boasting exquisite dynamic range. Occasional inserts, like the famous shot of Walter Huston doing a jig at 31:30, are for whatever reason unnaturally blurry, like an optical blowup or a video-based substitution, but they are thankfully few and far between. The 1.0 DTS-HD MA track adds resonance to the centre-channel audio of the DVD--there's some actual bass during the mine-shaft collapse, and the guns our heroes shoot sound fittingly testosterone-charged. Supplementary material has been ported over in full* with its "Warner Night at the Movies" layout preserved. Nothing got upgraded to HD, alas, and the Looney Tunes cartoons look appallingly dupey. Originally published: November 15, 2010.