On the Set with John Huston, Directing “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1947) 🇺🇸
by Lillian Allen
John Huston walked slowly out of the Acapulca bar and pulled a cigarette tobacco pouch from the breast pocket of his wrinkled tweed jacket. Tall and lanky, dressed in unpressed slacks and a crushed felt hat, he looked like a youthful, gangling cowboy. His somewhat battered ex-fighter’s face wore a quietly serious expression.
Despite this bizarre appearance for a successful film director, there was no affectation in his manner as we stood outside the bar and talked about the new motion picture he was directing — “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” based on B. Traven’s bitter novel of two Americans hunting for gold in Mexico.
The book, published in 1935, has long had a reputation in literary circles as an important “undiscovered” work. Serious-minded film people in Hollywood have often spoken of it as an excellent novel for the screen. Huston has had “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” on his mind since well before the war.
“Warner Brothers bought it some years ago,” he explained, “and I wanted badly to direct it. A couple of times while I was away in the army, they almost put it into production. But Henry Blanke, the producer, held it for me.”
Huston approaches this unromantic and uncompromising book with an earnest desire to present it on the screen as honestly and bitingly as written. His sincerity as a director has already been shown in his impressive and moving war documentary, San Pietro, and in the hard realism of his earlier film, “The Maltese Falcon”.
“We’re trying to keep the same spirit as in the original novel,” Huston said as we stopped beside a street stanchion. “I’m following Traven exactly. No love interest has been superimposed. Except for bit parts, there’ll be no women in the picture. And the same tragic, ironic ending is being kept. The motion picture won’t be just another adventure story.”
Twisting the ends of his “home-made” cigarette between his fingers, he added, “Actually we are making two big changes. We’ve turned Curtin, one of the American adventurers, into a young, rather naive fellow to contrast with Dobbs, the other adventurer, who is so far gone as a bum he can no longer act as a decent human being. This gives us the chance, at the end of the film, to sharpen Curtin’s realization that if he continued in Dobb’s footsteps he would become as hopeless an individual.”
He paused to light his cigarette with a kitchen match. “The other change,” he went on, “is to dramatize the attack on the railroad. This is only told about in the book. I carried on a long correspondence with Traven and have his full approval for these changes. Incidentally, he’s very excited about the idea of having his book filmed.”
Though a large part of the shooting will be done in Mexico where Traven lives, Huston expressed doubt that he’d meet him. Which isn’t surprising for no one outside of Traven’s literary agent has knowingly made his acquaintance. The mysterious B. Traven, writing his novels somewhere in the Mexican hinterland, will remain an enigma despite Hollywood’s publicity floodlights.
Huston wrote the screen adaptation of the novel. He prefers directing from his own scripts. He feels that this enables him to do a better job. For then, he explained, he knows exactly the demands of the story. As the creative mind behind the movie from the start, he has a clearer visualization of exactly what will appear on the screen.
“I never feel right working from someone else’s script,” he explained. “No matter how well written, I read the dialogue and the action and somehow it never seems right. I want to rewrite all the time.”
To his writing and directing, Huston brings a literary and stage background. His childhood was rich in the theatrical atmosphere surrounding his father, Walter Huston, the eminent actor. After a brief spell as a professional boxer, an actor in a Kenneth MacGowan production in Greenwich Village, a play which he recalls as “not liking very much,” and a two-year stint in the Mexican Army, he began to write. He was twenty-one years old.
H.L. Mencken liked his stories about fighters and bought them. “Then I wrote a thing called “Frankie and Johnny,” he reminisced. “I suppose you’d call it a play. It was in play form, anyway. In those days anyone who wrote a book was immediately tagged for movies. I was brought out by Goldwyn. It wasn’t very successful and after awhile I landed on a picture with William Wyler. That’s what got me started in motion pictures.”
But restless, he left Hollywood for England, and Paris where he studied art, returning later to New York, to the stage and writing. He sold “Three Strangers” to Warner Brothers and came out to Hollywood under contract to them. He’s been with them ever since.
As a studio writer, he luckily didn’t have to wade through the “B” morass which often fouls young hopefuls. He collaborated on the scripts of “Juarez” and “Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet,” both outstanding films notable for their earnestness and sincerity of theme.
Moving from writer to director-writer in 1941, he became properly famous with his first film, “The Maltese Falcon,” taken from the Dashiell Hammett story. In it, he displayed a rare flair for hard realism, an awareness of camera and pacing, and an eye for fresh casting that has characterized his work since. This movie set the style for the subsequent deluge of hard-hitting “private-eye” dramas that have since flooded the screen.
Though emphasizing the need for a good script, John Huston pointed out the importance of taking the story out of the realm of words and putting it into concrete images. His Paris art studies have come in handy, for it enables him to make sketches of every scene before shooting. In this way he has both the action and the camera set-up planned in advance.
“One of the first things that Henry Blanke told me when I became a director was to make every shot count,” Huston went on as he leaned over to put out his cigarette against the sole of his shoe. “At the time of shooting, each scene must be considered as the most important part of the movie. You have to put everything you have into it. Nothing can be overlooked. Every detail must be taken care of.”
Catching him shoot a scene for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, I understood exactly what he meant. When I came onto the sound stage at Warners, John Huston had already tried three times to photograph one shot.
The scene was placed in an Acapulca bar which had been built inside the huge sound stage. Joining the other set visitors who were watching through one of the bar’s windows, I saw the same bit of action photographed over and over again in a desire to get it right.
“Quiet, please!” came a quiet voice from the crew around the camera, and “Quiet, please!” boomed another voice over the loudspeaker system. The noise of an extra flipping a page of his Los Angeles Daily News cracked through the stage.
“Camera!” came the quiet voice again, then “Sound!” and finally, “Action!”
The microphone twisted and turned over the heads of Tim Holt playing Curtin and Humphrey Bogart playing Dobbs. Bearded, dirty and down-and-out, they are standing at the bar and arguing angrily with a slick oil man. They want to be paid off for work they had accomplished in his construction camp. The oil man refuses to pay off. He tries to bluff his way out of the situation. Suddenly he throws his whiskey glass at Curtin and lashes out with his fist at Dobbs.
(In the book, the oil man decides to pay them off as the more sensible thing to do.)
The camera was placed close to Dobbs and Curtin to get a close-up of them as they argue. Then it drew back to include the oil man in the fight that ensued.
On the fourth retake, Huston felt that the camera had been trucked back too quickly and they had to repeat the scene. The next time the movement of the actors became entangled. Then Humphrey Bogart muffed a line. The timing of the fight didn’t satisfy Huston on the seventh take. Finally, after a few more tries, Huston said they had gotten what he wanted.
The technical crew immediately dismantled the camera from its trucking device and began to change the set arrangement for the next shot — a close-up of the oil man beating up Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart).
“All those who haven’t had their inoculations yet, report to the doctor,” came the booming voice over the loudspeaker. The cast was leaving that Sunday for location shooting in Mexico.
As I walked off the set, John Huston was busy going over with Humphrey Bogart how to act while being beaten up. They were discussing the scene from every possible angle. It would be photographed in close-up and would probably last only a few seconds on the screen in the completed movie. But for that moment of screen time, John Huston had to be certain that exactly the right image flashed before the audience’s eyes, John Huston, a young man in his thirties, is bringing to his film version of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” a sincerity of purpose and integrity of artistic endeavor that distinguishes him as a writer-director.
John Huston (extreme right) chats with Humphrey Bogart (left) and Walter Huston between takes of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, the screen version of B. Traven’s well-known novel.
Jerks, Maids, Eccentrics
FRED MacMURRAY: “I’ve always felt like a big jerk singing before people. I feel the same way now in a picture, when I play a lawyer making a speech before a jury.”
Joan Crawford: “I hate to play those young women who sit around and look sweet without doing anything. I’d much rather stay at home looking after the children than spend my days in a studio acting like a cloying maid.”
IDA LUPINO: “If I could stop acting when the camera stopped grinding — that would be Utopia. But the trouble is that you can’t do that very easily. If I were to walk down Hollywood Boulevard in blue jeans, a bandana and no makeup, I would be criticized as eccentric.”
Source: Cinema, July 1947