Beat the Devil May 14, 2015
It’s important to view Beat the Devil as less of a movie and more of an experiment, one which allows a group of screen legends and character actors alike to roam around in a torrent of likably bizarre material. A hell of a way to open a review, I know — but the unfiltered strangeness of Beat the Devil is part of its charm. It doesn’t know where it’s going, doesn’t have a plan in mind, and doesn’t really know what to do with its locales. But it acts like it does, through silky and astute Truman Capote dialogue and performances that liven the atmosphere with a scent of self-deprecation.
Legend has it that director John Huston originally had planned to make Beat the Devil the way one would normally make a serious thriller. But once he flew into Italy with the cast, he decided to tear up the script and make up the film as he went along, with the aid of a young Capote (who wrote new scenes on a daily basis). It, more or less, became a black comedy. As one watches the film, this factoid doesn’t come as a fun little surprise — the movie really does feel spontaneous, with the plot rambling along while the characters busy themselves with decadently bourgeois lines and sideline romantic affairs that feel like more of a distraction than a necessity.
I can’t say that I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure I can forget it. The way the dialogue slithers along with slinky comic energy, how the actors are simultaneously campy and masterful — it’s all very unusual to find in a movie made in 1953. Strangeness like this didn’t come around until Robert Altman parked his car in Hollywood and told off everyone’s prior notions of what makes a masterpiece.
Beat the Devil begins by introducing itself to a pack of characters that seem straight out of an absurd melodrama. There are Billy (Humphrey Bogart) and Maria Dannreuther (Gina Lollobrigida), a former rich couple reduced to retreating in a cheap hotel, paid for by the constantly cackling Peterson (Robert Morley). But then there’s Peterson, a crook with a bulging stomach that cohorts with the sinister Julius O’Hara (Peter Lorre), the sneaky Major Jack Ross (Ivan Barnard), and the imposing Ravello (Marco Tulli). And there are Harry (Edward Underdown) and Gwendolyn Chelm (Jennifer Jones), who fancy themselves to be part of upper-class British society.
This rat pack, eventually becoming acquainted with each other in the ways only movies can acquaint characters, decides to band together to cook up a scheme to gain control of a uranium-packed zone in Africa. It doesn’t go successfully (these characters are fools, not clever grifters), but Beat the Devil isn’t concerned with suspense or anything even pertaining to the thriller genre.
Instead, it plays around with the characters. By 1953, the majority of the players were familiar to audiences; they put Bogart under the tough-guy category, decided Lollobrigida was the more vulgar Sophia Loren, likened Jones to be a girl-next-door goody-two-shoes, and placed Morley and Lorre in the section of their mind kept for cinematic weirdos. Beat the Devil feels like one big satire — yet, none of the actors seem to know it. It doesn’t seem like Huston knows it either. But the film is all the better for it. It’s an accidental success.
The film is not really a comedy or an adventure; it’s a roguish display of parodical behavior. Even Bogart, who hated the film, manages to serve a masterfully smooth characterization. Lollobrigida, stereotyped to perfection, plays a caricatured version of her sexy self, while Jones connives her way through a great performance that requires her to go against type and pretend to be a minx who happens to mostly say the wrong things at the wrong times. But it’s the constant union of the four main (and eccentric) villains that sticks in the mind, with their physically cartoonish and opposing figures.
With its grainy camerawork (which I’m not sure is a not-enough-budgeted touch or a historical mess-up) and shoestring feel, Beat the Devil doesn’t feel like a movie movie; it’s like rehearsal for a bigger project. But age has been kind to it. Considering its shake-ups and uninhibited oddballisms, it exists in a bizarro version of the Hollywood Golden Age. B
** Note: If you're so inclined to watch Beat the Devil, I suggest viewing it on YouTube. The DVD quality is poor, and the audio is difficult to understand. For once, the streaming norm is of ingenious use.