John Huston's 1948 epic of avarice Treasure of the Sierra Madre felt like the fastest 2 hours and 6 minutes I've spent before a screen. The film blew by in a sandstorm from one hopeless desert vista to the next, leaving me with only cursory first impressions and a total sense of wonder. The film may have inspired too much awe for me to comprehend it after only one viewing, so for now here's what remained when the sand settled:
I. Humphrey Bogart's Fred C. Dobbs follows a sordid trajectory unlike that of most morally compromised Bogart characters. Dobbs is so far from heroic he barely passes for antihero before the gold quest, and once he starts mining he begins to tread a villainous path hitherto unknown to Bogey: He goes insane and suffers an unavenged murder alone in the desert. It is thrilling to see what Humphrey can do when he swaps his tux for filthy rags. This is Bogart at his cruelest and most evil, his wildest and most deranged, and it is outstanding. When he finally reveals his most hidden talent, that maniacal chuckle, it's hard to understand why this man was not simply typecast as a crazed villain--his mad cackle is the absolute archetype of evil laughs.
II. The endlessly wise, affable Howard, played by the director's father Walter Huston, is a hugely successful instance of cinematic nepotism. Whether the flashes of paternal nature in the old prospector stem from his thespian talents or the director's own experience, Howard emerges as the only truly grounded figure in the film, surviving the unfortunate Dobbs through vast knowledge of the terrain and man's psyche and a rare capacity for altruism.
III. The shootout between the Americans on the train and the bandits by the tracks immediately recalls a similar general arrangement in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes, released ten years earlier. Though here the heroic marksman wears a sharp necktie instead of a soiled neckerchief, Michael Redgrave's Gilbert bears a striking resemblance to Dobbs in the wild-eyed delight he takes in picking off his enemies. The train is no stranger to cinema, but here the traincar plays the unusual role of battlefield trench in both films, separating besieged passengers from very hostile environments while still immobilizing them on the tracks in an exceedingly easy target.
IV. Another influential desert saga, Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles from 1974 pays homage to Treasure during the recruitment of Mexican bandits for the enemy's forces. "Badges? We don't need no stinking badges!" the first bandit exclaims as Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) offers him an initiation pin, similar to El Jefe's (Manuel Donde) angry retort to Dobbs before their magnificent mountainside shootout. The villains in this desert are scarcely more comical than those galloping over the Sierra Madre, whose grotesque cartoonish faces grow even more perverse in sweaty, toothy low-angle close-ups; but the senseless acts of the cackling desert assassins who lay Dobbs and his treasure to waste elicit a different kind of laughter, less riotous guffaw than defeated, baffled chuckle.
What a film!