Sunday, November 24, 2013

Perhaps Satire of 'Beat the Devil' Eluded Audiences in '53

Billy Dannreuther (Humphrey Bogart): The only thing standing between you and a watery grave is your wits, and that's not my idea of adequate protection.

Satire isn't successful if the audience doesn't get it — and that, I have concluded, was the problem with "Beat the Devil."

I've heard that Humphrey Bogart loathed "Beat the Devil," which premiered on this day in 1953.

I'm not sure why that is so. Sadly, I can only conclude that it couldn't have been anything but the script — which, from the perspective of 60 years later, seems lively to me but may have been over the heads of moviegoers in 1953.

I've heard that Bogart hated it because he invested a lot of his own money in the project, and it didn't do too well at the box office. That's a more plausible reason than the others that come to mind, but it really only explains why Bogart didn't like it.

It couldn't be because of the director — John Huston. Bogart and Huston had worked together on at least three movies that are regarded as classics today. Clearly, Bogart didn't hate Huston, and neither did movie audiences.

It couldn't be the cast. Bogart worked with Peter Lorre on other projects. His history with Robert Morley wasn't as extensive so I don't know what kind of relationship they had, but they seemed to work well together in "The African Queen." And audiences seemed to like those stars.

He had no history at all — as far as I know — with Jennifer Jones or Gina Lollobrigida, but he seemed to have a pretty good personal chemistry with both of them. And moviegoers liked both of them, too.

Bogart successfully played parts in comedies, thrillers, film noir — all sorts of genres. Perhaps that was the problem with "Beat the Devil." It was many genres rolled into one. Film critic Roger Ebert observed that it was called "the first camp movie," and that is as good a description as any.

A "cult classic," Ebert had this to say about "Beat the Devil."
"John Huston's 'Beat the Devil' (1953) shows how much Hollywood has lost by devaluing its character actors. In an age when a $20 million star must be on the screen every second, this picture could not be made. Huston has stars, too: Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, but his movie is so funny because he throws them into the pot with a seedy gang of charlatans."

That seedy gang of characters included Lorre and Morley as half of a gang of four intent upon gaining access to uranium–rich deposits in Kenya. They find themselves stranded in Italy with Bogart and Lollobrigida while the steamer in which they are traveling is being repaired. They are joined by a British couple, played by Jones (in a blonde wig) and Edward Underdown.

Gwendolyn Chelm (Jennifer Jones): Harry, we must beware of these men. They are desperate characters.

Harry Chelm (Edward Underdown): What makes you say that?

Gwendolyn Chelm: Not one of them looked at my legs!

Actually, I don't really think of "Beat the Devil" as a Bogart movie. Sure, he was its primary star — and a recent Best Actor winner — but I think it was wrong for the people of that time to put so much stock in his role in it — if that is what they did — and what the critics of the time may have said about it.

It was really John Huston's film. He directed it, and he intended for it to be a parody of the film noir style that he pioneered. In that sense, it succeeded.

And Huston's fingerprints are all over it — his dry wit is evident from beginning to end. "Beat the Devil" is, basically, a comedy of errors. I can think of many similar movies but none that can be effectively compared to it. Huston's lively and socially aware script, which was co–written by Truman Capote, comments on a wide variety of subjects.

And, in the grand tradition of comedies of errors, "Beat the Devil" is a brilliant illustration of the old adage, "What a tangled web we weave ..."

This was the last time Bogart worked with Huston or Lorre.

(By the way, Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his Oscar–winning portrayal of Truman Capote, tells a story about the making of "Beat the Devil.")