The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

A better film than The Secret of My Success.

For a drama as behavioral and character-based as this, there is an impressive number of process shots.  Bogart and friend sit on a bench in a town square and chat, but the bench is on a soundstage and the town square is in a city a thousand miles away.  Then, seconds later, Bogart and friend walk down the street in that same town, and there we are on a meticulously detailed set designed to emulate the town square we saw in the background in the previous shot.  It’s all seamlessly done and seems impressively complicated.

My guess is that Bogart (or Huston, or both), for whatever reasons, didn’t want to travel to Mexico to shoot anything, so a crew was dispatched to shoot the background plates in the Mexican town square.  Meanwhile, a section of the town square was built on a soundstage where the light and the action could be more closely controlled (and probably still be cheaper than a location shoot).  But that means that the entire sequence would have to be storyboarded in advance, so that the second unit could get exactly the shots they needed for the background plates, all so that Huston could shoot Bogart and friend chatting casually and not have the audience think for a moment that they weren’t in a town square in Mexico.

But it’s not just the town square.  The Treasure of the Sierra Madre takes place almost entirely outdoors, and yet the demands of light, actors’ schedules and control of elements demands that the bulk of the outdoor locations be built on indoor soundstages in Hollywood.  So campgrounds and hiking trails are built in convincing detail and their scenes are cut seamlessly into outdoor scenes shot probably in the suburbs of LA.  So the entire movie is this complex interweaving of studio scenes, outdoor scenes and location shots, all of which had to be planned in absurd detail beforehand to make sure it would all match and cut together.  Which it does.

So you’ll have, say, Bogart and company hiking on a real trail on a real hillside somewhere, then you’ll cut to the reverse angle and they’ll be on that same trail, but now it’s on a soundstage and there’s a background plate of a mountain in Mexico in the background, then they’ll come around a corner and there they are on a campground set complete with hills and trees and rocks and dust and grit and shifting patterns of light, all in the same conversation, and it all matches and cuts together and you’re paying attention to their casual, low-key conversation instead of thinking “why does this campground look like a set?”

My two favorite moments in this exemplary American drama:

1. Walter Huston, as the old man, at one point is mistaken fora god by the natives.  As is the custom.  We find him lying in a hammock, kicking back and accepting gifts from the Indians.  They give him a slice of melon, a piglet, a drink of tequila complete with salt-lick and squeeze of lime.  A gorgeous senorita bends down to wipe his chin and lingers on his eyes.  Huston then, inexplicably and completely out of character, does a take to camera, his face saying “Not bad, huh?  My son directed this.  Knows how to treat his old man.”

2. The Mexican bandit played by Alfonzo Bedoya (“we don’t need no stinking badges” is his classic misquoted line) casually, cheerfully, asks a firing squad if he can put on his sombrero before they shoot him to death, suddenly elevating one of the most despicable characters in the history of film into a charming rogue who’s philosophy suddenly seems to be “eh, you win some, you lose some.”

Interestingly, Bedoya’s film just previous to Treasure is an adaptation of Steinbeck’s The Pearl, a story which raises almost the exact same questions regarding the value, danger and purpose of material goods.

A note on Walter Huston: he’s very good here and deserved his Oscar, but for my money the Walter Huston performance to see is his Abraham Lincoln in DW Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln.  The movie has no plot, being a pageant-like selections of “famous scenes from the life of our greatest president,” but Walter Huston is the only actor to have ever played the part and made his a living, breathing, actual person instead of a plaster saint, a cigar-store Indian or a Guy Wearing A Lincoln Beard.  When I watch John Ford’s Young Mister Lincoln, I spend the whole movie saying “Why is Henry Fonda’s voice coming out of the mouth of that wax dummy of Lincoln?”  Watching Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln I feel like I’m actually watching the great man himself on film.
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