May 26, 2024

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AFI Countdown Challenge #30: The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre

Humphrey Bogart gets a bad case of gold fever in this 1948 cautionary tale.

I loved old Looney Tunes growing up, Bugs Bunny in particular, but those cartoons weren’t necessarily made with longevity in mind,  As such, then-current pop culture references didn’t always make sense to me.  Heck, I still can maybe identify half of the celebrity caricatures when they did their big Hollywood party cartoons.  But there were some famous people I somehow knew, and Humphrey Bogart, a Warner Brothers contract player, was a prominent face in many of those old cartoons.  And there was one where Bugs, trying desperately to return a baby penguin to the South Pole, keeps running into Bogey asking if Bugs can help out a fellow American who is down on his luck.

As I got older, I figured it was a movie reference.  And then finally I found out which one the first time I saw The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and that isn’t even the most famous misquoted line.

Yes, what Bogey’s Fred C. Dobbs actually asks is if various individuals he crosses paths with in Mexico can “stake out a fellow American to a meal?”  That he asks the same guy three times (and that guy may be the film’s director John Huston) makes the line a little more memorable, but the line even more people misquote comes later and involves whether or not some men claiming to be Federales have any badges.

The actual line.

But this feature isn’t here just to correct misconceptions of what actors said in old films, so let’s move on.

As stated, Bogart plays Fred Dobbs, an American in Mexico who is dead broke and down on his luck.  He’s panhandling for what he can get, and it isn’t like he’s lazy.  He does take a manual labor job as a roughneck with another man, Bob Curtin, who is more or less in the same position as Dobbs.  But then after their work is over, the two discover their employer makes it a habit of not paying his employees.  Sure, they get him back with a barroom beating, but they’re still broke in Mexico.

And that’s when a chance encounter with an old prospector named Howard changes things.  Dobbs managed to win some money in a lottery, allowing the two to propose Howard show them how to hunt for gold.  Howard is a poor man himself, but he knows his business.  A mostly pragmatic man, Howard was played by Walter Huston, John’s father, and quite frankly, he fits the stereotype of the grizzled old prospector.  He does a little dance, knows the business, and looks the part.  Walter Huston brings a lot of charm and wisdom to the role.  He warns against the power of greed, and when the trio actually does hit it rich, it’s interesting which of the two younger men succumbs to gold fever.

Yes, the first time I watched this, I figured Curtin would be the one who caught the fever.  Why wouldn’t he?  Bogart was the biggest star  on the Warner lot.  And while he did make more than his fair share of gangster flicks, the first time I saw this one, I didn’t figure him for the one to go bad since he was the big name in the film.  He’s got three more films on the AFI list for me to get to, and he’s the good guy in each and every one of them.  Surely he’d be the moral man among the two younger guys!

Nope.  He gets the greed disease bad.

Howard totally saw it coming.

What the film does well is show Dobbs’ descent into greed and madness.  He’s a down on his luck American at the beginning, but he isn’t afraid of hard work and more than willingly puts his prize money towards the expedition.  Once the trio actually find a large amount of gold in the form of a fine powder, we see Dobbs gradually become more and more concerned that other people just want to rob him.  By contrast, Curtin finds himself questioning their quest for riches when another American dies helping the trio to fend off bandits.  That man left behind a wife and child and Curtin feels he should give some of his gold to the family.  Howard, on the other hand, goes off to lend medical assistance to a poor village.  Both men are less interested in holding onto all the gold.  Howard even trusts the other two to watch his share when he’s taken off to be honored in the aforementioned village.

But Dobbs, he loses it, shoots Curtin (he survives), steels the rest of the gold, and then is himself killed by the bandits.  The bandits are then executed when a kid recognizes them with Dobbs’ stuff, and the gold?  Scattered to the four winds when the bandits assumed it was worthless sand.

On reflection, it’s easy to see why Bogart played Dobbs.  It’s easily the flashiest part in the film.  He undergoes a good deal of change from a poor man to a crazy man who could be rich if he could just keep it all together.  As for the other two, well, they’re much more static characters, men who ultimately find the loss of their wealth to be something to laugh about, Howard in particular.

I can relate to that a bit.  How much wealth does a person actually need?  The men were rich enough individually.  They probably didn’t need more, and Howard’s “easy come, easy go” attitude means he ultimately doesn’t care if he’s rich or not.  He’s comfortable, and Curtin realizes he should return to the States.  Curtin himself wasn’t interested in the gold so much as simply owning a fruit orchard.  Dobbs just wanted the wealth in order to live like a poor man’s idea of what a rich man is, the kind that lives off conspicuous consumption, showcasing extreme wealth in the ugliest ways possible, and it would be nice to imagine that such people always come to a bad end.  It would be nice to imagine that a never-ending desire for wealth, where you can never simply have enough, and that the constant lure of lucre leads to a bad end, but most of us know it doesn’t work that way in real life.

In the meantime, Dobbs can lie dead in a ditch while the two men with a sense of right and wrong can just laugh it off.  We’d all like to be Curtin or Howard, but we all probably fear we’d be more like Dobbs.

NEXT UP:  Let’s see how a filibuster is supposed to work in the 1939 political drama Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.