Friday, July 26, 2019

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is the greatest movie of all time

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I know what gold does to men's souls... Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges. I don't have to show you any stinking badges! John Huston movie from 1948. Amazing film. Winner of three Academy Awards. One for the father of Huston, Walter, for Best Supporting. Two for John, one for Best Director and one for Best Adapted Screenplay. When daughter Anjelica Huston won for Best Supporting in 1985 for Prizzi's Honor, haven't seen it and looks terrible, they became the first three generation family to win Academy Awards. The Coppollas have since done this as well. Filmed on location just because Huston was an adventurer and wanted to go to Mexico. Also get away from the studio. Humphrey Bogart is completely fucking deranged in this extremely dark flick. Huston's old man, Walter, becomes what we collectively think of when we think olde timey prospector. A first time watch, this instantly became one of my favorite films. Been on a John Huston kick since watching the documentary They'll Love Me When I'm Dead about the until recently unreleased film The Other Side of the Wind by one Orson Welles. Huston is like the Dos XX guy except not irritating and real. His look and his voice. Cool shit. Fathered the lovely Angelica Huston, hands down my female companion's favorite. Also, you may have heard, he's a pretty solid filmmaker. This film is considered one of his best though this is one of four he directed with a perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes (along with Fat City, The Maltese Falcon, and The Misfits).

Rotten Tomato Consensus: Remade but never duplicated, this darkly humorous morality tale represents John Huston at his finest.

Gist of the movie is two dirt poor Americans living in Mexico, Bob Curtin played by Tim Holt and wild man Fred C. Dobbs played by Humphrey Bogart, desperate for money, decide to join a old prospector, Howard who is played by the director's father, Walter Huston, in the Sierra Madre Mountains to mine for gold. The three make a fortune but bandits and greed brings it all crashing down.

While Huston the elder won the Academy Award for Best Supporting, it is Bogie's deranged performance that is most memorable. First off, dude looks like complete shit. It is rumored that he was taking fertility drugs, he and wife Lauren Bacall were trying to conceive, but that may or may not be bullshit. What is known is that he showed up bald and aged which doctors blamed on heavy drinking and a vitamin B deficiency. Huston rolled with it though as it just made the character that much crazier. He goes from being a shortsighted bum asking an American, played by the director, multiple times for money for food, never bothering to look the guy in the eye, to a completely uncontrollable Gollum type figure, completely obsessing over his newfound wealth.

I mean, at first he was a guy who couldn't pick the guy giving him handouts out of a lineup, begrudged the guy keeping him alive rather than being thankful. Then he and partner Bob get a gig that involves a lot of work from an American contractor with a huge payday at the end which never comes. The guy completely suckers them. Next thing you know, they run into the guy at a bar where he tries to sucker them again. An extremely clumsy and realistic fight breaks out when the labor boss knows he's fucked and goes on the offensive, attacking them with a bottle. They eventually kick the shit out of the guy with Bogart's character reaching into the guy's wallet and taking only the money they were owed. Later in the movie, after they have found enough gold to support the men for a lifetime, not long after buddy Bob saves Dobbs's life when he gets trapped in a mine, the unhinged Bogart character comes completely undone, obsessively fixed on Bob and Howard cutting him out and taking his share for themselves. Late in the movie, when Howard is living it up in a Mexican village after saving a child's life, it is just Dobbs and Curtin making their way to town. But Dobbs is already gone by that point, his mind clawed out, he tells Curtin, whom he has attacked and has him at gunpoint, that once he falls asleep, he is going to kill him. The wild look in his eye after staying up for days is fucking chilling. You sure as shit don't want him in your party, you outlasting him in an endurance contest for your life. Yeah, he totally wins the movie.

A young Robert Blake, passing as Mexican
All of that stuff with the three guys finding all that gold and it destroying at least one of them and them ending up with nothing in the end reminds me of "The Pardoner's Tale" from the Canterbury Tales, my favorite among them. In that three men search for Death whereupon they encounter an old man who says he saw Death behind a tree. When they go to that tree they find gold and guard it overnight. At first all is good but when they draw straws, sending the youngest one to town for food and wine, the two left behind plot to kill him, which they do. But they soon discover that the younger man has poisoned their provisions and die a painful, grueling death. The difference between this tale and the movie, however, is that only Dobbs had murder on his mind. The other two, though they lose everything, literally laugh it off in the end at the absurdity of the situation.

Huston, looking fly
This is also one of those films with lots of great stories coming out of the production. Like how John Huston adopted an orphan child. Or how Italian American Our Gang child star Robert Blake, who would later go on to star in such films as In Cold Blood/play a minor but pivotal part in Lost Highway and eventually murder his future wife, played the little Mexican boy selling lottery numbers, which Bogart's character wins. But the weirdest of this has to be the story of one Hal Croves's presence on set and the theory surrounding his identity.

The gist of this is that the author of the novel that the movie is based on, B. Traven, was extremely reclusive with all the details about him, including his name or real identity, subject to dispute. As I read about this guy, I became certain that this is who Roberto Bolaño based his novelist character Benno von Archimboldi in the book 2666, one of my three favorite books of all-time. (A quick Google search showed I wasn't alone in this theory). Anyway, the author was supposed to show up on set and work as a technical advisor for $1000 a week but instead a guy claiming the name Hal Croves, said to be a close friend of the author, showed up in his stead. Pretty much everyone was like, uh, this is obviously Traven, though he denied it, but Huston didn't want to make a big deal about it. He was getting a knowledgeable adviser and translator for $150 a week instead of a grand and respected the guy's privacy. He later even wrote in his autobiography that he ultimately didn't think they were the same person because of the way he spoke and acted IRL was so different than their correspondence via letters and such. Huston further explained that a lot of this theorizing was the result of people on set asking Croves if he was Traven and him denying it in this bullshitty way that made people think he was indeed full of shit. However, Huston's wife at the time, actress Evelyn Keyes, who was apparently cool with Huston's impromptu adoption of a Mexican child, by the by, was sure they were the goddamn person. According to her, Croves said "I" instead of "he" and basically sounded exactly like the guy in the letters he had written to Huston. Fascinating shit you can read about along with who Traven may or may not have really been in "The Mystery of B. Traven," a nice piece of journalism, at Vice.

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