A major 1948 Warner Bros. production, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, won director,
John Huston two Academy Awards as Best Director and for the Best Screenplay.
The screenplay was based on the mysterious B Traven's most famous novel of the
same name. Mysterious because nobody, to this day, has managed to discover the
identity of "B.Traven." Certainly B. Traven was around, and somehow contacted,
at the time of the film's production - the correspondence between author and
director proves this to be so, as the fascinating introductory 'Behind the Scenes'
article by Rudy Behlmer, relates. The film starred Humphrey Bogart in one of his
more psychotic roles as Dobbs, the prospector whose greed gets the better of him,
the director's father Walter Houston as Howard the elderly but experienced prospector,
and Tim Holt as the youngest prospector, Curtin, proving once again after The Magnificent
Ambersons that he could act as well as jump into and out of a saddle.
As far as I can tell, there is only one other recording Max Steiner's score for The
Treasure of the Sierra Madre and that is an eight-minute suite in 'Casablanca,
Classic Film Scores for the Films of Humphrey Bogart' (RCA Victor GD80422).
Conducted by Charles Gerhardt this suite had all the main themes played with
gusto by the National Philharmonic Orchestra. Now this immediately raises a point of
interpretation. Although it is possible that Gerhardt took some liberties with tempi
in the context of the Main Title music - i.e. faster and crisper than Stromberg takes it,
reading from John Morgan's reconstruction which judging by John's previous work is probably
spot on - I really felt a pang of disappointment. I felt Gerhardt's (wrong?) approach was
much more satisfying as a musical experience away from the film.
I will hasten to add that this disappointment soon vanished and I became totally convinced
by the Morgan/Stromberg interpretation of this wonderful score. [Incredibly, one reads that
this Max Steiner score was not entirely above criticism. Some felt that the music was
intrusive and detracted from the otherwise "realistic" value of the film; and Hugo
Friedhofer complained that the music sounded more Spanish than Mexican - Ray Fiola
disposes of both criticisms in masterly fashion in his article]. In Stromberg's hands
the Main Title may be slow in parts but the dense texture is more transparent and the
many strands have great clarity - listen to how Steiner makes the gold sound so alluring
and how it glistens!
Steiner was a master at compression. He vividly conveyed so many impressions simultaneously
whether they relate to character, atmosphere or narrative progress. This score is a
wonderful example of this process. 'The Attack on the Train' manages to include the
regular train rhythms, the wilder, more irregular bandits' theme and the reaction of the
passengers. 'Windstorm' is bleakly evocative and sets the scene for the hardships to
follow and the deteriorating relationships between the three prospectors. There is
telling character building too. The treatment of the 'Trek' theme for the two younger
but inexperienced prospectors is careful even plodding at timers, yet the same theme
for their older and wiser partner, is spritely and high-spirited. Steiner's music also
graphically charts Bogart's character's descent from paranoia into dementia.
For the most part, this is a dark, doom-laden score and a sense of foreboding stalks
it from the beginning. One of its most arresting facets is Steiner's bleak, ironic
musical comment as the gold dust that has cost so much to accumulate scatters in
the wind when the bandits, looking for bags of money and mistaking it for just sand,
cast it aside. The theme for the bandits is also relatively dark with driving, biting
rhythms full of menace.
Welcome relief is provided by the innocence of the Mexican folksong (El Desayuno) heard
in the early Tampico sequences. 'Texas Memories' too is lighter, a lilting, nostalgic
melody for guitars and mandolins. Warmer more humanely sentimental material is also found
in 'Cody's letter' as Curtin reads Cody's wife's letter after Cody has been shot in a bandit
attack. 'Funeral Chant' is another interesting cue; a striking choral piece progressing from
despair to exultation and sung by Indians who had given up a little boy as drowned before the
Huston character saves his life.
There are three welcome bonus tracks: one has the music for the theatrical trailer which
includes the main themes; an alternative Main Title that includes the Warner Bros fanfare
that was dropped from the final product in favour of entering with the film's Mountain motif.
The final bonus track is an alternative finale. As Faiola says, Steiner always chose end title
music to reflect the ending of the film and in this case its more upbeat in the form of a reprise
of 'Texas Memories', signifies Curtin looking forward to a new life. In passing, it is worth
commenting on Steiner's great skill in using his Warner Bros fanfare and quickly modulating its
final notes into the opening chords of the main theme of each film. I only wish Warner Bros
would resurrect this idea and bring back Max's exciting fanfare; it did impart a sense of
occasion when we heard it in the theatres all those years ago.
The booklet also contains some notes on the arrangements by John Morgan.
Another successful addition to the Marco Polo Classic Film Score series.