Friday, April 01, 2005

 

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

I watched The Treasure of the Sierra Madre over three completely dissimilar times and locations, but the story and visuals of the movie were compelling enough to fit back together across time in my memory like brand-new legos right out of the box.

Working from the end to the beginning, the image of the possible origins of the Medicine Man, played by Sean Connery in a much more modern movie, coalesces from the evolution of the character of the old prospector Howard, played by Walter Huston. The transformation of this character might better be categorized as a discovery of the underlying character, as hints of the basic goodness and sociability of the old man are quite evident early in the movie, if only in a few subtle and relatively muted ways. It takes a call to help rescue a drowned boy to trigger this new career for him, but it actually works pretty well within the setting, time, and story.

Curtin, played by Tim Holt, is the fellow that falls in with Humphrey Fred’s character and becomes a partner in the mining expedition. He is slowly awakened to himself through a series of decisions and experiences. He proves his basic goodness of character by going back for Fred after a mine shaft falls in. His initial doubt about what to do (he turns to run away and leaves Bogart’s character Fred C. Dobbs in the cave-in) vanishes in the space of a few seconds. When credited with saving a life after he drags Fred out of the mine, he passes it off as nothing – saying to forget about it. He seems gracious and possessing of an easy-going humility. For a brief span of time, it’s possible that Bogart’s character might be positively affected by this near-death experience too. He gives an honest and authentic thank-you to Curtin. His face is incredulous at the realization that he survived the cave-in.

However, through the scene with the Gila Monster, where the lack of trust and Fred’s growing paranoia increases the tension within the trio, we see that Curtin is steadfast, reliable, and perhaps only suffers from having too much trust in Fred’s ability to follow the rules of social behavior. Fred continues to deteriorate. The more gold dust they mine, the more anxious, irritable, mistrustful and demanding he becomes. He is descending into what seems to be a gold-tinged fever of obsession, where his friends are now enemies and his enemies only increase in number.

Bogart’s character Fred becomes more gaunt and more dirty, if possible, as this deterioration continues. The easy smile, rakish gait, and fluid range of motion seen early in the movie changes slowly while on the mountain to that of a driven, unsmiling, staring, stiff man whose movements are jerky, fatigued, uncoordinated. The nonverbal expressions from Bogart are quite good. It’s a real study in acting.

The letter from the newly-deceased gold-obsessed interloper Cody (played by Bruce Bennett) doesn’t seem to inspire Fred. It does seem to have a profound effect on Curtin. He charts his future based upon a latent desire to get back to the fruit growing of his youth and the mention in the letter of fruit harvests somewhere in Texas. Since the recipient of the letter died in their company, the device of a dead man’s letter from his wife/widow takes on the aura of a burden, a moral imperative, an inheritance of duty. Fred isn’t affected by this letter. It’s every man for himself. Since they’d all voted to kill the fellow in the first place, it’s not like the interloper was especially valued. But, he fought on their side, died helping protect them from bandits, and carried this message of normalcy in the letter that balances the bizarre, isolated quest for Gold that the trio is involved in.

As the prospector said back at the flophouse – Gold affects people. Fred had laughed at this, claiming he would be immune from the soul-corroding effect of digging wealth from the ground. Curtin was noncommittal, but he didn’t dismiss the power of the inanimate over the animate, and although he was down-and-out, he wasn’t as lost or scattered in his behavior as Fred’s character was. What I mean by this is the scenes early in the movie where Fred’s character splurges after every single handout. Instead of saving or buying food, he gets haircuts and shaves and the like. He hits up the same wealthy American tourist three times for a handout without the least bit of compunction. When called on it, he claims that he wasn’t looking at the face of the man, but only at the money from the hand. This is such a great scene because it perfectly encapsulates what’s wrong with Fred’s character at the core.

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