here’s a passage in Jason Zinoman’s Shock Value — the superlative chronicle of ’70s genre mavericks such as John Carpenter, George Romero and Wes Craven — that sees Brian De Palma hanging out in a New York City leather bar with none other than Steven Spielberg and Margot Kidder. At the time, Spielberg was prepping a B-Movie paperback adaptation about a killer shark, and De Palma had just made his first Hitchcockian thriller with Kidder in dual roles as separated Siamese Twins. As Zinoman puts it:
“They were buddies, helping each other out with girls, scouting locations together, and relying on each other for business advice. De Palma wrote a screenplay adaptation for the book ‘Cruising,’ but it was offered to Spielberg, who spent an evening with De Palma doing research … hanging out in gay clubs of New York.”
I’m sorry, what? Cruising — Gerald Walker’s lurid thriller about a serial killer stalking NYC’s gay scene — was originally supposed to be written by De Palma and directed by Spielberg? What the hell would that Cruising look like? Furthermore, what sort of career path would Cruising have set for the blockbuster architect going forward? Something tells this writer that Spielberg wouldn’t be chasing aliens or Oscars. No, things would have probably been very, very different in this alternate reality (and probably not for the better).
Obviously, that movie never happened. Spielberg went on to finish that paperback adaptation — Jaws (1975) — and become one of our most recognizable American filmmakers, while De Palma chased his buddy’s horror lead and directed Carrie (1976), instantly making Stephen King’s tale of high-school misfit telekinesis iconic. The two never worked together, yet remained close friends, persistently bouncing ideas off of one another while engaging in playful competition.
However, this story prompts another question: What other De Palma projects died on the proverbial vine? Exploring mythical movies that never were is always a dangerous rabbit hole to fall down, full of misinformation and dead ends, but BDP has such a fascinating catalogue of non-starters that it’s tough not to be intrigued. A ’90s heist movie co-penned by Jay Cocks (Gangs of New York, 2002) where a film producer boosts Nazi gold? Or how about a biopic on football guru Joe Paterno during the Penn State sex scandal? Hell, we may never see his recently proposed horror picture about a Weinstein-esque sex predator’s last days on the scene.
As with any master’s near 50-year Hollywood tenure: The list goes on. Yet none are as intriguing as De Palma’s proposed remake of immortal classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). A bizarre endeavor in pitch form alone, De Palma’s version swaps out cocaine for gold as it adapts (and still credits) both John Huston’s film and B. Travern’s novel. Sporting a title simply shortened to Treasure, the project’s undated script reveals both a stealthy remake and a pre-Carlito’s Way (1993) drug-trafficking drama, tackling the erosion of America’s soul due to its white powder addiction.
Obviously, Huston’s Treasure is an unimpeachably brilliant piece of cinema. Not only does it contain what’s arguably Humphrey Bogart’s most morally complex performance, it also stands as possibly the preeminent filmic statement on the cost of greed. Huston’s movie is dirty, ugly, mean and depressing, ending on a note of black irony so bleak you can only laugh along with the dirt-smeared survivors of this mountaintop mining expedition. It’s one of the true American masterpieces.
So, why would somebody like De Palma — a rogue who spent the late ’60s/early ’70s making Godardian anti-establishment comedies (Greetings, 1968; Hi, Mom!, 1970), Hitchcock riffs (Sisters, 1972 and Obsession, 1976), and a ragingly pissed pop operetta (Phantom of the Paradise, 1974) — want to re-do a practically perfect Old Hollywood staple? Well, it all boils down to one word: paranoia. For all of the lip service paid to Treasure’s status as a riveting adventure, it’s really a movie about what happens when the basic notion of getting rich makes men turn on each other for no other good reason.
De Palma has proven to be wary of nearly every form of authority, be it governmental agencies, seemingly noble soldiers, or just his fellow man in general. And we haven’t even touched upon the overwhelming sense of artificial dread that fuels his calculated American giallo (Dressed to Kill, 1980) and brazen middle finger to his biggest critics (Body Double, 1984).
What does De Palma have to say in terms Treasure’s inspiration? Sadly, not much. The script, which has been floating around for 40-plus years, doesn’t spark conversation in interviews. While speaking with AICN’s Jeremy Smith, De Palma claims to not recall many details, as he wrote it so long ago (a common refrain when the director is approached regarding unrealized celluloid dreams). In fact, the best response he has ever given actually credits his love for Treasure bleeding into his Brechtian gangster opus Scarface (1980). The cocaine Tony Montana (Al Pacino) builds his empire upon is a metaphor for the gold Fred Dobbs and his two cohorts seek to extract from the treacherous Mexican mountain range.
However, in De Palma’s Treasure script, the metaphor is literalized. The first five pages are a near beat-for-beat replication of Huston’s film, with Fred Dobbs (Bogart in 1948) stumbling through Lima, Peru (as opposed to Tampico, Mexico), asking strangers for spare change before buying a lottery ticket from a street kid and meeting fellow vagrant Bob Curtin (Tim Holt for Huston) on a park bench. Even the dialogue is verbatim, as Curtain remarks that the South American gateway to adventure is a “hell of a country to be broke in,” to which Dobbs replies, “tell me a country that isn’t.”
Then Page 5 arrives, and we get a sense of De Palma’s grand design, as he introduces Federal Agent Tony Corso. Dirty as the day is long, Tony trades info with DC cop Farren Malley. Malley’s tasked with busting a major coke courier named Juan Romano after he taxis into Dulles: a blatant attempt at a shakedown. Flying in with Juan is Howard, a bearded old-time mule who carries white gold in a sling encasing his left leg.
What ensues is one of the filmmaker’s classic set pieces, beginning with Tony and his young partner, Frank, tailing a trio of snitches from a Bruce Springsteen concert to Dulles, where they converge with Malley and his targets in a multi-tiered chase through the airport, with Howard’s cast breaking and leaving a trail of cocaine for the cops to follow. However, the old mule’s cunning, evading his pursuers by jumping into a trash truck and leaving Romano to take the wrap. But Juan ain’t worried. Turns out he’s a federal informer, and the whole thing was a setup to bust Tony and all his small-time DC cohorts.
We’re not back in Peru until page 27, after scheming U.S. Attorney Sessions makes a deal with Tony to ensnare Frank, who is too clean for the politician’s comfort. And yet again, the scenes become line-for-line recreations of Huston’s movie: Dobbs and Curtin getting had by derrick rig con man, McCormick, before running into Howard at a rathole workers’ hostel. Only instead of talking gold in De Palma’s version, this lifer snowbird is spinning yarns about hills filled with the mythical white powder, before warning what it can do to a man’s makeup. “I’ve smuggled coke stashed in everything from a girl’s pussy to a 707,” he says. ”I’ve cut it, snort it, eaten it, shot it. Believe me, I know what it does to your soul.”
Though this moment is a thematic retelling of Huston’s original, keeping the cadence of the speeches John’s father, Walter, so perfectly delivered in ‘48, it’s also the key moment in decoding De Palma’s grand design. Simply put, the “remake” elements are a Trojan Horse for the writer/director to smuggle in his own musings on this addictive poison making its way up from South America, crossing the border and doing more than just destroying the lives of street junkies. Fundamentally, Brian De Palma’s Treasure could double as his Traffic (2000): messaging filtered through pulpy action instead of arty character drama.
Still, in order to be subversive, De Palma must stick to the original blueprint, which can get somewhat taxing. Dobbs and Curtin finally track down their former “employer” and beat the shit out of him, taking the money they’re owed so they can buy into Howard’s scheme to trek back up the range and begin hauling kilos. Here, the capital’s necessary to buy off the campesinos and purchase products to process cocoa leaves into blow. When they’re short a few thousand (instead of hundred; inflation’s a bitch), that lottery ticket Dobbs begrudgingly bought ends up cashing out, and he fronts his fellow hobo the money so they can both get rich quick.
These two disparate storylines soldier on, even though we know exactly how they’ll converge. Tony morally struggles with setting up Frank, as the duo partner with Romano for their own line of “information.” Meanwhile, Dobbs, Curtin and McCormick begin harvesting their goods in an Incan village, as Dobbs slowly becomes possessed by both greed and drug dependence. Despite the aforementioned familiarity, it’s a pretty suspenseful buildup, as BDP blends a known narrative with new soapy French Connection (1971) style street melodrama.
A phone call to Howard's connection back in the States sets the third act in motion. Unluckily for this small-time criminal conspiracy, Frank has Romano's phone tapped and will be there, guns drawn, when the wheels (and dope) hit the runway. On the page, it reads sort of like soundman Jack Terry’s backstory (which probably explains why I had Travolta in my head the whole time), only triumphant instead of tragically haunting.
Seasoned fans of Huston's Treasure will probably be wondering about one curious omission: Where the hell are the banditos and their “stinkin’ badges”? Though Howard mentions having to grease the local mafiosos at one point, we never see the roving troupes of smiling, pistol-toting thieves who end up taking an increasingly delusional Dobbs down by the end, leaving Howard and Curtin to watch a dust storm send the rest of their compadre’s gold into the wind. In theory, the cops we've been riding shotgun with this whole time are De Palma's stand-ins for the robbers, looking to hijack the criminals’ quest in order to keep their own spirits intact as well as their country clean.
Dobbs’ suspicion grows until, in a coke-nosed moment of rage, he offs Curtin and heads for Lima, where Howard is waiting with plane tickets back to the States. If one thing is sacrificed by De Palma in this modernized vision, it’s the old man’s humanization, when he takes off in Huston’s film to help one of the villagers’ ailing children. Instead, Tony is gifted a shot at redemption by confessing all his sins to Frank, masterminding a means to loosen Sessions from their tail and snag what could possibly be a nice-sized collar.
Treasure climaxes in a second massive set piece, where all parties converge again, this time in a museum: the rendezvous point for the massive drug deal, which sees many keys being delivered inside a priceless painting. De Palma even uses an art installation to exploit his endless fascination with voyeurism, as a stack of TVs showing different sections of the gallery become the method through which all parties track one another, looking to take their piece of the pie, one way or another.
It all ends with junkie snitches stealing cars, Italian thugs shooting it out with cops, our mules offing one another, and a pile of cocaine swirling down a sewer drain as the arts center burns off in the distance. Does anyone get away clean? Of course not. The finale contains a level of cynicism on par with Blow Out, letting the exiting audience sense that nothing will ever be all right in America as corruption is practically embedded in the nation’s marrow.
Like Cruising, Treasure might have cancelled out the auteur’s desire to bring Oliver Stone’s Scarface screenplay to life*. Would this writer trade Tony Montana for a chance to see Treasure realized? Maybe. But I’m also content with the fact that Huston’s classic already exists, sitting a mere letter down on my shelf from De Palma’s Giorgio Moroder-scored epic of excess. The world, it seems, cannot always be yours, so to paraphrase a poet: Love the one you’re in.
*Though De Palma would also try to re-jigger another Western text for the cocaine era, as his ‘90s Magnificent Seven pitch reportedly took place inside the Medellin cartels.
For more great anecdotes on BDP’s stellar career, make sure to check out Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s amazing feature length profile of the New Hollywood maverick, De Palma. Special thanks to FANGORIA EIC Phil Nobile, Jr. for his research assistance.
Jacob Knight is a film writer based in Austin, Texas, whose work has appeared in several publications and who has spent more time watching action and exploitation movies than any human being probably should.