- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 30, 2008

“It’s never dated,” observes Martin Scorsese while saluting John Huston’s “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” in a documentary supplement called “Discovering Treasure,” appended to the most recent DVD edition of the movie, now in its 60th anniversary year. No other contributor sums up the enduring and perhaps airtight case for this particular classic as crisply and effectively.

Whenever you return to it, after intervals of months or years, “Sierra Madre” retains a remarkable immediacy and resonance.

Mr. Huston and his collaborators, working at the Warner Bros. studio and a principal scenic location near San Jose Purua in Mexico’s Michoacan state, from March through July of 1947, achieved a fusion of exotic adventure and edifying character delineation that preserves admirable staying power. Their film reflects an elusively expert knack for unfolding and ramifying in vividly funny, harrowing and revealing ways. This storytelling dexterity seems to protect the overall structure and the payoff episodes from overfamiliarity or shifts in cinematic fashion.

“The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” proved the most successful of the major Hollywood films in contention during the 1948 Academy Awards cycle. It became a unique father-son triumph for Mr. Huston, who won Oscars for screenwriting and direction, and his father, Walter, whose performance as the grizzled, irrepressible old gold prospector, Howard, must have been a prohibitive favorite for best supporting actor.

Since the movie opened in January 1948, it needed to sustain favorable impressions for the entire calendar year. It’s not all that surprising that “Sierra Madre” would have been overtaken by Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet” as the best picture candidate, but missing the Walter Huston opportunity would have been a colossal oversight for Academy voters.

Inexplicably, they did contrive to shortchange the star of “Sierra Madre,” Humphrey Bogart, as an Oscar finalist.

The recognition for Walter Huston crowned a great theatrical and movie career, and in the nick of time, since he died suddenly in 1950, at age 66, of an aneurysm. His prodigiously entertaining and endearing portrayal as Howard seemed to expand the very notion of a “supporting” performance. (About 30 years later, Beatrice Straight’s Oscar for “Network” illustrated how to narrow it down to a single scene.)

The elder Huston is a dominating presence in scene after scene, and his character served as an invaluably sane, magnanimous counterweight to the corrosive, demented antagonism entrusted to Mr. Bogart, reasserting his genius for playing psychotic calamities while impersonating the human time bomb Fred C. Dobbs, whose instability erupts in paranoia and homicide.

Until fairly late in the casting, Ronald Reagan was the choice to play the third prospector, Curtin, and Zachary Scott was envisioned as the ill-fated interloper, Cody. It’s easy to imagine both of them as persuasive members of the ensemble, although there’s little fault to be found with Tim Holt and Bruce Bennett, who ended up with the roles when production began. Given his eventual claim to fame, Mr. Reagan’s presence in “Sierra Madre” would have given it an additional savor.

According to actress Evelyn Keyes, who was married to John Huston at the time he directed “Sierra Madre” and “Key Largo,” both released in 1948, there was occasional socializing between the Hustons and the Reagans during that period. Actress Jane Wyman, destined to win the 1948 Oscar for best actress in “Johnny Belinda” was Mrs. Reagan. Miss Keyes’ recollections of a checkered Hollywood career, “Scarlett O’Hara’s Younger Sister,” were humorously highlighted by the chapters dealing with her doomed marriage to the unfaithful and potentially bughouse John Huston.

Rudy Behlmer’s “Inside Warner Bros. 1935-1951,” a diverting anthology of documents about famous productions that includes “Sierra Madre,” reproduces a letter from John Huston to B. Traven, the author of the source material, that mentions the tentative Reagan casting. It also incorporates an exchange of messages between novelist and filmmaker that underlines the former’s desire to flatter and influence the latter as much as possible.

The secretive Traven, who assumed a number of aliases while sustaining a professional exile in Mexico from the 1920s through the 1960s, had some astute suggestions for movie adaptation, along with some bewildering blind spots, principally his attempt to urge the casting of Lewis Stone, best known as Andy Hardy’s elderly dad, in the role reserved for Walter Huston.

B. Traven turned up during the production of “Sierra Madre,” disguised as his own factotum, a slightly built fussbudget called Hal Croves, and was hired as a technical adviser. He had a disenchanting effect on the director, who ended up treating him rather shabbily. John Huston preferred to believe that the creator of hard-boiled proletarian adventure yarns would need to be a more dashing and rugged presence. Presumably, along the lines of Ernest Hemingway.

Nevertheless, Traven and Croves appear to have been one and the same illusionist, and a future anniversary edition of “Sierra Madre” should make a more thorough attempt to clarify the legend. A modest suggestion: incorporate Will Wyatt’s 1980 BBC documentary about the author. It settled the identity mystery to the satisfaction of most inquisitive readers and moviegoers. Mr. Wyatt’s researches were fully summarized in a book with the same title, “The Secret of the Sierra Madre: The Man Who Was B. Traven.”

A future edition might also find room for a fragment from the Behlmer collection in which B. Traven summarizes the misanthropic “message” of the book filmed by John Huston. “You see,” he wrote, “no matter how hard you work, no matter how ferociously you fight, no matter how intensively you struggle for your existence you can never be sure of your gains or your property unless you have consumed it. Only what is in your tummy and what is in your brain is really yours.” And if it’s the brain of a Fred C. Dobbs, you’re really sunk.

TITLE: “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (released in 1948, two decades before the advent of the film rating system; ominous story elements and occasional violence)

CREDITS: Directed by John Huston. Produced by Henry Blanke. Screenplay by Mr. Huston, based on the novel by B. Traven. Cinematography by Ted McCord. Art direction by John Hughes. Music by Max Steiner.

RUNNING TIME: 126 minutes, plus supplementary material

DVD EDITION: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

WEB SITE: www.warnervideo.com

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