Sunday, May 6, 2018

Beat the Devil (Santana, Romulus, Dear Film, United Artists, 1954)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

A week ago Friday Charles and I ran a quite interesting, if deeply flawed, movie that I haven’t had a chance to comment on since then: Beat the Devil, the 1954 (though gave the date as 1953) film that was the last of the six collaborations between star Humphrey Bogart and director John Huston. At least three of their joint movies routinely show up on all-time best lists — The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), and The African Queen (1952, and Bogart’s first film in color — its already high reputation got a major boost when an American Film Institute poll rated Bogart the greatest film actor of all time and Katharine Hepburn the greatest actress, which raised interest in the one film they had made together) — and two of the others, Across the Pacific (1942) and Key Largo (1948), also have their points. Indeed, I would argue that Bogart-Huston was one of the great star-director teams of all time, rivaling John Wayne-John Ford, Rock Hudson-Douglas Sirk, and Johnny Depp-Tim Burton. Alas, Beat the Devil is the weakest of the six Bogart-Huston films, a movie that seems to drown in its own quirkiness — though in this most recent go-round I found myself liking it better than I had before. The first time I saw it I was incredibly disappointed because my mom had talked it up to me as a spoof of The Maltese Falcon and the whole schtick Huston so often used of a group of unscrupulous but not entirely evil men after a goal which eludes them (no wonder he wanted to direct Moby Dick!) — and it didn’t really come off either as a serious crime film or a spoof. Beat the Devil was based on a novel by Claud Cockburn (though he’s credited under the pseudonym “James Helvick,” perhaps because Cockburn’s Left-wing politics rendered him vulnerable to the Hollywood blacklist) — Cockburn’s son Alexander used the title for his columns in The Nation — and, apparently after Huston’s effort to get a credible screenplay out of Cockburn himself failed, he called in Truman Capote, who gets credit for the script.

Just how the notoriously homophobic Huston and the screaming-queen Capote got along, I have no idea, but Capote studded the script with campy wisecracks that are by far the best part of the movie, most notably when Peter Lorre (the third talent this film has in common with The Maltese Falcon) declaims a meditation on 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.” Beat the Devil is set mostly in Ravenna, Italy, as an ill-matched group of adventurers — Billy Dannreuther (Bogart), his wife Maria (Gina Lollobrigida, not particularly glamorous and looking decidedly uncomfortable), Peterson (Robert Morley), Julius O’Hara (Peter Lorre — and yes, there’s a lot of by-play about a Peter Lorre character having a name like “O’Hara,” to which he replies, “Why do you always make jokes about my name, huh? In Chile the name of O’Hara is — is a tip-top name. Many Germans in Chile have become to be called O’Hara” — and if that sounds silly, remember that the 19th century freedom fighter who led the liberation of Chile from the Spanish was named, I kid you not, “Bernardo O’Higgins”!), Major Jack Ross (Ivor Barnard, in his last film — he completed his part but died before the movie was released) and Dannreuther’s Italian chauffeur Ravello (Marco Tulli), to whom he gave a car that falls into the ocean in one scene — anxiously awaiting the departure of a ship, the S.S. Nyanga, for Africa, where Dannreuther has a contact who will give him development rights for a territory rich in uranium. These dubious plotters also come into contact with a mysterious British couple named Harry (Edward Underdown) and Gwendolyn (Jennifer Jones, who had worked with Huston before in his 1949 film We Were Strangers) Chelm, and Billy Dannreuther instantly falls in lust with Gwendolyn Chelm and spends most of the movie cruising her. Beat the Devil, as Charles points out, is a film out of time; parts of it seem to hearken back to the Warner Bros. movies of the late 1930’s like A Slight Case of Murder and Larceny, Inc. (both of which starred Edward G. Robinson as a former bootlegger having to readjust to the very different demands of making an above-board living out of booze after Repeal), while in other respects it seems more like a 1960’s movie.

It certainly looks more like a European than an American movie, not only because it was shot there but because cinematographer Oswald Morris shoots it in flat, grey tones and doesn’t try for noir effects (also most of the film takes place in daylight under a sunny and undramatic Italian sky) and the composer, Franco Mannino, came up with a bouncy pop-sounding score instead of the deep, sinister orchestral stuff Max Steiner and Adolph Deutsch had written for the Bogart-Huston collaborations at Warner Bros. It also looks like a 1960’s movie in its virtual plotlessness (in that regard it reminded me of Lewis Milestone’s 1934 film The Captain Hates the Sea, whose intersecting storylines and ensemble casting made it seem so much like a prototype of a Robert Altman film I’m surprised Altman didn’t remake it) and its irreverence towards the Hollywood clichés. Where Beat the Devil suffers is in the rather stereotypical casting — none of the actors are really “stretched” by the story; it’s clear Huston wanted their “usual” characterizations from them and little or nothing more — and the fact that we really don’t care about any of these people. It ends with Bogart and company finally getting on the ship, only a shipwreck forces them onto the coast, miles away from where they need to be to claim the fortune they’re after, and they’re arrested and interrogated by Ahmed (Manuel Serano, virtually the only person in the film who gets to act with any power and authority), only Bogart’s character talks their way out of captivity by claiming to be a Hollywood bigwig who knows Rita Hayworth well. (I thought this scene would have been even funnier if, instead of asking Bogart with wide eyes, “Do you really know Rita Hayworth?,” he’d have asked, “Do you really know Lauren Bacall?”) Another in-joke in a film full of them: the British police inspector who’s come to Italy to arrest Petersen for his murder of their contact back in London, though played by Bernard Lee, is given the character name “Jack Clayton” — a real Jack Clayton was an associate producer on this film and later became a director (his career as such turned out one great film, Room at the Top, and one supremely bad one, the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby). Beat the Devil was enough of a personal project for Bogart that he invested $200,000 in the project — and lost it all; he had also wanted Huston for director from the get-go but lined up Nicholas Ray (who’d previously directed him in Knock on Any Door and In a Lonely Place with Ray’s then-wife, Gloria Grahame) to take over the project in case Huston’s immediately previous film, Moulin Rouge, ran over schedule.

I also remember seeing some footage of home movies taken on the set of Beat the Devil by one of the participants and noticing how much of a “lift” the scenes got from being seen in color — even home-movie color — which made me wish Huston, Bogart and their producing partners at Britain’s Romulus studios had shot Beat the Devil in color. (Huston’s immediately previous film, Moulin Rouge — a 1952 biopic of artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec — had been in color, and he and Oswald Morris, who shot that movie as well as Beat the Devil, had had major arguments with Technicolor color consultant Natalie Kalmus because she wanted the colors neon-bright and Huston and Morris wanted to tone them down to look like the colors Toulouse-Lautrec had used in his art. After Moulin Rouge was released and became a huge international hit, Kalmus, trying to maintain Technicolor’s commercial position against competition from the inferior but cheaper, simpler and easier-to-use Eastmancolor process, changed her tune and advertised, “Other color processes can give you color, but only Technicolor can give you Moulin Rouge color.”) Beat the Devil emerges as a frustrating movie, indifferently acted — at times one gets the impression the members of Huston’s starry cast are just going through the motions, and Bogart looks so wan and drawn I suspect he was already starting to suffer from the cancer that would kill him three years later — bizarrely scripted and unthrillingly staged and photographed, with a blatant self-plagiarism from the ending of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as Dannreuther receives a telegram from Harry Chelm (ya remember Harry Chelm?) that Chelm has already beaten them to the uranium deal, and Bogart reacts with the same long, life-affirming laugh Walter Huston gave forth with when the titular treasure literally blew away at the end of Sierra Madre — and yet it’s oddly haunting in its very disconnectedness and it’s a film that can’t be dismissed altogether even though it’s hardly how one would have wanted the Huston-Bogart collaboration to end!