Beat the Devil - 1953
Director(s): John Huston
Writer(s): John Huston and Truman Capote (screenplay) / Claud Cockburn (novel)
Cinematography by: Oswald Morris
Editor(s): Ralph Kemplen
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, Robert Morley, Peter Lorre, Edward Underdown, Ivor Barnard and Bernard Lee
The other day I was randomly scrolling through Amazon Prime Video looking for a film to review, and I stumbled upon "Beat the Devil." It had big names like Bogart, Huston, Capote, and Lorre attached to it, and I hit play without giving it a second thought. Fifteen minutes in I was confused as to what the hell I was watching since I was laughing at the film instead of being sucked into the thriller I assumed it would be when I saw the names involved. It turns out I did not stumble on a classic thriller Bogart made his name on, but rather one of the first films in the camp genre to exist in Hollywood. Once I understood the tone of it was going for, and my dumb brain adjusted, I ended up having a great time. Let's talk about it.
The story follows Billy Dannreuther (Bogart), American trying to return to his former wealthy days. He is on his way to Africa, with a group of shady characters and his wife, Marias (Lollobrigida) looking to acquire uranium-rich land in British East Africa. Billy meets a British couple, Harry (Underdown) and Gwendolen (Jones). Gwendolen has a very active imagination and a loud voice, and the shady group overhears her talking about the minerals in Africa, causing them to assume Billy is looking to betray the group and sell the land to the couple. And hijinks ensue. There is a bit of background to how this film came to be since Huston before this film made his famed Maltese Falcon (starring Bogart and Lorre), so when presented with the script he tore it up and brought Capote and re-wrote the script. There were days when Capote and Huston finished the scenes on the day that they were going to shoot them. Creating this lose performances that at times felt improvisational and carefree. As if the plot did not matter, only the interactions between the characters.
The main reason why this film works, in my eyes, is that Capote and Huston did not rely on its stars to carry it through, as the supporting cast is just as funny as the main cast. Like the "fat bandit" driver of Billy that demands that he give him another car, after his fell off the cliff. My favorite one was the sailor that alerted the passengers of danger, as he always came around the corner with a big smile on his face delivering bad news.
Bogart's dry humor shines as he tries to keep his trademark composure through the madness. Peter Lorre is hilarious with his line delivery, and his speech about how a person's actions can make them look suspicious as he runs away from the conversation killed me. The bulk of the comedy comes from Jennifer Jones, as her character rattles forty words per second and manages to never be out of breath, she knew the group of Billy were shady because "they didn't look at her legs."
Quick note: Now the film can be a bit frustrating to someone trying to keep track of the plot since they are more worried about lampooning the genre and not making a compelling thriller. It bothered me at the beginning, but like I said above, once I understood the goal I was fully onboard.
Beat the Devil is a unique entry in both Huston and Bogart's careers. I love the idea of Huston feeling bored by the "go to" stories Hollywood would give them, and wanting to go completely out of the box, and spoofing his work. Sadly, the confusion I had in the first fifteen minutes, audiences had for the entire year and killed it at the box office. It is one of the biggest flops of their careers. Since then it developed a nice cult following, and I can understand why. If you are looking for a classic that makes fun of the classics, this is the one for you.
Beat the Devil is Glass Half Full.
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