The first thing that stands out about “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” is that it’s not gun- shy about its moral storytelling. From the get-go, legendary director John Huston, who wrote the script and directed based on a novel by B. Traven, feeds us foreshadowing about the perils of money and seeking great fortune. In the beginning, the prospector, Howard, played by Huston’s father, Walter, in a role that won him an Academy Award, warns us “I know what gold does to men’s souls.” From there on out we know we’re in store for great human conflict fueled by greed, paranoia and the American dream.
As a classic Western, “Sierra Madre” is not as exciting or action-packed as it is interpersonal drama and suspense. There are still gun fights and encounters with indigenous people (in this case Native Mexicans), but the focus is on three men, Dobbs (Bogart), Howard (Huston) and Curtin (Holt) who agree in principle to search for gold in Mexico and split the earnings fairly. When they discover gold, the wealth becomes real and paranoia sets in, especially with Dobbs, who cooks up delusional schemes of deception and even threatens to kill without hesitation.
Bogart’s turn as the dirty, malcontented and often crazy Dobbs is — in my opinion — the film’s stand-out performance. Huston is written as the complement to that high-strung and distrusting character and that’s what makes him noteworthy too. Bogart really pushes our comfort level; he makes us take the film’s “who might cross who” game seriously. It doesn’t necessarily work without his character putting ideas in the others’ (and our) heads. He gives a face to the rotten side of human nature that we’re ashamed of but have to acknowledge exists.
Huston, most importantly, provides us the sense that these men have honestly nothing else to concern themselves with other than money. Although we want to believe they can take solace in the unexpected friendship they’ve discovered and inherently trust one another, Huston has convincingly set the stage for doubt and desperation. He’s guided by a rigid moral compass in the creation of this film that even manages to express itself poetically once or twice. As Dobbs tries to sleep by the fire believing he has killed someone, the flames of the fire dance brighter to suggest the inner wrongdoing Dobbs is experiencing — and presumably that he has sinned and is bound for hell.
A few scenes felt a bit out of place or unnecessarily dragged out, so “Sierra Madre” doesn’t always keep you actively interested, but the inherent human truth that Huston explores that relates so closely to our everyday wants and desires is such a beacon for this film. The shoes of these three men are some of the easiest characters’ shoes to step in in all of film because its so fundamental to us. Even as children we make pacts that show we trust others and believe that everything will be fair and equitable. Huston just tells that story from the adult perspective using the trappings of classic Westerns.