April 09, 2004

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre: 1948, dir. John Huston. Seen on DVD (March 28).

I had high hopes for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I thought it would be a wonderful adventure movie, full of action and bravado and quotable dialogue. I'm not the world's biggest John Huston fan, but this seemed like the type of movie he would do very well.

I have to admit I was somewhat disappointed.

I realize now that The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was meant to be a psychological study as much as an action film, and there it falls flat. The transformation of Bogart's character is supposed to be particularly interesting to us.

The problem is that I didn't really like Dobbs, Bogart's character, who was entirely unsympathetic. Perhaps we are supposed to sympathize with him in the beginning of the movie, when he can't get a job and he can't get his pay from the job he does get and he wants to try gold mining as a way to get out of his rut of poverty and unemployment and desolation.

In fact, there's a point in the movie where Bogart's character is getting the hang of gold mining, which has turned out to be more difficult than he thought, and Walter Huston tells him that he's learning quickly and doing well. You can see where he might have turned out a better person—someone who could be proud of the hard work he did and blah blah blah American values. I suppose the point here is that the movie did not turn out in such a predictable way ... but having him behave as Walter Huston predicted in the scene where they met him is just as predictable and still not very interesting.

Maybe we're supposed to respect a movie where the main character stays unsympathetic and unlikeable, as in Huston's later movie Wise Blood, but I didn't much like that one either.

Part of the problem is that casting Bogart might have been a mistake. He doesn't seem right for the role. We associate Bogart with a certain persona and this character is too weak and whiny to fit with that persona at all. I keep reading praise for his "complex, amazing characterization" and all I saw was a loser descending into lunacy in a predictable way.

I did enjoy Walter Huston's performance, which was one of the bright spots of the film.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre reminded me a lot of Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, which I saw last year and which was a much more entertaining film. I think I was expecting something more like The Hidden Fortress, and in fact seeing this movie made me want to go rent that one and watch it. I wanted more adventure and less dime-store psychology.

Also, I think The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was too long. It took too much time for the movie to begin—why did we need so much setup? (Although it was amusing to see John Huston briefly as the American whom Bogart keeps hitting up for money.) This film is 126 minutes long and I think 95-100 would have been plenty.

Maybe if this were a lesser-known movie for which I'd had no expectations, I would have enjoyed it more. But having heard so much about how first-rate a movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is, actually getting to see the film was rather a letdown.

(And I can't blame this one on suffering by comparison with The Wild Bunch—or even The Hidden Fortress—because my boyfriend hadn't seen either film and he felt the same way.)

Posted by jette at April 9, 2004 02:42 PM