Four Factors in Paranoia: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

treasure-of-the-sierra-madre-movie-poster-1948-1010544345Paranoia is “an unfounded or exaggerated distrust of others, sometimes reaching delusional proportions.”1 In John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) Fredd Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) becomes paranoid that Curtin (Tim Holt) and Howard (Walter Huston), want to kill him and steal his gold. There are four factors in Dobbs’s descent into paranoia: feelings of powerlessness, the experience of broken trust, the fear of loss, and an uncontrolled imagination.

Unable to find work, Dobbs feels powerless to change his life. In the opening sequence, he asks the same man for money three times, and the look on his face is one of utter helplessness. He is subject to economic forces that are beyond his control, making him vulnerable to paranoia.

Dobbs’s luck appears to change when McCormick (Barton MacLane) offers him a job. However, after Curtin and Dobbs work for several weeks, they do not get paid and give McCormick a severe beating. This scene reveals Dobbs’s true nature: He is a man of violence when he feels he has been wronged. Dobbs’s experience of broken trust will make it difficult for him to trust anyone again.

Dobbs’s ability to trust other people is put to the test when he strikes a deal with Curtin and Howard to go prospecting for gold. When the three men strike it rich, Howard says, “Each of us will have to hide his share from the others, and after that he’ll have to be forever on his watch.” Although Dobbs initially rejects this idea, the seeds of suspicion and fear are firmly planted in his mind. Soon he will no longer trust his partners.

Fearing the loss of his gold, Dobbs descends into paranoia. When he and Curtin transport their gold across the desert, his imagination runs wild. He accuses Curtin: “For a long time you’ve wanted to bump me off and bury me.” Even though Curtin seizes Dobbs’s gun and does not shoot him, Dobbs still believes he wants to kill him and steal his gold. At the end of the film, Curtin and Howard laugh when they lose their gold, but Dobbs is emotionally attached to it. He becomes paranoid because of his greatest fear: the fear of becoming poor and destitute again.

Paranoia is a prison of the mind, a place of alienation and isolation. To escape this prison, a paranoid person must be willing to take the risk of trusting people again. They must also learn to control their mind and not believe everything they think. The tragedy of Dobbs’s life is that he was his own worst enemy. His paranoia distorted his perception of reality, leaving him unable to tell the difference between his enemies and his friends.


  1. The Free Dictionary, s.v. “Paranoia,” accessed February 20, 2014,

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