Saturday, October 2, 2010

THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE: Blu-Ray (WB 1948) Warner Home Video

The story behind John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) is almost as compelling as the film itself. The author, B. Traven proved an enigma as elusive as the gold that character Fred Dobbs seeks to claim for his own in the story. Written abroad and first published in German, the novel was a scathing indictment on capitalism that the author vowed would never appear in print in any capitalist country. By 1935 however, readers in the U.S. were absorbing Traven's sobering words in droves.

In Hollywood, director John Huston took an interest and told his agent to option the property. Despite the novel's success, Jack Warner refused to green light the project, citing that the book had no female interest, no love story, ended badly for all concerned and was, on the whole, quite depressing; all qualities that appealed to Huston's sense of dramatic storytelling.

Over the next few years Huston worked diligently on his screenplay, all the while directing big hits for Warner Bros. that were capped off by The Maltese Falcon in 1941. Regrettably, before Huston could force his hand on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre he was drafted into service for WWII where he would spend the next several years making training shorts for the Army. Upon his return to the studio, Huston finished his screenplay for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Jack Warner, however, was still unconvinced at the film's saleability. But bolstered by Huston's track record for screen success, and his choice in casting the studio's biggest star - Humphrey Bogart - in the lead, Warner reluctantly gave his stamp of approval.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of the first films to be shot on location - primarily in Mexico. After going over budget and over schedule, the company was called back to Burbank where remaining exteriors and interiors were shot.

Reportedly Huston, who was accustomed to working closely with authors on film adaptations of their work, awoke one night in his hotel room in Mexico City to find a mysterious man standing at the foot of his bed. The stranger identified himself as B. Traven's agent, Hal Crowe and proceeded to instruct Huston on how best to develop the novel. Beyond this chance encounter by moonlight and the ideas derived from it, Crowe was named 'technical advisor' by Huston and remained on location at the director's side as filming progressed. Today, there is some speculation that Crowe was, in fact, B. Traven, though Crowe vehemently denied it. This allegation, first made by Huston himself has never been proven.

The film stars Humphrey Bogart as murderous panhandler Fred Dobbs. Repeatedly asking his “fellow American” (played in cameo by John Huston) to stake him for food, a haircut and other temporary diversions in the bustling Mexican town of Tampeko, Dobbs and another desperate prospector, Tom Curtin (Tim Holt) eventually join other migrants working for Pat McCormick (Barton MacLane). One problem; McCormick's operation is a cut and run. He ‘employs’ labourers for work projects, then absconds with their wages before they realize they have been hoodwinked.

But not Dobbs. Just as ruthless and calculating as Pat, he and Curtin confront and beat up McCormick for their take of the profits. The two then decide to go into business together for themselves as gold prospectors. One problem: neither knows a gold nugget from a tumbleweed. Enter wily old codger, Howard (Walter Huston) – a man who promises the boys all the fortune and glory they can stand. Together, these three trek deep into the Mexican wilderness, unaware of the bandits and pitfalls that await them. At first, their efforts seem in vain. When gold is finally discovered and their fortunes are practically made, a new obstacle intrudes – mistrust and greed.

Casting for the film proved inspired with minor, though memorable parts going to Robert Blake as a young boy selling lottery tickets in Tampeko; former Olympic shot putter Bruce Bennett (actually Herman Bendix) as hands on prospector, Cody and Mexican actor, Alfonso Bedoya - cast as bandito, Gold Hat whose memorable line, "We don't need no stinkin' badges!" has since been much parodied and revered.

Tim Holt, who had achieved a curious fame via B-westerns, but had appeared in A-list projects like The Magnificent Ambersons as well, was also the son of Hollywood royalty. His father Jack Holt appears briefly in the flop house sequence as a grizzled former prospector.

For years it had been suggested that Warner star Ann Sheridan appears in the Tampeko sequence of the film as a prostitute who catches Dobbs' eye as she struts past him after he has had his hair cut. A studio publicity still of the day does indeed show Sheridan in makeup and a hooker's costume standing next to Huston and Bogart on a set. However, pausing this footage from the actual film reveals that the woman playing the hooker for those few brief moments is decidedly not Ann Sheridan.

Huston’s film is basically a cautionary morality tale about destructive human nature that seems to go hand-in-glove with untold riches. The story is much darker and apocalyptic than most postwar melodramas. At the time of its release, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was hailed as a masterpiece by the critics but only marginally received by the public who, true to Jack Warner's initial assessment, found it depressing and downbeat, and, furthermore did not appreciate seeing Humphrey Bogart cast as the heavy (ironic, since Bogart had played nothing but gangsters, thieves and villains for most of his early tenure at WB). Today, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is justly accepted as one of the greatest movies ever made at the studio; its unrelenting portrait of sadism, greed and self destruction a gripping saga that continues to mesmerize and captivate.

Warner Home Video’s Blu-Ray effort is on the whole an entirely more satisfactory effort than the one put forth several years ago on their 2 disc DVD. The image herein is more film like in general - its rendering of grain more natural and, ironically, more smoothly represented than on the DVD. Contrast levels take a quantum leap forward. Whereas the DVD represented a visual characteristic that was primarily centered in a mid-range of tonal grays, the Blu-Ray offers a distinct and sharply contrasted image that reveals much more fine detail throughout.

The audio is mono but nicely cleaned up and presented at an adequate listening level. Extras are all directly imported from the 2 disc DVD and include a very informative audio commentary by Bogart biographer Eric Lax; a thorough recanting of the ‘making of’ the film as well as a vintage feature length documentary on John Huston’s life and career with vintage interviews and considerable behind the scenes footage.

Aside: I can't much say I appreciate Warner Home Video's abandonment of using original promotional and poster art in favour of their rather gaudy airbrushed slip covers for this and The Maltese Falcon Blu-Ray releases either. Nevertheless, highly recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)






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