Saturday, 23 September 2017

Beat The Devil (1953)

"Time . . . time. What is time? Swiss manufacture it. French hoard it. Italians squander it. Americans say it is money. Hindus say it does not exist. Do you know what I say? I say time is a crook."

~ Peter Lorre as Julius O'Hara

How much you enjoy Beat The Devil depends on your tolerance for a film with its tongue stuffed so firmly in cheek. John Huston's 1953 film is loosely based on a novel by Claud Cockburn (under the alias of James Helvick) from a script by Truman Capote that was written day-by-day during the shoot - a process that was hidden from both the cast, including the film's star and financier Humphrey Bogart, and the studio who, in all likelihood and initially at least, expected to be making a thriller noir in the style of The Maltese Falcon. It's fair to say that the audience expected that too, but what they actually got was a camp comedy masquerading as a noir thriller. Or is it the other way around?

The film's plot is like trying to pin down smoke and, in the end, it doesn't really add up or matter anyway. Essentially the story concerns Bogart, Lorre, Robert Morley, Gina Lollabrigida, Marco Tulli and Ivor Bernard as a disparate bunch of crooks (who could give The Ladykillers a run for their money in the motley crew stakes) stranded on Italy's glorious Amalfi Coast waiting to board a ship bound for Africa where their plan is to get rich from the country's uranium deposits. They become distracted by a British touring couple, the Chelms (Jennifer Jones and Edward Underdown) who may or may not be landed gentry from Gloucestershire. Sporting blonde hair, a sometimes wavering cut glass English accent and the kind of fitness techniques that would have earned her a cash-in workout video if the film were made a couple of decades later, Jones has the measure of the gang at first sight - "They're desperate characters," she warns Underdown. "Not one of them looked at my legs" - but quickly proves to be as dangerous thanks to her wild imagination and penchant for storytelling. Capote's script is a delight here, pre-facing all of her outlandish porkies with the key phrase "In point of fact..." that it becomes a comic catchphrase the audience grows familiar with. His irreverent humour, and desire to place it specifically on the lips of Jones, reaches its critical point in a scene where Bogart actually creases up right there on camera - it's during the gangplank scene, and the offending line is that Jones is something of a witch and "could have been a professional". It's not the only incident of corpsing captured on camera either; look out for the scene in which the run-soaked and long suffering ship's captain (Saro Urzi) finally breaks down into frenzied histrionics at his passengers and you'll see the purser (Mario Perrone - a restaurant pianist cast on a whim in Rome despite not knowing a word of English and yet given the most eloquent pieces of dialogue!) unable to stifle his laughter. Meanwhile Capote tests the audience's own breaking point when he has Lollabrigida, the archetypal Italian sexpot second only to Loren, claim that "Emotionally, I am English", before winsomely daydreaming of high teas and Country Life magazine. And then there's the fact that the Lorre has an Irish name! And that his partner, Tulli, can't ever pronounce it: "Ohurra", he says to Lorre's increasing frustration. Beat The Devil is a film therefore less concerned with its own nefarious plot and more concerned with eccentric behaviour and campy one liners. Pity poor Jones though, she had clearly signed up with something else in mind and petitioned Huston and Capote with the concerns she felt regarding her character's continuity whilst at the opposite extreme, Morley and Lorre, who clearly got it - and Morley in particular getting his Sydney Greenstreet moment, were encouraged to come up with their own dialogue and happily did so. 

Beat The Devil is the kind of film that looks like it was made by a cast and crew having a lot of fun. Indeed, the actual nature of the film seems like an imposition on what was essentially a group holiday to Italy! Tales of high stakes poker games, feats of machismo, and marathon drinking sessions litter the legends of this production, as indeed do tales of illness and injury: an impacted wisdom tooth laid Capote low, and on another occasion he left Rome to check on the health and wellbeing his pet raven Lola! The writer made a habit of speaking to Lola on the phone each day and when the bird fell silent, he feared the worst and would not be settled until he was by its side.  But perhaps the most famous injury was to the star itself; on a drive from Rome to Naples, Bogart was involved in a car crash which smashed his bridge, requiring a replica set of dentures to be sent from his dentist in California. The production cannot disguise this event - not only does Bogart look pretty ill and run down in some scenes (more so than from the hangovers we imagine much of the personnel endured) he was also unable to deliver some dialogue and the then unknown comedian and mimic Peter Sellers was hired to dub some of Bogie's lines. The fun is trying to spot them; there are a few moments when Bogie's bourbon burr is replaced with something altogether more youthful, but it's a credit to Sellers' talent that overall it's really very hard to see the join. 

Despite the fun had by all, it's clear that everyone involved had a strong work ethic and optimism for Beat The Devil and were disappointed when it was given the thumbs down by critics at the time. Bogart in particular was disappointed with it's outcome, which is to be expected when you consider he ploughed his own money into it. His opinion of the film and its reception was that "only phonies like it" suggesting the trend for post-ironic pleasures that has only grown in the sixty odd years since its release was not something he would care for.


  1. I'd never heard of this movie before, but after reading your review, I found it on Youtube and had a very enjoyable time watching it - thanks for the tip-off!

    1. It's a hoot isn't it? You're very welcome :)