It's a brilliant little story about greedy American gold prospectors in Mexico in the 20s.
It's about how the quest for gold corrupts, distorts and makes people toxic. Need I say more?
Director John Huston goes for authenticity by shooting most of the film on location in Mexico. He has big swaths of dialog in Spanish that are organically translated by the American characters, and thus need no subtitles. There is one Mexican meanie, the great Alfonso Bedoya, (chewing the scenery on a par with Walter Huston) who turns out to be a scrawny bandido with an excellent command of English. Which seems preposterous, but he has so much fun being bad that somehow it's believable.
I am amazed that Humphrey Bogart, who was a huge movie star, was willing to play one of the most unsavory characters in the history of movies. I am amazed that a studio (Warner Bros) allowed that to happen. I bet this movie would have never been made in Hollywood today (well, maybe by the Coens, or it would be a little bitter independent film).
Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart). What a character! This guy has not one redeeming quality. Not a one. But he is not a mustache twirling villain or a one-dimensional portrayal of a greedy bastard. He is utterly human. This is a man who follows his cravings like a junkie. His greed seems to come from a deep, unsatisfiable hunger. He is greedy for money, for water, for women, for sleep, for recognition. He is lazy, spineless and dishonest. And he thinks he's the shit. A pest, a drifter, a man with no dignity. I love the opening scenes where he begs fellow Americans for money, feigning pathos. He is all macho bluster, but he is actually weak. And then he becomes paranoid and gets uglier and uglier as the film goes along. Bogie goes at it with gusto, unafraid to look bad or to go all out on the nasty side of human nature. He sinks incredibly low with enormous conviction. It's a brave performance.
I believe there are people like Fred C. Dobbs roaming the Earth as we speak. But they don't necessarily have his charisma.
About Walter Huston, what can one say? His Howard is one of the best good guys ever committed to film. He is not holier than thou, not saintly, not virtuous. Just a man with enormous repositories of hard earned experience. One look at him and you believe he has been everywhere and seen everything. He knows where this quest for gold leads. He is just waiting to confirm what he knows about human nature. But instead of being bitter and nihilistic, he just has a ball. His wise good cheer is unforgettable. So is his weathered wisdom. And so is his mischievous laughing at all that gold.
The trivia section in the imdb page of this film is great fun.
This is my favorite quote, from Bogie: "One Huston is bad enough, two of them is murder".