A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, June 2, 2017

Beat the Devil (John Huston, 1953)

Humphrey Bogart called John Huston's Beat the Devil a "mess," which it is, but much of the messiness is due to Bogart's presence in the film. His tough-guy persona, for which Huston himself was largely responsible after casting Bogart in roles like Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Fred C. Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), puts him tonally out of sync with the rest of the cast of eccentrics in Beat the Devil. Bogart doesn't seem to know how to play Billy Dannreuther, an American trying to recoup his fortunes by playing along with some rather oddball crooks and grifters: the florid Peterson (Robert Morley), the German-Chilean who calls himself O'Hara (Peter Lorre), the lugubrious Italian Ravello (Marco Tulli), and the fascist Maj. Jack Ross (Ivor Barnard), whose name almost suggests his character -- a humanoid Jack Russell terrier with a hair-trigger temper. Moreover, Dannreuther is rather improbably mated with the scheming Maria (Gina Lollobrigida) and equally improbably wooing the compulsive liar Gwendolen Chelm (Jennifer Jones). That Bogart has no chemistry with either actress, both of whom give delicious performances, further drags the film down. Jones made two films with Huston, this one and the little-seen We Were Strangers (1949), and they are two of the most interesting performances in her career, making me wish that Huston had been able to release Jones more frequently from the clutches of David O. Selznick. Everyone, including Edward Underdown as Gwendolen's husband, Harry, does delightful comic work except Bogart, who glumly and blankly delivers lines he doesn't seem to be trying to understand. That may be understandable, given that the screenplay was being written by Huston and Truman Capote -- and the uncredited Peter Viertel and Anthony Veiller -- pretty much on the fly while the film was being made. The result is a collection of very amusing moments pieced together with a lot of cobbled-together nonsense about uranium deposits in Africa -- in short, the stuff of which cult movies are made. I'm not a member of the cult, but I happily watch Beat the Devil every now and then, especially for the performances of Jones and Morley and Lorre, while wishing that Huston had cast someone more skilled than Bogart -- Grant? Stewart? Cooper? -- at working amid chaos and nonsense.