Beat The Devil
(Check out my previous film noir essay: The Big Sleep)
John Huston’s 1953 film, Beat The Devil, is a characteristic Huston picture in some ways while being totally alien to the rest of his work hitherto in others. On the film, he was the undisputed auteur of the work as producer, director, and co-screenwriter. The film marked his sixth (and final) time collaborating with actor Humphrey Bogart, drawing to an end a dozen-year working relationship and friendship that began in 1941 on The Maltese Falcon, and carried forward into Across the Pacific the following year; The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Key Largo, both in 1948; and The African Queen in 1951.
The film was Huston’s second collaboration with cinematographer Oswald Morris, who began his career in the late forties studying under David Lean and Ronald Neame in the U.K. He worked as an assistant on Lean’s classic 1948 adaptation of Oliver Twist, and began his career as a cinematographer in 1952 on Neame’s film The Card. He would later go on to collaborate with Neame on four more occasions (The Man Who Never Was,
Mister Moses, Scrooge, and The Odessa File) and was regarded by Neame as ‘probably the greatest cameraman in the world.’ Morris’ second film was Huston’s Moulin Rouge. They would collaborate an additional six times in the following years (including on Moby Dick, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, Reflections in a Golden Eye, The Mackintosh Man, and The Man Who Would Be King).
The film is also notable for being, at least in the source novel and original screenplay, a thriller lending itself to the film noir genre. However, unlike many previous Huston projects, he decided not to play the film straight. He and his co-screenwriter Truman Capote worked on the script in a lackadaisical manner and had accomplished little by the time the production began. They decided to write the film on the fly as it was being shot and every day before shoots would begin, they would show up with re-writes and new scenes and scenarios. The effect of this technique and method is apparent as the film plays less as a thriller and more as a camp (it is often cited, in fact, as one of the first instances of pure camp in film) or as a spoof of the film noir ethos and philosophy of nihilism, amorality, outsiders in a dog-eat-dog world, and so on.
The narrative follows a cast of characters in an unnamed southern Italian port town. The principal personage is Billy Dannreuther (Bogart) who was once a rich man and has now fallen on hard times. A group of cons and hustlers (One Julius O’Hara, played by Peter Lorre, among them) enters town and conscripts his help in a plan to go down to Mombasa, Kenya to claim a parcel of land they have learned has a vast wealth of uranium ore beneath its soil.
Before they can leave however, they must wait around for some time for their steamer to arrive, wait as it takes longer than expected to arrive, and wait around some more as it breaks down and requires repair before making the trip. While waiting, Billy and his Italian wife (of aspiring English temperament) Maria entertain a British couple, Harry and Gwendolyn Chelm. Billy begins an affair with Gwendolyn as Harry and Maria get on well in their own way, and Gwendolyn conspires to break up both marriages and, as it were, trade spouses.
Billy and one of the criminals, Peterson, take some of their free time whilst waiting for the steamer to ride off into the countryside to take care of some business and alert their man in Kenya of the delays they have been experiencing. But their chauffeur’s car constantly breaks down and eventually, as the two push the car along a winding mountain rode, it hits a decline and runs off all by itself at a breakneck speed before catapulting off of the side of the cliff and into the waters below. No one is injured, but word gets back to the others that their car ran off of a cliff, and as such, Billy and Peterson are taken for dead. In the meantime, the other three crooks need a businessman who can help them complete their mission. So Ravello attempts to enlist Harry Chelm, who refuses, and will later use this information to blackmail the group.
Billy and Peterson eventually show back up at the hotel in the small Italian town where their friends and accomplices are still waiting around for the steamer. Once it arrives, they will find that the constant breakdowns should have served as a warning as it breaks down and almost sinks at sea. Billy and his wife, Gwendolyn, and the four crooks make it to shore in North Africa aboard a small raft (Harry had been confined to a cell for outbursts about reporting the crooks to the police, then he escaped and tried to swim to shore well before the breakdown of the ship). Arab police approach them on camel-back and they are detained for some time as the crooks ditched their passports to remain anonymous. Billy uses his charms to win over the head Arab guard and secures their eventual freedom.
And the story continues from there with even more wild turns and hair-brained ideas of our protagonists and antagonists. It’s a romp, it’s absurd, and at times it’s so bad that it’s great, and for me, who went into the experience thinking it another film noir, it is a pretty pleasant surprise.
[Next up: Strangers on a Train]