The Case Study of Greed
Humphrey Bogart’s character epitomizes what can befall us all: the complete perversion of our sensibilities by unchecked avarice.
American Film Institute Ranking: #30/100
Academy Awards: Best Director and Best Supporting Actor for Jim Huston and Walter Huston — a father-son combo.
It was obvious early on what this movie was going to be about: Greed = Bad.
By showing the cards early, I didn’t know if I would be interested, especially if the moral teaching was going to be heavy-handed. My concerns were ungrounded and the movie addressed them with a counterintuitive solution. Instead of using fast-pace or subtlety, Jim Houston takes the approach of a staggered walk, slowly allowing Fred C. Dobbs (played by Humphrey Bogart) descend into is madness over the course of a couple hours.
What this does is make you experience every slow, twisted turn into immorality. This slow-train wreck of a nose-dive makes you squirm, really understanding what greed can do, exceeding my low expectations of what I thought would be an after school special delivery.
[Plot/Spoilers] Fred Dobbs and Bob Curtin are street beggars in the city of Tampico, Mexico. Without many options, they work for a contractor, but upon completion of the project, don’t receive the money for their work. Having enough money to spend a night in a hostel of sorts, they over hear an old prospector, Howard, talking about gold hunting. Fred and Bob run into the contractor that reneged on their salaries, beat him up, and take the money that was owed to them. With this influx of cash, they decide to go all-in spending it on gold mining equipment and leave with Howard from the hostel.
They go into deep, Mexico territory where the rewards of mining for gold are high but risk of danger even higher due to bandits roaming the country side. The three hit pay dirt, finding an untouched gold vein and begin the arduous task of extracting it. As the money starts to pile up, the relationships become strained, and it’s all due to Humphrey Bogart’s character.
Bogart was a super star at this point and what is a little different about this movie is that he plays the antagonist while being the focal point. When Bogart ran into a critic after filming, he was quoted as saying “Wait till you see me in my next picture. I play the worst shit you ever saw.”
Bogart isn’t joking: it must have been quite a shock to viewers to see their beloved film star play someone who so completely falls into wickedness. His character begins like any other Bogart character. He is morally ambiguous, quick wit, and easy to like. In his other movies, such as Casablanca, it always ends with him being the good guy, exposing his false, tough-guy projection. In Treasure of the Sierra Madre, he is corrupted completely, leaving no room for salvation.
The delivery of his fall is also exquisite. Piece by piece, we see the plodding and methodical destruction of Dobbs. First, it is just minor things, like making sure to split up the money each night. Then, it’s wondering what his companions are up to at all times. Distrust sets in, and then he begins to hide his money from others. Next, he starts to actively accuse his co-prospectors of teaming up against him. This continues at snail pace as you get whipped into his own frenzy, and the worst thing is there nothing that you can do. I wondered what could be said or done to prove to Dobbs that his notions are wrong, but in the final assessment, once greed planted a seed there was no way to stop that weed from growing.
The foil to the depraved Dobbs is Howard. The old prospector is a soothsayer of sorts, and he is the only grounded character. Throughout all of Dobb’s antics and bandit attacks, he is the calming force in the movie. This leaves Bob Curtin as an unknown commodity — we know where Dobbs and Howard are headed, but Bob’s future is a bit more uncertain.
By the end of the movie, we are treated to Bob Curtin making it on the right path, headed to Dallas, Texas to inform the wife of the death of her husband that occurred during events of the movie. There were time Bob nearly let greed take a hold, but he was able to stave off its influence. Maybe the story arc of Dobbs need not be so fatalistic. This seems to be the moral of the story: while greed might over take us once in a while, we can still have the wherewithal to deny its hold.