John Huston's Beat the Devil
Critics welcome a new 4K restoration.
"Directed by John Huston from a screenplay co-written with Truman Capote, this curiously laid-back film… has been described by critic Dave Kehr as 'the birthplace of camp,'" notes Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com. "I’m not sure camp is the correct word for what Beat the Devil is, but we might as well just go ahead and accept it in the spirit of a self-aware, often self-deprecating movie that’s filled with characters who always feel emboldened to make up whatever story they wish and represent themselves and their motives however they see fit."
"Aged 28, Truman Capote had just completed his novella The Grass Harp and left his home of two years in Taormina for Rome," wrote Thirza Wakefield for the Guardian in 2014. "Huston, meanwhile, was en route to Ravello, a coastal village near Naples, to shoot his latest film. Deeply dissatisfied with the script he was carrying, he sought out the gifted writer during a stopover in Rome, and asked would he bring it up to speed? Adapted from the novel by Claud Cockburn (using pseudonym James Helvick), the screenplay’s authors—experienced screenwriters Peter Viertel and Tony Veiller—had given it up for hooey, and with the cast already hired and Capote whisked without another word to Naples, the novelist was aware that his first film script would be written day-by-day during the shoot. He knew, but the company didn’t, and keeping the secret were associate producer Jack Clayton, and the film’s star and joint financier Humphrey Bogart."
Beat the Devil "careers from scene to scene with barely contained, wholly invigorating chaos," writes Melissa Anderson in the Voice. "The disorder is made even more delectable by a game cast, each performer, without exception and regardless of celebrity status, embracing and in sync with the movie's shambolic energy…. As Capote, recounting the 'houseparty atmosphere' on and off the set, put it in a letter written in 1961, 'a film was being made, or at any rate improvised.'"
Brooklyn Magazine's Mark Asch: "Like in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre , Humphrey Bogart is a globe-trotting fortune hunter out to plunder the developing world like a Conrad antihero who grew up playing stickball—here, he and dreamy-divine wife Gina Lollobrigida are en route to a shady uranium fortune somewhere in Africa. Like in The Maltese Falcon , he’s racing for his MacGuffin in unfriendly competition with a seedy gallery of expatriate character actors of the kind you can imagine standing drink after drink on your one excursion into the kind of exile cantina they haven’t left in years—chiefly including Peter Lorre, who looks, as ever, like an Al Hirschfeld drawing of Peter Lorre…. Capote’s great gift is to make cravenness simply sparkle."
"Many noirs don’t want you to pay attention to the plot, but Beat the Devil really doesn’t want you to care," writes Matt Prigge in Metro. Chadwick Jenkins for PopMatters: "The weird tension between the cinematography and plot on the one hand and the script and the casualness of much of the acting on the other is at long last revealed to its most striking effect. It may or may not be one of the great films from the ‘50s but it’s certainly one of the most eccentric." More from Eric Wonder in Film Journal International.
Update, 2/22: "Beat the Devil is considered a spoof of The Maltese Falcon (with both Bogart and Peter Lorre reprising their structural positions)," writes Cosmo Bjorkenheim at Screen Slate, "but it feels more like an Italian sex comedy in the mold of Divorce, Italian Style, thanks to the bawdy situations involving Gina Lollobrigida’s bust and to the paesino setting."
Update, 2/24: "In a revival world where 4K restorations may be leaving some folks a little jaded ('Another restoration?' is a thing I have heard in lobbies) the Film Foundation’s work on Beat the Devil is truly astonishing," writes Farran Smith Nehme for Film Comment. "[I]t’s like those stories where someone buys a dog portrait at a yard sale, wipes off the dirt, and discovers there’s a 17th-century painting underneath. With John Huston’s favorite cinematographer Oswald Morris on the job, the locations look ravishing, shot with a crispness that extends all the way to the horizon. In one key scene between Jennifer Jones and Humphrey Bogart, played on a high terrace, I barely caught a word they said because I couldn’t bear to concentrate on anything but the view."