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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Labels: Caper movies, Humphrey Bogart, John Huston, Peter Lorre