SYNOPSIS:Two drifters pair up with a grizzled prospector to look for gold in the Sierra Madre; but gold is not their only discovery, as they fall upon the riches and the barrens in their own hearts.
Oscar wins: Best Director: John Huston
Best Supporting Actor: Walter Huston
Best Screenplay: John Huston
Nominated: Best Picture
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If you come to this film as I did with some forewarning that here is a time-tested classic your initial reaction may be that it’s over-rated, past its do-date: you’ve stumbled on an old black&white depicting a time and place that is distant, populated by characters who are archaic. But if you stay with it gradually it wins you over; by Howard’s (Walter Huston) introduction it has you and it won’t let go until the final frame fades to black. Because no matter how well a film is made, or how cutting edge, if it doesn’t have heart it will leave you cold; and the reverse holds true – despite flaws and cobwebs this film has tremendous heart and spirit.
Fred C. Dobbs (Bogart) is ‘on the bum’ in Tampico, Mexico. He spends his last peso on a lottery ticket. It’s the 1920’s. He bumps into Curtin (Holt) on a park bench, offers him a cigarette. Both men are broke. They commiserate; Dobbs spends his days pan handling. (He hits up a rich American played by director Huston three times in the same day. It must have been a lark for the legendary director who was once reduced to homelessness in Paris where he was trying to make it as an artist.) Come nightfall they find themselves in a flophouse where they meet Howard (Walter – John Huston’s father). He talks a mile a minute of his days in the gold fields and of how greed eats at men’s souls. Dobbs disagrees – if he could only find $25.000 he would be happy. But the old-timer’s heard it all before – first it would be 25, then 50, then more. Nevertheless all three end up in the mountains searching for gold.
They stumble on ‘fool’s gold’, and then after a few days they find the real thing. Huston’s Howard does a dance of joy for the ages – his entire performance stands with the finest in cinema. Studio execs viewing the rushes were initially thrilled with it, but then began to fear he was upstaging the star, Bogart. They asked director John to tone dad Walter down a notch. Thankfully he ignored them.
These are all decent men at the outset, but gold can poison a mind – as the pile grows so do suspicions and doubts. They decide that each will be responsible for his stash – they divide the take at the end of the day and sneak off to their respective hiding places. Dobbs has a suspicious streak and it grows exponentially with his fortune. It’s like watching a ticking bomb – Bogart’s performance is one of his best.
But there is also time to dream: one night by the campfire they talk of what they will do with their new found wealth – Curtin has always wanted a peach orchard. Dobbs wants to walk into a clothing store and buy two of everything, light cigars with fifty dollar bills, dine in fancy restaurants and then… He is silent… Walter suggests they don’t even mention women. This is a film without women but it’s no ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. For these men the lack of women is not a source of freedom or a springboard to adventure -- it is a dark shadow cutting across the mind.
When supplies run short one of them must go to town, a dilemma: they each have a small fortune squirreled away. Walter offers he is the most trustworthy simply because he can’t outrun the younger men. But Dobbs trusts no one and so it is left to Curtin to make his way through bandit country to town and fetch supplies. On his return he is followed by a stranger.
The stranger is polite but straight forward: he believes they have found gold and now they have 3 choices: to kill him, cut him loose, or bring him in as partner. After a short deliberation they decide to kill him, but not before they are attacked by a gang of bandits. Now the stranger becomes an ally.
There is a shoot-out – not particularly well staged -- and then suddenly the bandits break off and flee: in a moment it is clear the Federaldes have them on the run. The stranger has been killed. They search him for identification – there is a letter from his wife. Curtin reads it aloud: she describes the peach orchards in full bloom and wishing he were home. It’s a tender moment and it sours the men thoroughly for anymore bushwhacking: they break down their camp, saddle up their donkeys and their fortune.
On the march back to civilization Dobb’s paranoia hits a fever pitch. He accuses the other two of plotting against him. Then some local villagers appear – they have a child in a coma – Howard goes with them and revives the boy, becoming a local celebrity. In the mean time Dobbs shoots Curtin and takes the gold. But his greed has isolated him and the bandits finally catch him. Curtin struggles to the village and joins Howard; together they track down Dobbs, who has been killed, and the gold, discarded by the bandits for the leather sacks, has blown back from whence it came -- to the Sierra Madre. Howard will stay with his village and Curtin will seek out the widow with the orchards.
Aside from a few obvious flaws – these may be the only color blind bandits in all of Mexico – it’s a wonderful film. The unsung hero in it all is Tim Holt. He grounds Huston and Bogart with his soft spoken frontiersman – you believe him sincerely – he makes a considerable contribution to this “time-tested classic”.