Archive for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Bring Me the Head of Fred C. Dobbs

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 1, 2014 by dcairns


Spoiler alert — this is a key moment from THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE and I’ll be discussing it in detail so turn aside squeamishly if you haven’t seen this film in the 66 years since it was made ~

At 2.33 Gold Hat (Alfonso Bedoya) brings his machete down on Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart). At 2.34 he takes a step back and looks at his messy handiwork. At 2.35 he kills Fred all over again, in what looks to be the exact same shot or a different take of the same.

At 2.37 he gets momentarily distracted by something to his lower right.

At 2.39 there’s a high angle shot in which we can see a pool of water with a rippling surface and a trace of darkness.

According to regular Shadowplayer Randy Cook, this sequence was originally supposed to show Bogie’s decapitation and his head rolling into the pool. In Robert Rossen’s draft screenplay we find the sequence described thus ~

“THE REST WE SEE REFLECTED IN THE BRACKISH WATER OF THE POOL: The stroke of the machete, then the figures of the three bandits standing, eyes downward, looking at something on the ground. The water in the pool begins to darken. Gold Hat looks up from the ground to the machete in his hand. He touches his thumb and forefinger to the tip of his tongue, then he tests the cutting edge of the blade. The waters of the pool are growing darker and darker.”

Huston, being a director, would probably have ignored the stuff about reflections in a pool. Anytime a screenwriter describes a camera placement, you can be sure the director will do something different. Then again, Rossen’s script was an adaptation of Huston’s pre-war draft. Huston, I think, subsequently adapted it back.

Randy suggests listening to Max Steiner’s typically emphatic score, which accompanies the action closely, a style known as “mickey-mousing.” If you close your eyes at the moment of the first mighty chop, you can easily picture the score accompanying the bouncing of a prop head into a pool. Thump thump splosh.

“Huston had seen terrible things in the war and may have thought the time was right to show something like this,” suggests Randy. “Also, as we know from the ending of THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING that he found severed heads funny.”

Bogart reputedly complained, “What’s wrong with showing a guy getting his head cut off?”

So what was deleted? Also – there are plenty of shots of makeup tests of Bogie for this film — he wears various lengths of beard and wig, courtesy of Perc Westmore and his team. So why has no prosthetic head of Humphrey Bogart turned up?

I’m trying to mentally reconstruct the sequence as it originally stood.

As originally edited, the second chop would not have existed. The shot at 2:37 would have run longer, making it clear that Gold Hat is following the movement of something close to the ground.

The high angle showing the pool to Gold Hat’s right would have started a touch earlier, showing the splash, and lingered as the blood started to srain the pool. No severed head need be shown, since the splash could be produced by any heavy round object. Maybe a weighted canteen containing dark dye.

This explanation strikes me as credible — Huston may have expected to get away with such a sequence, introducing a grisly idea using suggestion and enlisting the audience’s imagination. Then Jack Warner would have choked on his cigar or Joe Breen would have had a conniption, and the sequence would have had to be re-edited. To make things cheap, they didn’t want to change the length of the scene because that would mean rescoring, so they rearranged some shots and added a second death-blow from Gold Hat, ironically making the scene MORE violent, although measuring such things is very subjective. Steve McQueen doesn’t think his 12 YEARS A SLAVE is particularly violent as it only contains, to his mind, six instances of violence — fewer than any PG-rated action film. But the effect on an audience has little to do with the number of violent moments or even how explicitly they are presented — most of the violence in FUNNY GAMES occurs just off-camera, but I think it’s laughable to claim that makes it more pure or decent.

This debate won’t be settled probably ever, but I’m glad to say I may have settled why Humphrey Bogart’s severed head hasn’t turned up on eBay.

BUT — nothing is settled. There are accounts that swear there was a severed head, and there is this ~



Proof that Bogart’s face was cast for a life-mask at about the right time. He does wear a lot of different beard and hairpieces in the film, so it could have been for that. If Humphrey Bogart DID have a spare head, what’s become of it? Maybe it was water-soluble. Maybe Bogie got drunk and dropkicked it off a cliff. Maybe it was carried off by a gila monster. Maybe Warren Oates found it years later…?

An Oil Man

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 24, 2008 by dcairns


THERE WILL BE BLOOD is so overwhelming on a visceral level that it’s kind of hard to talk about. I will have to see it again.

 Disorganised thoughts:

The opening, wordless twenty minutes have rightly commanded attention. I loved how the first dynamite explosion BLASTS blue sky into the frame, in what feels like the first intense colour apart from blood-red of the single opening title.

If Anderson’s previous work has often danced close to the shadow of Robert Altman, in terms of locations, themes, structure and casting, this one feels more like his Terence Malick movie, with its natural light, landscape cinematography, and indirect approach to plot.

The images of the burning oil well actually seered into my retinas — I’m not being poetic, I literally had an afterimage stuck there, and when I blinked there was a tiny silhouette of Daniel Day-Lewis dancing about under my eyelids. Bastard.

Ere I am JH

I wonder if Day-Lewis’ performance is not only a John Huston imitation (and a damn good one, though Clint Eastwood got quite close in WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART without doing very much) but a John Huston PORTRAIT. It’s not just the accent and voice, but the bandy gait, the cigar, the mannerisms, and the whole WAY of speaking. If the dialogue hasn’t been drawn straight from the Upton Sinclair book (and those in the know seem to agree that the novel is a fairly distant ancestor to the movie) then it’s firstly a very fine piece of consistent and engaging and unintrusive faux-period writing, and secondly a very good encapsulation of the way Huston speaks in interviews.

This might make sense of P.T.A.’s constant screening of THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE during the shoot. Because I’m not convinced the two films have so much to do with each other, but I do think Daniel Plainview has a lot to do with John Huston.

(Refresh your memories of Huston’s delivery with the above.)

He lacks Huston’s twinkle, of course. But both men share a devilish charm, which is seen when Plainview speaks to crowds and seduces them with carefully chosen words and an air of supreme confidence and paternal concern. And Huston’s cruelty is pretty well documented. Asked why he would be particularly mean to anybody who appeared vulnerable or unstable, he would reply, “Their heads are on the block, kid, their heads are on the block.” Which almost makes bullying (the most indefensible activity) seem sort of quirky and whimsical.

While Paul Dano also gives a stunning performance (he should have got an Oscar nomination for his WALK alone), his character doesn’t have quite the mystery of the Day-Lewis monster. He is revealed as a false prophet, and we discover that he himself knows it too. We also discover Plainview’s anti-religious side, without having it actually EXPLAINED to us. We can only guess at its causes, while reflecting that it’s another trait in common with Huston (WISE BLOOD is one of J.H.’s few really heartfelt films).

One thing that’s unusual about the P.T.A. film is the extent to which it forces you to really think about the Plainview character. He has an attempt at explaining himself to Kevin J. O’Connor’s character, but enough of his motivation is left in shadow to make him an urgent discussion point as you leave the cinema. All he can say is that he’s angry, and hates most of humanity, and he seems to regard this anger as an inborn trait he can do nothing about.

Was Huston angry? It’s a theory, at least. Much of Huston’s behaviour seems to have been in defiance of his poor health in childhood. Did the drive and determnation that forced him to repeatedly throw himself into a rapidly-flowing river as a boy, to prove his need to live, bring with it a rage against all weakness — a projection outwards of the vulnerability he wished to destroy in himself?

In the Soup

This psychiatric stuff isn’t really my natural element, but the film seems to force one to it, which is part of its peculiar strength. I’m reminded of André Hodeir’s fine piece on the Marx Brothers (recommended by David Ehrenstein here on the blog), where he comments in passing on the scene in DUCK SOUP where Groucho psychs himself into a state of outrage at the thought of something which hasn’t even happened (“I hold out my hand to him and that hyena refuses to accept it!”). Hodeir observes, “the psychological mechanism of anger is displayed here with great comic subtlety,” and I think the same might be said of Day-Lewis’ whole performance here. As in real life, anger leads to more anger. When Plainview starts to finally unleash it, it can’t be stemmed and even after he’s fully revenged himslef it continues to flood out, with horrible consequences.

Perhaps that’s why he’s so chipper in the last shot — has he finally been freed of a monster that was gnawing his insides?

You can see the Groucho version here:

The moment is 3 minutes 50 seconds in, but the rest is all good too — you can see Charles “Emperor Ming” Middleton reprise his role of prosecutor from Von Sternberg’s AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY (a film which seems to have obsessed Groucho, judging by his further reference to it in HORSE FEATHERS).