04 March 2011

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

I just mentioned this recently, actually, but one of many unrealized projects I have floating around waiting for me to get back to is a crime/road-movie about a trio of people with a too-good-to-be-true shot at millions of dollars if they just do one quick criminal act and then drive quietly down to the Mexican border. Katalin Varga has vague overtones of that kind of a story in its DNA, I admit, but almost no story is as big an influence on this idea as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The idea of well-intentioned desperate people, facing the challenges of character most people don't have to actually face, and learning what kind of a human you really are, has no greater forebear I know than this (though I have always wanted to see Erich von Stroheim's Greed).

Casting Bogart in what might be one of my favorite Bogart roles, a sort-of-against-type/sort-of-perfectly-to-type ruffian who slips a little too comfortably into the role of paranoid murderer as the story goes -- even his fairly brutal (though off-screen) death -- I always wonder if there's a bit of stunt casting in that. I mean, he'd been a box-office star for seven or eight years at that point, had already done Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep and so on. Here he starts out down on his luck (even begging from an eerily dapper-looking John Huston cameo) but charming enough, and there's no reason going in to assume that this is going to end with him a raving, dirty, bearded lunatic, a killer and a thief, hacked to death by bandits while trying to flee like a coward. It's perverse, and it gives a little extra oomph to the idea that greed can turn even the best of men into monsters.

The whole cast is brilliant. The story is unexpected and beautifully told. It's also unblinkingly intense without feeling unusual for its time or place -- that's a hard concept to articulate right now (it's pretty late as I write this, to be honest), but it's something John Huston has always seemed a little better at than most of his contemporaries.

I have seen the first half of this movie a dozen times now, and the second half about twice. That's not a judgment on the film but on the bad timing of when, over the years, I've chosen to put it on. It's a weird kind of brutal-comfort film for me, somehow, possibly because of my own story that was borne spiritually out of combining elements from this and Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia. But regardless, there's very little negative to say here; I love this movie. One of my favorite classic films.

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