Oscar Season: Walter Huston in The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948)

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It’s Oscar season! Woohoo! I was going through the Garden’s previous Oscar posts, and I realized I have never talked about one my favorite categories. We’ve had Best Actress nominees of 1942/43, Best Supporting Actress nominees of 1952/53, Howard Hawks’ sole Oscar nomination and why that’s a travesty, Ray Milland’s stunning performance in The Lost Weekend, people who never won an Oscar, my top 10 favorite Oscar wins, which at this point, needs an update, and, of course, the ill-advised Oscar jokes – hey, I think I’m funny! But I have never talked about the Supporting Actor category. Some of my favorite Oscar wins are in this category and yet, I seemed to have overlooked it all these years. Well, no more! Supporting Actor is probably my favorite of the acting categories. I think it’s the one that, for me, has the most consistently interesting characters and performances. One could argue with a lot of choices in the other categories, but for some reason, Supporting Actor seems to be almost always unanimous. From George Sanders in All About Eve, to Harold Russell in The Best Years of Our Lives, to Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, Supporting Actor has given us some of cinema’s most memorable moments ever. Enter Walter Huston.

Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) are two Americans down on their luck in Mexico. They come across an elderly man named Howard, played by Walter Huston, while staying at a flophouse, and they soon concoct a plan to dig for gold in the Sierra Madre.

Though not entirely unpredictable once we know what’s going on, John Huston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre is still a riveting tale of greed and mistrust, led by three leads brilliantly playing off each other throughout. And while I’d love to be able to talk about Bogart’s performance in one of these Oscar posts things, you’ll be shocked to find he neither won nor was nominated for this. Walter Huston, however, was and did. A scene-stealer if there ever was one, Huston managed to capture the humanity among the greed, as well the humor in an otherwise very tense film. From his first scene in the flophouse, in which he gives an impassioned speech about prospecting and its downfalls, to the very last moments and that infectious laugh, he’s a commanding figure and he has our attention, which is impressive considering he shared the screen with Humphrey Bogart. This, of course, was the first and so far only time in which a child directed their parent to an Oscar, and when he receiving his award, Walter Huston remarked that he told his son John that if he ever became a director or a writer, to please find a good part for his old man. ‘He did all right!’, he said. John Huston also won a Best Director Oscar for The Treasure of Sierra Madre. Ain’t it sweet!

ONE MOVIE, THREE QUOTES: The Naked City (1948)

Ahh, the Screenplay Oscars. Has there ever been a more confusing Academy Award category? Starting with the very first ceremony in 1929, they have had many iterations, names and categories over the years, some of them defunct these days. But one thing that’s interesting is that, in 1949, the Original and Adapted categories, already a thing since 1940, were turned into one with several nominees that fell into either category. And then there was the Best Motion Picture Story, which they classified essentially as the best story on paper, rather than the screenplay it became. Soooo darn confusing! Anyway, at the 1949 Oscars, John Huston won the Best Screenplay Oscar for The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948, dir. Huston) and Richard Schweizer and David Wechsler won Best Motion Picture Story for The Search (1948, dir. Fred Zinnemann). One of the other nominees in the latter category was The Naked City (1948, dir. Jules Dassin), which I covered a few years ago. I always thought that, if they hadn’t put Original and Adapted together, The Naked City could have easily won Original Screenplay (I mean, does it count? I don’t know anymore). Written by Malvin Wald and Albert Maltz, The Naked City takes us through the streets of New York City as our detectives, played by Barry Fitzgerald and Don Taylor, try to uncover the truth about Jean Dexter’s murder. Like any self-respecting film noir (more on the police procedural side of things in this case), The Naked City has some amazing lines. Here are three of them:

  • ‘Jean Dexter is dead. And the answer must be somewhere down there.’ Narrator (the film’s producer Mark Hellinger) – With its straight-forward nature, this is one of those films where the voice-over narration really works. And this particular line is probably the most poignant as it reminds us of what’s at stake.
  • Thought you were off the liquor. Liquor is bad. Weakens your character. How can a man like me trust a liar like you? I can’t.’ Willie Garza (Ted de Corsia) – The brutal nature of this scene, right in the first ten minutes of the film, is pretty daunting and it takes exactly where The Naked City wants us to go.
  • There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.’ Narrator – A now iconic line thanks to the television adaptation, this is simply one of the very best closing lines in film history.

Happy Oscars season!