A Bunch of Swindlers South of the Border
Early in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston, 1948), there's a barroom brawl that seems to sum up the whole film. Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and his buddy Curtin (Tim Holt), two drifters languishing in the Mexican hamlet of Tampico — how they got there is anyone's guess, including their own — confront their first swindler, a man named Pat McCormick who hired them for a job and never paid.
The fighting isn't fast or fancy; no one's a quick draw or a sharpshooter. Instead, the fisticuffs are slow and awkward and unfailingly human; it's a sloppy fight, with men crawling on the ground and clawing at each other's legs. The other men in the bar stand idly by, watching these Americans make fools of themselves in a land they fail to understand. And though Dobbs and Curtin win the battle, there's no clear winner once the film's bigger picture emerges: The money they get from McCormick leads, almost fatefully, to their ruin.
This isn't your normal Western with Gary Cooper standing up at high noon waiting for judgment to come; you're witnessing a tragedy (in the Greek sense), Dobbs' rise to riches and fall, staggering and dusty, into the ditch where he'll be left to die.
Dobbs may be Bogart’s darkest creation, a conspiracy theorist who thinks his partners will steal his money or get him killed by bandits. He's got a face like a dirt road, recording every track of foot, hoof or tire across its crevasses. Even clean-shaven, his sunken cheeks throw dark shadows across his face, creating an ambiguous charm. As the film's antihero, who leaves with Curtin and a grizzled, old prospector (Walter Huston, the director's father) in search of the mother lode, you can see distrust flash across his face, cleaving it in two. "Fred C. Dobbs," he says emblematically, "ain't a guy that likes being taken advantage of."
Every tragic hero has a tragic flaw, and Dobbs' inability to trust is what brings him low. In the climactic scene, set in a rocky, raw, firelit campsite, his distrust turns terrifying. Trying to stay awake all night so Curtin doesn't make off with his share, Bogey's smile turns delirious, his mouth stretching into a maniacal grimace. He's lost his grip on reality, turned into a ghoul of sorts, exacting vengeance for uncommitted crimes.
To some extent, all Westerns examine the tense balance between society and the individual, the line between friends and enemies. Huston is one of the masters of the genre. Even by 1948 he had such a grasp on the material that he could twist it into something much darker. This isn't a "meditation," as some might be prone to call it, despite the fact that there are no duels on Main Street or men in white hats. In The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, there's action to make the directors of lesser, higher-octane Westerns swoon. The difference is that Huston finds equal tension under the cover of night: when Dobbs, seeing that the old man has left the tent, decides to go check on his share of the loot, you half expect him to start shooting right then.
The genius of the film is that we half hope he does. Dobbs, unlike his partners, is a man in full, not generous and kind like Curtin, or funny and wise like the old man, but someone whose humanity streaks across his face like land illuminated by a flash of lightning. It isn't until the after the credits have rolled that our intellectual and emotional minds separate and we realize that Dobbs is as much the villain of the film as the hero. If his weren't the first face we see, we'd be prone to root against him. Instead, we recognize our own lightning strikes of greed, those moments when the friends we have seem less than they are and the benefits of loneliness seem better than they ever have. We pretend we would act differently, that we root for him because we don't know what's coming.
But we know what's coming from the beginning: the old prospector, like a one-man chorus or even a sighted Tiresias, warns Dobbs and Curtin that "gold is a devilish sort of thing anyway ... not even the threat of miserable death would keep you from wanting $10,000 more. I know," he continues softly, his eyes full of the sorrow of a man who's lost himself in this Unholy Grail, "what gold does to men's souls."
Dobbs smirks, of course, sure of himself like an Oedipus of the desert. He knows what's coming as well as we do but goes merrily along with the charade until violence bubbles up from within. Every hero's tragic flaw, really, is that he doesn't realize that he has one.