We all have a friend or two who has ‘a big personality’, the sort who we can watch from across the room and smile to ourselves in the comfortable assurance that ‘there goes old Wyatt’. It seems though their words can sometimes be the stuffing of their character and nothing more; it matters less what they say than how they say it. I know an old Jesuit who at 93 is no longer as audible as he once was, but he can keep a table laughing although his voice no longer carries across it—his character does.
In a movie chock full of such characters, Fred C. Dobbs stands apart; we learn more about him from watching him then from listening to his words. His words are a reflection of his character, but his mannerisms unveil his soul. There is a scene where Dobbs and Curtain, his fellow American and partner in adversity, decide to turn from hired hands to prospectors and, while their sang-froid talk weighs the options, Dobbs’ whole person tells a more frightening tale and portends the danger they’ve already been warned of: gold tries man’s soul, how will Dobbs’ hold up? Not too well, it seems. The little fixations, the rivulets of a character worn down by poverty and the desire to be a moneyed man, are there and ready to erode a man willing to be awash in the torrent of greed. Dobb’s put up no defense against greed, believing that gold itself holds no curse for the right man—himself.
From the beginning Dobbs sets himself aside from society, and not just because he is the film’s protagonist. Although in some scenes there are moments where he is merely the spokesman for the crowd within the art, in others he reveals his belief in the man-defining ability of money, and although we see him begging for a meal, we also see that he never buys that meal, instead buying smokes and getting haircuts. He may, in fact, be less interested in being a man than being a man apart—a go big or go home sort of attitude toward life itself—clearly seen in his disregard for water when gold is in the ground. The possession of gold is a characteristic of a great man, and so while the others dream of the quiet lives permitted by gold, Dobbs doesn’t think beyond the gold, while they discuss their odyssey into the mountains and away from civilization, Dobbs sleeps, already succumbing to the fate of riches he has coming to him. Leaving society is natural for him, why talk of plans?
For a man like Dobbs, though, there is a restraint in social living upon which he must lean if he is to remain upright. A concupiscent man needs to have a certain distance from the objects of illicit desires if he is not to fall. Society can be an obstacle to his passion even if it is nothing more than a familiar good (social norms are les questioned the more immersed in society you are) or used as a foil and a source of proper shame. The tragedy is that we see Dobbs is no worse than many, lacks the irascibility to pursue his passions if safety ensconced in society, and even is capable of reform if forced to confront his passion in all its foolishness, and yet gold and the promise of more is too often brought too near him for his greed to be mastered. It is not what he has or doesn’t have which herald his fall, but what he almost has and thinks he can get. The gold within that middling state is his Achilles heel, and his fear of the worst and desire for more lead him slowly, inexorably onward. He never grasps, in the laconic wisdom of Curtain, that the worst ain’t so bad when it actually happens.