Oh, laugh, Curtin, old boy. It’s a great joke played on us by the Lord or fate or nature, whatever you prefer.
Seen this movie at least a couple of times, but when I got the chance to see it on the big screen, I took it. It’s a film that genuinely gets better every time I see it. It’s tale of three prospectors and the psychological and emotional toll the lure of gold takes on them is a pitch perfect mixture of the western and noir genres. The cast is nothing short of brilliant. Bogart gives one of his all-time best performances as the unstable Fred C. Dobbs; he’s chilling and terrifying. Walter Huston knocks it out of the park with his instantly iconic turn as the savvy, cranky old prospector. Tim Holt, an actor I typically find less than stellar, is very good here, particularly in some key sequences. Alfonso Bedoya is sharp and funny in a supporting turn as a bandit. Bruce Bennett is good as a laconic prospector who finds himself in over his head. The film has some humor, but at a certain point, it just becomes unrelentingly grim and surprisingly suspenseful. The scene where Holt runs into Bennett on a supply run is incredibly tense as is the scene of Bennett trailing Holt back to the campsite. And no one but Huston could have wrung so much tension, suspense and horror out of a Gila monster and a rock, trust me. Huston’s direction is masterful; in the later scenes of the film, he casts Bogart in flickering firelight quite often and uses the shadows and Bogart’s every more and more haggard appearance to create a genuinely devilish creature out of Dobbs. It’s a great character study and Huston isn’t afraid to really take his time establishing his characters in the early section of the film before they even head out into the wilderness. There’s a surprisingly brutal fight scene early in the film that Huston wisely uses to establish the character of Dobbs in sharp contrast to the place he’ll be later in the film. And the climax of the film is really nothing short of astonishing in its construction and its emotional power. From Bogart’s watering hole encounter with bandits right up to that final nihilistic farewell, the film just functions amazingly. Moments are in there that people forget, like the surprisingly witty firing squad scene and the lengthy scene where the bandits are discovered, played for at least a couple of minutes entirely in Spanish with no subtitles. That’s amazing visual storytelling on Huston’s part. The film has the courage of its noir convictions and it’s a downbeat and dark vision of human nature and, ultimately, of human effort. It’s a perfect film really, in every respect, ahead of its time in many ways, but ultimately simply timeless. 4 stars.
tl;dr – tale of prospectors is a nihilistic and often grim vision of human nature gone bad; perfect in every important way; Bogart leads a great ensemble in a near career best performance. 4 stars.