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Warner Home Video presents
"I know what gold does to men's souls."
DVD ReviewIt's hard to imagine American film history without The Treasure of the Sierra Madre—if it didn't exist, we would have had to invent it. It's one of those movies that's got such iconic power that it's easy to lose sight of what an exquisitely crafted film this is, a terrific story thrillingly told, featuring perhaps the best work from perhaps the best actor/director tandem in Hollywood history. Its title has become a sort of shorthand for a doomed, quixotic quest; it's a film that's been frequently imitated and stolen from, but almost never equaled.
Okay, let's get one bit of business out of the way first, shall we? If you've never seen the film before, there's probably one bit of it that has cropped up as a punch line or an allusion somewhere, so feel free to read along out loud as we revisit the words of the marvelous Alfonso Badoya:
"Badges? We ain't go not badges. We don't need no badges. I don't have to show you any stinkin' badges!!!"
(Don't you feel better now? I know I do.)
Now back to our show: Humphrey Bogart plays Fred C. Dobbs, down-on-his-luck American in Mexico—he cadges the odd peso out of friendly passersby and countrymen, just so he can fill his stomach every now and again. He pals around with Curtin (Tim Holt), and after the two of them get cheated out of their wages by an American unethical even by the standards of this film, they exact their revenge, but their pockets are still empty. At the local flophouse, they overhear talk of an old codger called Howard (Walter Huston), who promises that in fact there is gold in them thar hills. If only they had enough scratch to buy the necessaries, they could be making themselves a fortune.
Improbably enough, the lottery ticket that Dobbs bought from a pestering local kid (a young Robert Blake) comes in a winner, and the three of them pool their resources—the triad heads into the hills, with wary eyes on one another, and dreams of riches animating their steps. What ensues is a rather pitiless essay on the futility at the heart of so much human enterprise, and the corrosiveness that results from the rabid pursuit of mammon. Dobbs, Curtin, and Howard fend off threats from other Americans looking to shoehorn in on their prospective fortune, from bandits haunting the Mexican hills looking for arms, from the brutal obstacles put forward by nature, and of course from their paranoiac dealings with one another. It's worth taking the journey with them, so I won't lay out too many of the plot elements here; suffice it to say that with their behavior, these characters don't exactly cover themselves in glory.
The filmmakers sure do, though. Bogart fought hard for his stardom, rising up from playing dime-a-dozen gangsters in B pictures to above-the-title romantic leads like Rick Blaine; it's a credit to him that as his fame was at an apex, he chose to play Fred C. Dobbs, one of the greediest, most loathsome, and least redeeming heroes in the history of American cinema. Even Dobbs can be struck with remorse, though, and at times he sounds like a genuine American Hamlet, wrestling with his nature: "Conscience. What a thing. If you believe you got a conscience, it'll pester you to death. If you don't believe you got one, what can it do to you?" (Thus does conscience make cowards of us all.) Bogart was more endearing in The African Queen, a cooler customer in The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, more languorous in Casablanca, but he was never better than he was here.
The same can be said of Tim Holt, whose otherwise prosaic career is peppered with the occasional masterpiece, like this one, or The Magnificent Ambersons. He turns a character that could be written off as little more than a simp and a necessary expository device into a decent, upstanding fellow. But best in show is Walter Huston, the old cuss who's seen it all before, speaks a mile a minute, handles his Spanish dialogue as well as his English; Howard is world weary, but the thrill that comes with the possible discovery of a new mother lode is still palpable for him, and for us.
The real star, though, may be none of the above, but Walter's son. John Huston adapted B. Traven's novel for the screen, and directed this film impeccably—technically, it's amazingly accomplished, with its deep focus, elegant composition, and elements of both Westerns and noir. This is one of the first pictures that Huston made after his stretch in the service during World War II, and he imbues what's really a pretty simple story with propulsive energy and almost a kind of grace. (He makes a great little cameo, too, as one of the guys that Dobbs hits up for cash early on.) The early intimations of violence foreshadow story points to come without telegraphing too much; the determination of these characters is existential, almost primal. Swatches of the film are in Spanish, and without subtitles, but Huston is such a fine filmmaker that English-speaking audiences won't miss a single point. Huston made fine films before, and would make great ones later, but his work, as well as that of his collaborators, really doesn't get any better than this.
Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A+
Image Transfer Review: The film looks just stunningly beautiful in this new transfer, full and rich with sharp blacks, high contrast, and almost no grain. A couple of instances of bacterial decay can be detected, and the film has been cleaned up so well that the distinction between studio shots and location footage, blurred when things didn't look so good, is sometimes jarringly clear. But it's hard to think of a film of this vintage that has been treated better on DVD.
Image Transfer Grade: A
Audio Transfer Review: Things sound pretty swell, too, though the original mono track has its limitations. Occasional hissing can be discerned, and Max Steiner's occasionally melodramatic score can be a bit loud; but really, there's little to complain about here.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 37 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
11 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Petrified Forest, Angels with Dirty Faces, The Roaring Twenties, They Drive By Night, High Sierra, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, Key Largo
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Bogart biographer Eric Lax
Packaging: Tri-Fold Amaray with slipcase
The first disc also includes a gallery of twelve Bogart trailers, and a very brief listing of the cast and crew, and the awards won by the film. Even better here is what's called Warner Night at the Movies—Leonard Maltin hosts this effort to re-create what the moviegoing experience would have been like for Sierra Madre's original audience. After Maltin's introduction, we're treated to a trailer for Key Largo; a Universal newsreel, narrated by Ed Herlihy, in which the lead story is the havoc unleashed by a tornado. It also features footage from the Mummers Parade in Philadelphia, and many of the enthusiastic drag queens marching that day in the City of Brotherly Love. Then it's a comedy short—George O'Hanlon stars as regular guy Joe McDoakes in So You Want To Be a Detective. McDoakes fancies himself here a Philip Snarlowe, and the short riffs on the point-of-view stuff at work in Lady in the Lake, another Raymond Chandler/Philip Marlowe story. Bringing up the rear is Bugs, who stars in Hot Cross Bunny, about a crazy doc trying to swap Bugs Bunny's brain with that of a chicken.
And on Disc Two, the hits just keep on coming. John Huston: The Man, The Movies, The Maverick (02h:08m:07s) is a feature-length retrospective produced about the director, a year after his death in 1987. Robert Mitchum is your host, and the roster of interviewees is mighty impressive: it includes Paul Newman, Lauren Bacall, Arthur Miller, Michael Caine, and several of Huston's wives and children. Some of it is a laundry list—he made this film, then this one, then this one—but it goes down easy, because we get extended clips from movies like The African Queen and The Asphalt Jungle. The biography stuff is sort of perfunctory—it's Huston as a Renaissance man tough guy, who painted, wrote, and drank. The whole exercise is more a valentine or a testimonial than a biography, but if anyone deserves that sort of tribute, it's John Huston.
Tough guy John Milius narrates Discovering Treasure: The Story of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (49m:55s), which features several film critics and historians (including Lax, Rudy Behlmer, Robert Osborne, and Leonard Maltin, wearing a Warner Bros. lapel pin), as well as Martin Scorsese. This covers much of the same ground as Lax's commentary track; and unfortunately most of the principal participants in the making of the film have since passed on, but we'll take what we can get. It features footage of Walter Huston accepting his Oscar for the movie, and discusses the tepid initial box office grosses—it fell somewhere between Fred Astaire and Open City, and audiences didn't know just what to do with it. (Neither did the Academy, as the Best Picture Oscar that year went to Laurence Olivier's Hamlet.)
Unearthed for this release is a radio version (59m:39s) of the movie, produced for Lux Radio Theater, and broadcast on April 18, 1949; Bogart and Walter Huston re-create their screen roles, and Tim Holt isn't there, so his part becomes the third wheel. For his participation, Bogie received a supply of Lux Flakes, and we're told between the acts: "Dishwashing can be a chore, if you use the wrong kind of suds." The audio drops out occasionally, and there's a good bit of static, but still, this is a find. (The following week, on the Columbia Broadcasting System: When My Baby Smiles at Me, with Betty Grable and Dan Dailey!)
Treasure Trove Galleries features looks at original storyboards (02m:38s), dressed set stills (02m:32s), the cast and crew (03m:19s), and publicity and posters (01m:43s); lots of this material shows up elsewhere in this set. Finally, Bugs is back for 8 Ball Bunny (07m:09s), in which Bugs makes good on his vow to return a poor lost penguin to his home; included is a straight parody of Sierra Madre, with Bogie showing up to put the bite on Bugs instead of on John Huston. The only other thing that might have been nice to include would be some new reminiscences on the film from Lauren Bacall, who attended to her husband on the set; but really, what's here is an embarrassment of riches.
Extras Grade: A
Final CommentsThe American Film Institute ranked The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as #30 on their list of top American films, and that may not be high enough. This incomparable film is tricked out with a bevy of extras on this impressive set—it couldn't be recommended more enthusiastically.
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