Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) Directed by John Huston. Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt (126 min.)
A trio of Americans drifting south of the border sniff gold dust in the air and tramp through the wilderness in search of a fortune. Bogart is unforgettable as Fred C. Dobbs, a wary bum descending into psychosis. John Huston’s first film after WWII gave his father the role of his career, minus his dentures, much to the former matinee idol’s chagrin. “This film has impressed itself on the heart and mind and soul of anyone who has seen it.” (Richard T. Jameson).
John Huston had been working on the Treasure of the Sierra Madre script for six years, before World War II was declared and he directed his great war documentaries, The Battle of San Pietro and Let There Be Light. When he started writing in 1941, Warner Brothers Studio had envisioned it for their three leading tough guys, George Raft, Edward G. Robinson and John Garfield. By the time filming started, Humphrey Bogart was the studio’s biggest star, and he inherited the riches. Huston was fascinated with the mysterious author of the novel, B. Traven, a recluse who lived in Mexico. By letter, Traven had approved of both Huston, and of his screenplay. “I am delighted with your script. It goes as close alongside the book as a picture will ever allow.” He was relieved that it wasn’t “sugar coated” and approved of Huston’s additions to the tale. “In the book, I left both survivors a little bit of money you cut even that little bit and left them not one single ounce. By doing so you drive the message clear cut home I don’t know anybody who could have written a script better liked by me than the one your wrote.”
On location a man calling himself Hal Croves presented himself as a translator and intimate friend of Traven. Feelings ran pretty high that he actually was Traven, on the set to monitor the progress of the film. “I never questioned him about his identity,” Huston wrote. “I respected his reticence. Others were less discreet. He always shook his head and refused to answer them.” His then wife, Evelyn Keyes, was not nearly so equivocal. “He gave himself away in countless ways, saying ‘I’ when it should have been ‘he’ using phrases similar to those he used in his letters to John. But for reasons known only to himself, he preferred to play out his mystery man role, even to the tune of taking the job as technical advisor at $150 a week as Croves, when he could have had the $1000 offered Traven.”
Walter Huston was cast as Howard the old prospector, but the studio wanted Ronald Reagan to play Curtin, played eventually by Tim Holt. Holt was usually content to act in low-budget horse operas, a decidedly unambitious actor. But, he had two great roles, in this film, and in Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons. Huston said, “The studio wanted me to have Reagan. I’m not sure he wanted to do it or not. But actors like to be pursued and coaxed and in that particular instance I didn’t pursue it because I saw another person for the part. Reagan turned it down. It wasn’t as though he’d have spoiled the picture, he could have played it. But, when he said no, why I was just as well pleased.” Reagan said later he HAD wanted the part, but the studio had other plans for him. Of course, in retrospect, he would have completely ruined the film, both because of his limited acting skills, and his subsequent non-acting fame.
Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt
John discussed the part of Howard with his father. “John said he saw my part as an old man who talks fast and throws away his lines, a hard-bitten old prospector used to spending weeks and months in solitude. I told John that’s the way I envisioned the old coot, too.” Lauren Bacall said of them on location that they were “like a couple of kids together–they made each other laugh and enjoyed and understood each other’s wickedness.” Walter was “a wildly attractive man, and he had incredible charm. Younger, he would have killed women. I had the same feeling about Walter that I always had about John, he was a man you couldn’t pin down. Walter was a devil, with his white hair and white beard, always taking his teeth out. And physically, he moved so well, better than John.”
Before they shot the discovery scene, Walter told John not to cut at the end of it and let the camera roll, he had a surprise. The idea for the dance was Walter’s, he had been taught the jig by Eugene O’Neill when he played Desire Under the Elms for him on stage. “When he does that dance of triumph the goose flesh comes out and my hair stands up, ” John said, “It was certainly the finest performance in any picture I ever made.” Bogart watched Walter steal that scene and the whole movie. “One Huston is bad enough, but two are murder” he groused.
Other casting notes: John Huston plays a bit as the American Bogart is always pestering for the price of a meal . Ann Sheridan, in heavy make-up supposedly played a whore in the background of one of the scenes as a good luck gesture, but I can’t find her. Tim Holt’s father, Jack Holt, who had been in silent films and went on to a long career in horse operas himself, appears briefly, sitting next to Walter Huston at the fleabag Oso Negro. The street kid who pesters Dobbs to buy a lottery ticket is Robert Blake. He had a long career as a child actor before acting as an adult in In Cold Blood and on tv as Baretta and lately, star of the tabloids. He said he had spied on Bogart in his dressing room as he ran his lines to himself in the mirror, and that he was continually cutting his dialogue, to make it as brief as possible. Blake couldn’t imagine any actor trying to get himself fewer lines, but Bogart’s dedication knew no bounds. This is clearly one of his greatest roles, as the Hollywood Reporter said of him, Dobbs is “a loathsome character that few leading men would play.”
Treasure of the Sierra Madre was one of the first American films shot almost completely on location outside the US. Tampico, Mexico, was the jumping off point, but Huston wanted his cast far from civilization as possible, which to Bogart was anyplace where you couldn’t drive to Mike Romanoff’s restaurant for a drink. “John wanted everything perfect” he said. “I have to admire him for that, but it was plenty rough on our troupe. We had nice quarters–sure. But, John didn’t make any shots around that beautiful little resort village where we stayed. No. He had to go up in the hills. I mean MOUNTAINS. If he saw a nice, close mountain, than that was no good. If we could get to a location site without fording a couple of streams and walking through rattlesnake-infested areas in the scorching sun, then it wasn’t quite right. We got to calling him ‘Hard Way Huston.’ Huston father and son took the opportunity of sampling marijuana on location, but not Bogart. And, he found only two Spanish words worth learning: “Dos Equis,” so he could order a beer. Stage veteran Walter Huston thought “acting is not supposed to be done outdoors.” But, Bogart conceded, “It’s always better to shoot a hot weather picture in a hot country. You get a different expression on your face.”
Alfonso Bedoya declines to show his identification to Bogart
Back in Hollywood, Jack Warner was horrified by the whole project. Studios didn’t like location work because they couldn’t supervise their directors closely, and Huston of course, relished the freedom. Warner complained, the three actors looked like bums, Walter didn’t have his teeth, there were no women, no sex and the Mexican bandits spoke Spanish. Later, he would say, “This is definitely the greatest motion picture we have ever made.” The glowing reviews helped of course, but even better were the three Oscars, to John for writing and directing, and Walter, as Best Supporting Actor, the only such honor of his career. In his acceptance speech he said, “Many, many years ago, I raised a son and I said to him, if you ever become a writer or director, please find a good part for your old man.”
The Hustons and their Oscars
James Agee was a great admirer of John Huston’s films, and his lucid writing about them was quite influential. His long piece for Life magazine, “The Undirectable Director” was largely about Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and initiated the friendship between the two that resulted in collaboration on the script for The African Queen. He wrote, Huston’s films “continually open the eye and require it to work vigorously, and through the eye they awaken curiosity and intelligence. That, by any virile standard I essential to good entertainment. It is unquestionably essential to good art.”
Traven wrote to Huston, “No matter how hard you work, no matter how ferociously you fight, no matter how intensively you struggle for existence you can never be sure of your gains or your property unless you have consumed it. Only what is in your tummy and what is in your brain is really yours.”
Trivia note: In both Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the heroes are betrayed by a burro with the identical brand mark. Homage or thievery?
Photos: Trio portrait from Jerry Ohlinger’s Movie Material Store, in tent: Warner Brothers Presents by Ted Sennett, two Hustons from Evelyn Keyes autobiography, Bogart and Bedoya from The Movies by Richard Griffith. Sound Clip was sent to me long ago by ?? Sources include: The Hustons by Lawrence Grobel, An Open Book by John Huston, Perspectives on John Huston, especially Richard T. Jameson’s essay, Bogart by A. M. Sperber and Eric Lax, Bogart, A Life in Hollywood by Jeffrey Meyers, City Boys by Robert Sklar, Agee on Film by James Agee, Scarlett O’Hara’s Younger Sister by Evelyn Keyes.