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.