In 1848, James Marshall reported the first gold findings in California, and thus began the legendary California Gold Rush. While the Rush made some people wildly rich, it caused a lot of troubles for others. Whether it was conflicts between locals or disputes among prospectors, it was clear that all was not well in the soon-to-be-coined “Golden” state. This conflict was the subject of John Huston’s 1948 classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
But the movie, based on B. Traven’s novel of the same name, has its roots in another gold expedition front — post-revolutionary Mexico. By the 1920s, violence in the region had largely decreased, but there were still small armies of roaming bandits terrorizing the countryside, which proved to be a great danger to American prospectors. This was the setting for Traven’s novel.
This film tells the story of two financially desperate Americans (Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt) who after several bouts of poverty team up with an old prospector (Walter Huston) and go into the hills of Mexico to look for gold. They strike it rich but face dangers from both the outside — people who want to steal their money, including people who don’t need to show any stinkin’ badges — and from one of their own who’s slowly going insane and is plotting to kill them for gold.
The insane man in question is Fred Dobbs, brilliantly played by Bogart. We, the audience, follow Dobbs on this journey, from his beginnings as street bum asking fellow Americans for spare change (including Huston in a cameo), to his meeting with his fellow prospectors, and finally, we follow his slow descent into madness.
The audience not only buys him as a desperate but polite bum just asking for spare change but also when he becomes a paranoid and depraved thug. He’s terrifying — his gritted teeth and glaring eyes would send shivers down anyone’s spine.
Bogart gives what’s arguably the strongest performance of his career. Granted, I haven’t seen every single film of his, but his performance is so stellar I think I can still make that claim. His acting, along with the film’s eery tone, makes this a kind of Noir-Western — something we need to see more of. (Surprisingly, however, Bogart wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for his performance.)
Speaking of Oscars, this movie ended up winning three of the four nominations it received. Though it lost Best Picture to Hamlet, it won Best Screenplay, Best Director (John Huston), and Best Supporting Actor (Walter Huston). Yes, you read that right — father and son Walter and John Huston won Oscars together the same year. During his acceptance speech, Walter gave his son special recognition.
If you want a great example of classic cinema, top notch acting from one of Hollywood’s legendary actors, and just one of the best movies of all time (and one of my favorites) then check this out.