Humphrey Bogart plays Fred C. Dobbs, down-on-his-luck American in Mexico—he cadges the odd peso out of friendly passersby and countrymen, just so he can fill his stomach every now and again. He pals around with Curtin (Tim Holt), and after the two of them get cheated out of their wages by an American unethical even by the standards of this film, they exact their revenge, but their pockets are still empty. At the local flophouse, they overhear talk of an old codger called Howard (Walter Huston), who promises that in fact there is gold in them thar hills. If only they had enough scratch to buy the necessaries, they could be making themselves a fortune.
Improbably enough, the lottery ticket that Dobbs bought from a pestering local kid (a young Robert Blake) comes in a winner, and the three of them pool their resources—the triad heads into the hills, with wary eyes on one another, and dreams of riches animating their steps. What ensues is a rather pitiless essay on the futility at the heart of so much human enterprise, and the corrosiveness that results from the rabid pursuit of mammon. Dobbs, Curtin, and Howard fend off threats from other Americans looking to shoehorn in on their prospective fortune, from bandits haunting the Mexican hills looking for arms, from the brutal obstacles put forward by nature, and of course from their paranoiac dealings with one another. It’s worth taking the journey with them, so I won’t lay out too many of the plot elements here; suffice it to say that with their behavior, these characters don’t exactly cover themselves in glory.
The filmmakers sure do, though. Bogart fought hard for his stardom, rising up from playing dime-a-dozen gangsters in B pictures to above-the-title romantic leads like Rick Blaine; it’s a credit to him that as his fame was at an apex, he chose to play Fred C. Dobbs, one of the greediest, most loathsome, and least redeeming heroes in the history of American cinema. Even Dobbs can be struck with remorse, though, and at times he sounds like a genuine American Hamlet, wrestling with his nature: “Conscience. What a thing. If you believe you got a conscience, it’ll pester you to death. If you don’t believe you got one, what can it do to you?” (Thus does conscience make cowards of us all.) Bogart was more endearing in The African Queen, a cooler customer in The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, more languorous in Casablanca, but he was never better than he was here.
The same can be said of Tim Holt, whose otherwise prosaic career is peppered with the occasional masterpiece, like this one, or The Magnificent Ambersons. He turns a character that could be written off as little more than a simp and a necessary expository device into a decent, upstanding fellow. But best in show is Walter Huston, the old cuss who’s seen it all before, speaks a mile a minute, handles his Spanish dialogue as well as his English; Howard is world weary, but the thrill that comes with the possible discovery of a new mother lode is still palpable for him, and for us.
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