The SmarK DVD Rant for the Treasure of the Sierra Madre
“Badges? We don’t got no badges. We don’t need to show you no stinking badges!”
Just wanted to give the proper quote for those who have only seen Blazing Saddles and thus don’t know what the original joke was referring to.
Anyway, I’ve been a big Bogart kick lately, with Casablanca coming out in a big special edition and everything else of his getting pumped out by Warner (still no African Queen, but it’s gotta be coming SOMETIME) in high-quality releases, so I thought it’d be a good time to cover another classic bit of Bogie, one that was unfortunately a flop in its original release and only became a classic through awards and the kind eye of history.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of those movies where the backstory behind the creation is almost as interesting as the story within the film. Well, almost. Based on the anti-capitalist novel of the same name by the ultra-mysterious B. Traven (his identity was never truly revealed, although most fingers point to his translator Hal Crowes as his alter-ego) and left in production limbo for more than 4 years while director John Huston served as a documentarian for the US army in World War II, what finally emerged was a classic of American cinema, seeing one of Bogart’s finest performances (perhaps his best) as a gritty anti-hero who is definitely not the good guy.
Set in a crappy, jerkwater Mexican town in the days of the Depression (although really the story could be told almost anytime prior to the onset of post-war Americanization of the Mexican state), the story is a very simple one, involving only three main characters and the dividing force between them: Gold, and lots of it.
Bogie takes a radical departure from his usual character at that time, playing main character Fred C. Dobbs, a down-on-his-luck loser stuck in Mexico without a cent to his name and no real skills. After hitting up a poor sucker in a white suit (John Huston in a memorable cameo) three times with a sob story (“Say, Mister, could you stake a fellow American to a meal?”, a line later spoofed in a Bugs Bunny cartoon) and using the money for a haircut and a hooker, he tries hitting up a conman named McCormack, who offers him and his friend Curtin the chance for some hard work and good pay on the oil fields. Unfortunately, the money promised doesn’t materialize after a month of backbreaking labor, and the two men hunt him down and mug him for their money in a brutally realistic fight scene. With some capital to invest, they show that their judgment isn’t much better than it was a month previous, choosing to listen to the crazy stories of a grizzled ex-prospector who thinks there’s still gold in them thar hills. John Huston’s dad Walter plays the eccentric old guy, Howard, who absolutely steals the movie as an uninhibited kook.
So off they go into the hills, convinced that they’ll have to carry the old guy up the hill after a few miles, only to realize that he’s the only one who has any idea what he’s doing. And sure enough, with the situation looking grimmest, they finally find gold, and a lot of it. Howard reacts by dancing a jig that is the most memorable moment in a movie that’s full of them. The problem now becomes one that has become familiar through years of references to this movie: You have three people with hundreds of thousands of dollars of gold to divide amongst themselves, miles away from any sort of civilization or law. How do they trust each other without going nuts? Answer: They don’t.
In a bit of subversive anarchy inserted by the author, the men are able to hold each other at any uneasy stalemate until Curtin is forced after months on the mountain to return to society for supplies. With exposure to regular society again, chaos results, as their mini-society rapidly falls apart. A savvy cowboy named Cody manages to follow Curtin to their hiding place, having seen through his cover story while conversing with him, and with him come the banditos, looking for weapons and trouble. After escaping both of those problems, the real villain of the movie is revealed, as Bogart’s Dobbs grows incredibly paranoid of the other two men, leading to Howard disgustedly spending some time with the natives to escape the materialism, which allows Dobbs to completely snap and shoot Curtin point-blank and make off with all the gold.
Dobbs, of course, meets a fate befitting the truly grimy and greedy jerk that he becomes by the end of the movie, but there’s no happy ending for the others. In fact, this is a shockingly cynical and depressing movie for the 40s, shoehorned into the Western genre by marketing execs who had no idea what to do with it. With no female characters, no real hero of the movie, no real action or adventure, audiences at the time were as befuddled by the character study as Warner was. However, time and perspective have constantly allowed this one to gain in popularity and appreciation, as it places regularly on the AFI’s lists of great movies and a Bogart revival in the 60s put the “Stinking badges” line on the lips of pop culture enthusiasts everywhere.
It’s still a fascinating movie to watch today, with a point about the problems behind blind capitalism that are as true now as they were then, and a trio of amazing performances, two of which probably should have won Oscars (and one did â€” Walter Huston won Best Supporting Actor, although Bogie was snubbed). This is truly John Huston at the top of his game, and one of my all-time favorite movies.
Much like Casablanca, Warner took the original black & white print and did a stunning job of cleaning it up, removing all the dust and scratches that are present in the VHS print and even in the documentaries showing clips from the movie. Contrast is restored to what was probably the levels from the original print. It’s full-screen, of course, like all movies from that era. Absolutely top-notch.
Dolby Digital Mono, again clear and fully restored. I kind of wish there was a stereo mix for stuff like Max Steiner’s score, but this is as faithful to the original as you’re going to get.
This is a two-disc set, and the first disc has the most spectacularly cool idea for older movies that I’ve ever heard of.
Check this out: You know how movies used to include a short, newsreel, etc., right? Well, that’s exactly what they’ve set about duplicating here. Before the movie, you can watch all or some of the following:
– Introduction from Leonard Maltin.
– The trailer for Key Largo.
– A newsreel from 1948, featuring tornado footage and other fluff pieces in the days before CNN.
– “So You Want To Be a Detective” comedy short, featuring George O’Hanlon (the future voice of George Jetson!) as “Philip Snarlowe”, who leads the narrator on a first-person trip through a parody of hard-boiled detective movies, only to meet an untimely end when the narrator turns on him. Funny stuff, including a hilarious running gag with “The Tall Man”, who’s REALLY tall.
– “Hot Cross Bunny”, a Bugs Bunny cartoon featuring the famous mind-switching machine (which I believe would make more appearances later on) as he has a Daffy Duck-like moment where he’s put in front of an audience of scientists and is totally unable to wow them.
As well, you get a plethora of Bogie trailers, including “The Petrified Forest” (his breakthrough thug role), “Angels with Dirty Faces” (a Cagney movie where he’s another heavy), “The Roaring Twenties” (ditto), “They Drive By Night” (another heavy), “High Sierra” (promoted to lead bad guy this time, and it was written by John Huston just for him and turned him into a star), “The Maltese Falcon” (another one of my favorite movies ever, and the one that made him into the biggest star of the era), “Casablanca”, “To Have and Have Not” (his first movie with Lauren Bacall, and source of the famous “Put your lips together and blow” quote), “The Big Sleep” (very underrated hard-boiled detective movie), “Dark Passage” (another Bogie-Bacall movie), “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (this one) and “Key Largo”. That’s actually 30 minutes of trailers.
Also, you get a commentary from Bogie’s biographer, Eric Lax, which is interesting and informative throughout, but is duplicated by the other documentaries.
And there’s ANOTHER disc.
Disc two is highlighted by a two-hour documentary on the life and movies of John Huston, covering his entire career in great detail and featuring interviews and clips of him from the 40s through to his death in 1987. Believe me, this will teach you everything there is to know about him and his involvement with Bogart and this movie and you’ll be able to work his stuff into conversations for weeks afterwards. It was obviously made in the late 80s and not preserved very well or restored for the DVD, but it’s a cool extra nonetheless.
As if that wasn’t enough, there’s another hour-long documentary on the making of “Sierra Madre” from AMC (that’s one nice thing about all the corporations buying each other â€” you can pull stuff from libraries at will) that covers much of the information given in the commentary track, so I’d actually skip the commentary if given a choice. It’s a really good documentary.
Next up, another Bugs Bunny cartoon, “8-Ball Bunny”, as he escorts a skating penguin back to the South Pole, and keeps meeting up with Bogart, who hits him up for money in a parody of “Sierra Madre”.
Also, you get the radio play version of the movie, with Bogart and Walter Huston reprising their roles. This is cut down a lot, obviously, but it’s an interesting take on the movie.
And finally, you get the usual on-set photos and publicity material.
I have no idea what anyone could possibly want for extras other than what’s presented here, as Warner finally does right by the one of the all-time great movies. I wish they’d have done the same for “Maltese Falcon”, but there’s always the possibility of re-releasing it, I guess.
The Film: *****
The Video: ****
The Audio: ***
The Extras: *****