Thursday, February 3, 2011

Beat The Devil (1953, John Huston)

Humphrey Bogart and saving grace Jennifer Jones star in John Huston's Beat The Devil, co-written by Huston and Truman Capote. A strange adventure film which, in many ways, seems to exist to give Bogart, Huston and Capote a chance to drink together (at the expense of Bogart's own Santana Productions which was hurt most upon its lack of box-office success--this being its final production), it suffers for the same reason--Capote reportedly wrote the screenplay day to day as the film progressed, ultimately leaving the supposed "noir spoof" feeling disjointed at best.

Always an adventurer and a "man's man", this Huston piece feels remarkably less economical (despite the look of the sub-par filmstock), and isn't helped by Bogart's performance. There is a clear disconnect here between Bogart's trademark disaffectedness and the transparency in his performance that signifies that he just doesn't care about the project. Capote lines that sound as if they should be jokes come off sounding like they should have been jokes. Peter Lorre plays an underused Peter Lorre, and Jennifer Jones plays a straight-laced adulteress and brilliant ditz.

Gina Lollobrigida and Jones carry the picture in a way I refuse to give Capote credit for. Much of the film is purportedly ad libbed and, sadly, feels that way. The kooky cast never feels fully fleshed out due to the olio nature of the plot. Despite being front-loaded with remarkable talent, Beat The Devil rarely gets off the ground and doesn't stand remarkably higher than Roger Corman's Z-budget Creature From The Haunted Sea. Unlike the latter, this film not only feels (which is strange for Huston) like resources were wasted, but devoid of the enthusiasm and love for the parodied genre--an essential in parody.

By no means a failure, but often difficult to care about, Beat The Devil stands in the middle-ground between its cult status and Bogart's scathing assertion that
"only phonies like it." I can't help but to think how much more interesting it would have been to see footage of Capote pinning Bogart in the fabled, drunken wrestling match during production than the multiple missed opportunities throughout the film which I'm sure contribute to the fact that it has fallen into the public domain.-- **/four stars

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