I tried to watch this movie several years ago but I only made it about halfway through, not because I didn’t like it but because I wasn’t watching it alone, so my attention was, shall we say, engaged elsewhere. Ahem. Anyway! I remembered almost nothing about it and wasn’t particularly excited to see it again, but I’m so glad I gave it another shot because it’s great, harrowing fun.
So first things first: the cinematography is absolutely breathtaking (this still comes nowhere near doing it justice). This was one of the first movies to be shot mostly on location outside the US, and director John Huston uses the mountains of central Mexico to their full advantage. The unforgiving terrain becomes a character in the story, which is appropriate since the plot revolves around the lengths people will go to in order to get money and the ways they’ll change and allow themselves to be changed in the process. Bogart’s Fred Dobbs and Tim Holt’s Bob Curtin start out the movie in the same place: broke and hungry in Tampico. Both decide to go prospecting for gold in the mountains out of desperation and a lack of anything left to lose. Both ignore the warnings of an old codger (Walter Huston, dad to director John) who cautions them about the danger of failure and the far greater danger of success. But their characters start to diverge almost the second they set off up the mountain.
The psychological tension builds as Dobbs gradually becomes more greedy, untrustworthy, and paranoid. The hard part, as it turns out, isn’t finding the gold (at least not if you have Walter Huston helping you); it’s getting the gold and yourself back down the mountain in one piece. By the time Dobbs loses the gold and his own life through his crazy-making greed, Curtin has gone so far in the other direction that, incredibly, he can laugh in the face of his lost fortune.
The story arc unfolds like a Shakespeare tragedy (which is fitting since this movie lost out to Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet for Best Picture, in a rare Best Picture/Best Director split): our hero ends up destroyed by his own tragic flaw, but there’s a virtuous supporting character waiting by the sidelines to pick up the pieces. It’s a familiar story, but Huston’s pacing keeps it moving along at a nice clip. And with the exception of Bruce Bennett as Mr. Exposition, the acting is natural and, for the time period, surprisingly un-stagey. Highly recommended!