Breaking Bad’s Greatest Inspiration was a 1948 Humphrey Bogart Film - Bliteoc

Breaking Bad’s Greatest Inspiration was a 1948 Humphrey Bogart Film

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Breaking Bad created an iconic character with Walter White quite unlike the typical heroes of television before him. Centering the antihero as the series’ protagonist, audiences were inspired to awe at the karmic tale of avarice and corruption that the story crafted over the course of five seasons. Running from 2008 to 2013, Breaking Bad had a tale unlike any audiences had seen — unless, of course, they are familiar with its source of inspiration.

The 1948 film The Treasure of the Sierre Madre may not at first glance bear a huge resemblance to the megahit of prestige television that aired on AMC. But looking back on creator Vince Gilligan’s citation of the film as a source of inspiration provokes valuable insight into how the Humphrey Bogart film contributes to major installments in the pop culture mythology, even to this day.

Breaking Bad managed to ground an almost mythic plot in the mundane and relatable world of New Mexico, where it began with chemistry teacher Walter White deciding to descend into the criminal underworld to make methamphetamines after a fatal cancer diagnosis left him desperate to do anything he could to earn the wealth his family would need after his death. Along the way, it became about so much more, as the greed of the wealth White gained gradually corrupted him into a full-blown madman avariciously accumulating as much money as he possibly could. And to that end, the parallels to The Treasure of the Sierre Madre become clear.

Sierre Madre is a Western directed by John Huston, who previously worked with star Humphrey Bogart on the iconic The Maltese Falcon. Sierre Madre introduces its protagonist, Fred Dobbs, in much the same down-on-his-luck and likable note as Walter White. Bumming around the Mexican city of Tampico, Dobbs at first begs for pesos before a winning lottery ticket sets him out on a journey for further riches mining gold in the untamed wilds beyond Tampico. Though he assures his fellows that he just wants enough to live a comfortable life, the temptation of ever-growing riches corrupts him every bit as much as White’s journey.

And the parallel is no accident. Breaking Bad picks up on Sierre Madre as much in aesthetic and setting as anything else, with both prominently featuring the yawning landscape of the Mexican desert throughout their stories. The episode “Buyout” even features a scene evocative of Sierre Madre when Mike and Jesse discuss taking their earnings from the train heist and retiring. Dobbs has a similar discussion with his allies when they strike a wealth of gold and shares in White’s greedy desire to continue to put everything on the line just for the chance of becoming ever richer and ever more powerful.

Breaking Bad is no by means the extent to Sierre Madre’s influence, either. Stanley Kubrick, Sam Raimi and Spike Lee all counted the film among majorly influential pieces of cinema to their work. Director Paul Thomas Anderson even reportedly watched the movie while writing There Will Be Blood, a similar Western about the never-ending greed of its heroic protagonist. While such antiheroes serving as the main character to stories may seem like the norm in a post-Sopranos world, so much influence tracing back to Sierre Madre shows just how ahead of its time the movie was.

Indeed, modern-day audiences are likely more familiar with Humphrey Bogart as the stoic private eye Sam Spade from films like The Maltese Falcon than as the cackling-mad antihero of Sierre Madre. And yet, his turn in the latter role is perhaps more prescient and influential moving into present times.

Iconic characters like Walter White do not spring fully-formed into existence without inspiration from decades of film and TV blazing the trail ahead of them. Dobbs may be one of the earliest and clearest precursors to White there is, and any Breaking Bad fan would do well to take a trip back through classic cinema to see just how far back the tradition of the antihero stretches.

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