A Storm of Gold — ‘The Treasure of The Sierra Madre’.
I hadn’t seen John Huston’s ‘The Treasure of The Sierra Madre’ since I was a kid so although I remembered the gist of it, re-watching it last night was like seeing it for the first time. And it is one fantastic movie and with a seriously tough, bitter tasting ending, like the end of a cigar clenched between Huston’s huge, devious grin.
The film starts with Humphrey Bogart playing a down on his luck American down Mexico way. Actually he isn’t down on his luck at all; he’s a free-loading layabout apparently avoiding work in exchange for scrounging and begging. But when his mysterious, god-like benefactor (played by Huston himself of course) and who has always been willing to throw him a coin or two, eventually tells him he has to take responsibility for his own way in life and Bogart is forced to do so.
So he teams up with another American, this one young and idealistic, and an old prospector versed in the ways of gold mining. The idea? To head off into the Sierra Madre and strike it rich. But from the get go the old prospector is issuing warnings about gold driving men crazy with greed, of men not knowing when enough is enough, always wanting a little bit more… just a little bit more. Bogey laughs this off. That won’t happen to him! And so they set out, strike a load, start digging it up and we get to know more about these characters.
One of the great aspects about Sierra Madre is that although the three main characters could be seen as rough archetypes — the cynic, the youth and the old timer — they are all extraordinarily three-dimensional and all of them possess, to a greater or lesser degree, shades of moral ambiguity. These are some very well fleshed out people.
Obviously, once the gold starts to mount up so does the tension with the possibility of betrayal, bandit attacks or interlopers increasing by the second and this is effecting the men. The gold is transmuting into pure paranoia: an alchemical reaction of the soul. And Bogart is always on the verge of losing his totally.
The film reaches its climax in a swirling of death and glitter. One of the leads, I won’t say which one, is brutally hacked to death with a machete… on screen! Sure, you don’t see the blade entering the body but all the action is pretty much up there. It’s a really grim demise. And as for the gold? It has been spilled to the four winds and in a spectacular sequence that works better in black and white than it would if it was in colour as it seems the entire desert, even the air itself, has turned into burning gold in our imagination.
‘The Treasure of The Sierra Madre’ is fucking awesome, it really is. Intense, thrilling, deep and with great dialogue and even better acting, a fantastic score by Max Steiner, the film feels fresh and dynamic today. And John Huston’s directing is superb. He fills the screen with detail, imagery and atmosphere but without ever feeling forced or flashy. He really knows how to direct but without showing off and you can sense the influence he had on Spielberg etc.
And Bogart is great in this. He is a man who is weak but trying to better himself. But he just can’t seem to make any of the changes last. At the start of the film he is dirty and unshaven but after begging for a few coins he buys himself a shave and a haircut and smartens himself up, yet two minutes later and his stubble has all grown back and he’s as ruffled as ever. Not even his face can accept and retain the civilised life for any length of time.
A great film. A truly great movie.