Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Director's Spotlight #3.6: John Huston's Beat the Devil

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. January’s director is master craftsman and storyteller John Huston. Next up, 1953’s Beat the Devil.

Grade: 67 (B)
From 1941 to 1953, John Huston directed Humphrey Bogart a grand total of six times, and rarely did either of the two find a collaborator more suited to his talents. Huston’s wry sense of humor and healthy dash of cynicism matched that of Bogart’s, and Bogart’s simple, direct, gruff presence perfectly complimented the direct nature of Huston’s films. Their final collaboration together, 1953’s Beat the Devil, is generally regarded as a footnote compared to the great triumphs of The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and The African Queen, but it’s a pleasant lark of a film all the same, and it’s refreshing to see the two send-up the noir/caper movies they helped create.
Billy Danreuther (Bogart) and his wife, Maria (Gina Lollabrigida), are part of a group of criminals stranded in Italy, also including blustery leader Peterson (Robert Morley), his effeminate sidekick O’Hara (Peter Lorre), and his unhinged henchman, Maj. Jack Ross (Ivor Barnard). Their plans, if their cruise ship starts up and its captain sobers up, are as follows: to take advantage of Kenyan land, buy up uranium, and sell it. They don’t know much about uranium, but how hard could it be to handle? Their plans grow complicated as they run into British couple Gwendolen and Harry Chelm (Jennifer Jones and Edward Underdown), who believes the British may have some stake in the uranium himself.
If the plot seems like it doesn’t make any sense…well, that’s the point. Huston and co-writer Truman Capote (yes, that Truman Capote) looked at the often convoluted plots in noirs and decided to take those conventions to absurd lengths. The heavily improvised film is, as a result, one of Huston’s loosest films, a shaggy little gem that’s not particularly concerned with something as dull as a plot. The drawback is that with little concern for what’s at the heart of the story, the film doesn’t actually go much of anywhere. But with a cast and crew like this, going nowhere can be a lot of fun.
The plot’s macguffin isn’t too far off from a Maltese Falcon (although infinitely more ridiculous), and Huston borrows liberally from his previous film: Bogart’s another cynical outsider, Lorre’s another effeminate sidekick, Morley’s a big blustery leader (in a role initially written for Sydney Greenstreet), and there’s another loose cannon henchman, this one a dagger-wielding lunatic with an obsessive respect for fascist leaders. There’s even a seemingly prim “femme fatale” in Jones, although the character’s lies are described as a part of her “active imagination”, and she’s not nearly as dangerous. They’re characters from the previous film, the only difference being that they’re all idiots (Bogart excepted, of course). Added in the mix are the exotic Lollabrigida and the constantly exasperated Underdown, a man with a permanent stiff-upper-lip and stick up his ass. All parts, as in the best Huston films, are perfectly cast, and everyone’s clearly having a blast.
Borrowing liberally from The Maltese Falcon leads to another look at the dark side of capitalism (along with references to British imperialism), but these are fleeting explorations at best. Beat the Devil is most concerned with mocking the conventions of noirs: the flirtations are comically noir-ish, the double crosses absurd, the doomed quest is flat-out stupid. All the while Huston shows his irreverent sense of humor with quick pacing and dialogue (“I was in love with him!” “He was a very pleasant acquaintance”; “I’m a British subject!” “I wouldn’t say that too loud”) and making great use of the Italian locales. If Beat the Devil doesn’t ultimately add up to much, it’s at least one hell of a fun ride, and when it comes to Huston, it’s all about the journey, not the destination.

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