Thursday, September 8, 2011

BEAT THE DEVIL [1953] - Improvisational Camp Spoof Before its Time

Movies made before World War II may seem very peculiar to contemporary audiences. Working with old style playwrights, and movie sets, with few technical sophistications at their disposal, producers and directors wishing to shake things up or inject a little frisson of surprise or the unexpected were restrained by traditional narrative concepts.

In France, the so-called New Wave film directors, inspired by the Noir tradition in America, began to experiment with plot and sequence. Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Resnais--the "auteurs" of a new kind of movie-making. The heroes of this new approach were Jean Renoir, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, the Marx Brothers and John Huston, among others. The French emphasized a sense of free variation, spontaneity, diversion, unexpected cuts, and tangential elaboration, techniques which thwarted the dictates of plot formulae, and kept audiences off-balance.

The idea that you could make a movie which "didn't make any sense" or which played with or satirized its own genre, was a very new idea in 1953, when Beat the Devil was being made. Huston had already completed many of the films for which he would be revered [The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Key Largo (1948), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), The Red Badge of Courage (1951), The African Queen (1951), and Moulin Rouge (1952)]. He was on a roll! For a change of pace, he decided to try his hand at a cinematic spoof, which would satirize the very mode of presentation he'd succeeded at so well during the previous decade. Beat the Devil would go through the motions of a noir picaresque adventure while poking fun at itself the while. Crucial to the idea was the casting of Bogart, and minor character-actor veterans Robert Morley and Peter Lorre (who had performed so admirably in earlier Huston efforts), to give a veneer of legitimacy to the outward stereotype. Feminine interest would be provided by a "blonde" Jennifer Jones--looking as good as ever--and on the "dark side of the force" Gina Lollabrigida.

Though it is not now much remarked, Huston's career in the movies had begun on the writing side. He'd penned several complete screenplays by the beginning of the war, and had a knowledge of literature which rivaled that of most professional movie directors. Huston could be said to have had a fairly "literary" approach to movie-making, so there would be no point in attempting to describe Beat the Devil as an "unconscious" effort, or an unintended mishap, though that appraisal has been a tempting explanation to many critics over the years.

Truman Capote's only previous screenwriting contribution had been some supplementary dialogue on De Sica's Indiscretion of an American Wife [1953]. Huston hired him at $1500 week to collaborate with him on the script, and the two stayed just ahead of the shooting schedule, at times completing the next day's action in the wee hours.* This got to be a joke among the members of the crew, that Huston and Capote were becoming "intimate." It wasn't long before the original story-line had undergone some sweeping changes. Capote had by this time published two novels, and a book of much-admired short stories, so his reputation was well-established.

I'm not familiar with the book upon which the movie is based. Written by Claud Cockburn, under the pseudonym James Helvick, the book is apparently a deliberate attempt to write a straight noir whodunit, nothing like the adaptation which would be made of it here. Cockburn was a Communist journalist of the 1930's, a distant relation of Evelyn Waugh, who was attacked by George Orwell for his Stalinist sympathies. He published his memoirs in the 1950's and '60's. When Huston acquired the rights to the story, did he already have in mind a satiric or "camp" version in mind? Was his hiring of Capote--a notoriously louche gamin--merely a convenience (he was living in Rome at the time--the film would be filmed mostly in Italy), or did he scheme to exploit the witty young novelist's archly ironic turn of mind to convert the straight narrative into a spoof? Perhaps Huston touches on this in his own autobiography.

Claud Cockburn

In any event, what we get in the movie version feels like a half-hearted attempt at serious acting, and a story so silly as to invite derisive guffaws. Was Huston trying to undercut a whole archive of pretentious movie-making history, or did he think of this as some kind of half-serious new comic trope? The movie begins in Italy, in a little seaport town. The local brass band is oompah-ing around the town square as an unlikely foursome of bedraggled looking shady characters is accompanied by the local police to jail. The movie consists of a flashback to the events leading up to this point. Bogart plays a character not unlike the one he portrayed in Casablanca, a sort of down-at-heel soldier-of-fortune-cum-businessman, an exile from ordinary life. He dons the familiar white dinner jacket and black bow-tie from the earlier incarnation, and speaks the same hard-boiled, world-weary cynical talk. As Peterson, one of the four disreputable characters on the make, Robert Morley reprises the Sydney Greenstreet role from Maltese Falcon, dispensing platitudes and scheming away through his quivering jowels, as Ivor Barnard (in his last role, he died the same year the film was made) replicates the Wilmer Cook role (played by Elisha Cook Jr.), the little hot-headed gunman of the previous film. Peter Lorre, mostly playing an older version of himself (as Joel Cairo in Falcon), rolls his eyes coyly and cuts loose with some of Capote's sharpest dialogue: "Time, time, what is time? The Swiss manufacture it. The French hoard it. The Italians squander it. The Americans say it is money. Hindus say it does not exist. You know what I say? I say time is a crook."

The story line itself is so ingeniously simple, it almost doesn't add up. A quartet of small time confidence men find themselves stranded in an Italian seaport waiting for their ship to be made ready for the trip across the Mediterranean to Africa. This gang of oddballs has entered into a partnership with a gold-digging couple--Billy Dannreuther (Bogart) and his wife Marie (Lollabrigida)--in hopes of bidding on a tract of land on the Dark Continent rumored to be rich in uranium deposits.

An English couple, played stiffly by Edward Underdown (as Harry Chelm), and Jennifer Jones (as Mrs.), seem at first to be casual, if somewhat eccentric, tourists befriending the Dannreuthers. Everyone is trying to pretend they're not after what they're really after, so the dialogue has an inherent double-entendre quality, even without the larger frame of burlesque through which the audience sees things. Everyone plays it straight, no matter how absurd everything becomes. The four "desperate characters" plot and scheme with Dannreuther, while Dannreuther and Mrs. Chelm start an open-ended affair.

In due course it is revealed that instead of being a well-heeled British Lord with a landed estate, Chelm is just another measly crook on the make for the uranium deposits. When the gang of four discover this, the plot thickens. At length, the little tramp steamer sails, and the story resumes on shipboard. The major, whom it turns out is an assassin (who's already killed one official in London whom he suspects will blow the whistle on the caper), attempts to stab Chelm while the ship is marooned from a blown engine. Dannreuther prevents this, but Mrs. Chelm betrays her husband by fingering him for attempted murder (of the Major), and the loony captain has him chained in his room. The goofy romance between Bogart (Dannreuther) and Jennifer Jones (Mrs. Chelm) seems on the point of realization, when the ship suddenly begins to sink. Chelm escapes and jumps ship, while the rest of the group makes its escape via life-boat, landing on an African beach. Accosted by Moroccan militiamen on horses, they're captured and taken for interrogation at the local police headquarters. Bribes are tendered, and the motley crew returns to Italy, presumably to reinitiate their plot. But Scotland Yard has sent a man to track down the perpetrator of a certain London case, who arrests the four after a brief interrogation. In the closing scene, Mrs. Chelm receives a cable from British East Africa, revealing that Chelm (who has not drowned as everyone had assumed) has made his way to the uranium mineral site and secured the rights. Mrs. Dannreuther faints. Mrs. Chelm is consumed in blissful tears. Dannreuther (Bogart) reads the cable, and breaks out into hysterical laughter, exclaiming with meaningful irony "this is the end. . .this is the end."

Straight Film Noir, like the hardboiled crime novel genre upon which it is based, nearly always teetered on the brink of absurdity. Artistic license required an exaggeration of the human capacity for larceny and violence, to a degree that usually seemed over the top. The purification of the style which reached its peak from the late 1930's to the late 1950's, may have occurred later, with such sophisticated reinterpretations as Chinatown [1974], Body Heat [1981] or LA Confidential [1997]. But the neo-noir tendency shares with its model an appreciation for the qualities which are endemic, specific to the genre. Conscious parodic reactions are familiar today, but those spawned in Europe, where American cinematic excess was always seen as a kind of cartoon anyway, always seem pale by comparison. But unconscious parody, or the weariness of decadent regard, might see in humor the possibility for a third rail, which Capote (and perhaps Huston himself) interpreted as a form of pop camp. Indeed, this film makes a lot more sense as a comedy--despite the off-stage violence--than any exercise in detection, exotic "intrigue," romantic melodrama, or free-floating suspense. Like most Huston films, the cinematography and pacing are straightforward and no-nonsense; filmed in Italy, it exploits the standard picturesque scenery to full advantage, creating effects which reminded some viewers of some post-War Italian avant-garde B&W movies. Improvisational movie-making (of the kind Capote and Huston must certainly have imagined, laboring away on their shooting-script in their director's tent late into the wee hours), which found its expression in later auteurs (such as Quentin Tarantino), was an approach that few would have thought interesting or fruitful in 1953--which obviously accounts for the misinterpretation(s) the film has been subject to over the decades. The underlying subtext of the overt narrative is the conflict between the minds of its progenitors, and the third-rate material they had to work with. On one level, it's simply the difference between real dramatic action, and the typical whodunit cliché which shrewd producers usually chose to cash in on. Who knows how Huston may have conned his backers into investing in this effort? Had they known, it's unlikely the movie would ever have gotten made. Many, many bad movies are the result of bad decisions based on market analysis and notoriety. In this case, a great director, a great writer, and half a dozen major box office stars conspired to make an anti-classic spoof, something which they probably had no idea would happen at the beginning. But by the end, it was surely plain for all to see. Bogart, who had a nice piece of his own change invested in the production, probably was resigned to failure by the end of production. His slightly hysterical laugh at the end is as much a gesture of surreal resignation, as it is a grateful sigh of relief that the whole affair was over and done with.

Bogart would only have three and a half years more to live, but he still had The Caine Mutiny, Sabrina, The Barefoot Contessa, The Left Hand of God, and The Desperate Hours ahead of him. Huston still had Moby Dick, The Misfits, Adrian Messenger, Fat City, The Man Who Would Be King, Wise Blood, Under the Volcano, Prizzi's Honor, and The Dead to do. Jennifer Jones, who comes off quite well in this farce, didn't have much left in the tank, and for my money, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing was her last performance of substance.

The ragtag collection of characters almost feels like a circus troupe. As a footnote to that, one might recall that three years later, Gina Lollabrigida would play opposite Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster in Trapeze, a circus high-wire drama.

Today Beat the Devil can be viewed in its entirety on the following YouTube OpenFlix site, or here onhulu TV.


*I read just now that Helvick had been hired to collaborate with Huston on the script, but that Helvick split during production, so Huston needed a replacement on short notice; conveniently, Capote was living nearby in Rome, hence the connection. That's an unsubstantiated account, but it could well be true. Though it certainly would be best if I had read the novel itself, I think the point of my post doesn't require it--my interest is in the use Huston/Capote make of the story, not the story basis itself. Movies aren't the books they're made from, but independent artifacts which are often altered and augmented during production. Among the films which one might consider in the improvisatory category, Beat the Devil seems an obvious choice.


1000 Names of Vishnu said...

Claud Cockburn

Alex Cockburn's daddy (AC runs Counterpunch a leftist rag---some Cockburn brothers too).

Wise Blood an odd book.The movie was OK--didn't really capture Mss O'C's strange Dante meets Kafka vision IMHE.

Huston did make some of the greatest flicks ever.
Tho...I wonder if Dash approved of the re-writes/changes to the original MF (probably not).Another great noir writer--Jim Thompson. After Dark my sweet--a pretty copacetic neo-noir picture

Charles Shere said...

Beat the Devil, Last Year in Marienbad, and Unfaithfully Yours. Those are all the movies I need.

Actual Analysis said...

The novel is not a straightforward noir whodunit. It has elements of several genres and is probably best understood as a comic novel. The New York Times review of the movie said it missed the book's "book's bite, bounce and decidedly snug construction," and that what should have been a treat ended up as a damp firecracker. Cockurn's dialogue was wittier than Capote's, and the plot did not have a happy ending for anyone (in the book, for example, Harry Chelm is blown to bits in an explosion, so he can't make his way to Africa). The film also moves the corrupt police from Spain to Africa -- wouldn't want to offend Franco, eh?

So I recommend the book, if only as an interesting comparison to the movie. I much preferred the book, but in the end it all depends on personal taste.

Curtis Faville said...

Actual Analysis:

Your comment here underscores my main points.

I wasn't choosing between the book and the movie.

I haven't read the novel, so it may well be that its greater ambiguity was at least partly adopted by the screenwriters, which would suggest that the movie (which I see as an eccentric camp effort) has more fidelity to the original than I imagined.

Thanks for commenting. I think it's possible to like the movie without needing to know or care about the book.