Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The (1948): John Huston’s Brilliant Film, Starring Humphrey Bogart in his Best Performance–Narrative Structure

Equally a serious art film par excellence, and a commercial feature, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is uncharacteristically the product of a studio, Warner.

The Oscar nominated film is easily one of many highlights of director John Huston’s varied career, in which Humphrey Bogart renders his most fully-realized performance, though he is better known for such films as Casablanca, The African Queen, and The Caine Mutiny Court Martial.

Smoothly criss-crossing genres, the stylized black-and-white film is compelling as an urban Western, a crime melodrama, an action adventure, a film noir—and above all a sharp character study of greed and avarice, and their lethally devastating effects.

Huston shines not only as a director (making his best film to date), but also as a writer, adapting to the screen B. Traven’s 1927 novel of the same title.

One of the first Hollywood films to be shot on location, in Durango and Tamico, Mexico, the tale centers on two Americans, Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt), who join forces with a reluctant old-timer Howard (Walter Huston, the director’s father) in their obsessive and desperate search for fold.

Narrative Structure:

In 1925, in the Mexican town of Tampico, Fred C. Dobbs and Bob Curtin, two broke American drifters, are recruited by labor contractor Pat McCormick as roughnecks to help construct oil rigs for $8 a day. When the project is completed, McCormick skips out without paying the men.

The vagrants encounter an old man, Howard, in a flophouse. The loquacious and penniless ex-miner talks to them about gold prospecting and the perils of striking it rich. Dobbs and Curtin run into McCormick at a cantina, and after a bar fight, collect their back wages.

When Dobbs hits a small jackpot in the lottery, he, Curtin and Howard have enough money to buy the supplies needed to go prospecting.

Departing Tampico by train, the three repulse a bandit attack led by “Gold Hat.” North of Durango, they head into the remote Sierra Madre mountains. Howard, the hardiest and most knowledgeable of the three, spots gold that the others had passed by.

The men toil under harsh conditions and amass fortune in placer gold. But as the gold piles up, Dobbs becomes increasingly distrustful of the other two. The men agree to divide the gold dust immediately and hide their shares.

Curtin, while on a resupply trip to Durango, is spotted making purchases by Texan named Cody. Cody secretly follows Curtin back to the encampment. When he confronts the three men, they lie about their doings, but he is not fooled. He proposes to join their outfit and share in future takings. Howard, Curtin and Dobbs talk it over and vote to kill him.

As they announce their verdict, pistols in hand, Gold Hat and his bandits arrive. They claim to be Federales. After a tense parley, a gunfight ensues, and Cody is killed. A genuine troop of Federales suddenly appears and pursues Gold Hat and gang. The  prospectors examine Cody’s personal effects, and a letter from loving wife reveals that he was trying to provide for his family.

Howard is asked to assist local villagers with seriously ill  boy. When the boy recovers, the next day, the villagers insist that Howard return with them to be honored. Howard leaves his goods with Dobbs and Curtin, promising to meet them later.

Dobbs and Curtin constantly argue, until one night Dobbs shoots Curtin and takes all the gold. However, Curtin is not dead; he manages to crawl away and hide during the night.

Finding Curtin gone, Dobbs flees, but he is ambushed at a waterhole by Gold Hat and his men. They first toy with him, then kill him. The bandits mistake the bags of gold dust for sand and dump the treasure, taking only the burros and supplies. The gold is scattered by the strong wind. Meanwhile, Curtin is discovered by indios and taken to Howard’s village, where he recovers.

Gold Hat’s gang tries to sell the stolen burros in town, but a child recognizes the brands on them (and Dobbs’ clothes, which the bandits are wearing) and reports to the authorities. The bandits are captured and executed by the Federales.

Howard and Curtin return to Durango in dust storm and reclaim their pack animals, only to find the empty bags. At first shaken by the loss, first Howard, then Curtin, grasp the irony, and burst into laughter. Howard decides to return to the village to accept an offer of permanent home and doctor position, while Curtin sells their recovered property to return to the US, to seek out Cody’s widow. As Curtin leaves, the camera pans down to a cactus, and next to it there’s another empty bag.

Cast
Humphrey Bogart as Fred C. Dobbs
Walter Huston as Howard
Tim Holt as Bob Curtin
Bruce Bennett as James Cody
Barton MacLane as Pat McCormick
Alfonso Bedoya as Gold Hat
Arturo Soto Rangel as El Presidente
Manuel Dondé as El Jefe
José Torvay as Pablo
Margarito Luna as Pancho
Robert Blake as Mexican boy selling lottery tickets (uncredited)
John Huston as American in Tampico in white suit (uncredited)
Jack Holt as a Flophouse Bum (uncredited)
Julian Rivero as the Barber (uncredited)
Jay Silverheels as the Indian Guide at Pier (uncredited)
Pat Flaherty as the Bar Patron (uncredited)
Clifton Young as another Flophouse Bum (uncredited)

 

 

Oscar Nomination: 4

Picture, produced by Henry Blanke
Director: John Huston
Screenplay: John Huston, based on the novel by B. Traven
Supporting Actor: Walter Huston

Oscar Awards: 3

Director
Screenplay
Supporting Actor

Oscar Context

In 1948, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre competed for the top Oscar with Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet,” which won Best Picture, Actor, and other awards; the ballet-drama “The Red Shoes,” which broke box-office records in the U.S.; the melodrama “The Snake Pit,” with Olivia de Havilland; and Jean Negulesco’s “Johnny Belinda.”

The Oscar show was a big night for the Huston family: father Walter Huston won the Supporting Actor Oscar in a film written and directed by his son, John Huston.

The most nominated picture, and thus the biggest loser, was “Johnny Belinda,” receiving 12 nominations, but winning only one Oscar, Best Actress for Jane Wyman as the deaf-mute girl Belinda McDonald.

The major awards were spread rather evenly among the five nominees. “The Red Shoes” deservedly won the technical awards in color, a distinction that increased the number of winning films.