Wednesday, March 25, 2009

My Favorite Movie

John Huston's Treasure of the Sierra Madre [1948] is my favorite movie. After considering the 90 years of continuous film-making, I can't think of another example from the medium which combines the best aspects of narrative drama, cinematic editing, acting, clarity and economy of means, as well as this classic film does. It was made in black and white. I don't know if it's ever been "colorized" but that would certainly detract from its brilliant photographic qualities. 

The movie won Huston both the Best Director and Best Screenplay Academy Awards for his effort, and his Father Walter Huston [1884-1950] won for Best Supporting Actor, though he could have easily won the Best Actor award, plain and simple--it's undoubtedly the greatest role of his career, in a part written for him by his Son.

The plot is derived directly from the novel by B. Traven, a mysterious German novelist whose life story was as fascinating and complex as any fiction. Huston had thought of making a movie from the book for some years before realizing it. Obtaining permission and rights to adapt it involved some complex negotiation. Eventually, Huston coaxed Traven--notoriously private and even paranoid about being identified in public--into participating in the production, incognito. Huston filmed much of action in Mexico, heightening verisimilitude and availing himself of handy Mexican actors and extras.  

Where to begin. On its most obvious level, the plot revolves around the evils of greed and the exploitation of common men by capitalism. Traven was a Socialist, and Huston shared some of his sentiments. The film was released less than a year after the Hollywood 10 had been cited for contempt by HUAC; I think it unlikely that this film--in its present form--could have been made during the 1950's, because of its clearly anti-capitalistic slant.

Humphrey Bogart, the de-facto star of the film, around whom the action moves, was not even nominated for Best Actor, an anomaly which seems more peculiar and baffling as each year passes. For my money, it was his best performance, better than Falcon, better than Caine Mutiny, better than the Desperate Hours, better than all the rest. In the movie he goes from small time grifter and bum, to cocky gold miner, to psychopathic killer, to pathetic victim, all in the space of 126 minutes, and there's never a wrong move. Laurence Olivier garnered Best Actor that year, for Hamlet, a pretentious Shakespearean adaptation which blew the Motion Picture Academy away with its timely British pride and passion. Tim Holt, a veteran contract Western regular, in a career-defining role as Dobbs's  friend, was the third of the acting trio.

Aside from its basic plot, the movie is filled with a number of brilliant set-pieces and sub-plots. Robert Blake, in an uncredited performance, plays the little Mexican boy selling lottery tickets, the purchase of which eventually provides Dobbs with the money to throw in with Howard and Curtin for the prospecting venture. Then there's the Mexican haircut scene, with Bogart admiring his shiny slicked-back hair in a hand-mirror: Was ever any Hollywood leading man so homely and entertaining at the same time? Huston himself appears in the movie as a rich American, whom Dobbs keeps hitting up for peso pieces; it's a sly little ironic amusing twist on their real-life relationship: Huston says, after being bumped for the third time, "from now on, you'll have to get on in life without my help." 

Like many movie buffs, I've memorized every line in the movie, having watched it at least 30 times. It's a virtual--no, an actual--textbook of cinematic techniques. In the bar fight scene between Bogart, Holt and the contract crook, the camera is placed right on the floor, looking up at the struggling bodies as they stagger and careen over in front of us. When Howard the old prospector is measuring out the booty on a portable scale, you hear a little triangle tinkling sound as the gold flakes cascade onto the tin dish--a simple, and brilliant effect. 

Huston's sympathetic portrayal of Mexican society and culture was quite authentic, and unusual for its time. Huston lived in Mexico for some years, was married to a Mexican woman, and was quite knowledgeable about the country. The Mexican villagers, and the rural Indian tribe--their honesty, generosity and humility--are placed in sharp contrast to the money-hungry Americans, personified in the character of Dobbs, whose greed transforms him into a monster, a devil cackling before the rising campfire flames of his own evil, trying to convince himself that conscience is just an illusion. 

Howard and Curtin "laugh at the end of the world" in much the same way that Zorba laughs and dances in Zorba the Greek:  "You dance when you are very sad, and you dance when you are joyful." The true gifts of life are the rich fruit of your own labor, shared in the company of friends. Fortunes are made and lost, but happiness can't be bought. Huston made and lost several fortunes in his own lifetime, but he loved making movies. He never retired. In his 73rd year, he made the masterpiece Wise Blood, adapted from the novel by Flannery O'Connor. If you love what you do, that is also a pure form of happiness.   


Unknown said...
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Curtis Faville said...

Caine Mutiny is good, but he has precious little on-screen time there. The film was adapted from the book, but had already been preceded by the Court Room drama extract, so the emphasis on the court room scenes truncates the pre-court-marshall action a good bit. There's the great witness stand tour de force, where he goes on about the strawberries and the g-g-geometric logic etc. Sheer genius.

I don't know the Hawks film.

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Unknown said...

I think of Sierra Madre as one of a quartet of Huston films dealing with "the stuff that dreams are made of." Maltese Falcon and Beat the Devil both have Bogart in them; Huston originally acquired the rights to The Man Who Would Be King with the notion of casting Bogart and Clark Gable. Michael Caine's Peachy is inimitable, but it's just possible to watch his performance and make out a glimmer of what Bogart might have done with the role.

Curtis Faville said...

Bogart was a frail little guy--he usually wore wedge shoes to make himself taller. Probably weighed no more than 145 pounds. Had he lived another 20 years, I suspect he'd have ended up looking like a miniature John Carradine or something--gaunt and wasted.

His roles in the 1930's seemed kind of predictable--sort of a foil to Edward G. Robinson.

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Kirby Olson said...

There are some enormous artistic successes that I don't like, and I feel ashamed to admit it, but the list is endless:

This movie,
the list is very long,
but this film, and B. Traven himself,
are on the list.

I never liked Bogart or EG Robinson.

There's tons of stuff I don't like.

Dunno why. This movie strikes me as stilted, and the concepts in it are embarrassing. I don't really think this movie is very good, which must mean that I am very bad, which embarrasses me.

Do you have a list of movies and poets that other people like that you can't stand?

Ashbery is another instance of something almost everybody likes, but which drives me wild with ennui.

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Kirby Olson said...

I don't know much about Larry Eigner, but I do like you even though I consider you to be a blockhead. What does that matter?

People like some things, and don't like other things. Everyone generalizes these personal likes, and then thinks that whoever doesn't like what they like is a blockhead.

It is the norm to dislike anybody who isn't part of what we consider to be the norm.

I'm out of the norm in that I like everybody, but I consider many people to be blockheads. I feel that they can all be changed to suit my norm, in which case they will be more like me, and less silly, perhaps even a little more American, in the best sense of the term (Lutheran Surrealist).

Curtis Faville said...

Your "blockhead" comment reminded me of Marisol's sculptures, which feature the occasional cube-headed baby.

They're delightful and amusing.

Name-calling's gotten a bad name.

Also swearing.

We need to get back to the delicious, elaborate swearing of the 18th Century.

Unknown said...
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Curtis Faville said...


Remember that we all wear masks, to some extent, on blogs.

I suspect that Kirby's is perhaps somewhat more macabre than some others', but no less interesting for that.

Think of it as provisional. The play of intellect--it may not be acting, but there is that dimension to it, don't you think?

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Kirby Olson said...

Marisol had an affair with Corso, and is apparently still alive. I'm hoping yet to get a testimonial from her for my book of Corso testimonials.

Georgie is irrelevant to me. I suspect that he's British.

Probably not all Brits are ridiculous, but 98% of the ones that I have met, are.

Maybe he's Boy Georgie.

I dislike Bogart for many reasons. Eigner on the other hand I really don't know, but I doubt if he could be helpful to me.

Neither one seems very likely to be of any use to me.

But it's fine if they are of use to others. I like writers to think a lot about moral principles, and to get these principles more or less right.

So I tend to like writers like Marianne Moore (a Presbyterian at bottom, but still ok).

As for actors, I don't really have any use for many of them. I kind of like women like Mary Tyler Moore. I think she had a strong moral sense (for an actress).

A strong moral sense is not usually what we're likely to find among thespians. They don't really have to have one to do a good job at what they do, sinc etheir job is only to interpret the writings of others.

Having a moral backbone is probably a drawback in that regard since so few of our cultural creations since Shakespeare have articulated clear moral values (Moore is an exception, as is Margaret Avison, and a few others).

Most people prefer Falstaff, nevertheless, to the Prince as he is reformed through the action of the two plays. Not me. The reformed prince is getting it right.

Kirby Olson said...

Georgie is perfect.

He reminds me of Nero.

Curtis Faville said...

"So I tend to like writers like Marianne Moore (a Presbyterian at bottom, but still ok)."

Anyone who "gets" Marianne Moore is okay by me. How could she possibly be "overrated"? She's sheer genius.

"As for actors, I don't really have any use for many of them. I kind of like women like Mary Tyler Moore. I think she had a strong moral sense (for an actress)."

I don't know what Mary Tyler Moore was like in real life--she did a spread, I think, for Rolling Stone about 10 years ago--one of the sexiest women alive. She's also been diabetic all her adult life--that's a big burden to carry.

An uncertain moral sense may be an unfortunate accompaniment to great acting talent. Maybe it's the ability to "get inside" good and bad characters at the level of total, unreserved, sympathy which makes them wobble ethically. But that's less true of Brits, I think. Alec Guinness was a devout Catholic and a faithful husband.

Why wouldn't people prefer Falstaff? To an uptight bureaucrat. I'm not saying it's a responsible position, but perfectly understandable. Charm wins in the end, at least on stage.

That's entertainment.

Unknown said...
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Curtis Faville said...

I thoroughly like Bogart. I don't, frankly, care what his politics were, though it is nice to know that he came out in support of the Hollywood 10 against HUAC.

"An actor's personal morality is not an argument against his art."

This is self-evidently true.

Curtis Faville said...


You are cordially welcome here. Don't get disgusted and leave.

Kirby Olson said...

The prince was responsible to his family and especially to his father. Falstaff was out solely for himself, and sold his army out, and got them all killed. The prince was a good leader, and he took care of his friends, and kept his word. There are always paradoxes like this in Shakespeare. The one who seems to be all in favor of fun (falstaff), is actually a drag for anyone who knows him, since he gets most of his men killed, and only cares to profit from it. The one who seems to be a jerk (at least to his family) ends up being a stand-up guy, who saves his country and his family. In the continuation play, he's even better: a true leader. Falstaff is actually False, in every possible way: he seems to be a good leader, but like most leftists, when push comes to shove, he's only out for himself.

They have criss-crossing fates, and it takes a long time to work out which one of them is superior to the other. But you have to take Prince Hal, just as I think ultimately you have to see Bush Jr. as a contemporary analogue for the Prince. He saves the country through quick action. It takes a long time for most to see this, but it will eventually be seen.

I think those are important although perhaps conservative traits: family and nation. I'm not a progressive. I think anything new is likely to be bad, whereas anything ancient is likely to be decent.

I'm not a monarchist though. I believe in democracy. That wasn't a notion that was much available in Shakespeare's time, but it was coming.

Another way in which Georgie is like Nero: they both go by a single name.

Nero was an important aesthetic thinker at least in his own eyes, though this was not backed by much of anyone else in his time or since. When he killed himself, he said, "What an artist dies in me!"

He was also arrogant and aggressive, and he hated Christians.

So if the shoe fits, wear it.

Unknown said...
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Kirby Olson said...

Georgie, you have the sneaky tendency to play checkers by rules of your own, taking pieces off that you haven't actually earned.

I'm not going to go into details, but words like "likely" in my original post, are skimmed over, as you are wont to do, inserting absolutes in their place, so that you can misfunction accordingly.

At any rate, I don't see anything at stake here.

Why don't we just ignore one another, and proceed?

I don't think I will ever convince you of anything, nor will you ever convince me of anything, and I don't see any point in convincing another person of anything. People have their own bad habits, and thinking tends to run behind it, and special plead.

My bad habits are that I believe in God and in the country and in family.

Yours are that you don't.

Let's just leave it that way, and respond, where we will, to Curtis' posts, or not. I don't see why we have to address one another at all.

I don't know much about you, but what little I do know, makes me not wish to get to know you any better. It's not the bad habits, it's the taking pieces that don't belong to you. You're a cheater, and I don't want to have to deal with you, or train you up.

I sense that you are invincibly ignorant.

I argue with Curtis because I feel I can count on him to play fair and I can learn new things from him. You just aggravate me, and I just aggravate you.

Life is too short. Enjoy your Eigner and your Bogart, and I will enjoy the things that I enjoy. You can't make people like things that they don't.

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