AFI #38: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

It’s funny to me that such a great Western with so many memorable moments and themes is best remembered for a line that really was just a throw in to the plot. But you remember the line, even if you think it’s from Blazing Saddles. “Badges? We don’t need no badges. We don’t have to show you any stinking badges!

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a great Western, even though it takes place on Mexico which isn’t exactly Texas. It’s a story as old as time with a theme around what greed can do to a man when he’s desperate. Ironically it’s the same theme of director John Huston’s first great film, The Maltese Falcon. Like the famous Bogart line in that film, when Bogie is asked what the falcon is and he replies “It’s the stuff that dreams are made of.” So too is gold, the stuff that dreams are made of in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. It’s the story of down and out Fred C. Dobbs, who finds himself in Mexico scraping by on borrowed pesos. When Dobbs meets Curtin, another American in the same situation, the two uncover a “dream” in a tale of gold told by old timer Howard. Together the threesome set off on an ill-fated adventure to dig for gold in the Mexican mountains where they fight bandits and fight each other for control of the stake.

But really the theme of Treasure is greed, and how different men react to the potential for riches. Howard and Curtin seem to have a good attitude about the strike, happy to take enough out of the ground to ride off rich. But Dobbs wants more, and then his mind starts to run away from him with bouts of paranoia and fear that ultimately lead to his demise. Humphrey Bogart plays Dobbs and he’s a nasty little bugger who is definitely hard to like. While Curtin and Howard seem like decent guys, Dobbs thinks the world is out to get him and at the same time he deserves the riches coming to him. It’s a different role for Bogart, playing the loser if you will. Dobbs is pretty much the opposite of Casablanca’s Rick Blaine. It says a lot about his acting abilities frankly…the viewer really doesn’t like Dobbs!

Treasure is really Walter Huston’s masterpiece though. He won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Howard, who is a little bit crazy but just sane enough to keep things honest, have a good perspective and stay alive. He also seems to understand the power that riches can bring and the trouble that greed can bring, likely because he’s experienced it all before. The old timer steals the film and is as lovable a character as you’ll find in a film. Huston is an under the radar actor who was nominated for three other Best Actor Oscars! But Howard is his triumph and a role for history. Kudos as well to the great Director John Huston, who delivered so many great films over his career.

Treasure is one of seven “Westerns” on the AFI list and only The Searchers and High Noon come in higher on the list. That being said, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is the best Western ever in my book. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre definitely belongs among the greats.

Next: The Best Years of Our Lives

AFI #65: The African Queen

Humphrey Bogart may be the most well-known and revered actor in American film history, but in his illustrious career he only won one Academy Award. Some might say he was a “popular” actor but not necessarily a great actor — to them I say phooey! He starred in one of my top 10 favorite films of all time — Casablanca — and his portrayal of Rick Blaine has been immortalized. Throw in memorable roles in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, Key Largo…and on and on…he is one of the greatest actors ever. It seems strange then that he finally won an Oscar for playing a drunk and none too bright boat captain in The African Queen, made just a few years before his early death at age 58.

For co-star Katharine Hepburn, her portrayal as the tightly wound church spinster Rose Sayer was one of her least rewarded roles, having won four Best Actress Oscars in her career (On Golden Pond, The Lion in Winter, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Morning Glory). She did get nominated for The African Queen but lost the Best Actress nod to Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire. By the way, for my money Ms. Hepburn was never better than in The Philadelphia Story, another of my all-time top 10 favorites.

For me The African Queen is simply a vehicle for the two greatest actors of their generation. To be honest, if the film starred anyone else it wouldn’t have made the cut. It’s a bit corny and unbelievable and both Bogart and Hepburn are past their respective primes. But it’s Bogie and Hepburn so you have to forgive the silly plot and the ridiculous love story. What makes the film great is the play between the two icons — they each play over-the-top characters and together they make the film worthwhile. In fact, there are very few scenes in the film that are not simply Bogart and Hepburn together.  There are only nine other actors credited for acting in the film! The rest are African extras.

Next: Network