Prospecting for gold has always been a popular film topic, but no movie captures the desperation, dogged commitment, insatiable greed, and insidious distrust that fuel and permeate the vocation better than 'The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.' Director-writer John Huston's blistering adaptation of the acclaimed novel by B. Traven not only offers Humphrey Bogart one of his greatest roles, but also masterfully merges action, narrative, character, and theme into a seamless whole that continues to thrill and delight viewers more than 60 years after its initial release. With his inimitable grit and gusto, Huston takes us on a memorable ride, subtly infusing substance into this rough-and-tumble tale, without overshadowing the story or performances. As a result, the yarn's impact and irony become all the stronger, stinging the viewer like the Mexican heat, wind, and dust that plague the three leads.
Huston is a superior craftsman, and his collaborations with Bogart rank among the highlights of both men's careers. 'The Maltese Falcon,' 'Key Largo,' and 'The African Queen' span genres and locales, but there's something about 'The Treasure of the Sierra Madre' that trumps even those highly acclaimed films. More so than other directors, Huston seems to have an uncanny handle on the male psyche and what drives, inspires, captivates, and destroys mens' souls, and he puts it all on display here. While there's plenty of action and confrontational fireworks, psychology is the fuel that propels this drama, ramping up the stakes and adding complex layers to what's really a simple, straightforward story.
In a nutshell, 'The Treasure of the Sierra Madre' follows three down-and-out drifters who decide to join forces and unearth the untold riches buried in them thar hills. Relying on the smarts of an old codger named Howard (Walter Huston), Fred C. Dobbs (Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) venture into the mountains to pan for gold. The triumvirate hopes to siphon off enough of the elusive granules to put them on easy street for the rest of their days, but must endure backbreaking labor, stave off bandits, and fight their own inner demons if they hope to cash in and stay alive. "I know what gold does to mens' souls," Howard says early on, and his words are eerily prescient. The precious metal changes and corrupts his partners, as greed, suspicion, and paranoia slowly begin to infect the trio, eating away at their friendship and trust.
The character transformations are fascinating, especially that of Dobbs, that rare Bogart antihero who's only fleetingly likeable. Tough, hard, cynical, and ruthless, Dobbs is a more complex throwback to the Bogart heavies of the '30s, an opportunist looking for a quick buck and willing to murder his own grandmother to get it. The actor seems to revel in Dobbs' cocky attitude and bullying nature, but when the character begins to crack under the stress and strain later in the film, Bogart kicks his portrayal up a notch, giving in to the demonic forces infiltrating his brain. Rarely during his years at Warner did the actor land a role of such depth and dimension, and he maximizes the opportunity here, crafting a wholly believable and involving performance.
Yet despite his excellent work, Bogart can't keep the elder Huston from stealing the picture. Few actors could nail such an eccentric character without hamming it up, but Huston knows when to pull out all the stops and when to dial himself down. Whether he's cackling hysterically while dancing an iconic jig or running off at the mouth, he grabs focus whenever he's on screen, justly earning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar – the first (and only?) time a son directed his father to such an honor. (The younger Huston would also later direct his daughter, Anjelica, to a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 1985's 'Prizzi's Honor.') Though he's saddled with the blandest role, Holt acquits himself well, and makes a fine buffer against the intense Bogart and the blustery Huston.
Huston's direction is superior, distinguished by flawless pacing, stimulating visuals, and his usual adroit handling of actors. The bulk of the film was shot on location in Mexico – one of the first American movies to be largely produced outside the U.S. – and the authentic backdrop enhances the drama immeasurably. As does the literate, but still natural screenplay, which remains faithful to its source even as it perfectly suits the performers' personalities. Though 'The Treasure of the Sierra Madre' lost the Best Picture Oscar to Laurence Olivier's 'Hamlet,' Huston's achievements in directing and writing were rightly honored by the Academy.
The term "classic" is often bandied about when discussing films of the '30s, '40s, and '50s. But just because a movie is "old," doesn't automatically classify it as a classic. 'The Treasure of the Sierra Madre' earns that lofty distinction, striking a more intangible gold than the ore its characters so single-mindedly seek. It's vintage Huston, vintage Bogart, and one of the all-time great cinematic adventures.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Treasure of the Sierra Madre' comes packaged in a standard Blu-ray case. The film is housed on a 50GB, dual-layer disc, and is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The static screen menu features the cover image and is accompanied by Max Steiner's score. The menu pops up immediately following the Warner Home Video logo, without any annoying promotional material.
'The Treasure of the Sierra Madre' is an outdoorsy adventure, and Warner's superior 1080p/VC-1 transfer captures all the dusty landscapes and mountainous terrain with excellent clarity and contrast. The black-and-white photography possesses a lovely sheen, with considerable gray scale variance that heightens detail and enhances texture. Black levels are deep and inky, yet crush is never an issue. Whites can be a tad harsh, but they accurately reflect the parched, arid atmosphere that frames the story. Grain is faint, but the image never looks as if any artificial sharpening or digital noise reduction has been applied.
When handled correctly, black-and-white films can look stunning on Blu-ray, and 'The Treasure of the Sierra Madre' is a prime example. Close-ups are marvelously crisp, with all the omnipresent facial stubble, sweat, and creases and crags in the weathered visages of Bogart and Huston appearing distinct and dimensional. Shadow detail and depth of field both shine, and though the enhanced clarity makes some instances of rear projection more noticeable, that's the nature of the high-def beast, and a failing I'm more than willing to accept.
A few shots here and there appear soft and grainy, but they rarely disrupt and distract. And considering the film is 62 years old, we can hardly take offense at such minor anomalies. Without question, this is a huge leap forward from the previous DVD edition of this film, and another winning classic transfer from Warner, one that will thrill both fans and first-timers alike.
Lossless mono in the form of a DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track punches up the action while preserving the original feel of the audio. All pops and crackles and any hint of hiss have been meticulously removed, leaving a clean, vibrant track that's well balanced and full of presence and depth. Dialogue is always clear and easy to comprehend, and subtle accents, such as chirping birds, come through crisply, and at times provide a pseudo-surround impression. The gunfights possess good pop and a smattering of bass, while Max Steiner's highly recognizable score teems with gusto and fidelity. The howling winds that pervade the denouement engulf the scene but never overpower it; another example of how well constructed this track is, and more proof that multi-channel activity isn't necessary to produce dynamic, full-bodied audio. The fact that 'The Treasure of the Sierra Madre' sounds as good as it looks, without any tinny passages or bits of distortion, is a welcome surprise, and Warner earns high marks for treating this track with the care it deserves.
All the extras from the 2003 two-disc special edition DVD have been ported over to this Blu-ray release, with the exception of the Humphrey Bogart trailer gallery. The material is of exceptional quality and typical of Warner's commitment to its classic releases.
One of Hollywood's greatest adventures, 'The Treasure of the Sierra Madre' makes a glorious transition to Blu-ray, and proves yet again how marvelous classic pictures can look and sound in high definition. John Huston's gripping chronicle of a greedy band of opportunists seeking to find and then preserve their fortune features excellent performances from Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, and Tim Holt, and a memorable story that stands the test of time. Top-flight video and audio transfers and a comprehensive collection of supplements make this a worthy upgrade and an essential addition to any serious film buff's collection. Highly recommended.