Anti-heroes are a regular feature in film and television nowadays—but back in the 1940s, they were usually consigned to crime sub genres like film noir and gangster films. Outside of those genres, it was pretty rare to encounter a Hollywood star playing a blatantly unlikeable lead character.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, directed by John Ford, is one of those very rare films of the era. In fact, Humphrey Bogart campaigned for the role, anxious to play main character Fred C. Dobbs, bragging to a critic that he would “…play the worst shit you ever saw.”
Originally, Huston wanted to film the B. Traven novel about three Americans prospecting for gold in 1920s Mexico with his father Walter in the role of Dobbs. Because of WWII he was occupied with making documentaries during that time period, delaying the film. By then his father was too old for the role of Dobbs, so he was cast as Howard, the grizzled prospector. Tim Holt was cast as the third lead, Bob Curtin.
The film opens with itinerant American Dobbs begging in the streets of Tampico from other Americans. (John Huston plays the man Dobbs puts the bite on several times.) He blows the money as soon as he gets it, including on a lottery ticket. He and another American, Curtin, end up working for yet another American, who cheats them out of their wages. They track him down and beat him up, taking from him the money they are owed.
In a flop house they meet Howard, an elderly prospector who talks about mining gold in the mountains. They pool their money with Howard’s—plus Dobbs’ surprising lottery winnings—and set off to find gold.
They discover a mountain with a rich vein and spend ten months mining it. Without an actual claim on the land, they know they have to get the gold and leave without encountering any others—including bandits left over from the Mexican revolution—in order to keep it and live.
Dobbs insists they divide the gold each night and be responsible for their own share. As time goes on, Dobbs becomes more and more paranoid that one or both of his partners will steal his stash. They encounter bandits, Federalis, and another American who wants to be dealt into the enterprise. The more time that goes on, the more Dobbs is gripped by paranoia, leading to tragedy and an ironic twist ending.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was one of the first Hollywood films shot on location outside of the U.S. (in Northern Mexico), making it a very expensive film. It took a while to make back its money, but it was an immediate critical success, going on to win many awards, including Oscars for both John and Walter Huston.
This was my dad’s favorite movie of all time. He explained to me that what fascinated him about the movie was the way it showed how easily greed could twist human beings. The three characters are each different manifestations of this phenomenon. Howard, who has prospected for gold most of his life, is familiar with it and is in a constant state of mediating Dobbs’ doubts and demands. Curtin is a basically decent fellow who simply wants his own fruit orchard someday, but he is not above voting to commit murder to guard his gold.
Though he did not win an Oscar for the role, Dobbs is one of Bogart’s most iconic characters, along with Rick Blaine of Casablanca and Charlie Allnut of The African Queen. While Howard and Curtin look to invest their gold in ways to make the rest of their lives comfortable, Dobbs dreams of spending it on luxuries that will likely deplete his stash quickly. He lives entirely for himself and entirely in the moment. He justifies his actions by projecting the same on other people. Yet he’s not without fear or entirely devoid of conscience, something he pitiably laments.
As greed, jealousy, and paranoia get a stronger grip on Dobbs, Bogart’s performance changes from sneering cynic to a staccato rhythm of ever increasing anger and desperation. It could have so easily gone off the rails, but never does. Without Howard and Curtin propping him up, Dobbs is revealed as a man with little wit or ability, which become his ultimate undoing. Even in the best case scenario, it’s clear he would have eventually ended up back to begging.
He is a microcosm of the worst in human beings—those who look for the instant fortune, who take, who never create or care about anyone outside themselves. The role needed a spectacular actor who could put all that across without making the character unwatchable. Bogart did exactly that.