Bogart and the Sierra Madre

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Treasure of Sierra Madre (film) – 1948 Movie still. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

(Excerpt from The Gospel of Scarface, Chapter 1, “Shakespearean Villains”)

In The Big Sleep (1946) we see in Bogart’s face, in Bogart’s actions, the performer always thinking, which translates into the detective thinking all the time, insistent on dissipating the shroud of mystery that confronts him. Bogart’s best performances reveal an abstraction, a state of mind and feeling made manifest by a created, if limited pattern of movement and sound.

The destruction of this thinking mind, the loss of control of this detective, the descent into the emotional and psychological chaos of the gangster and the outlaw—who now becomes a full-fledged monster—is what Bogart achieves in John Huston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948). In a film not traditionally considered part of the noir genre, but featuring its essential actor/hero, Bogart creates a synthesis of three different characters (gangster, detective, monster), combining three succeeding masks of the Scarface hero. In the early part of the film we see the gangster, battling in a barroom brawl with a corrupt businessman over his lost wages. In the middle scenes we notice the detective, now a prospector searching for gold in the mountains, baffled like a modern Argonaut by the mystery of the Golden Fleece. In the last, masterful sequences he becomes a bearded, murderous creature, creating a picture of feverish evil, of possession, and of brutal obsession with his grunts, his lurid conversations with himself, his shiny, overwrought eyes, and his dark visage.

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Photo of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall from the 1946 film The Big Sleep. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Soberly, extremely, Bogart shifts from subtle, naturalistic performance to monster movie acting through the course of the film. In the dim shadows of the “mad” sequence towards the end, he does not pause to wonder that his performance is no longer realistic, or even naturally believable. The landscape has become hellish, and Bogart as Fred C. Dobbs is a one-eyed Cyclops, or the Minotaur that inhabits the labyrinth.

Huston filmed the last scenes of Sierra Madre in sound studios in L.A. An observer has left an account of Bogart’s off-screen behavior during the filming of Harry Dobbs’ descent into hell. Whenever a take ended,

[Bogart] would go back, always to the same area, where the lights were dimmed, fling himself into a chair with his arms flopping to either side, and then just go wild. He simply went berserk… “goddamn,” “bitch,” “fuck,” things like that. He would repeat and repeat his cursing, then quiet down a little before starting again. In the takes, he was perfect—they never had to cut or redo something because of his actions. Within seconds he was just a different person. It was like watching twins … He was out of control, but he knew perfectly well what he was doing.[1]

All images that we have come to know. Faustus with barely one hour to live; Macbeth cursing the nobles who betray him; Jekyll despairing over the triumph of Hyde. Perhaps the best description of what Bogart’s performance in Sierra Madre achieves is given by Borde and Chaumeton, when they identify the effect of the best examples of film noir: “[a] state of tension created in the spectators by the disappearance of their psychological bearings.”[2]

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Screenshot of Humphrey Bogart from the trailer for the film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, 1948. (Credit: WIkimedia Commons)

[1] A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax, Bogart (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1997), 352.

[2] Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton, A Panorama of American Film Noir (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2002), 13.

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