“Hey, mister, would you stake a fellow American to a meal?”
The first thing we learn about a bearded and battered Humphrey Bogart, in John Huston’s cinematic masterpiece, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, is that he’s a liar, a beggar and a con artist – a guy down on his luck just trying to scrape by – by the good grace of others. The second thing we learn is that he is a directionless hypocrite. After being handed a coin worth more than he’d ever hoped for – by a tall American in a ghost white suit – he indulges in a meal at a local cantina. When a young boy approaches him hawking lottery tickets; he tells him to “beat it” and calls him a “little beggar.” This man is Fred C. Dobbs… and he might be my favorite American asshole.
After begrudgingly buying the cheapest ticket possible – just so the kid willl scram – Dobbs lumbers his way to another man in a white suit, in the process of getting his shoes shined. “Hey, mister, would you stake a fellow American to a meal?” The man’s face hides behind a newspaper. He hands Dobbs a coin without looking. Dobbs takes pause; it’s the same coin he received before. The white suit peers over his paper; we see it is the same man from before, director John Huston, chomping all over his cigar. Dobbs proceeds to use this money to get himself a nice shave.
When he walks out of the local barber, a woman is passing by, Dobbs eyes go wide, and he bumbles after her (in a Freddy Quell like daze), gazing her up and down while she walks around the street corner. He spots the man in the white suit again. “Hey, mister, would you stake a fellow American to a meal?” This time the rich man turns around and tells him off. “Such impudence never came my way. Early this afternoon, I gave you money. When my shoes were being polished, I gave you more money. Now you put the bite on me again. Do me a favor, go occasionally to somebody else; it’s beginning to get tiresome.” Watching it now; this meeting feels like a contemporary touchstone of cinematic crossroads – perhaps the moment when both Daniel Plainview and Freddy Quell were born, perhaps unconsciously.
Paul Thomas Anderson famously claimed to fall to sleep watching The Treasure of the Sierra Madre every night while working on There Will Be Blood. In hindsight; it’s obvious to see just how much this film clearly informed the vision of both characters and the next phase of his career. We don’t learn much about Dobbs backstory (and given that he’s a pathological liar and raging alcoholic – the same as both Quell and Plainview – we likely wouldn’t even believe him if we did) but to me it has always been implied that Dobbs ended up in Mexico because he’s a draft dodger. Perhaps in a way the tall white rich man (Huston=Plainview) is the capitalist counterpoint to the drifting beggar (Bogart=Quell). This is further evidenced by the John Huston’s WWII PTSD doc Let There Be Light (which PTA pulled dialog exchanges from verbatim for the early soldier scenes in The Master.) Each can be seen as a different side of the same American coin. Plainview can almost be seen as the country personified before the war – a victory lap of manifest destiny, before the Depression was upon us – and Quell, the state of our nation during and after; confused and isolated, aimlessly out of touch with a world that’s sped up on him far too quickly.
While he’s always claimed most of the influence came from Jonathan Demme; it seemed apparent, while revisiting it, that PTA’s newfound interest in medium/close-up shots is also taken from Huston’s compositional style during the classical Hollywood era as well. I’d even go so far as to argue that Sierra Madre still subconsciously seeps into his work. There’s a bit of dialog from Dobbs that brought Anderson’s most recent film, about another greedy hungry boy, to mind. The three prospectors sit around their fire, sharing what they plan to do with their gold, once they finally do pack up their gear and decide to re-enter society. ”I got it all figured out what I’m gonna do,” Dobbs says. “I’m going to a swell cafe… order everything on the bill o’ fare and if it ain’t just right… or maybe even if it is, I’m gonna bawl the waiter out… and make him take the whole thing back.”
This American lives by the mantra: “Fred C. Dobbs don’t say nothin’ he don’t mean.” He can pretend to loudly stand proudly beside his wishy-washy values, but, by doing so, he’ll never earn himself that meal he’s so sure he’s entitled to.