Treasure of Sierra Madre (Warner) is one of the best things Hollywood has done since it learned to talk; and the movie can take a place, without blushing, among the best ever made. But unlike many films of high quality, it does not wear its art on its sleeve. This admirable reticence may earn Treasure some peculiar awards. Movie trade papers are treating it as a western; Daily Variety called it "action stuff with heavy masculine appeal." Reviewer Virginia Wright wrote in the Los Angeles Daily News: "[The] audience . . . seemed to find [Treasure] hilariously funny and, once having decided the spectacle was comic, they laughed indiscriminately at murder, fear and irony."
Treasure is not essentially either a western or a comedy. The squeamish and the lovelorn may be wise to stay away, for it has no heroine and a few scenes are shatteringly brutal. But it is a magnificent and unconventional piece of screen entertainment.
John Huston (San Pietro, Let There Be Light), who wrote the screen play and directed the film, adapted it from a novel by Mexico's Mysterious Stranger, B. Traven. The story, ideal for movie purposes, is a sardonic, intensely realistic fable, masterfully disguised as an adventure story. It is a tale about three Americans of the mid-1920s, on the bum in Tampico. Running into modest luck in a lottery, they strike off into the depths of Mexico's mountains in search of gold.
Old Howard (Walter Huston, the director's father) has nosed around after gold a good deal of his life; he cheerfully warns the greenhorns of what gold can do to a man's character. They don't believe him, but they find out for themselves. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart), a morally chaotic child of perhaps 40, starts coming apart early with bluster, fear and suspicion of his partners. Curtin (Tim Holt), a relatively stable youth, nearly cracks, too, under pressure, but gradually comes of age. The men run into jungle Indians, have to deal with a Texan (Bruce Bennett) who wants to muscle in on their little mine, and are hounded by bandits.
But the meat of the story is its simple revelation of three types of human character, altering in the presence of the sinister catalyst, gold. The story is told with intelligence, humor and suspense. It is by turns exceedingly funny and completely terrifying. It is as rich in symbolic overtones as it is in character and drama. For the treasure of the mountain is a fair image of most human goals; and the men who seek it are fair representatives of man.
Movies have always been expert at picturing cities, but Treasure excels most of them in the streets, park benches, eateries, bars and flophouses that are the backgrounds for its opening reels. The main characters make most so-called simple men in the movies look two-dimensional and sentimentalized. In the superb camera work (by Ted McCord), there is not one fancy or superfluous shot.