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American Cinematographer Magazine

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

Digital Monaural
Warner Home Video, $26.99

After being swindled out of their pay for days of sweaty labor in Mexico, gringos Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Curtin (Tim Holt) spend the night in a Tampico shelter among grifters, drunks and ne'er-do-wells. During their restless night, they meet an eccentric old-timer, Howard (Walter Huston). The long-winded sage talks to the men about the golden riches hidden in the mountains and warns of the price often paid by men who unearth the precious metal. Broke and desperate, Dobbs and Curtin fall for Howard's tales of fortune, and when an unexpected windfall occurs, they embark on a dangerous prospecting journey to find the treasure.

The 1948 adventure classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which recently made its debut on DVD, is a hybrid of the Western and the darker, film noir melodramas of its period. It's a potent, exciting morality play with sharp narrative turns and dynamic characterizations. In playing Dobbs, an unlucky drifter who transforms from a hopeful desperado into a seething paranoiac, Bogart did some of his finest work on screen. But it's Huston's Howard who provides the film with its central paradox: the hope and promise of wealth and the danger and destruction of greed. Huston, father of the film's director, John Huston, won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and the junior Huston took home the statuettes for Best Director and Best Screenplay.

Shot mostly on location in Mexico by veteran cinematographer Ted D. McCord, ASC (Johnny Belinda, East of Eden, The Sound of Music), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre boasts larger-than-life compositions in many of its exterior scenes. McCord's monochrome scale is generally well represented in this transfer; the sun-bleached exteriors come off best, but night-exterior sequences often seem hampered by excessive grain. Considering that other recent Warner Home Video transfers of films of this era - such as Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood and Yankee Doodle Dandy - have been exemplary, it is surprising that this picture transfer, while certainly acceptable and often admirable, is inconsistent. There are occasional instances of dirt and debris that surround reel changes and appear at other points in the source print. The monaural soundtrack is full and crisp and hardly shows its age.

Warner has released The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as a two-disc special edition, and the package boasts an abundance of excellent supplements. Disc one offers the feature as well as a pre-show program, "Warner night at the movies, 1948," that presents a newsreel, comedy short, cartoon and coming attractions that might have run in a theater during the film's theatrical release. Also included is a solid audio commentary by Bogart biographer Eric Lax that provides insight into the inception of the film and its place in the careers of Bogart and director Huston. A dozen theatrical trailers from some of Bogart's film gems fill out the first disc.

Disc two offers a trove of supplements, the most substantial of which are two documentaries. Frank Martin's exceptional John Huston: The Man, The Movies, The Maverick (1989) is a definitive portrait of the great director. This feature-length documentary, hosted by Robert Mitchum, includes interviews with Lauren Bacall, Paul Newman, Arthur Miller, Michael Caine, and Anjelica and Danny Huston. The other documentary, Discovering Treasure: The Story of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, is an hour-long appreciation that chronicles the making of the film. Participants include filmmakers Martin Scorsese and John Milius, along with historians Rudy Behlmer, Leonard Maltin and Robert Osborne. Rounding out the second platter are storyboards, publicity galleries, a Lux Radio Theater production with Bogart and Huston reprising their screen roles, and the clever Looney Tunes short 8 Ball Bunny.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a memorable note in the history of American cinema, and in addition to pleasing the film's fans, this DVD will give a new generation of viewers the chance to experience the picture's power. This is classical Hollywood cinema at its best, and an essential addition to any DVD collection.

- Kenneth Sweeney

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.