Huston: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

Based on B. Traven’s novel of the same name, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was John Huston’s first film after World War II. It was also his most spectacular film to date, congealing the expansive exterior shots of Across the Pacific into a film that virtually takes place in its entirety outdoors. As one of the first Hollywood films to be shot on location in foreign cities – Durango and Tampico – it exudes an exoticism that goes above and beyond the story, which moves through so many different landscapes and spaces that it often feels like a documentary travelogue as much as a work of fiction. It also encompasses a wide range of fictional genres, despite being billed primarily as an adventure film, moving between western, crime, siege and chamber drama tropes, as Huston performs an unremitting, charismatic and often scathing character study of the three figures at its core.

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All three of these characters are Americans down on their luck in a foreign environment, caught without a penny to their name in Tampico, “some town to be broke in.” We first meet Fred C. Dobbs, played by Humphrey Bogart, begging for money, and repeatedly receiving alms from a wealthy businessman who is played by John Huston himself, in the first cameo of his career. As much as he tries to make ends meet, Dobbs still finds himself living from day to day, and scrounging for his next meal. Initially, several weeks of work constructing an oil derrick seems to promise dividends, but when the overseer absconds without paying him, Dobbs is back where he started from. Nevertheless, he has met Bob Curtin, played by Tim Holt, another American, in the process, and together they track down the overseer and fight him until he returns their money, giving them enough cash to put up at a flophouse for the night. There, they meet Howard, played by Walter Huston, an aged prospector who assures them that there is gold in the mountains way beyond the town, if only they had the money and resources to look for it. When Dobbs wins the lottery, then, the three men decide to band together and take their luck, buying equipment and catching the first train from Tampico to Durango, whence they start to trek deep into the wilderness.

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From the opening scenes of the film, Dobbs, Curtin and Howard feel like post-war characters. While Traven’s book might have been written in 1927, it was set against the aftermath of World War I. The story is still set in the 1920s, but Huston draws upon that post-war ambience to speak to his own time, crafting a film that is at once escapist and cathartic, offering a series of postures and sentiments that speak to the recent destruction  of World War II, but which do so via a narrative that doesn’t demand the viewer to recall the war in any direct way. Dobbs and Curtin, in particular, feel like returned veterans, “pushing guts for dimes and sleeping in freight trains,” as they drift around Tampico from one bench and park to the next, with nowhere to call home, and nowhere they fit in. It’s not hard to see in their situation something of the shock of soldiers who returned home from WWII to find that America had turned into a foreign country, and that the businessman who had remained behind – here captured in the figure of the exploitative overseer – had taken advantage of their absence from the economy to grow rich. While Walter Huston is clearly of an older generation than Holt and Bogart, he too feels like a veteran, but of an older war, just at that age where he could plausibly have fought in WWI, even if his character is too old for that in Traven’s book. His knowledge of prospecting also takes on a military, tactical quality, as he gives advice with the grizzled know-how of one who’s spent time in the field.

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That post-war ambience paves the way for Bogart’s astonishing body language throughout the film, which is amongst the most diminutive and self-deprecating of his career. By this stage, Huston had already worked twice with Bogart, and had arguably done the most to cement Bogart as an emblem of American stoicism and resilience during the war. While he would work with Bogart several more times, Huston already had enough of a working relationship with him to subvert his screen persona, and the expectations audiences had of his charisma. In both The Maltese Falcon and Across the Pacific, Bogart exuded anxiety, but an anxiety that could be – just – contained by his clipped diction, reserved manner, and slightly caustic sense of humour. In The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, however, that sense of self-control is never presents in any sustained way, and departs for good once he, Curtin and Howard discover gold deep in the mountains. From the outset, Dobbs is presented as disheveled, directionless and pathetic, coated with a permanent beard – apart from a brief interlude in Tampico – that somehow makes him look even shorter and more cowering in stature. Even when standing his posture is quite submissive – slouched, hands hanging by sides – but we don’t see him standing all that much, since Huston quickly forces him into one prostrate and defeated stance after another. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre thus forms part of a subgroup of films – Across the Pacific, The African Queen, Beat the Devil – in which Bogart was placed against tropical landscapes, his short stature tapping into contemporary ideals of pygmy primitivism, and deep fears of American cultural regression.

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Even amidst those films, however, it’s still striking how defensive Bogart’s posture is for most of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, as he spends an inordinate amount of time sprawled, collapsed or hunched on the ground. To a certain extent, these poses crystallise whenever the prospecting camp is under attack, but this isn’t the finely honed paranoia of his later noir films either, since this is also the most short-tempered and temperamental character that Bogart ever played, bringing the bitter edge of some of his other iconic performances to the surface. By about halfway through, it feels as if Dobbs is suffering from some kind of post-traumatic stress, fracturing his control over his actions, and forcing him into one blustery blow-up after another, as if it is simply too hot, uncomfortable and exhausting in the mountains for his hard-boiled diction to stick in any way. While the film may not be exactly noir in content or style, this is a bit like witnessing all the noir paranoia subsumed into Bogart’s screen persona being given free rein, leading to an unregulated flow of rage and resentment that sees Dobbs start talking to himself pretty early on in the piece.

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That paranoia unfolds against the backdrop of his prospecting venture with Curtin and Howard, which is here presented as a form of post-war investment, a way of recovering the raw materiality of wealth in a world where business interests have been aligned against them in their absence. Accordingly, all three men see gold as a way of restoring them to a normal life, rather than a source of wealth per se. Howard wants to settle down, open a hardware store and “read comic strips and adventure books,” while Curtin wants to run a peach farm with his girl back in Texas. However, it’s Dobbs who has the most detailed trajectory of upward mobility, outlining the acquisitions he will make when he returns with gold – washing himself down in a spa, buying a fresh set of clothes, going to eat at a nice café, sending the food back at the café for the thrill of it, finding himself a woman and, then, presumably, family and stability. In order to achieve these dreams, however, all three of the men have to return to a space that is very much like the war, as Howard insists that they stray far from roads and railroads in order to avoid land that has already been surveyed by construction engineers, land never visited by Americans en masse. Caught between local Indians, Hispanic banditos and American outliers, this is essentially a combat zone, and the different encounters that ensue gradually shape the three men’s relation to their treasure.

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Their relation to their treasure occupies the main arc of the film, which is in part, a moral lesson about the temptations of wealth: “I know what kind of ideas supposedly decent people get when gold is at stage.” But The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is also a vision of the ways in which gold affects the relation between men, along with the contradictory demands of capitalism regarding the kinds of proximity that are permissible between men. In The Maltese Falcon, Huston presented a situation where relations between men could no longer be properly regulated through their shared experience of women. In The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, he presents a situation where relations between men can no longer be properly regulated through their shared experience of capitalism. On the one hand, acquiring gold forces the men into closer and closer proximity, as they are forced to continually scrutinise one another for signs of deception and betrayal. Fairly early on, Dobbs suggests that they divide up the gold dust as they go, and then that they each conceal it in different places, since all it takes is for one of them to make away with it all for their labour to have meant nothing. Yet that very gesture also means that the men have to put as much space between each other as possible, even as they are forensically scrutinising each other.

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Admittedly, this is more Dobbs’ attitude than that of Curtin or Howard, since he is clearly the most suspicious and paranoid of the bunch. Nevertheless, his attitude filters into their experience of the camp as well, producing a strange dynamic wherein the three men can never be too close to each other physically, but can never be too distant from each other psychologically. The closer that Dobbs, in particular, gets to the other two men, the more suspicious he becomes, forcing him to reiterate his distance in ever more dramatic ways. Yet the more distant he becomes, the more suspicious he is that his detachment might be putting him at a disadvantage, forcing him to also reiterate his proximity in ever more dramatic ways. In lieu of a clear or consistent narrative pace, this pattern of attraction and repulsion effectively structures the film, which often plays as a serial boiled down to two hours, with discrete episodes separated by long periods of downtime. This dynamic between proximity and distance gives that semi-serial element some structure and focus, as the gold acts as both a centrifugal and centripetal force, dividing the men and bringing them closer together in the same instant. Unable to get too close to one another, but also unable to stray too far from one another, the three prospectors quickly reach a stalemate in which the film doesn’t quite progress, but instead simply intensifies this untenable scenario.

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By about halfway through, it is clear that the competitive male relations fostered by capitalism become incoherent when they have no point of reference other than each other. Of course, there are two very clear solutions to the bind that Huston outlines – admit the possibility of homosocial communion, or the possibility of collective ownership – but they are fused into a condition of existence that the film can never quite acknowledge. The closest it comes are the intense and unnerving close-ups that start to intrude upon the action, taking the film into a different kind of space and stillness whenever they occur. During these close-ups, the three men seem preternaturally aware of the scrutiny of each other, as the proximity of the camera is collapsed into the presence of the other male gazes at the camp. At moments, it is as if the camera has tapped into something beneath perception, something that normally remains submerged in everyday capitalist society, but becomes unavoidable when men are forced to channel all their experience into competitive relations with other men. These moments always coincide with the presence or thought of gold, which becomes an occult force in the film, both the ground zero of capitalist accumulation but also the point at which capitalist demands grow inchoate and incoherent.

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Beyond a certain point, these close-ups start to infect the middle and long shots as well, which increasingly focus on awkward, suspicious and hesitant networks of male gazes. While Huston favours compositions and lighting schemes that draw out the contours of the face, they always conceal as much as they reveal, or reveal how much these faces were concealing all along, from themselves as much as the men around them. These lighting schemes are often drawn from the omnipresent dirt and flickering light of the campfire, but they’re especially clear in the tent that the three men share. This space forms the motor engine of the film’s pattern of attraction and repulsion, as the three men continually sleep closer together, and monitor each other in more domestic ways, for the sake of emphasising their detachment from one another – although you could equally say that they emphasise their detachment from one another only for the sake of insinuating themselves into each others’ personal and domestic space in ever more subtle and insidious ways. In one particularly memorable scene, they all leave their beds, and the tent, in turn, going out to check on one another in a macabre round of musical chairs that suggests they can’t possibly sleep with each other, but that they are all incapable of sleeping without each other either. By the time we reach the final act, the situation has intensified further, since the men now need to sleep closer together more than ever, but also can’t fall asleep for fear of being watched. Determined to scrutinise each other in lieu of sleep, the intimacy and personal space of sleep is deflected into their mutual gazes, bringing Dobbs’ anger to breaking point.

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One of the key hallmarks of noir is the inability of men to bear the presence of other male bodies for too long without a woman to act as intermediary, or define their relation to one another. Similarly, one of the reasons why the femme fatale is such a figure of hatred in noir is because not even this hyperbolised version of femininity is capable of regulating and restoring the proper relations between male bodies. While The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is not noir in a conventional way, its fears belong to the noir universe, and bring Bogart’s noir charisma to a particularly intense denouement. In fact, the film plays as a kind of nightmare of noir, an early version of what would become film soleil, as the three men are divorced from the cityscapes that cloaked and protected the noir voice, and forced to scrutinise each other relentlessly in order to survive. Worse, there isn’t a single woman around – not a single woman speaks in the film – to even offer them the illusion of mediating their relationship to each other in a consistent way, forcing Howard – and the film – to personify the mountain they are prospecting as feminine, simply in order for their continued proximity to be coherent to an audience. Even as Walter recommends that they don’t distract themselves by thinking about women, he stresses the importance of putting the mountain back together after they have finished their prospecting and are ready to head back. When Curtin observes that “You talk about that mountain as if it were a real woman,” Howard replies that “she’s been a lot better to me than any women I ever knew.”

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With the mountain framed both as a source of stabilising capital and a source of stabilising femininity, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre thus suggests that women and capital both play a critical role in stabilising male-male relations in a capitalist society – or, rather, that women are a form of capital, perhaps the most important form of capital, used to stabilise male-male relations in a capitalist society. The film thus plays as a late version of what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick described as paranoid romances, narratives in which men were forced into intense homosocial proximities with other men – often framed as doubles – whose presence challenged their capacity to function properly within a capitalist nation-state. Yet while paranoid romances, which were typically Victorian, attributed this proximity to an occult entity, the occult entity here is gold itself, the driving principle of the market economy. The tent that the men share, and where the most intense scrutiny occurs, thus becomes the cipher for an economic system here as much as a system of gender relations, cementing and dismantling their capitalist masculinity in one and the same tortured image.

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With women and capital both removed as a source of stability, the three men eventually fall back upon race as a way of regulating their relation with one another. The only time they really sync are when they are pitted against Indians or banditos, who make inroads to their camp from time to time. Not surprisingly, these are also the moments when The Treasure of the Sierra Madre morphs away from the adventure genre, whether in the direction of the western, as when the banditos are shooting up a train, or the war film, as when the banditos build a barricade for frontal combat in the midst of the prospectors’ camp. Strange as it may sound, Huston’s film therefore evinces a nostalgia for war, both the World Wars and the early frontier wars, if only because these provided a common enemy against which white masculinity could define and regulate itself. Whenever that common enemy vanishes, all the paranoid energy subsumed into the conflict spills out again, until it feels as if Dobbs, in particular, is longing for a full-on battle with the other two prospectors, if only because it will restore and regulate his relation to them. Death isn’t too great a price to pay for this regulation, since unregulated homosocial proximity, as the film puts it, is considerably more traumatic than death, given the ways in which dignity is defined in this capitalist scenario.

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By the end, then, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre has become a pretty grim, bleak and unremitting parable about the incoherent demands of capitalism, light years away from the boys-own adventure ambience of the opening two acts. As Dobbs breaks away from the group, Huston’s close-ups grow even more intense and prescient, as if the gazes of the other two men have now been entirely internalised by Bogart’s character. In a kind of logical endpoint of the film’s close-ups, experiencing personal space as a man is inextricable from the competitive gazes of other men, just as Dobbs is speaking to the other men in their absence as much as to himself, seeking their approval for how he has (supposedly) disposed of them. At the very moment at which he appears to have physically triumphed over his two companions, their gazes are more inescapable than ever, as all distinction between dialogue and monologue is distended into this strange space between men, at once a space of attraction and repulsion, which is even more virulent when there is nobody else present. There had always been something insular, solipsistic and self-regarding about Bogart’s delivery, but it reaches a new level here, as he becomes both actor and audience, both subject and object of his own utterances, as if grasping, in both his character and person, the impotence of American cinema to articulate the contradictions the film is fixated upon.

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The film therefore ends by gesturing in the direction of a very different economy, one which forms the endpoint of Dobbs’ final trajectory, which ends with him collapsing on the ground, crawling along the dirt and then tumbling into a ditch, where is trapped and shot by a gang of banditos, who strip him of his burros, boots and pants, but show little regard for the gold dust slung in bags over the donkeys. With Dobbs’ monologue dried up, the last part of the film occurs mostly in untranslated Spanish, as Curtin and Howard quickly arrive on the scene, and are assured by the Federales, who have caught the banditos in the interim, that their goods are safely housed nearby. When they arrive, however, they find they have been speaking at cross-purposes, and that only the burros and animals hides upon them have restored. Confronted with a barter economy in which gold isn’t a point of reference, they return to the place of Dobbs’ death, only to find a desert wind scattering all the gold away.

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The last note of the film also happens to be the first time that we get a glimpse of the demoniacal edge to Walter Huston’s screen persona, as Howard ends with a maniacal laugh at the irony of it all. A more rousing, Western-inflected resolution follows, but the enduring image is of Howard and Curtin gazing upon the body of Dobbs, which remains out of the frame, and who we never see actually die, or in death. Even in death, however, the gazes he was trying to elude are still trained on him, just as his last desperate effort with the banditos – promising to pay them once they arrive at the next city if they help him with his load – recalls the overseer’s empty promises to him and Curtin and the beginning of the film. Not even death, it appears, is enough to extract the three men from their dual dependence on capital and women to regulate their relations to one another, since the only way that Huston can strike a rousing note in these final moments is by way of Howard’s fairly contrived advice to Curtin that he return home and shack up with his girl before its too late. For all its adventurous overtones, then, The Adventures of the Sierra Madre is easily one of Huston’s bleakest films of the forties, an apt precursor to the claustrophobia grimness of Key Largo, and an unremitting companion piece to the deep anxiety of The Maltese Falcon.

About Billy Stevenson (936 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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