Imagine you are a renowned Hollywood director, around 37-years-old, famous for your hard-edged, economical but stunning, cinematography. You’ve had a string of hits. Yeah, you’ve had some misses too, but your reputation is solid. You’re that rare combination of insider success and outsider sensibility. You have a painterly eye and a fondness for ne’er-do-wells that somehow play very well on the silver screen. Your films have wit but they are not humorous. Fed up with the political climate of the early ’50s United States, you exiled yourself to Ireland and now find yourself in Italy with a stellar cast for a new film but a rather unsatisfactory script. Perhaps part of the problem is that it’s a bit too much like things you’ve already done. But what can you do?
Now imagine you are a young hotshot novelist, around 28-years-old, and you have already been lauded as the “hope of modern literature” by no less a luminary than Somerset Maugham. Your writing has a lyrical quality that’s bitingly undercut by a sort of incisive charm. You have just finished your second novel, the successor to the runaway hit that was your first. You were living in Italy, sent the manuscript to your publisher, and then headed to Rome for a visit. For a brief moment, you found yourself at loose ends.
Now imagine you are a celebrated Hollywood actor, around 54-years-old, seemingly past your prime as a leading man and yet you still manage to have success after success at the box office. In fact, you are an icon in your own time. You are booked to work with a director whom you trust implicitly. After all, you were primarily a B-movie actor before he came along and he has delivered unto you four solid hits, including two of the films that have made you one of cinema’s most recognizable stars. You believe in him so much that you are not only starring in his film — you are also backing it financially.
The director was John Huston, the writer Truman Capote, and the actor Humphrey Bogart. These three men came together for one of the most bizarre films in Huston’s or Bogart’s output: Beat the Devil (1953). It’s based on the novel of the same name by the British journalist Claud Cockburn, under the pseudonym James Helvick. The novel was ripe for a film noir treatment and that’s just what the original screenwriters Peter Viertel and Tony Veiller (both accomplished artists) were preparing. They never met with Huston’s approval, however, and so they quit.
Huston had the cast, including Bogart, Gina Lollobrigida, Jennifer Jones, Peter Lorre, and Robert Morley, but he had no workable script. So he approached Capote who agreed to write the new script on the fly. Not wanting to cause the cast to lose confidence, Huston never told the actors (aside from Bogart, who was, remember, helping to fund the project) that Capote was basically improvising the scenes from day to day. He devised a number of strategies to delay production to give Capote time to write; for example, he insisted on rather complicated camera set-ups that required hours of preparation, anything to vouchsafe Capote just a few more moments to consult with his ragamuffin muse.
Beyond that, the film was beset by setbacks, accidents, and the unforeseen. As was typical of a Huston production, the cast and crew partied regularly; drinking, gambling, and carousing were the order of the day — for most days. Other luminaries, not involved in the film at all (such as Orson Welles and Ingrid Bergman), randomly appeared to partake in all the fun.
One night Huston took his drink outside to go for a late-night jaunt, only to tumble over a cliff and suffer a 40-foot drop (he not only survived but was mostly unscathed). Bogart was in a car accident, busting out several of his teeth. He couldn’t at first figure out how to enunciate properly so some of his dialogue was actually performed by a young and unknown Peter Sellers. Capote had the habit of calling his pet crow Lola, who was residing in Rome at the time, on the telephone. When the bird mysteriously fell silent, Capote rushed to its side, fearing for its wellbeing.
The resultant film is, to say the least, a bizarre confection. The film has been called the first “camp” film and one can easily see the justification of the label. Beat the Devil begins loosely in the manner of a film noir, as much The Third Man (1949) as The Maltese Falcon (1941), and throughout its running time the camera plays it straight. Those characteristic Huston framed shots are there, the stark angles, the alarming closeness of the figures. The opening shots, featuring a married British couple (played by Edward Underdown and Jennifer Jones) trailed by a ragtag group of young and hungry street urchins through the streets of an Italian port town, are a study in contrast. Jones’s brilliant white dress, blindingly resplendent, seems cruelly garish in comparison to the muddied faces of the starving children. This could easily be the opening of a serious examination of poverty, desperation, and indifference.
The dialogue, however, blows it all apart. Jones’s character, much to the mildly communicated horror of her husband, insists on repeatedly spitting because her Spanish governess had told her as a child that one should spit curses before someone spits them at you to prevent the efficacy of the latter. Whenever she tells a lie (and she tells plenty) she prefaces it with the phrase, “In point of fact.” Great consternation arises over the peregrinations of a hot water bottle. A ship captain remains in a seemingly permanent drunken stupor. An Arab official is bribed by promises that he might one day meet Rita Hayworth.
The film strikes one as a disconnect between the noir visuals and the camp soundtrack. It’s a workable noir plot saddled with dialogue that’s so tongue-in-cheek that it would seem to have caused disfiguration. Or it’s deliciously outré writing saddled with a standard noir plot. It all depends on one’s predispositions. No matter what, however, those predispositions will be challenged, undermined, pilloried, and ridiculed.
Bogart hated Beat the Devil and claimed that only “phonies” found any joy in it. You can’t blame him; the film had an abominable showing at the box office and Bogart was out a good deal of money. Huston, however, told a bemused Jones that she would be more remembered for this film than for 1943’s The Song of Bernadette (although that might have been tongue-in-cheek as well).
Beat the Devil has managed to gain a reputation, especially among those looking for a curiosity that stands out from the typical output of that era. Roger Ebert claimed it was one of the great films of history. Of course, he didn’t see the original version. The film as Ebert knew it had a few scenes cut, but most egregiously, it had a rather silly voice-over that, in my opinion, ruined the humor of the film. The original has now been restored and if you are to see the film, see it in this form.
Without that voice-over, the film is immeasurably improved. The weird tension between the cinematography and plot on the one hand and the script and the casualness of much of the acting on the other is at long last revealed to its most striking effect. It may or may not be one of the great films from the ’50s but it’s certainly one of the most eccentric.
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The Film Forum in New York City will be showing Beat the Devil 17-23 February.