Note: This Week in the Box is a year-long series where Sam works through the entire Warner Brothers 50 Film Collection box set. To find reviews of the other films in the series and see the complete list, click here.
The great part about having a blog is that when you say very clever or prescient things– like predicting 19 of 24 Oscar winners, or naming all 9 Best Picture nominees before they are officially nominated– it is there in black and white for everyone to read and for you to point to. The terrible part about having a blog is that when you say dumb things– like that Humphrey Bogart is a terrible actor– they’re preserved in the same amber. Oops.
But, that’s what learning and growing and whatnot is for, and why I am here today to say, in as many words, that I was totally wrong.
This week’s movie is The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (and by “this week” I mean “several weeks ago, when I watched it on schedule” even though right now is much past that point), which I will get to a minute, I swear. But first I have to talk about how this box set me up to look like a fool, and how I wasn’t smart enough (or though I was too smart) to not see through it.
So, the whole deal with this box set project was that I hadn’t seen the vast majority of these movies before I started (only 14 of 50), and this would give me a good, well-rounded exposure to a great many bits of Classic Cinema I wouldn’t otherwise get to any time soon. The whole premise was that I had no idea what I was watching, not having any context for most of this stuff.
When your first exposure to Humphrey Bogart, then, is The Maltese Falcon, a denseish film noir where his whole schtick is smarm and misanthropy, and you don’t know any better, you assume that that’s who Humphrey Bogart is and that he’s just playing it up, maybe, for the character. Clark Gable, for all that I love him, is basically the same character in Mutiny on the Bounty, Gone with the Wind, and It Happened One Night. He’s charming, slightly smug, and the very embodiment of Right and Truth and The Good Side. And did I mention charming as all get out?
Now, if you watch The Maltese Falcon and you are super turned off by Humphrey Bogart’s annoying smirk and his annoying smirking while waiting for someone to finish speaking (man or woman. it’s not misogyny, it’s misanthropy- he hates everyone) so he can say something grating and obnoxious, and then the next movie you watch of his is Casablanca, you just assume he can’t act. Rick Blaine is a man who has loved deeply and lost very sharply, and he doesn’t have any interest in getting hooked again. He is intentionally aloof, but when you think that Bogart is a smarmy jerk, aloof comes off as wooden. It feels like the movie wants him to emote and that he can’t, not he has that ability and won’t. Or had that ability and was badly hurt and now maybe the character can’t emote on that level. Which, if you are misattributing that struggle to Bogart himself and not the character, does not flatter Mr. Bogart.
Which brings us to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I was so biased against Humphrey Bogart from the first two movies that I actually watched the first hour of this movie while knitting, my crutch for “I need to watch this, but I don’t trust it to hold my attention enough on its own.” I stopped knitting halfway through because the movie had so effectively captured my attention.
In The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Bogart is a gringo living in Tampico, Mexico. He’s bumming around, begging for money (but classy-like) from fellow Americans who are better off and getting shafted when he actually tries to work. He and a friend (Curtain, played by Tim Holt) decide to go take an experienced prospector (Walter Huston)’s offer to take them into the Sierra Madre mountains to mine for gold. Dobbs (Bogart) starts off the most straight-laced and moral and veeeeerry quickly descends into greed-fueled madness.
Significantly, Fred C. Dobbs is so different of a character, with such different motivations, that it made me recontextualize the other two movies and my entire perspective on Humphrey Bogart. It turns out he can be crazy just as convincingly as he can be smarmy, which recasts the woodenness/aloofness as an actual acting choice and not lack of range after all. So, to make a long story short: turns out, Humphrey Bogart is actually a really good actor and I was totally wrong. I think we’ve all learned something today.
Now, as for the movie itself, I liked it quite a lot. It has a plot, as so many movies do, but it doesn’t matter so much. Mostly the interest is in Bogart getting super paranoid and increasingly crazy and how things deteriorate, plus some light philosophizing on what it means to have worth. All in all, I was way more engaged and entertained than I expected.