Director John Huston is able to grasp the depths of feelings the themes and characters in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” because of his life’s experiences. He was a product of divorce so as a child he never had stability. An accident early in his life caused him a huge amount of depression and he would go to Europe where he learned a great deal about art. His early writing career also had a great influence on his talent. John’s parents divorced when he was a young age, so he spent the majority of his childhood in boarding schools alternating summer vacations with either parent.
His mother was a writer before he was born and was a major influence on his love for literature. John respects writers for being able to portray so much emotion in words. However, he got his love for acting from his father Walter Huston, a famous Broadway actor. Watching his father rehearse his lines strongly influenced his creativity. He was fascinated with the mechanics of acting, John said, “What I learned there would serve me for the rest of my life”. When he was twenty-five he moved to L. A. in the hopes of writing for the film industry.
Believing that literature was becoming a lost art, he tried to faithfully capture the themes and emotions of the original story and characters in his screen adaptations. Another key aspect to his genius is the type of stories he chose to portray. Popular Hollywood writers at the time chose stories where the message is easy to understand; this is not the case for John. For example, John chose important novels that involve some of the major issues of life. He obtained a job as a screenplay writer for Warner Brothers where he wrote such things as Dr.
Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet and Sergeant York. They were both movies with huge underlying messages and were nominated for academy awards. In Treasure of the Sierra Madre the underlying message is about greed and how it can drive a man to do things he never thought possible. He is able to capture this feeling so well because he has experienced greed, paranoia, fear, lust for material possessions, all things portrayed in the movie. As he was gaining popularity among the Hollywood crowd, he had quite a reputation for being a party animal indulging in alcohol, gambling and women.
He also once lost 50,000 dollars in one night gambling in Reno. He was becoming a recognized Hollywood writer as well, publishing many great screenplays. His career came to an abrupt halt when his car struck and killed a woman crossing the street. Even though the courts exonerated him, the accident traumatized him so severely that he left Hollywood, moved to Paris, and became homeless. To make ends meet he became a painter. It was just a way to make money to pay for a way of life that fed his depression.
But his infatuation with acquiring knowledge led him to actually study the art. While he was a painter he learned how to capture specific feelings that the image portrayed. He learned that there are psychological effects on the viewer depending on the arrangement and placement of the image on the canvas. This helped him as a director because it gave him a certain view of how he thought things should be seen on screen. Michael Caine once said of John “Most directors don’t know what they want so they shoot everything they can think of — they use the camera like a machine gun.
John uses it like a sniper rifle. ” I think this is a very good observation because John would utilize every tool in his arsenal before ever shooting the scene on film. In “Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, John used black and white cinematography as a tool to help capture the dirty quality of the desert. He also plays with the lighting and camera angles when Dobbs starts to lose his sanity after shooting Curtin. John once said, “I think the camera is an eye as well as a mind. Everything we do with the camera has physiological and mental significance. For example, in The Maltese Falcon, he would sketch out specific camera angles and close ups, before shooting, because he had a specific image in his head that he wanted to make sure the film captured. He is able to grab the viewer and basically put them into the story as if they are an observer interacting with the actors. In “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, one thing that helps capture the realistic quality of the movie, John insisted on shooting the film in Mexico instead of just any desert. His choice in actors is important as well.
To capture a realistic quality that transcends to the people viewing the picture, he hired actors whose native language was Spanish, as opposed to actors who could simply speak Spanish. His days as a child in New York watching his father act he learned what “good” acting was. From this experience he uses such actors as Humphery Bogart, Marilyn Monroe, and even his own father, Walter Huston, because he sees in them the qualities he believes a good actor has. Had he not been a successful writer in Hollywood he wouldn’t have had the means of becoming addicted to gambling, boozing, basically living a hard life.
Had he not lived with his Father in New York and learned how to appreciate good acting he would not cast the actors he chose. Had he not killed that woman with his car, he wouldn’t have gone to Paris and studied art, and wouldn’t have learned these subtle techniques that play such a key role in capturing the feeling in his movies. Had John lived a different life and not experienced the things he had, then he would not have been able to capture the depth of character and plot in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” that he was able to achieve.