Universal was known for their horror films in the ’30s and ’40s, but out of their stock of classic creations, none can topple Warner’s Frank C. Dobbs. He is terrifying in the best way, standing over his partner Curtin (Tim Holt) with a look of desperation, jealousy, fear, and uneasiness as he points a gun wildly. The lighting, mostly from underneath Dobbs, is as eerie as they come.
Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) isn’t always like this, which makes it even worse. He turns on a dime, supporting his fellow gold diggers as they break into a mountain of riches. He treats the old man Howard (Walter Huston) with care at times, and at others looks on with sheer blind greed. It’s these turns that create the atmosphere on that mountain, making Treasure of Sierra Madre a stand-out in its era because it does everything different.
It never has a hero, no one wins, and the message is as clear as they come. It shows how far man will go when the money becomes all they care about, and who they will kill to keep it. You could easily point to Curtin as the hero of the piece, the youngest of the cast who is down on his luck along with Dobbs. Even Curtin has his flaws, agreeing to kill a man onto their gold scheme named Cody (Bruce Bennett) when he wanders into camp.
The characters are so incredibly imperfect, it is wonderful. This is that rare movie of the era that doesn’t sugar coat anything, becoming so brazen as to take down its star, the one taking up the most real estate on the poster. It is not an easy end for Dobbs, driven to madness because of his own mistrust and internal conflicts. He is paranoid, and even delusional. It is a performance that defines an era, and another character that defines Bogart’s skills, along with his range and willingness to take risks.
However, Howard agrees with him, saving his own hide by agreeing with everyone. He plays along, his own purposes genuine it seems, fate the only thing intervening on his thousands of dollars in riches. The character is so full of life, energetic, and entertaining, he almost feels out of place with all of angst and anger delivered by Bogart. It’s a contrast in purpose, almost as if the characters are portraying two different sides of humanity, their clashing ideals generating even more tension than the lighting and acting combined. It’s as perfectly written as you could ask.
Warner delivers a VC-1 encode for the film’s hi-def release, one right on par with the studios other treatments of their classics. In other words, it’s beautiful. Sierra Madre has a limited grain structure, light and at times hardly noticeable. Worries of the film being scrubbed are dashed, the movie appearing natural, clean, and enormously detailed, save for those shots prior to and after a fade, as always a limitation of the era.
Everything is else is sharp and rich, facial detail here quite the stand-out. A close-up of Curtin at 53:35 resolving not only enough high-fidelity detail to pass as modern, but the hat on his head is as crisp they come. Few zooms are worse for the wear, a series of them on Cody around 1:01:14 the only moments of note that appear softer, complete with a heavy grain spike. These look like optical zooms. Various wide views of the landscape are wonderful, producing cleanly refined imagery. Foliage dotting the desert sands is perfectly resolved, whether at a distance or in close.
Black levels are fantastically calibrated, adding depth to an image that needs it. As Dobbs and Curtin first walk in on Howard talking about his gold rush days, the limited light is not harmful to this disc, shadow detail intact, and the blacks rich enough to set the mood. The gray scale is exquisite too, the bleached deserts nailing the contrast without being overbearing.
There is almost no damage to speak of on the source, not surprising considering how cherished the film is. There is little doubt that it wasn’t well cared for. The only annoyance of note is during the finale as the storm picks up, a hair becoming prominent until the sand settles down. Otherwise, dirt and damage is completely eliminated without any ill effects. It is actually impressive how well the encode handles the thick dirt being tossed across the screen, with no artifacting becoming visible.
Warner does right by the audio too, a fantastically rich DTS-HD mono mix. Fidelity is far better than the expectation may be, some music in the bar at 10:20 producing a smooth low-end, no distortion noted. Dialogue is delivered cleanly, the lack of a general hiss or popping within the mix a pleasant surprise. Nothing sounds overly digital or processed, just appropriate to the era.
The score utilizes a number of horned instruments, reaching a peak at 25:15, the clarity of all not just impressive, but startling. Everything sounds completely natural and fluid, either an incredible bit of restoration work or preservation.
One problem spot does exist, standing out mostly because the rest of the track is pristine. As Howard resuscitates the boy at 1:24:10, all of the static and popping missing from the rest of the track was apparently crammed into this one section. It’s an instant change running for about 10 or so seconds at the most.
Warner’s Night at the Movies returns for another classic, preserving the way people used to go see films in theaters, along with an introduction by Leonard Maltin. An additional Looney Tunes cartoon is included too, sadly not in HD. The discs other features include a commentary from Eric Lax, followed by a two-hour documentary from 1989, John Huston: The Man, The Myth, The Maverick.
Discovering Treasure is a 50-minute look at Sierra Madre itself, this followed by a Lux Radio Broadcast. A trailer remains.