Category Archives: John Huston

Wartime Bogart Part I: Across the Pacific

If you thought the title Across the Pacific was a misnomer for a film about a group of characters sailing the Atlantic (and never reaching the Pacific) then you might find the rest of the story interesting.

Screenwriters Richard Macaulay and Robert Carson initially had Bogart’s protagonist thwarting a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. When Pearl Harbour broke out before production, the scene was hastily changed to the more exotic and implausible Panama Canal. Since Bogart could not stop a Japanese attack after a Japanese attack actually happened (life imitates art before art is finished?) he was now to stop Hirohito’s agents from gathering intelligence on American defences. Perhaps that is what all propaganda films do. Pearl Harbour would be too realistic, and, considering the outcome of that engagement, counterproductive. Remote Panama, however, was free for use as a narrative end point.

"Psst, Hawaii was hit. Bring out the Central America backdrop."

With Sydney Greenstreet and Mary Astor supporting Bogart in a John Huston production, Across the Pacific feels like a modest Maltese Falcon reunion. Greenstreet plays a variation of his Kasper Gutman villain. He is educated, charming, fat, and deadly. Astor is mediocre as the unremarkable love interest. In fact, the whole film feels unambitious, but even the worst Huston picture is worth seeing. I’d take Across the Pacific over Transformers III any day.

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Filed under Bogart, John Huston, Old Ones, Wartime Bogart

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

After a slew of promotional films for the American military John Huston adapted this dark novel by reclusive writer B. Traven (no one even knows his real name). Shooting on location in Mexico – rare for the time – Huston crafted a harsh warning against the perils of greed, even turning what should have been an unhappy ending into a hopeful conclusion.

Sierra Madre pivots around Humphrey Bogart, who was never scarier than as Dobbs. Bearded and grimy, Bogart sheds his familiar bar-skulking wiseguy persona for this descent into Heart of Darkness-esque madness. Or perhaps the better analogy is Macbeth, whose paranoia and sleeplessness he shares as he mumbles to himself.

Dobbs, Howard, and Curtin cook up a dream.

Maybe the best of the movie is old-timer Howard’s monologue on gold, delivered in (of all places) a drifter’s dormitory. Check out his exchange with a fellow bum:

HOWARD: Say, answer me this one, will you? Why is gold worth some twenty bucks an ounce?
BUM: I don’t know. Because it’s scarce.
HOWARD: A thousand men, say, go searchin’ for gold. After six months, one of them’s lucky: one out of a thousand. His find represents not only his own labor, but that of nine hundred and ninety-nine others to boot. That’s six thousand months, five hundred years, scramblin’ over a mountain, goin’ hungry and thirsty. An ounce of gold, mister, is worth what it is because of the human labor that went into the findin’ and the gettin’ of it.
BUM: I never thought of it just like that.
HOWARD: Well, there’s no other explanation, Mister. Gold itself ain’t good for nothing except making jewelry with and gold teeth.

Walter Huston – John’s father – hams the role of Howard to the hilt. Here’s the rest of the conversation:

HOWARD: Aah, gold’s a devilish sort of thing, anyway. You start out, you tell yourself you’ll be satisfied with 25,000 handsome smackers worth of it. So help me, Lord, and cross my heart. Fine resolution. After months of sweatin’ yourself dizzy, and growin’ short on provisions, and findin’ nothin’, you finally come down to 15,000, then ten. Finally, you say, “Lord, let me just find $5,000 worth and I’ll never ask for anythin’ more the rest of my life.”
BUM: $5,000 is a lot of money.
HOWARD: Yeah, 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 would keep you from trying to add 10,000 more. Ten, you’d want to get twenty-five; twenty-five you’d want to get fifty; fifty, a hundred. Like roulette. One more turn, you know. Always one more.

Of course, he’s more than game to join Dobbs and Curtin (Tim Holt) on a treasure hunt. The ensuing distrust between the three pretty much proves his point. Dobbs isn’t satisfied with his share, and, like all tragic heroes, over steps his limits and dies with nothing.

This should be a dismal ending, but Huston lightens the tone when Howard and Curtin laugh away the loss of the gold. Howard has the native village to go back to, while Curtin has orange picking in California. His description of “whole families” picking fruit in the fields and then laying down together singing songs by bonfires  paints the image of an idyllic community. It even sounds communist in contrast to the capitalist connotations of gold. Films always, purposefully or not, reflect their societies – did Traven and Huston serve a cautionary tale of greedy capitalism wrapped in Western rags?

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Filed under Bogart, John Huston, Old Ones