Sunday 19 August 2012

1,001 Films: "Beat the Devil" (1953)

Hollywood got self-aware - neurotic, even - immediately after World War II, when all of a sudden making frivolous entertainments seemed not quite so important in the greater scheme of things; instead, they made movies on such Big Neurotic Themes as psychoanalysis (Spellbound, Secret Beyond the Door, The Snake Pit). John Huston's Beat the Devil was something slightly different: here, under the guidance of a bunch of mavericks momentarily granted leave from the studio system, Hollywood got self-reflexive, even spoofy, and started analysing itself in a very different way. Had the film been produced fifty years later, it would have been called Bogart Movie and been substantially less professional, though perhaps no more amusing.

This is a mash-up of the hit films its star had featured in over the preceding two decades: Bogey plays Billy Dannreuther, executive leader of a gang of crooks (including the talismanic Peter Lorre, and Robert Morley, in the portly tagalong role usually assigned to Sydney Greenstreet) who've been operating out of a port town somewhere on the Med - shades of Casablanca here, possibly. The gang's criminal instincts start tingling when they rub up against a couple of English tourists claiming to have "interests in Africa", though quite what these interests are is a matter kept vague while everybody on screen hares around double-crossing one another for ninety minutes. We weren't supposed to notice how the plot of The Big Sleep made no sense. In Beat the Devil, we can't help but notice, but we're not supposed to care: one indication of the level of credibility being aimed for here is that Lorre's notionally playing a German known as O'Hara.

If the script, which Huston cobbled together with (of all people) Truman Capote, is interested in anything other than paying for the next round of cocktails, it's in making sport of those national differences set in stone by the pan-European activity of the War. Englishman Edward Underdown naturally gets terribly flustered when Bogey's moll Gina Lollobrigida puts the moves on him, while another member of the gang is handed a monologue asserting that Hitler and Mussolini had it right all along, a position only a film with its tongue pressed visibly in cheek might have got away with in 1953. (Turns out Huston and Capote are even playing the nuclear threat as a joke, which probably wouldn't have played all that well in what remained of Hiroshima.) Everybody ends up in the same boat - a ship of fools, really - which starts to founder, providing the whole patched-up production with a metaphor for its own making: having towed the almost-as-troubled The African Queen safely to Oscar glory, Cap'n Huston appears to have been taking a punt on what might happen if he cut all ties with the studios and let his next vessel drift wherever it may.

It's a busy film, certainly - and modern-seeming because of it, which explains the cult reputation it's garnered in certain circles: there hadn't been much like it up to that point. Against that: it's all too happy to revel in its own pointlessness, and is stuck with Italian supporting performers who insist on bellowing all their lines at the very top of their lungs. Typical that, at a time when the neo-realists were extending the social and political capabilities of the cinema, Hollywood should show up on the same turf and knock out an extended in-joke, a cul-de-sac or dead end (which may be another Bogey reference). In the history of cinema, Beat the Devil doesn't lead anywhere much, save to such larky, semi-parodic oldtimers' knees-ups as Space Cowboys and The Expendables - films that depend more than most on the generosity of an audience, content as they were merely to hark back to past glories. Bogey, for his part, was later to describe the film as "a mess", adding "only the phonies liked it" - and, in this instance, his word is plenty good enough for me.

Beat the Devil is available on DVD through Elstree Hill Entertainment.

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