Well shit, there are some of you that will never even give this picture a chance. I mean, it was made over sixty years ago. You'll assume it's pretty dated and stuff. Minimal violence, no nudity, etc. It's probably even black and white for chrissakes! I can't dispute any of that. All true. I also can't dispute that it's one of the best pictures I have ever seen. Of any era.
Some guy (you may have heard of him) named Humphrey Bogart plays some guy named Fred Dobbs, a down on his luck drifter living (for the moment) in Tampico, Mexico. He spends his days asking rich americans (actually, it's always the same American, played by director John Huston) for a few Pesos to buy some food. When the rich American calls him out and asks why he only seems to pick on him, Dobbs responds with a 'sorry mister, I guess I never looked at your face....just your hands and the money you give me". Dobbs is sorta pathetic is the point. Then he uses the money to buy some booze with. Later, Dobbs hooks up with fellow drifter, Curtin (Tim Colt). Even later than that, they meet up with yet another drifter, this time a loveable old coot (Walter Huston, the director's father) named Howard. Howard tells them about some gold just waiting to be prospected from this Mexican mountain (the Sierra Madre of the title) and so the three of them head off for grand adventure....and also some old fashioned descent into madness type shit, etc.
Shit man, this is about as good as movie making gets. We got a brilliant set up where we think we learn most of what we need to know about the three principal characters; Dobbs (greedy, capable of violence), Curtin (earnest, capable of violence), and Howard (old, potential comedic relief). Turns out, Howard's the most bad ass of the three while also being funny, capable of violence (as long as it's right), and full of heart. His mile a minute delivery is a thing of beauty and, at no point, feels like a device added into this thing to provide some humor. It's his character. Hustons' is the best performance of the picture and that's saying something when you consider just how great Bogart's work is here.
Bogart's arc as Dobbs resembles Daniel Day Lewis' as Daniel Plainview (There Will Be Blood) only if it were greatly abbreviated. At first, he's happy to panhandle a couple pesos but, later, as he begins to bring in the gold he starts to isolate himself, protect what's his, distrust those closest to him (Howard and Curtin). Bogart doesn't play it too over the top and manages to keep it on a plain of existence we can identify with. Little of his backstory is ultimately revealed. Times were tough and he did (flee to Mexico) what he thought he had to.
Mexico, at the time (maybe still, never been there), was a dangerous place with banditos roaming the countryside looking to rob and kill, especially white people. After our three characters board a train to take them deeper into the country, they are immediately attacked by a group of such bandits on horseback. It seems like every passenger on the train is armed, so the attack is thwarted. This group of banditos will reappear throughout the film and ultimately lead to one of the more famous lines ("we don't need no stinking badges"), when they pose as federales, in film.
Well, I don't know, don't wanna spoil too much here. The three find their mountain, Curtin and Dobbs follow along slowly as Howard double times it toward the site. They rig some shit, discover some gold, build a mine, etc. They spend a lot of time on that mountain (months, perhaps). Howard and Curtin do a good job of maintaining their cool. Meanwhile, Dobbs just gets more and more restless, getting up in the middle of the night to check his stash, making wild accusations, sticking his hand under rocks even when told there's some sorta of Mexican lizard under there that will bite into him and not let go even after they cut off it's head. There's a great scene where Dobbs gets up (carrying a pistol) in the middle of the night, followed by Howard (also armed), and then later Curtin wakes up (gun in hand). The tension was so palpable I expected someone to get shot, especially with the way Dobbs had been coming unglued. Dobbs carried his gun with murder on his mind. Howard and Curtin, merely for protection.
What amazed me about this movie (beyond the story, performances, depth of characters, etc) was how gritty and violent it seemed without even showing any of the results of that violence. We see acts of violence (fighting, gun shots) but, at the time, censors woudn't allow you to show someone actually being shot or stabbed. Huston brilliantly frames these moments so we can still imagine the worst and somehow it seems like we were witness. No cuts, after the act. The camera lingers, just not on the victim (which it doesn't show at all). For example, a certain character at the end meets a horrible fate at the hands of banditos. We see the machete swing and then the trail the head left as it rolled into a little brook.
Too often with older movies it seems like the characters are not really a part of their environment. Not here. Howard, Curtin, and Dobbs get grimier with each day that passes on that mountain. The attention to detail here is astounding. Their beards grow a little at a time, their hair (including Bogart's semi-famous wig) more matted. This isn't Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo (no offense to that otherwise pretty great picture).
This one's pretty close to perfect so what else can I add here? There are lots of little offbeat touches which kept me off guard. Like the American (Bruce Bennett) that made his way to the camp and basically said they have three choices; 1) cut him in 2) kill him or 3) make him leave. The three principals ultimately decide they have to kill him (even good hearted Howard agrees this is the best option) only when they're about to go through with it, the American points out several banditos making their way up the mountain. Suddenly, they kinda like the guy and later like him even more after he helps to fend off the banditos at the cost of his own life. Now, they're traumatized over the loss of their "buddy" even though they'd agreed to kill him barely an hour earlier.
Later, Howard (with a reputation as a medicine man in Mexico), in a moment that builds both plot and character, gets called to a village to heal a dying boy (pay close attention to the music in this scene, it's great). The only fault I can find with the picture is how Howard speaks Spanish, almost as if he's reading it without understanding (I looked it up, it's true). However, this actually works when you think about it because Howard speaks English (rat-a-tat-tat) the same way!
Yeah, it's a masterpiece but you didn't need me to tell you that. We got John "I fucking directed The Maltese Falcon and also Annie you got a fucking problem with that?" Huston, we got Walter "Best supporting actor for this god damned picture" Huston, and we got Humphrey "I was in this, Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon but only one an oscar for The motherfucking African Queen" Bogart. The point is, this one's worth your time. It's as ahead of it's time as something like Citizen Cane (and I love Cane) in this humble reviewer's nearly worthless opinion.