Thursday, January 2, 2014

Beat the Devil (1953)

Director: John Huston                                       Writers: Truman Capote & John Huston
Film Score: Franco Mannino                              Cinematography: Oswald Morris
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida and Peter Lorre

A bit of farce from director John Huston, Beat the Devil is an independent production that he put together after earning three best director nominations in his previous four films, including Moulin Rouge and The African Queen. One of Huston’s favorite plot devices is to have groups of people working toward a common goal, who then become suspicious of each other and destroy their goal through jealousy and selfishness. It doesn’t matter if the group comes together by accident, as in Three Strangers, or by necessity in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, or by choice as in The Asphalt Jungle, the disintegration of the group is the dramatic point, and Huston enjoys making us squirm as we watch it happen.

A group of uranium smugglers, led by Humphrey Bogart, suddenly find themselves stranded in a small Italian village waiting for the boat to be fixed that will take them to Africa to pick up the goods. Unfortunately his partners, Robert Morley, Peter Lorre and Marco Tulli, are so nervous about the money they’ve invested that they can barely stand it. Meanwhile, Bogart and his wife, Gina Lollobrigida, have befriended another stranded couple, Jennifer Jones and her stuffy British husband Edward Underdown. Jones, however, has a vivid imagination and the tales she tells have Bogart’s moneymen in even more of a lather. Jones takes an instant liking for Bogart, while Lollobrigida desires more of the English elegance of Underdown. Then, once the whole group is cooped up on the SS Nyanga to sail for Africa, the whole plan threatens to spin out of control.

Huston’s screenplay was only loosely based on the novel by Claud Cockburn, and was assisted by Truman Capote. Some of the interiors were filmed in London and future Hammer Studios director Freddie Francis was one of the camera operators on the film. As an independent production the picture definitely lacks polish, but that could be due partially to the fact that it has fallen into public domain and the original negative is lost. It’s a quirky film and the humor depends on how it strikes the audience at the time. I enjoyed it, though it is ponderous at times and difficult to make out the dialogue, again because of the poor quality of the overall production. Bogart does a solid job, as does Morley, but Lorre is given precious little to do, and Underdown steals the show when he’s on screen. Bogart never liked the film, most likely because the film bombed at the box office and he never recouped the money he invested in the project.

The film appears in The B List, with an essay by Roger Ebert extolling its virtues. There isn’t much of a plot, as he points out, so the essay is more of a trivia fest. Bogart apparently thought the film was going to be one of Huston’s serious caper films, but didn’t find out until arriving on location that Huston had torn up the script and hired Capote to write comic scenes for him. If the scenes weren’t ready, the actors simply made up their lines. Ebert also focuses on the goofiness of the picture as an endearing trait. But it depends on your sense of humor. There were some humorous lines and situations, but in the end it’s a pretty bad film. What saves it are the actors and, while even they can get tedious after a while, it’s still a worthy expenditure of time. Beat the Devil isn’t one of John Huston’s finest moments but, ironically, it has become one of his most memorable.

No comments:

Post a Comment