Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Fool's gold

Speaking of movies and hype... Have you seen The Treasure of the Sierra Madre? Be honest, now -- have you watched it all the way to the end? Because I have this theory that nobody ever makes it all the way to the end, but nobody wants to admit that they dropped out, and that's how it has maintained its reputation as a must-see classic.

Before this past week, I had tried and failed twice to get more than 45 minutes into The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I finally made it all the way through, watching with the fiance during TCM's "31 Days of Oscar" -- and even that required pausing and resuming the next night, because we were both falling asleep after an hour. And you know why we were falling asleep? Because Treasure of the Sierra Madre is overlong, overrated and just plain not that good.

Okay, I admit it: I'm an MGM girl, and I always will be. But I've been known to enjoy a good Warner Bros. flick from time to time. And no, I'm not particularly cut out for Westerns, but I can make an exception for a truly great one. And I maintain that if Sierra Madre had been shot by MGM, it would have featured sweeping vistas and breathtaking scenery, or at least a solid effort at outdoorsy realism. But instead, this movie was shot on soundstages so thoroughly fake-looking that I could practically see the crew members standing just off-camera. WB, you have to do better than that!

I also love me some Bogart, and I thought he was fine as ever here. In fact, the best thing about the movie is his performance, and his character's refusal to behave decently. I don't know if it's because of the expectations I have for Bogie, or the expectations I have for redemption stories in general, but I was surprised to discover, over and over again throughout this movie, that actually, Dobbs isn't a good guy, deep down. And Bogart's posture -- fists clenched, shoulders hunched, all tension and suspicion -- is a fully-realized performance, all by itself. However, I can't say I was blown away by Oscar-winner Walter Huston. Maybe he set the standard for grizzled old prospectors, but he could have been a bit less stagy, don't you think? Movie lore says his son (director John Huston) talked him into taking out his dentures for the part, but he sure didn't have any trouble chewing that (fake) scenery. On the other hand, Tim Holt... Well, let's just say that, if Bogie's approach is all low-grade intensity, it's maybe not the best idea to pair him with someone whose M.O. is "no intensity whatsoever." Holt is a total blank slate; the camera cuts to him for a reaction shot, and he just stares back, glassy-eyed, giving you absolutely no clue what his character is supposed to be thinking. Huston might as well cut to a teddy bear.

Then there were the awkward music cues -- at several points I thought the soundtrack must have fallen out of sync with the picture, because the music seemed so disconnected from the action -- and the graceless transitions from one scene to the next. And the overall dragginess of the picture, which isn't shocking for a Western, but is definitely surprising for a movie with a reputation for greatness. And then there's the pervasive racism, and the carelessness about anthropological facts in general -- again, not surprising for a Western, but certainly embarrassing. For example, the characters claim to be hunting tigers and lions... in Mexico? Am I'm missing something? Because I have to wonder, would it really take a chunk out of your budget to have some PA look up "Mexico" in the encyclopedia? And I was expecting a lack of respect for the Mexican characters in the film, and for Mexican culture in general, but I definitely was not prepared for the third act, in which Walter Huston finds himself playing medicine man/demigod to a community of "Indians" who speak Spanish, and who are evidently Catholic (judging from the frequency with which they make the sign of the cross), but who are completely primitive and helpless when it comes to saving a child who has nearly drowned. I don't know what, exactly, old Howard is supposed to have done for the kid, and I don't think it really matters. What shocks me is the suggestion that, faced with tragedy, these people -- these Mexican Catholic "Indians" -- would automatically go looking for the nearest random white man to help them. (And would settle on Walter Huston!)

There were definitely moments, here and there, when I was thoroughly entertained. I wasn't expecting the outburst about "I don't have to show you any stinkin' badges!" so that was a nice bonus. And yes, there are great themes at play here, and it could be a great story, if it were trimmed a bit. But overall, I'm a little bewildered. Help me out here, folks -- can you explain this movie's immortality?


Anonymous said...

This is NOT an opinion you should be airing in public.

First of all, the film was shot almost entirely on location. It was one of THE FIRST movies to use location shooting. (Obviously the night exteriors were on stages -- they just didn't have the film speed to shoot at night in the middle of nowhere Mexico).

Second of all I don't see how such an "MGM girl" could fail to mention Ann Sheridan's legendary cameo as a whore.

Third of all "redemption stories?" This is a hard-hearted satire of redemption stories. Bogie plays a son-of-a-bitch driven mad by greed -- and it's conventional wisdom that not only did this movie damn near give Jack Warner a heart attack, but it set a level for "dark" stories previously unforseen. This is a revisionist Western before they even knew what revisionist westerns were.

Fourth of all, re: your charges of racism...this, along with John Ford's Fort Apache, were the first two westerns to show the "Indians" speaking a language other than English. Yes some of the stuff is now startling by our standards, but back then it was actually incredibly progressive and humanizing.

Let's not even get into your dismissal of John Huston and a complete inability to understand the deceptive power of his images (Woody Allen, in reference to this movie, called it one of the great "prose movies," which is the best description of Huston's unique power) or your curious digs against Tim Holt, an incredibly underrated actor (just rent "Magnificent Ambersons).

I eagerly await your next bashing. Maybe John Ford or Howard Hawks?

Mollie said...

I see I should clarify something I did not state outright, and probably should have, about my intentions/angle here.

I think there's a necessary distinction to be made between "landmark films, of interest to cinema history buffs" and "timeless classics, as enjoyable today as they were when they were released." A movie can be both, but it can just as certainly be one and not the other. Sierra Madre indisputably falls into the former category, for reasons including those you cite, Anonymous. What puzzles me is the assertion that it belongs to the latter category as well, because in my experience that isn't the case. In other words, its importance is a foregone conclusion; what I'm saying is, I was surprised to find it so draggy and raggedy from a pure-entertainment perspective. And all the legendary cameos in the world don't change that.