The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of those great movies that has permeated the American consciousness. Even if you’ve never seen it, you might think you have, just because of all of its pop-culture touchstones.
“Fred C. Dobbs is nobody’s fool!” “Can you help a fellow American who’s down on his luck?” “I don’t need to show you no stinkin’ badge!” And most of all, Walter Huston dancing on top of a hill of gold (comedian Billy Crystal has worked that one to death).
But despite its parodied points, six decades later, the movie still surprises. It remains one of the best-ever filmic statements of man’s infinite capacity for greed. It has great performances and a thunderous pace. (Oscars went to Walter Huston for the former, and his son, director John Huston, for the latter.) And even the first 15 minutes, which is little more than exposition, is culturally fascinating. You’re listening to a bunch of street bums talk, and you think, even the bums were more literate than they are now.
The story takes place in 1925 Tampico and concerns a down-on-their-luck trio (Huston, Tim Holt, and Humphrey Bogart at his most fascinatingly unlikable). Huston is an old prospector who claims to have gone through several fortunes in gold. Bogart and Holt, with no job prospects, decide to go prospecting in Mexico, with the old man’s expertise at hand.
Turns out the old man knows even more about human nature than he does about prospecting. He spouts some dire philosophies about what gold can do to human nature, and Dobbs (Bogart) swears that could never happen to him and his buddy Curtin (Holt). Guess who turns out to be right. Dobbs at his most paranoid is not a pretty sight.
It’s a movie deserving of its classic status. And along with its other virtues, try playing “Spot the Star.” It’s not every movie that sports John Huston (as an American hounded by Dobbs), a young Robert Blake (selling lottery tickets), and “I Dream of Jeannie’s” Barton MacLane in the first ten minutes.