I will be watching all 5 nominees from 1948 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it.
Ages ago, someone coined the pseudo-genre “neo-western,” for movies like The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre. For decades, Hollywood had romanticized the concept of the old west – the sense of adventure, the wonderment of Manifest Destiny and the cynical beauty of not knowing the source of one’s next meal – without question. As time has passed, so has the fascination with the western genre; we’re more interested in character and plot analysis over setting and mood. It’s become commonplace to, in 2014, fantasize about both eras with an offhanded air. But as we watch ’40s westerns almost 3 generations later, we have to reserve judgement as most of those who grew up fantasizing about cowboydom are long gone and what we’re left with is film and television caricature. What John Huston and Humphrey Bogart accomplish in The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre is both an homage to the old west and a look forward to modern film – a neo-western.
Most of The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre‘s conflict is internal – the pithy dialogue among the three main prospectors shows as much about their nurture as it does their nature. Yes, they’re all romping around the Sierra Madre mountains looking to get rich – but why? For one, it’s wealth for wealth’s sake; for another, it’s to achieve a childhood goal; for a the third, it’s to occupy his time, and seemingly, to learn about other people’s motives. He often assumes the role of moderator, helping cool the direct aggression from Bogart’s Fred C. Dobbs to the reactionary Bob Curtin (played by Lou Holt). But he’s also the cause of the aggression, constantly questioning the motives of what they’re all doing trolling for cash. As a result, paranoia often haunts the day and night activities of these three men, shown through various levels of trustworthiness, second-guessing and external and internal threats. Sprinkled within the campfire quarrels and gold-digging, the writer/director John Huston (who casts his father, Walter, in some kind of lucky nepotism) creates minor external conflict to strikingly exemplify a character’s internal motivations. It’s a neo-western: the conflict very western – the constant threat of bandits or dehydration or a deadly desert creature – but the handling is unintentionally modern, instead of facing the threat directly, the characters have lengthy (if occasionally forced) conversations discussions musing on how they’d handle bandits or what constitutes enough for the three of them.
The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre doesn’t boast a straightforward plot, nor does it act as a straight western, but its message is almost anachronistically modern, or prophetic. Modern television often takes advantage of the “bottle episode,” wherein the characters are usually locked in a room or some kind of close-off area and most (all) of the action occurs within this “bottle.” Sometimes episodes of television or whole movies base portions of hours locked in a room with only dialogue and minimal external conflict. Sometimes this occurs because budget won’t allow for more, but the most talented staffs can create brilliance (and Oscar nominations) from very little. The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, most likely unintentionally, set a grounds for this style of writing, which can cut through genre better than any overt writing technique or dramatic device. We do see glimpses of standard story devices though: there’s still an expository phase, rising action, a climax, falling action and a dénouement. It’s a lesson from which lots of more modern films might draw. Simply being unconventional should not erode the concept of a well-paced story.
Bogart doesn’t shine in The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre on purpose, as writer John Huston makes him both relatable and unlikable simultaneously, but we’ll remember his performance as a worthy entry into his filmography. We know Humphrey Bogart from his work with Lauren Bacall and from Casablanca, widely regarded as a groundbreaking film and still one of the most quoted films during the talking-pictures era. He’ll always be remembered for his idiosyncratic name first and for his rough-around-the-edges demeanor second, perhaps before his acting chops. He spent the majority of his relatively short career adding depth to each role provided to him, something we might not find in a modern equivalent. His acting and personality perfectly completes The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre – an homage to the old west and a look forward to modern film.
The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre represents a thematic non-sequitor to Johnny Belinda, which is typical of any year the Academy has nominated films for its top prize. This kind of inconsistency also reflects the way, historically, world events have played out. There’ll be a top issue (post-WWII Europe) and other issues (relaxation of moral dialogue, new issues in the Oriental Theatre, communism/socialism) and even minor guffaws, but the only real consistency is that people will have had different, but shared, experiences with the same event. It’s nice to see both films as pillars of originality, both looking backwards and pushing forwards at the same time.