The story goes that John Huston had only suggested that his pal and frequent collaborator Humphrey Bogart buy the rights to the novel Beat the Devil to help a friend in need — writer Claud Cockburn had penned it under the pseudonym James Helvick because of his earlier Communist associations, and was in rather desperate need of money for not unrelated reasons. Bogart agreed, but only if Huston would agree to direct the picture; Bogie would star and produce.
Cockburn’s screenplay adaptation, however, was no good, and the second draft Huston had commissioned from writers Peter Viertel and Tony Veiller wasn’t any better. A week before production was slated to commence in Italy, Huston didn’t have an acceptable script, and was on the verge of abandoning the project altogether. But super-producer David Selznick (who wasn’t officially involved, but whose wife Jennifer Jones was a co-star) suggested he considering hiring a promising young writer named Truman Capote. Huston reached out, and the pair agreed to rip up the script and start over, basically writing it as they went.
The resulting film does, indeed, feel like it’s being made up as they go along — in the best possible way. For though Beat the Devil has subsequently become something of a minor favorite among film fans — valued, rather than dinged, for its convoluted plot, oddball characters, and general peculiarity — it was a critical and commercial failure when it was released in 1953. No one cared enough about it to keep its copyright from lapsing, which tossed the film into the no-man’s-land of public domain, with all the cheap, third-generation duplicate bargain tapes and discs that entails. The shoddy quality of those copies are part of the reason why the new 4K restoration, which opens Friday at New York’s Film Forum, is such a revelation. It’s also of note because of the pains its restorers have taken to return the film to its original cut, before confused preview audiences and executives insisted on cuts and a dopey opening voice-over meant to “clarify” the action (a fool’s errand).
The most noticeable changes — improvements, really — come right at the beginning, where Bogart’s voice-over (in all its Blade Runner-level enthusiasm) has been swiped, and a lengthy opening dialogue scene between Jones’s Gwendolen and Edward Underdown’s Harry has been restored. It’s a huge fix; the earlier, slapdash narration gave the impression that we were joining a movie already in progress. From there, Huston soaks up the Italian scenery and atmosphere, and introduces us first to the “desperate characters” that propel the story (“Harry, we must beware of those men,” Gwendolen warns. “Not one of them looked at my legs!”), and then our star.
Bogie’s Billy Dannreuther, a sly guy in a series of outstanding hounds-tooth jackets, is a connector — a guy who knows the score, and knows everyone connected to it. It’s a self-aware turn as (per Harry) a “middle-aged roustabout,” and Bogart plays it with a note of constant bemusement, the kind of approach George Clooney would subsequently appropriate for the Ocean’s movies. In fact, those films (particularly the Euro-ccentric Ocean’s Twelve) seem to take at least some of their spirit from Beat the Devil, although its frisky, satirical approach was surely confounding to audiences expecting a straight thriller from the director and star behind The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and Key Largo.
The funniest character in the film is Jones’s Gwendolen, accurately described by Billy’s wife Maria (Gina Lollobrigida) as “a strange girl,” charmingly fizzy and cursed with the inclination towards total honesty at inopportune moments (when Billy is thought dead, Gwendolyn tells her husband she’s fallen for him; after he reappears, she explains, “I couldn’t help it! It made you seem less dead”). There’s a rather ribald hint of spouse-swapping between the two main couples; when Harry begs off a sightseeing tour because he’s got “a chill on my liver,” sending Billy and Gwendolen off to canoodle in the countryside, Maria — who, in one of the film’s best running jokes, is broadly Italian but an enthusiastic Anglophile — appears at his bedside with a tea service and a eye-popping display of décolletage.
The rest of the cast is equally appealing: Mario Perrone’s cheerfully candid ship purser (“I believe, sir, that we are sinking!”), Robert Morley’s florid-speaking criminal mastermind, and Bogart’s old Maltese Falcon co-star Peter Lorre (his hair dyed platinum, reportedly inspired by the iconic look of Mr. Capote) insisting, “To be trustworthy’s not as important as to seem trustworthy,” as he flees the room suspiciously.
The plot is convoluted, occasionally conveyed in a flurry of names and information that neither the speaker nor listener seems to pay much attention to — we get a sense that the characters (and filmmakers) are none too concerned with it, so why should we be? “Sometimes scenes that were just about to be shot were written right on the set,” Capote later confessed. “The cast was completely bewildered — sometimes even Huston didn’t seem to know what was going on. Naturally the scenes had to be written out of sequence, and there were peculiar moments when I was carrying around in my head the only real outline of the so-called plot.”
But the plot’s not what Beat the Devil is about anyway — it’s about the mood, and the characters. It operates under the assumption that everyone in it is drunk, lusty, a little crooked, and a little crazy, and once you tune in to their wavelength, it’s fun to just hang out with them for an hour and a half. Late in the film, during a scene of the ship sinking (nothing too symbolic there!), Bogart proclaims of their chances of survival, “I don’t say that we will, but it’s possible! Anything’s possible!” And the film operates under the same guiding principle.
There is a sense, in every scene, of Capote and Huston tearing up that script and starting over — an air of improvisation that’s freeing, to say nothing of unique in the era. Selznick hated the movie: “I can’t tell what is going to happen with this mad picture,” he complained. “It is so utterly insane, it is such a complete defiance of all the rules.” He had no idea that would turn out to be such an endorsement.
“Beat the Devil” plays one week at New York’s Film Forum, starting Friday.