‘Beat the Devil’
Director: John Huston
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones
4 (out of 5) Globes
It’s been called "the birthplace of camp," but maybe John Huston’s wackadoodle 1953 sorta-spoof is better enjoyed as something else: a chance to watch a paid Italian vacation for stars who don’t need it. It started out as a serious thriller with delusions of grandeur: Humphrey Bogart plays a fallen tycoon who teams with a quartet of lowly crooks (including Peter Lorre and Robert Morley) to swindle uranium-rich African land from an English couple (Jennifer Jones and Edward Underdown). It was supposed to be a takedown of imperialism.
Somewhere on the trip to the shoot, though, Huston decided it should be a comedy. En route he scooped up 28-year-old Truman Capote, who would write the script on the fly. Huston didn’t tell the cast, and sometimes he’d order complicated camera set-ups so Capote could bang out more of his ridiculously florid dialogue.
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Bogie’s sixth team-up with Huston, who catapulted him to the top with “The Maltese Falcon,” “Beat the Devil” was also his last; the actor was furious at the results, which he had paid for. At least they had fun: Nights were spent reveling with visitors like Orson Welles and Ingrid Bergman. Bogie lost some teeth, Huston emerged unscathed from a drunken 40-foot fall and Capote surely lost most of his paycheck at movie star poker games with a $2,000 minimum entry. (You can read about more craziness in this appreciation, including stuff on Capote's pet crow, with whom he would talk on the phone.)
That’s all off-screen, but what’s on- is pure weird. At the least, something’s always slightly off. The actors struggle with Capote’s chatter, Bogart looks either chill or annoyed and Lorre walks off in the middle of a philosophical monologue. There be the camp appeal, but the good vibes still spill onto the screen. Jones, in particularly, is hilarious as a chipper compulsive liar and Huston gets great mileage out of the wildly diverse heights and shapes of his four thieves.
Many noirs don’t want you to pay attention to the plot, but “Beat the Devil” really doesn’t want you to care. It provides enough distractions, particularly once the action shifts to a ship manned by an angry drunk captain, and again to a sinister Arab interrogator with a thing for Rita Hayworth. Bogart never lived to see it reclaimed, nor restored to its slightly longer length, as the copy beaming at Film Forum. Should a similar fate befall Steven Soderbergh’s underrated richies-in-Europe jaunt “Ocean’s Twelve.”
"Beat the Devil" plays at Film Forum from Fri., Feb. 17 through Thurs., Feb. 23. Visit the site for showtimes and tickets.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge