One of the most captivating and engrossing stories to ever reach the local multiplex, John Huston’s epic tale of gold, guns and greed plays out on a spellbinding canvas populated by ordinary people trying to accomplish extraordinary things. It is a rustic sort of western throwback from a time before shopping malls and fine print. In fact, the only thing that enables us to distinguish the good from the bad is the quality of the motivation exhibited by each of the principal players. What is especially interesting is that this motivation changes as we follow the arc of the story to its ultimate conclusion.
The engine driving the plot forward is, as always, the lure of a quick and easy pay day. The prize turns out to not be so quick or easy. In the process, the players themselves are changed and we in the audience are left to wonder what happened to their innate humanity. It is a sticky story that defies categorization. What begins as a hunt devolves into a morality play where each of the characters must confront their inner demons and deal with the consequences of their actions.
In the best Joseph Conrad tradition, adventure here is not an end in itself, but a test that involves moral disagreements between a wise old man and a paranoid middle-aged man, with a young man forced to choose sides. The setting is also significant: a sun-blasted high chaparral landscape, desolate except for the three hopeful prospectors. There are other players who populate the story – a gang of bandits, village farmers and primitive native indians. Still, the story hinges on Bogart’s delirious madness, which falls somewhere between King Lear and Greed.
Bogart plays a character named Fred C. Dobbs. It is 1925. He is in Tampico, where he meets another drifter from America, Bob Curtin. Both have been cheated out of hard-earned wages by a dishonest employer named McCormick and when they corner him in a bar, they beat him so savagely that it seems pointless to hang around town. Their next move is suggested by the old-timer Howard, who they’ve overheard talking about gold. Hobbs and Curtin figure he might be a good guide. As it turns out, Howard has the stamina of a goat and is soon filling their ears with advice about how to find gold, which is not too hard, and how to keep it and not get killed, which is not too easy.
So, they start out as partners, but the moment they find real gold, Dobbs grows avaricious, suggesting they divide their gains three ways every night. Soon they’re hiding their gold separately and growing more suspicious of one another with each passing day.
In The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Bogart plays a character who diminishes steadily as the story moves along, finally disappearing into himself and his delusions. Although Howard saves Dobbs’ life by being a seasoned mountain man, and Curtin pulls him unconscious from a collapsed mine, Dobbs doesn’t trust them and finds he is capable of killing either one just to get a bigger share of the gold.
The concluding scene, where Howard and Curtin find the ripped sacks that had carried the gold ore on the ground is priceless. At first, neither one of them know what to make of their find. Then Howard starts laughing hysterically, only stopping briefly to explain the source of his humor to Curtin, as both come to realize the karmic futility of their enterprise.