Film Club: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

“Badges? We ain't got no badges! We don't need no badges! I don't have to show you any stinkin’ badges!”

Today’s Film Club recommendation is the ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ (1948) written and directed by John Huston, adapted from the B. Traven novel of the same name. Considered a risky project because of its lack of a love interest and its devastating ending, this movie is a classic western adventure drama and a great character study exploring the themes of greed and moral corruption. Two unemployed American drifters, Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Curtin (Tim Holt), surviving by bumming for spare change, meet up with a veteran prospector, Howard (Walter Huston), in Tampico, Mexico and head to the mountains in search of gold. Through enormous difficulties they eventually succeed, but bandits, the wild elements, and greed threaten to turn their success into disaster. 


Originally a box-office failure, it has now become a classic, ranking at #38 on the American Film Institute List of the 100 all-time greatest American films. At the time, audiences didn’t want to accept Humphrey Bogart in a role that was intentionally unappealing, as he was mostly known for his likable and charismatic roles like Phillip Marlowe in the ‘The Big Sleep’ or Rick Blaine in ‘Casablanca’.  But overtime it has since proven to be one of his best performances, showcasing his range to an extent he never had in any film role before. And he loved it, apparently telling one critic, "Wait till you see me in my next picture, I play the worst shit you ever saw”. 

Although at the core of the movie is the descent of his flawed character, Bogart isn’t the only one to shine. The acting from all three main leads is fantastic and each has such great chemistry with the other. The rhythm and energy of the dialogue between the three is an absolute spectacle to watch. Specifically, any scene where you can see the high strung Bogart bounce off the laid-back charisma of Walter Huston is a delight. 

Despite being made more than 70 years ago, the film has aged incredibly well. John Huston is one of those directors, like Alfred Hitchcock, who has made so many important contributions to film history that his work could be said to influence all cinema that came after them. With this film in particular you could see threads of it in the DNA movies like the Indiana Jones series and ‘There Will Be Blood’. Even a decision like shooting almost entirely on location, which is such an established aspect of the industry, wasn’t really done much before ‘Sierra Madre’. The directing and storytelling is top notch. It’s a film that’s so simple and direct with what it wants to say and doesn’t waste a single moment. Maybe one of the most interesting things about the movie as it unfolds is how quickly they find the gold, which gets to what this movie is really concerned with: the corrupting influence of greed and moral character. The gold is not the end point. 

This is all around just a great movie that is an essential watch for every film lover out there. It’s a masterclass in direction, economic and straightforward storytelling, and has some great performances from its cast. Some might be turned off by how old the movie is but it stands the test of time and will keep you gripped throughout its run. I strongly recommend this film. 

Quick side note: I’m a fan of early Americana-style workwear and brands that play off that genre so one of the things that caught my eye while watching was the period clothing. This movie takes place in the 1920s but the outfits of the main characters still work today. Bogart’s chambray shirt and high-waisted pants are pieces that could fit right in with visvim’s latest collection. Add some eccentric imagery or a 'Smiley' face to Huston's outfit and you've got something from a Kapital lookbook. And I’m sure there are plenty of other brands that take inspiration from vintage Americana and reproduce old manufacturing methods took notice of the costumes featured in this film.