Billy: If I loved you a thousand times more than you say you love me, it still wouldn’t make any difference. I’ve got to have money. Doctor’s orders are that I must have a lot of money. Otherwise I become dull, listless, and have trouble with my complexion.
Gwendolyn: But you’re not like that now and you haven’t any money.
Billy: It’s my expectations that hold me together.
John Houston made many different films, but few reach the dizzying, chaotic heights of Beat the Devil. Known as one of the first “cult” films, it is a box office flop despised by its star Humphrey Bogart but beloved by movie lovers who understand the film’s dedication to a cinematic lark. Witty, impish, and downright silly, it is the rare comedy in which every joke sticks the landing.
Beat the Devil is, in many ways, a parody of Bogart movies, or more aptly, of noir films in general. But it never winks at you or breaks the fourth wall. The humor comes from the absurdity and the sleazy, dizzy, wheezy characters. Here the bad guys are honest, and the good guys can’t help but spin elaborate imaginative yarns and put on airs.
Based on a book, of the same name, by James Helvick. But that’s just a pen name for Claud Cockburn, a leftist British journalist more famous for his supposed quote, “believe nothing until it has been officially denied.” Upon receiving the script, reportedly, Houston tore it up and called in Truman Capote. Capote rewrote the script during filming on location in a small seaside town of Ravello, Italy, which becomes the imaginary of Portoverto. The book is a thriller that takes itself seriously about colonial exploitation, a theme which the movie all but abandons.
Yet Capote’s script, with a co-writing credit for Houston, still has its fangs out for colonialism. The confusing plot deals mainly with a gang of ruffians, led by a portly sweaty man named Petersen (Robert Morely), trying to get to Africa to illegally secure land supposedly rich with uranium. Characters behave with a naked and flippant glee as they plot nefarious exploitative ventures in far-off lands. Though far less serious than Cockburn, Houston shrewdly draws parallels between the murderous thieves and the stuffed shirt only interested in starting a coffee plantation.
In the middle of it all is Bogart as Billy Dannruther. The go-between for Petersen and his cohorts O’Hara (Peter Lorre) and Ravello (Marco Tulli). Bogart’s Billy wanders back and forth between Petersen’s gang and the Chelms, Gwendolyn (Jennifer Jones) and Harry (Edward Underdown), who may or may not be on the cusp of inheriting a sizeable uranium-rich piece of property themselves. The plot is so silly and non-existent it couldn’t possibly matter.
Suffice to say, the film starts in Portovelo, as the characters while away the time before the ship they are all due to sail on is finally ready to sail. However, there will always be delays. One instance has the Purser (Mario Perrone) regretfully informing them that there will be a delay.
Billy asks if it is perhaps a mechanical failure or if the Captain is drunk. Billy laughs. “Oh, but of course, the Captain is drunk. But the real trouble is with the oil pump.”
Eventually, the characters finally board the long-awaited tramp steamer only to have the ship sink, forcing them to flee. Finally, they wash up somewhere on the African coast, get arrested by Arabs, and end up right back where they were, in Portovelo.
I can’t imagine anyone walking away from Beat the Devil caring about the plot. The plot is like twine, meant to loosely tie the scenes together in some form of chronological fashion.
Houston himself, when asked what the film was about, merely replied, “The formula is that everyone is slightly absurd.” Houston and Capote combined somehow created a minor miracle by the seat of their pants. Made during the Hays code era, it’s hard to imagine the censors not having a fit at the film’s elated wallowing in criminality, to say nothing of the unrepentant wife swapping or husband swapping, depending on from whose point of view you’re looking at it. For you see, in Beat the Devil, everybody’s got an angle.
Indeed, it’s the wives who almost steal the show. Jennifer Jones’s Gwendolyn plays a ditz, but a keen eye can spot the intellect behind the facade. A woman — who Billy describes as “having her imagination where her memory should be, ” and who can’t help but make up stories — she nonetheless knows a shady character when she meets one. Upon first meeting Petersen and his rogue’s gallery, Gwendolyn confides to her husband, Harry, that they must be wary of them. “They are desperate characters. Not one of them looked at my legs.”
Gina Lollobrigida’s Maria, Billy’s wife, knows what men see in her and uses it to her advantage. She understands Harry the moment she meets him. If you pay attention, you’ll notice in the scene where Harry is playing sick to have Maria fawn over him, that she is well aware of this game. Maria is three moves ahead of Harry but two moves behind everyone else.
The two women weave their way through a man’s world using every trick in their book, and in one scene, coyly explain and compare their tactics. While the two openly go after the other’s husband, they seemingly hold no ill will towards the other. After all, there’s so little to do in Portovelo.
The beauty of Capote’s script is how it provides every character with a jewel of a line. Maria tells Harry, in an attempt to woo him with her thick Italian accent, “Emotionally I am English.” Or the infamous Peter Lorre monologue, “Time, time, what is time? Swiss manufacture it. French hoard it. Italians squander it. Americans say it is money. Hindus say it does not exist. You know what I say? I say time is a crook.”
Beat the Devil is a movie full of scoundrels attempting nothing short of the very lowest and basest scoundrelism, stealing money. The joy comes not in how vile they are but how jovially content they are in their baseness.
Houston frames every scene like a ghastly joke. Petersen’s gang is such a motley crew of varying sizes they come off looking like Dick Tracy villains. Roger Ebert wrote of Petersen, O’Hara, Ravello, and Major Jack Ross (Ivan Bernhard), “they were born looking guilty.” By the way, Houston composes his shots, it appears that he agrees.
Shot by Oswald Morris, Beats the Devil has at times a stylish flair to match its chintzy panache, while at others, the camera moves in such a way to make it feel like a documentary. Morris’s camera doesn’t miss a trick. Whether it’s Bogart’s flamboyant robe with its matching ascot or the way Houston and Morris plant the camera in the corner of the screen, so we’re looking up at Morely’s round face as his lips quiver nervously. His fingers drumming on the table as we see the slippery scheming wheels turn in his shiny bald head.
Beat the Devil somehow never feels very long despite the unmoored plot. Capote’s wit combined with Houston’s unerring eye combine to make a deviously fun time in the sun. In a way, the movie feels like what we today would call a “hang out movie.”
After all, the characters do little else but hang out. The characters in Beat the Devil use language either as a knife, a chisel, or as a lubricant. The characters have an uncommon vagueness about them, so we’re never sure exactly how much they are telling is truth and how much is made up on the spot.
In one instance, O’Hara complains about Billy making fun of his name. “In Chile, O’Hara is a tip-top name. Many Germans in Chile happened to be called O’Hara.” A sly reference to the possibility that O’Hara is more than just a German ruffian.
Because it is 1953, and because of the Hays code, the bad men will die, and the morally ambiguous must not prosper. This leads to the simply spectacular anti-climatic ending in which everyone ends up more or less where they started. Bogart’s maniacal laugh at the end mirrors his infamous turn in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but it’s not a man driven to madness by greed.
It is instead a rueful scorn-filled laugh at a chaotic universe that is the excellent end to a perfect movie.
Images courtesy of United Artists
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