J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, February 13, 2017

John Huston’s Restored and Uncensored Beat the Devil

It has been the African continent’s great misfortune to be blessed with extensive mineral wealth. Since the end of colonialism, the natural resource economy has been ripe for dictatorial exploitation. During the prior colonial days, it lured plenty of unsavory fortune-hunters. Billy Dannreuther’s associates are about as desperate and unscrupulous as it gets. They intend to grab a stretch of uranium-rich land in British East Africa, but they are their own worst enemies throughout John Huston’s Beat the Devil, which screens as it has almost never been seen—fully restored and uncensored, starting this Friday at Film Forum.

Dannreuther was once rich and extravagant, but now he is just extravagant. He has high hopes of regaining his fortune through the uranium scheme, but to do so, he must work with the dodgy quartet of rogues led by the rotund Peterson. His associates, former National socialist Julius O’Hara and Ravello (named just like the town) have been cooling their heels for a while, but Maj. Jack Ross has just arrived, after presumably murdering a suspicious bureaucrat in the London Colonial office.

The co-conspirators are anxious for the skipper of their tramp steamer to somber up, so they can be on their way, except of course Dannreuther. He always enjoyed the charms of Ravello (the Amalfi town), especially when in the company of Gwendolen Chelm. The Chelms are a distinctive couple. He is a snobby Englishman’s Englishman, while she is a complete mythomaniac. She is also a young, attractive blonde, so Dannreuther would like to seduce her, but she is too interested in him as well for that to be necessary.

Since Harry Chelm and the Anglophile Italian bombshell Maria Dannreuther also get into the extramarital act, it is not hard to see why the Production Code nannies demanded two of three minutes of strategic trimming. Frankly, it is almost a miracle there was anything left. Although there is certainly no sex or nudity in Beat the Devil, it is crystal clear what kind of monkey business is going on behind closed doors.

With that healthy lustiness restored, the film does not quite seem as larky as its reputation suggests. Reportedly, it was scripted by Huston and Truman Capote on-the-fly, day-by-day, almost as a series of dares or screenwriting Madlibs. Granted, the ensemble’s tongues definitely find their way into their cheeks, but there is still some terrific film noir business going on. Clearly, Huston and cinematographer Oswald Morris were inspired by the Amalfi settings, utilizing some dazzling crane shots that fully exploit the cinematic backdrops.

Humphrey Bogart could play a picaresque anti-hero like Dannreuther in his sleep—in fact, he may have, but still flashes the old charm in his scenes with Jennifer Jones’ Ms. Chelm. As one would expect, Peter Lorre, Robert Morley, and Ivor Barnard (recognizable from The 39 Steps) make up a deliciously seedy rogues gallery of Dannreuther’s would-be accomplices. Comparatively speaking, Gina Lollobrigida’s Maria Dannreuther counts as the grounded commonsensical one in this farcical caper, but she still adds plenty of allure and elegance. Yet, the most surprising work comes from British character actor Edward Underdown, who makes Harry Chelm quite the wildcard of the film.

It is just great fun to see legends like Bogart, Lorre, and Morley hamming it up and savoring the film’s skulduggery. However, the fully restored version offers a happy opportunity to revisit what many call the original camp classic. It might have been played for laughs, but Huston executed the caper with tremendous style. Many, many scenes have a tremendous sense of composition (and they were shot by camera operator Freddie Francis, who would go on to direct several classic Hammer Horror films). Very highly recommended, the fully restored Beat the Devil opens this Friday (2/17) at Film Forum.

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