In 1926, in the coastal Mexican city of Tampico, Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart, in what is regarded by many as the finest performance of his career) is dirty, unshaven, currently jobless and dependent on asking strangers to “stake a fellow American for a meal.” He ends up taking a construction job, but is later stiffed by his employer for wages.
Dobbs befriends a good hearted American named Bob Curtin (Tim Holt), also struggling south of the border. They spot the man who ripped them off and by working together, are able to beat him up and recover their money. They check into a cockroach infested flophouse called the Oso Negro for the night.
There, their ears are prickled by the tales of an old prospector named Howard (Walter Huston) who tries to warn the men that even if you were to make a real strike, not even the threat of a miserable death would be enough to drag you away from the lure of gold. Dobbs disagrees, saying he’d only take what he set out to get. Howard replies: “I never knew a prospector who died rich. Make a fortune, sure to blow it tryin to find another.”
Dobbs convinces Curtin that they should try their luck at prospecting, but knowing nothing about mining, ask Howard to come in with them. The three men brave bandidos, northers, the jungle and the rigors of mining before they strike gold. Then, just as Howard predicted, “As long as there’s no find, the noble brotherhood will last. But when the piles of gold start to grow, that’s when the trouble starts.”
Directed by John Huston, from a screenplay he faithfully adapted from the novel by B. Traven, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was recently ranked #30 by the AFI for their 100 greatest American movies of all time list. Words like “classic” and “masterpiece” get thrown around a lot, but this is a timeless example of both. Like all great films, it has something profound to say about the human condition; in this case, the danger of greed, vanity and corruption.
Huston had spent a lot of time in Mexico, and the atmosphere he creates here has a very weathered, but richly authentic feel to it. The film was notable for being one of the first to make use of extensive (and costly) location shooting. The night scenes where shot on a sound stage in Burbank, but the daytime exteriors were filmed near San Jose de Perua, and Durango.
The film’s dialogue and action have a ring of truth to them as well. Walter Huston, the director’s father, won an Academy Award as the tougher than leather old sage who’s seen enough and done enough to know that good intentions evaporate once a man’s greed takes over. The cantina fist fight between Bogart & Holt and their deadbeat employer (Barton MacLane) is rough, nasty and staged like the real deal.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre fared poorly at the box office, and Bogart was completely ignored by the Academy for his portrayal of Fred C. Dobbs, but his is one of the great characters in film. Bogart plays destitution, idealism, honesty, opportunity, paranoia and villainy all in one role. It’s one of the best portrayals of a man slowly losing his handle on morality that I’ve seen.
Robert Blake appears as the boy who sells Dobbs his lottery ticket, Ann Sheridan had an unbilled cameo as a lady of leisure, while John Huston, lanky and dark haired, appears as the Man In White Suit whom Dobbs continually pesters for money.
The oft mimicked line “Badges? We don’t need no stinkin badges!” was actually misquoted by Mel Brooks for Blazing Saddles. When Dobbs is confronted by bandidos claiming to be federales and asks them where their badges are, their leader (Alfonso Bedoya) says: “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!”