Saturday, January 24, 2009

Rashomon (1950)

There may be spoilers.

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryunosuke Akutagawa
Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyo, Masayuki Mori, and Takashi Shimura.

Images from the 2002 Criterion Collection Release.

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Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon may very well be the most fascinating film ever made. I have seen it 5 times this week alone, and I feel like I could watch it again right now. Somehow, Seven Samurai manages to beat it in almost every poll, which I have a tough time understanding. I love Seven Samurai, but honestly, I'd take Rashomon over it any day of the week. Rashomon is a film that explodes like a bomb in the brain. It's about a murder of a man, but the point of the film is not to solve the murder like an Agatha Christie story but to explore the ideas of perspective, memory, lying, humanity, and cinema as an objective perspective. 

The film begins under a torrential rainstorm, and an old man and a priest huddle under the ruins of Rashomon temple. They recount the story of a man's murder and his wife's rape by the infamous bandit Tajomaru as a commoner listens on. Each perspective clashes with the other, leading to one of the most thought provoking stories on the nature of truth ever told.

I think the visuals of Rashomon are among the most striking I've seen. The Criterion disc comes with a feature on cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, and while at first, I thought it odd to have that feature as opposed to one on Kurosawa, I began to realize the importance of cinematography in grasping the realistic feel of Rashomon

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Rashomon gives us contrasting scenes that are almost like mirrors of one another. Consider: The scenes at the temple feel like they exist in a place isolated from the world. Likewise, the scenes of the murder in the forest feel isolated. Yet the visuals of each place are completely opposite. The temple scenes are composed of the straight lines of the temple, the sheets of rain, and the light is softened by the rain. The forest scenes on the other hand, have a hardened light and the shadows form messes of dappled light. Both atmospheres feel real, yet isolated. It's imperative that the film feels realistic.

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As the old man recounts his finding of the dead body, we are given a long transition in which we see him walking and walking and walking...

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When I first saw this, I was wondering why on earth this was going on so long, but as I watched the film more, I began to realize how necessary it is. This is the setup that will shape the feeling of reality throughout the film. We can see the hard sunlight and dappled shadows on his face. The camera shows the old man from just about every angle and every length of shot. One tracking shot shows him in a long shot and as he walks, we go to a closeup and the camera encompasses his movement. This is a subtle way of reminding us that the camera sees everything. 

I found the scenes in the forest to be very visually brutal. The lighting feels harsh and unfriendly and the setting is so chaotic when compared to the calm and peaceful white noise of the temple. I think the forest scenes can be an allegory for the horrors of humanity, whereas the temple scenes are representative of the good in humanity, like a sanctuary blanketed from reality. The length of this sequence (for me) also adds to the suspense and believability of finding the dead man, which is absolute stylized acting on Takashi Shimura's part:

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Speaking of stylized acting, I know that Kurosawa's 50s & 60s work does have much "overacting." Especially with his number one, Toshiro Mifune. I think with Rashomon in particular, the stylized acting is a necessity. Whenever we are told a different perspective and shown it, the characters suddenly shift personas, because even though we, the audience, see these events objectively, the camera is still subjective. For example, as Tajomaru recounts his version:

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The music is very heroic, yet at the same time, parodic. When he says he stole the horse from the dead man, we see a flashback of him riding heroically in the distance, the music striking up gallant chords:

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In the film, Toshiro Mifune is very animal-like. When he's sleeping he's like a lion. When he's awake, I'm reminded more of a monkey. 

Consider the rape: In Tajomaru's mind, there never was a rape because he believes the wife complied to his advances. The brilliance of Rashomon is that it is so visual. We don't just hear each person's testimony, we see it. We see the simple action of a knife plunging into the earth, a phallic symbol if I ever saw one:

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I don't believe that the versions of the story told by Tajomaru, the wife, or the dead man are fabricated lies. I think these people honestly feel that's what happened. They have subconsciously tricked themselves into believing their version of events is true. In Tajomaru's case, his character is shown with a bravado that is lacking in other versions.

Here, Tajomaru has just tied up the man, showing his machismo and elatedness in subduing him:

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Kurosawa evidently made Rashomon with the fundamentals of silent film in mind. The music playing here reminds me of those old silent cartoons where the villain has just tied up the damsel in distress to the railroad tracks and the hero must come to the rescue (only here, the husband and wife are reversed).

Contrast Tajomaru's behavior above with the old man's version of the story, where the wife chides both men as weak for not wanting to kill one another over her, and we see Tajomaru looking more like a timid schoolboy:

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We also get the same contrast in perspective in viewing the two fight sequences. In Tajomaru's version, both men fought like seasoned warriors, clashing swords in a heroic chambara style:

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Contrast this with the old man's version of the fight, where the two men can barely even hang onto their swords (ha! impotence...) and resort to lots of crawling on the forest floor, scrambling for some clumsy advantage. This scene is actually quite funny, and I'm not sure if this is what actually happened, or whether the old man just remembers it this way (as with everything else in the film). It's possible his perspective is biased to his age in viewing these younger men.

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We see this contrast with all the characters. The wife, for instance, either truly believes in her victimization or is simply a really good actress:

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Her own version emphasizes her as the victim, even more than her dead husband, who she claims gave her a glare so scathing, she was begging for death:

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Again, her character is completely opposite to everyone else's version, in which she instigates/begs for the two men to kill one another to win her. 

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I think the husband's version is essential to the film for at least two reasons. First, he is portrayed as the victim having lost his wife (who begs Tajomaru to kill him) and his masculinity, having been tied to a tree stump. Second, he commits seppuku, as a point of regaining honor. It is a paramount message in Rashomon that in the first three versions of the story, the narrator is the one who kills the man. I'm not an expert on Japanese culture, but looking at the film on its own, Kurosawa seems to be commenting on the idea of honor, and why killing (even oneself) is considered such an honorable thing. 

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The fact that the husband's version is told through a medium is bound to have skeptics. I, for one, don't believe in the afterlife, but I feel the husband's version is necessary to give the film its symmetrical, mirror-like structure. The scenes with the medium are some of my favorite (even though I don't fully comprehend them) for their haunting beauty:

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I think it's worthwhile to point out the symmetry of Rashomon and how it's very much like a mirror halfway through. First, we are given Tajomaru's version of the murder, in which the man is killed by Tajomaru with a sword. In the wife's version, she believes she killed him with a dagger (at the very least, she passed out, woke up, and saw a dagger in her husband). The husband's version has him commiting seppuku with the dagger. I believe that the husband's and wife's versions of his death could have occurred at the same time. He could have killed himself, and when his wife came to, she may have surmised that she did the killing. Of course, in the husband's version, he dies alone, as the wife has run away. Then again, the whole film questions the reliability of a person to recount events exactly as they occurred, and given the mental states of the husband and wife, the truth could be a mixture of their two stories. The final version (of the old man) again has Tajomaru killing the man. In the old man's version, there is none of the heroism in Tajomaru's. There is a symmetry among the four versions and they almost form a sort of mirror image of each other. 

In the commentary on the Criterion disc, Donald Richie says the film has a lot of sharp edits and virtually no dissolves through the first 80 minutes. This is Kurosawa's comment on cinema itself. Edits constitute a form of lying, because they involve unnaturally juxtaposing two separate pieces in an effort to make them cohesive (i.e., the story's cohesiveness depends on fragmentation). The sharp edits and the horizontal wipes are very clear cut and distinct. This can be seen as the disconnect in the world today, as people alienate themselves and lie to others. Towards the end, however, Kurosawa offers us a small glimmer of hope... humanity may yet survive the mess they live in, and meld and mesh together in a way for the betterment of mankind:

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Rear Window (1954)

There may be spoilers.

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: John Michael Hayes
Starring: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter, and Wendell Corey. Featuring Raymond Burr.

Images from the 2001 Collector's Edition Universal Release.

1 Rear Window

Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window is a film that I would posit is as close to perfect as a movie can get. It doesn't get old. Other thrillers rely on the payoff or the scare, which wears off with repeated viewings, but Rear Window uses Hitchcock's favorite tool: suspense. In fact, the film is all suspense, and there is very little action taking place (until the end, when the payoff is rewarded by the masterful buildup). It is simultaneously a top-notch thriller, an examination of relationships and commitment, and an exploration of cinema as a form of voyeurism.

Jimmy Stewart plays L. B. Jeffries, a top-rate photographer who’s resigned to sitting in a wheelchair after breaking his leg photographing a car race. He’s visited by his physical therapist Stella, who reprimands his voyeurism but eventually gets sucked into the developing yarn herself. Grace Kelly plays his girlfriend, Lisa Freemont, who is “too perfect” in Jeffries’s mind. As the story unfolds, Jeffries becomes suspicious of a neighbor having killed his bedridden wife and does his handicapped best to find out the truth. The film ends in one of the most exciting and suspenseful conclusions you come to expect from Hitchcock.

The Frame within the Frame:

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The idea of cinema as a form of voyeurism is in just about every frame, or rather, it is the frame. I like to think of every window as a movie screen, and what we see of each neighbor is like a little short film in their lives. The window is an allegory for the camera, as well. In Rear Window, the camera never moves on a dolly but simply pans and tilts. In a movie theater, we are stuck and cannot move around to see outside the screen. Characters in the film, however, can move in and out of the frame just as Jeff's neighbors move in and out of his view. Jeff's handicap fixes him to the confines of his apartment, just as the movie theater forms our own cocoon from which we cannot escape.

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The fact that Jeff is a photographer is no mistake. This is a not-to-subtle self reflexive remark on the part of Hitchcock. It's as if he's questioning just how much power a movie director has, and by an extension, how much power the movie itself has. After all, a film is nothing more than light and shadows on a screen accompanied by a soundtrack.

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Whenever I watch Rear Window, I'm incredibly self-conscious, just as Jeff and Lisa are. Just as they get sucked into the events going on in others' lives, the viewer gets sucked into the film. It's as if they are movie watchers themselves, and while the film holds their attention during the most suspenseful parts:

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Jeff and Lisa are free to pull back and discuss what they believe is going on in those windows or whatever they feel like talking about, just as we are free to pull back and discuss the movie, or whatever we feel like talking about:

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Much of the dialogue sounds as if it was lifted straight from people's conversations/postulations on the plot of a film they're watching:

"We think Thorvald's guilty."

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"Tell me everything you saw. And what you think it all means."

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By relating the audience to Jeff and Lisa, we begin realizing what a strange and potentially creepy thing movie watching is. Lisa is also aware of this obsession:

"We're two of the most frightening ghouls. You and I with long faces, plunged into despair because we found out a man didn't kill his wife."

Take a minute to digest that and consider this: Would Rear Window have been as satisfying or interesting as a thriller if Thorvald was innocent? Imagine, a thriller where nobody gets killed and all the suspicions were in our head. Something tells me Rear Window (or any thriller for that matter) wouldn't be as popular if there was no murder at all. So why is it that audiences want a murder to occur? Doesn't that make us, the viewers, sadists? Who's the bigger monster, the murderer on the screen or the people who encourage the murder for entertainment?

Every time there's an car accident, I've found that 99% of people will stop and stare out their cars, sticking their noses in what really is none of their business. Hitchcock was a master at exposing the sinister in the banal and commonplace, which is probably why so many of his films use everyday objects as a murder weapon.

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Rear Window gives us many smaller moments of sadism as well, such as Jeff's amusement at the piano composer's frustration:

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On Art, Movie Stars, and Mona Lisa

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"Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa some have named you... Are you real or just a lovely work of art?"

So the party goers sing jubilantly after Jeff and Lisa find out their suspicions on Thorvald are probably wrong.

I've noticed that many of the residents in Rear Window are artists. There's Jeff (photographer), Ms. Torso (ballerina), the sculptor, the piano composer, and of course, Hitchcock and his camera. In a way, these four (disregarding Hitch) can be seen as constituting four important elements of film:

the cinematographer,

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the actor,

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the art director,

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and the composer/writer.

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Just as Federico Fellini famously explored his own medium in 8 1/2, Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window seems to be dissecting the film medium, trying to see what makes it tick.

Jeff is opposed to long-term commitment. Here's another comparison between the movie goer and Jeff. He enjoys Lisa... but at a distance. When we go see a movie, we expect to be entertained for the duration, but it's very noncommittal. We don't expect to spend our lives inside a movie, and if we do, then we've got a problem. Similarly, Jeff likes Lisa's company, but avoids marriage and is even wary of her staying for a night. Consider the casting. Jimmy Stewart is perhaps the quintessential "every man." Likewise, Grace Kelly is the quintessential movie star. Here we have Lisa, who looks every bit like a movie star, and Jeff is still more fascinated by what's going in the neighbor's windows:

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Jeff finds every reason he can to show his disapproval of marriage. There is Thorvald and his wife, which become the center of his fascination. In a way, he is glad they exist to prove that marriage leads to unhappiness. On the other hand, he mostly ignores the couple above them, except to laugh at them when they get rained on as they sleep outdoors. Or consider the newlyweds next door, at first all love-y dove-y, but after a while, their relationship begins looking more like the Thorvalds'.

In fact, it seems like Lisa only garners Jeff's affection when she begins to help him unravel the mystery of Thorvald and his wife

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and risk her own neck:

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A Top Notch Thriller

Rear Window is, above all, a great thriller. I have never found another film that manages to grip me again and again. In a way, it's just as experimental a film as Hitchcock's Rope (designed to look like one long take). If you consider how little actually happens, and how most of the action is simply conjectured at, it's a wonder that a film that consists mostly of people just talking or watching neighbors can become so effective a thriller. I always get a jolt and feel like turning around during this:

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I wonder if the thrill of Rear Window will ever diminish, just as Jeff's flashbulbs used against Thorvald eventually wear off. I find the final scenes of Rear Window to be more frightening than any other film, even Psycho, which I didn't find as scary on the second viewing. I have seen Rear Window 6-7 times, and the feeling I get towards the end doesn't feel diluted. I feel just as helpless and immobile as I did the first time I saw it. Perhaps the film is Hitch's thesis on the idea of suspense: "A bomb goes off under the table. That's action. A bomb doesn't go off. That's suspense." I think my problem with scary movies is that they rely on the unknown generated by suspense. Once the payoff is known, the surprise is lost and it's no longer scary. The funny thing is that with Rear Window, I can never seem to remember what scene comes next, maybe because the film is almost entirely a buildup to its climactic payoff.

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The film also happens to feel more realistic than other Hitchcock films I've seen. I wonder if that's due to the ambience of New York sounds or that Jeff is such an identifiable character for audiences. As I've said, cinema is immaterial. It's a wonder that light shining through celluloid at 24 frames per second accompanied by a soundtrack can elicit virtually every emotional response a human can give. Everything about cinema is artificial. The shooting, the script, the actors, the editing... To quote Jean-Luc Godard (again): "Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world."

And yet, as I watch the end of Rear Window, I feel so helpless and Jeff's fear seems so real that I wonder about the power of cinema.

So I'll ask you: Is what's on the screen real? Or is it all just a lovely work of art?

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Treasure of the Sierre Madre (1948)

There may be spoilers.

Director: John Huston
Screenplay: John Huston (based on the novel by B. Traven)
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, and Tim Holt

Images from the 2003 WHV SE release

I think the best thing in John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is the transformation Humphrey Bogart manages to undergo into a deranged man bent on getting more than what he deserves. The film is one of my favorite looks at the dark side of humanity. I would also put films like Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole and Double Indemnity, and Stanley Kubrick's The Killing into that category. If I were able to contribute a Sight & Sound list, I'd definitely include Ace in the Hole. I find it amazing that such a revealing and dark film was made in 1951. I don't think there are many films I've seen that equal it. While I don't think The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is quite its equal, I feel it is a brilliant exploration of male folly and greed. Like Ace in the Hole, it does not have a likable character at its center. Fred C. Dobbs (Mr. Bogart) is just as self-centered and greedy as Chuck Tatum. 

Fred C. Dobbs is a drifter bumming around Tampico, begging other americans for pesos, and ripping up lottery tickets, while he is offered more of them by this boy (whom he chucks his drink at... just to show you what kind of a guy he is):

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Fred is the kind of guy who will coincidentally bump into the same person and ask for more change, since they were kind enough to give him a spare peso the first time. Of course, it's clear that Dobbs doesn't really know how to spend his money very well. Like getting this slick barber job instead of buying food:

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With this film and Ace in the Hole, I get the sense there are film noir-ish underpinnings. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre lacks the femme fatale, however, and there are barely any women (even among extras) in the entire film. I think the only women are at the village where Howard (Walter Huston) saves the boy and is made an honorary guest. That would definitely amplify the critique on masculinity, similar to how Dr. Strangelove creates the threat of nuclear holocaust by middle aged men running the world. There are several shots that are lighted very much like film noir:

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Dobbs eventually meets fellow drifter Bob Curtin (Tim Holt), and they join a work force. I think it's important to note that Dobbs and Curtin aren't thieves. They are willing to work honestly for their wages, but when their employer runs away without paying them, they hunt him down, beat him up, and take their share. I think it's important that at this stage, they are willing to only take what they need (or maybe they're afraid of getting arrested). I like to think that greed is something that slowly gains control of you. It's like gambling. If I were to put a quarter I happened to have in a slot machine and win $5, would I walk away? Or would I put just one more quarter... then another... and another? 

I love the low angles in the film:

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I think at this point, Dobbs and Curtin are still honest. It's when they meet Howard and learn of gold that the noose slowly tightens. It's so gradual that they don't even notice. The test for these two men is their temperance. When will they know to quit? Howard is the humble prospector and knows when to quit. He also knows that a gold miner isn't in it to get rich. The idea of getting millions from gold mining is just the fevered dream of a madman. 

I like how humble Howard is in this high angle shot looking up at the two young men with their aspirations:

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I think the film is almost an adaptation of Daedalus and Icarus. It's certainly a derivative of the old greek myth, and their message is still ignored by countless Fred C. Dobbses running around casinos these days.

It's funny to see how much endurance Howard has over Dobbs and Curtin. It's like they are too busy putting their energy into dreaming instead of walking. Dobbs and Curtin fall for the fool's gold, and start splashing water all over it. Excessive ambition creates naivete, and leads to wasting water. "Water can be more precious than gold" - says Howard. 

Eventually, they do find gold, and Howard does a jig that has become so archetypal of prospectors, you don't even have to have seen the film to know it:

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Apparently, Paul Thomas Anderson loves The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and rightly so. Looking at There Will Be Blood, you can see a lot of inspiration from these wonderful low angle shots:

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When they are talking about what they'll do after they finish mining, we get more insights into these characters. Howard says this'll be his last prospect, as he's getting old and knows when to quit. Curtin humbly says he'll start a peach ranch and harvest peaches for a living. To counterpoint this, we get Dobbs, who says he'll spend it on the spa and women. When the other two ask what he'll do after that splurge, he says "what do you mean, 'after that'?"

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As with any tale of gold mining, greed and paranoia begin to settle in. The three men decide to split the gold into shares right then and there... mostly because of Dobbs' insistence. 

In one of the most chilling scenes in the film, Dobbs has rocks cave in on him inside the mine. Curtin rushes to the entrance, pauses, turns around, pauses, and then decides to rescue Dobbs. It is a testament to Curtin's character, and we can see how shaken up he is, not by the incident itself, but by his hesitation. It's as if he was contemplating if Dobbs was even worth saving, and the part of his mind that thought of that frightens him:

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Another scene that frightens me is when the stranger, named Cody, appears and wants to start mining himself. The other men have three choices: 

1. Kill him.
2. Let him go and call authorities, who will take their goods.
3. Let him work with them and have a cut of the share.

They decide they will all shoot him. I find this very unsettling, since the group agreed that killing a man for gold was justified:

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Fortunately, their morality is saved by bandits, who show up and deliver the most famous lines in the film:

"Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges! I don't have to show you any stinkin' badges!"

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Mr. Bogart's ability to ramp up his paranoia is really something. It begins with small mutters to himself about how the others are conspiring to get his share:

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This becomes threatening Curtin, who accidentally stumbles on his stash (from a great low angle shot):

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And when Howard leaves to help out at the village and stays a week, Dobbs and Curtin must journey together, where Dobbs' paranoia tips them into a battle to stay awake:

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Curtin eventually loses out, and Dobbs makes his move:

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He non-lethally shoots Curtin twice, and in one of my favorite shots, we see him consumed over his "murder":

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Mr. Bogart's scene where he debates whether to bury the body or not is an inspired piece of insanity. He discovers the body's gone, and he presumes incorrectly that the "tiger" must've got him:

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Dobbs is a classic case of "flying too close to the sun," "biting off more than you can chew," or whatever idiomatic phrase you prefer. In the end, his ambition exceeds his ability and this will be his downfall.

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I think Ace in the Hole is a greater film, but The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is still a great film nonetheless. I think the film has more humanity to it, because in Ace in the Hole, there are maybe 2 very minor characters that are morally sound. Here, we have Curtin and Howard, who gladly accept the loss of their gold:

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