22 September 2010

20 Scripts in 30 Days: Number 14, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, by John Huston

Howard: . . .. Aw, gold's a devilish sort of a thing anyway. You start out to tell yourself you'll be satisfied with twenty-five thousand handsome smackers worth of it, 'so help me Lord and cross my heart.' Fine resolution. After months of sweatin' yourself dizzy and growing short on provisions and findin' nothin', you finally come down to fifteen thousand and then ten, finally you say, 'Lord, let me just find five thousand dollars worth and never ask for anything more the rest of my life.'...Here in this joint, it seems like a lot, but I tell you, if you was to make a real strike, you couldn't be dragged away. Not even the threat of miserable death'd keep you from trying to add ten thousand more. Ten you want to get twenty-five. Twenty-five you want to get fifty. Fifty, a hundred. Like roulette. One more turn, you know, always one more.

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Stripped down to its bones, this is the story of a man driven insane by his greed -- or, more precisely, by the damage greed does to his soul. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of my favorite films, but I haven't read the script until now.

The character arc here is more like a sagging slope. We first meet Fred C. Dobbs when he's down on his luck in Tampico, cadging centavos from whomever will give him one. He seems a bit rough-edged, especially the way he treats that little kid with the lottery tickets, but overall, an okay guy. Generous even, when he offers up his share of lottery winnings to Curtin, who becomes his partner.

With the help of Howard, an old prospector who knows the ropes, they head out into the wilds of Mexico to find gold. They hit a vein. And as the gold dust piles up, so does Dobbs' suspicions. Although both Howard and Curtin saved his life, he can't trust them. His thoughts drift towards murder. While Dobbs is the most infected, none of them are immune to the corrosion of greed. You can see this clearly in the scene where the three discuss what to do with an interloper: kill him, or not?

On their way back with their riches, Howard gets detained by helping an Indian boy. Dobbs, driven mad by greed, takes out Curtin and descends into madness.

In some ways, it's like reading a nineteenth century novel, something out of Joseph Conrad, for example. The script is packed with bandits, venal bosses, picaresque bums, Indians, life in the wild away from civilization that demands toughness, a life of danger and hardship with the promise of treasure. A boy's paradise. What makes it adult is that the environment and action serves to reveal character. It's far from cowboys and Indians and much closer to the heart of darkness.

So much to admire -- the gibbering chatter of Dobbs muttering to himself like a tinpot Shakespearean, lost in the vast indifferent desert. Fate, in the face of a street urchin, handing him the lottery ticket, dooming him with good luck. And the supremely ironic ending as the wind blows the dust away.  Some other elements are more Hollywood: the happy endings for Curtin and Howard. What stuck out more in reading script more than when viewing the film were the series of coincidences that the plot hinged on. But these are minor, niggling issues compared with the terrible and destruction of Dobbs, the average guy. Bust out your Aristotle, because Huston does evoke fear and pity with all the skill of a great dramatist.

This is another movie with a lead character who is less than sympathetic. Ah me, another "rule" shot to hell.

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