The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

The last time I watched this was in high school, at the after-school film club I helped run. I remember the movie went over well with almost all the students who attended; we rarely got such a positive response when we showed something made before 1960. Since then, I've grown skeptical of things that appeal to large groups of teenagers, and so I'd been reluctant to revisit THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE as an adult. I had the feeling that the qualities that us teenagers responded to most favorably—the cynicism; the straightforward, moralizing theme; Walter Huston's scenery-chewing—would seem like limitations now.

I found I still appreciated those qualities the other night—not because I learned something from them, but because John Huston delivers them so entertainingly. This is a grand adventure story, motivated by a palpable (if somewhat overstated) sense of desperation. And Walter Huston is still fantastic. In fact, I now think the only thing that keeps SIERRA MADRE from being a great movie is the younger Huston's striving for greatness. Huston presents the insights about greed as if they were eternal wisdom, although they're rooted more in the particular characters and situations than any universal truth about behavior. Huston also underscores the dramatic irony so heavily that it becomes impossible to miss.

Huston may have created a distinct kind of cinematic irony in bringing a confident, larger-than-life style to stories of losers and obsessives. Paul Thomas Anderson acknowledged his debt to Huston with his hommages to LET THERE BE LIGHT in THE MASTER, but I wonder if Huston's influence doesn't run deeper—in its irony and themes, BOOGIE NIGHTS seems like a successor to Huston's films as well.

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