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oompah-pah music is being played by the community band as four shady people are being marched across the square by the police. We are already grinning. The first is short and round, the second is tall and cadaverous, the third is round and short, and the fourth has a little rat face with a bristling mustache. Humphrey Bogart claims they are all criminals in the soundtrack, but we already know this because they were born with a guilty appearance.
Hollywood has lost a lot by undervaluing its character actors, as John Huston’s 1953 film “Beat the Devil” demonstrates. This movie could not be produced in an era where a $20 million star must appear on the screen every second. Bogart, Jennifer Jones, and Gina Lollobrigida are among the stars Huston has to his credit, but the reason his film is so humorous is because he mixes them in with a shady group of con artists. The Jones character tells her husband to “beware of them.” “They are characters in need. None of them paid attention to my legs.”
Although Bogart, who invested his own money in it, claimed that “Only phonies like it,” “Beat the Devil” has been dubbed the first camp film and moved from box office flop to cult classic in a matter of years. In order to meet a daily deadline, Huston flew the young Truman Capote to Ravallo, Italy, where he wrote new scenes. Huston also gave his supporting actors, particularly Robert Morley and Peter Lorre, the freedom to write the dialogue for their own characters. The original screenplay was destroyed on the first day of filming. (Capote had a pet raven that he spoke to on the phone every day; when the bird wouldn’t answer one day, he flew to Rome to comfort it, further delaying the production.)
In the narrative, a group of raffish misfits pass their time in the tiny Italian port while waiting for the rusty ship that would transport them to British East Africa to undergo repairs. Each of them has a covert plan to stake a claim to a uranium find. Billy and Maria Dannreuther are portrayed by Bogart and Lollobrigida. He formerly owned a local villa but has now been reduced to relying on Petersen (Morley), a thief dressed in an opulent ice cream suit with his tie splayed out like a Dover sole on the upper reaches of his belly.
Other members of Petersen’s crew include the German-accented O’Hara (Lorre), who suspiciously remarks that there are many O’Haras in Chile; the rat-faced young Maj. Ross (Ivor Bernard), who remarks with approval that “Hitler knew how to put women in their place,” and the gaunt, somber, hawk-nosed Ravello (Marco Tulli). Gwendolyn and Harry Chelm (Jennifer Jones and Edward Underdown), who represent the landed gentry of Gloucestershire, are also anticipating the departure of the boat.
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These individuals are essentially imports from “James Helvick,” who is actually the left-leaning British critic Claud Cockburn, who wrote an original novel (whose son Alexander named his column in the Nation magazine after the movie). Originally meant to be a semi-serious thriller about the perils of colonial exploitation, the movie was set in a French village. That’s what Bogart anticipated when he signed on, but once the crew moved to Italian locales, John Huston changed his mind and decided to make it a comedy. He did this on the recommendation of Jones’ husband, the relentless memo writer David O. Selznick, and hired the 28-year-old Capote.
Throughout the film, there are occasions when you can hear Capote chuckling to himself as he gives his characters absurd lines of language. The Italian sex icon Lollobrigida was starring in her first English-language film, yet Capote had her say, “Emotionally, I am English.” She makes the assertion that she enjoys tea and crumpets every afternoon and quotes George Moore, a writer who, to my knowledge, has never previously or subsequently been quoted in a motion picture. Bogart talks about his early life: “Until the age of 20, I was an orphan. Then I was adopted by a wealthy and gorgeous woman.” Of course, Lorre also has his well-known line on the passage of time, which is comparable to Orson Welles’ “cuckoo clock” remark from “The Third Man.” Time, adds Lorre, “time, time.” “What time is it? It is made in Switzerland. French accumulate it. It is wasted by Italians. Americans claim that it is cash. It doesn’t exist, according to Hindus. Know what I mean when I say? I believe time is a thief.”
The plot is a secondary concern. This film is about peculiar conduct. As Jones’ husband, Edward Underdown adopts upper-class British manners, travels with a hot water bottle, retires to bed with “a frightening chill on my liver,” and appears unaware that his wife has fallen in love with Bogart’s persona. Bogart’s wife (Lollobrigida) has also started a relationship with Chelm, but he also appears to be unaware of this. When Hollywood censors questioned the adultery in the original plot, Huston and Capote simply made it enigmatic; it is a mark of the film that we are never quite clear if the Dannreuthers are both committing adultery or just seeking to find the Chelms’ secret plans for the uranium.
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The two women produce a lot of the humor. Jones portrays a busybody who frequently says exactly what she means to say inadvertently. Lollobrigida consistently dons the same collection of low-cut, cinched-waist evening gowns throughout the day. The Morley group also shows up unprepared for the heat, sweating, and writhing, with the exception of the unflappable Lorre, whose hair has been dyed platinum and who smokes incessantly from a holder he carries like a flute. Lorre has platinum-colored hair.
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Even the third group of ancillary characters is enjoyable. Bogart hires an old, open-topped Hispano-Suiza car that he claims he bought from a bullfighter and gave to the driver before the two couples leave for supper (Juan de Landa). Later, after a funny calculation error causes the automobile to be lost, the driver demands compensation. I gave you that car, you thief! Bogart exclaims. The driver maintains that it is irrelevant how he obtained it.
The ship’s purser (Mario Perrone), another minor character, has a talent for appearing right away whenever something goes wrong and being fully aware of what transpired. Additionally, the captain (Saro Urzi), who is always intoxicated. After they are shipwrecked in Africa, Ahmed (Manuel Serano), an Arab commander, arrests them and presses Bogart for information regarding Rita Hayworth. When Bogart is asked by Ahmed to turn on Morley, Bogart demands payment. The officer tells him, “Your requests are rather great, under the circumstances.” Bogart asks, “Why shouldn’t they be?” My best friend Fat Gut is someone I will not cheaply betray.
Huston uses the composition of his shots of Morley and his three associates as one of his running jokes throughout the movie. Huston employs a technique of rotation to bring each one forward as he speaks, mournfully framed by the others, despite their striking differences in appearance, height, and demeanor. They work together despite their differences, and the rat-faced Major is disturbed when it appears that Morley may have died in the car accident: “Mussolini, Hitler, and now, Petersen!”
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“Beat the Devil” baffled viewers upon its initial release, but it has subsequently won them over with its appeal. Jones claimed Huston told her: “Jennifer, they’ll remember you longer for ‘Beat the Devil’ than for ‘Song of Bernadette'” in an interview with critic Charles Champlin. True, but how could Huston have known that “Beat the Devil” would be remembered more than the next film he did, “Moby Dick”?
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Above all, the movie exudes unforced charm. Once we realize that hardly much will actually happen, we can unwind and enjoy the performers’ delight because they are simply being invited to convey their sense of playfulness. When Bogart and Jones act out their first flirtation on a porch overlooking the sea, you can tell they’re almost laughing by the time their dialogue is through; Bogart smiles as the scene dissolves. The entire film had that impression. It’s comforting to think back on the days when movies were just witty company instead of the terrifying entertainment machines they are today.