Director: John Huston
Screenplay: John Huston, Truman Capote
Based on the novel by: James Helvick
Producers: John Huston
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, Peter Lorre, Robert Morley
Country: USA, UK, Italy
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 94 mins
A movie star is involved in a car crash in which he loses several teeth. An arm wrestling contest between two competitive men quickly escalates into full body wrestling. An eccentric writer communicates by telephone with his pet raven. A director sleeps through his hotel room door catching alight. These are not scenes depicted in the film Beat the Devil but rather anecdotes from the production process of the film Beat the Devil. And yet somehow the film that ended up on screen was even more bizarre than the wild shoot that created it. It is this confluence of outlandish origins and oddball end product that has ensured John Huston’s unclassifiable enigma a lasting legacy as one of the great cult films.
This is a five star review of Beat the Devil. You won’t find many of them out there. Though it has long been the subject of much fascination, this often comes at the expense of a determination to catalogue its perceived flaws and wind up at the conclusion “How did this get made?” rather than “Thank God this got made.” The fact that Beat the Devil is so unlike any other Hollywood film of its era in terms of structure, performance, writing or direction is frequently seen as a mistake rather than a stylistic choice and reviewers are fond of ruefully noting that its commercial failure essentially ended the fruitful collaborative relationship between John Huston and Humphrey Bogart. While Bogart, who lost a lot of money financing the film, was a vocal critic of the finished product, it’s probably fair to say that the dissolving of his professional relationship with Huston had at least as much to do with the actor’s death four years later. Still, it’s easy to see why fans of previous Huston-Bogart pictures were perplexed and disappointed by Beat the Devil. The pair’s previous five films together include some of Hollywood’s crown jewels: The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen. Even the lesser-seen Key Largo is a barnstorming beauty. By comparison, Beat the Devil has a cheaper, independent feel to it, refusing to hide its rough edges as it gleefully deglamourises its A-list stars and alluring Italian locations.
One of the most beautiful things about Beat the Devil is its heightened focus on supporting actors. Though it boasts three big star names above the title in the shape of Bogart, Jennifer Jones and Gina Lollabrigida, the film is far more interested in its rogues gallery of character actors who make up the gang of sordid opportunist crooks with whom Bogart’s character has reluctantly fallen in. The way their contrasting shapes and gloriously unusual faces play off each other is delightfully amusing before any of them has even spoken. The impression is that of a group of anthropomorphic cartoon animals. Marco Tulli’s Ravello is like a lurching crow, Ivor Barnard’s indelible psychopathic Major is a fearsome rat, Peter Lorre’s O’Hara is a weather-beaten snowy owl and Robert Morley, in a performance that doesn’t so much steal the show as immediately and emphatically claim it as his legal property, is a proud, pompous but not unimpeachably dignified walrus.
Tipping the focus so blatantly in favour of the supporting cast has the effect of drawing out the strangeness of the central performers who would usually be ensuring that the film’s glamour remained unsullied. Instead, they become part of a unique ensemble, equals with those whom history tells us should be counterbalancing their iconic beauty. Bogart, usually an anchor of stoic cool, becomes a sort of amused bystander, so much so that he comes close to corpsing in some of his scenes. It’s somewhat disconcerting to see so much of the real man shining through from beneath the legendary persona but these glimpses behind the curtain are all part of Beat the Devil’s charm. It shatters the veneer of Hollywood sheen that usually keeps us rooted in our ordinary lives on the other side of the screen, instead opting to let us into a world that is less glamorous than it has always appeared. This is apparent in the performance of Lollobrigida, so long an emblem of exotic fantasy, who is here cast as a bored wife with a fetish for Englishness. Her lines are peppered with jarring references to tea and crumpets and her performance is a thing of high camp, though whether by design or accident it is hard to tell.
Jones, meanwhile, throws herself with gusto into a character whose penchant for mendacious flights of fancy makes her seem by turns whimsical and sociopathic. On one of the excellent commentaries included on this new BFI release, Director of Photography Oswald Morris suggests that he always thought Lollobrigida and Jones were the only two cast members who still thought they were making a serious film, rather than the tongue-in-cheek spoof Beat the Devil quickly became. This is easier to believe of Lollobrigida, whose English was limited, than it is of Jones, whose vibrantly comic performance surely cannot be rooted in ignorance of its own effectiveness. When she repeats the phrase “In point of fact…” before yet another lie leaves her lips, she’s patently aware she’s being funny. It’s a refreshing change of pace for an actress who made her name with pious, worthy, moist-eyed fare like The Song of Bernadette and Love is a Many-Splendored Thing.
Having elevated his supporting cast to central roles (or reduced his stars to the level of supporting actors, depending on how you look at it), Huston then creates an extra layer of performance with a string of smaller characters who are no less memorable, among them the drunken captain of the broken down tramp steamer on which the main characters wish to travel, a corrupt Arab official with an exploitable hankering for Rita Hayworth and, most memorably, a droll ship’s purser who makes regular appearances with updates that are next-to-useless. In yet another strange anecdote from this production, it has long been rumoured that comedian and actor Peter Sellers dubbed the voices of all the Italian bit players in the film, as well as subbing some of Bogart’s dialogue after his car accident. If this unconfirmed titbit is true, Sellers did an excellent job as his alleged work is completely undetectable.
Probably the thing that turns most people off Beat the Devil is its plot or virtual lack of one. Though the film is often classed as an adventure movie (certainly an angle played up in its terrific original poster, which captures the film’s camp elements brilliantly with its overwrought imagery), it is in fact an adventure that takes over half the runtime to get going and then peters out in deliberately frustrating anti-climax. There are no real heroes here. Amongst the rogues, villains, exploiters, sociopaths and manipulators, the closest thing to a hero turns out to be the unlikely figure of British actor Edward Underdown whose stuffy Harry Chelm seems to have stumbled in from a Gilliat and Launder production. The plot, which is for the most part of little consequence, involves a gang of crooks trying to acquire uranium rich land in Africa. Unfortunately for them, the ship that was supposed to be taking them from Italy to Africa suffers a long-term delay, trapping them indefinitely in a purgatorial piazza. It is here that they cross paths with British couple Harry and Gwendolen who are awaiting passage on the same ship. As everyone awaits news from the preposterous purser, this ragtag bunch badmouth, backstab, charm, annoy and endanger each other as they all keep one eye on the big score in the back of everyone’s minds. The deliberate aimlessness of the plot is well served by the unusual writing style. Unhappy with all the scripts he’d been presented with, Huston began production without a proper screenplay. Bringing Truman Capote on board as a writing partner, Huston eked out new pages on a daily basis and would apparently ask for pointlessly elaborate camera set-ups in order to buy himself and Capote time to write the next scenes. The result is a film that feels like it is being pieced together before your eyes, which is at least partially accurate, and yet in its own slapdash way Beat the Devil has one of the great Hollywood screenplays. There are so many extraordinary lines and subtle witticisms every few seconds that it is easy to miss huge chunks of brilliance the first time round. Beat the Devil is a film that improves with each watch, once the initial sense of bewilderment is exorcised and the quite reasonable expectation of a storyline is quashed. The most famous speech in the film goes to Lorre, who waxes lyrical about the nature of time: “Swiss manufacture it. French hoard it. Italians squander it. Americans say it is money. Hindus say it does not exist. Do you know what I say? I say time is a crook.” The time speech is often mentioned in the same breath as Orson Welles’s famous cuckoo-clock speech in The Third Man, but that exquisite piece of dialogue was delivered by Welles with a flourish that suggested he was well aware of its excellence. In keeping with Beat the Devil’s unassuming approach, Lorre tosses off the time speech as if its a mere expository necessity and this kind of delivery is common throughout Beat the Devil, which never feels the need to give the audience a cue to appreciate its wit.
The consistent underrating of Beat the Devil can be at least partially attributed to the fact that the film fell into the public domain, meaning that practically anyone could release a ropey version of it and practically anyone did. The first time I saw the film was on a DVD I got from Poundland. The picture was cloudy but worse still the sound was muffled rendering the priceless dialogue borderline incomprehensible. This is a film that needs to be seen and heard properly so this new BFI release is a major cause for celebration. Perhaps it will help Beat the Devil extend its cult. The film is often described as being ahead of its time but in terms of content it is hard to think of any other film that is comparable. Still, the ahead-of-its-time label is valid in that Beat the Devil is easier to understand in a world in which cinema is no longer in its infancy and the net of invention is regularly tossed over a wider surface area. John Huston was one of the few directors of Hollywood’s Golden Age who managed to keep making brilliant films right into the 80s, when most of his contemporaries were either dying or making execrable fare like Buddy Buddy or Blame It On Rio. With films like Fat City, Prizzi’s Honour and The Dead, Huston moved with the times and stayed relevant right up to the end of his career. Watching Beat the Devil now, it’s easy to see how these modern sensibilities were always present in his work and that’s just another reason that this abstruse gem deserves to be considered alongside the great director’s best work.
Beat the Devil is released by the BFI on dual format Blu-ray/DVD on 16 March 2020. It is simultaneously released on BFI Player, iTunes and Amazon on the same day. Special features include two excellent audio commentaries, one by film historians and the other by crew members from the film itself. I often struggle to find the time for commentaries but these ones come highly recommended and, for a film with such a legendary production process and subsequent cult significance, they are full of fascinating facts and anecdotes. I actually watched the film three times in a row in order to hear all three audio tracks and I was never bored once. The film historians in particular are fascinating, extremely knowledgeable and warmly amusing company. The crew members leave a few more gaps of silence and the commentary occasionally lapses into passages of clearly pre-written information being read aloud but it is still frequently interesting to hear stories from the set from people who were actually involved in the making of the film and there are several stories and thoughts on Beat the Devil here that I have no encountered elsewhere.
The full list of special features :
– Presented in High Definition and Standard Definition
– Audio commentary featuring films historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman (2018)
– Audio commentary featuring DoP Oswald Morris, script supervisor Angela Allen and director’s assistant Jeanie Simms (2007)
– By the Fireside (1945, 2 mins): an advert for Maypole Tea emphasising the quintessential Englishness of the afternoon tea ritual
– Alexander Cockburn Beat the Devil (2010, 22 mins): the writer talks about his father Claud Cockburn whose novel the film was adapted from
– Atomic Achievement (1956, 19 mins): a public information film celebrating the advances of nuclear power in the UK
– Stills gallery
– **FIRST PRESSING ONLY** Fully illustrated booklet with new writing on the film by Peter Tonguette, Alexander Cockburn on how his father and John Huston brought the novel to the screen, plus full film credits