After The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre is probably Huston’s most famous film—the two may vie for the title of best known. It’s a great movie in the sense that The Godfather and Casablanca are great movies: memorable characters, rich in themes, steep in action, imminently watchable. The kind of “old” movie for people who don’t like “old” movies.
I doubt anyone reading this won’t know the plot, but just in case, Humphrey Bogart plays Fred C. Dobbs, an out-of-luck drifter settled like dirt in one of Mexico’s dirtiest towns. He meets up with fellow drifter Bob Curtin (Tim Holt), and the two try to pick up odd jobs with even less luck than they started with. After taking brutal revenge on an employer who stiffed them, Dobbs and Curtin meet up with the grizzled and half-mad Howard (Huston father Walter, in an Oscar-winning role), a seasoned prospector looking for some men to share the costs of an expedition to mine for gold.
The three team up and head for the wilderness. Soon after, it’s clear that Howard is the most valuable member of the outfit, able to recognize Fool’s Gold and find the real stuff where the others see dust. He’s also the mediator, picking up early on the paranoia and greed that will eventually lead to Dobbs’ ruin. At first Howard’s placating, going along with Dobbs to stave off his growing insanity, but as Dobbs’ mental instability increases, Howard becomes warily assertive, suggesting that stop while they’re ahead, planting suggestions in Dobbs’ head, and eventually convincing the group to pull up stakes and quit while they’re ahead.
When I first came back to the film after seeing it years ago, the character of Howard struck me as a first-rate candidate for a paper on behavioral studies and decision-making. The way he subtly becomes the leader who keeps the group together while consistently downplaying his role to elude confrontation made him the most interesting character for me. Of course, any such study would devalue the film, but it’s worth mentioning.