Beat the Devil (1953)


*. It was meant as a joke. Or “lark,” to use John Huston’s word. But a joke on who?
*. On Humphrey Bogart? He was stuck with a big chunk of the bill, having put up a lot of his own money to get it made. But, as Pauline Kael observes, he “looks rather bewildered through much of it, as if he hadn’t been let in on the joke.”
*. Roger Ebert, on the other hand, sees Bogart “all but cracking up” at some of his dialogue. So was he in on it then?
*. Or it is a joke on the audience? Bogart thought so, declaring it a “mess” and that “only the phonies think it’s funny.”
*. If it was a joke on the audience they weren’t getting it. Literally. The movie bombed. There’s a lesson in that. Confusion and ambiguity are cardinal sins in popular entertainment. They do, however, help a movie last. What is initially alienating will later grow on audiences, given a chance. You keep coming back to movies like this because you can’t help feeling that you’ve missed something essential.


*. The plot itself isn’t that confusing. What’s impossible to figure out is where each of the characters stands in relation to it. One wonders again: who is in on the joke? Jennifer Jones and Gina Lollobrigida both seem to know more than they’re letting on, which may be why I find them both so unnervingly sexy. “Things don’t happen to be what certain people imagine,” says Major Ross. We can question the source, but not the sentiment. Even the purser aboard the Nyaga seems to be having a laugh at everyone.
*. The making of this film was notoriously off-the-cuff. In particular, the script was being written on the fly. Despite this, it is not only witty but subtle. Peter Lorre on the subject of time is particularly good, and Bogey on money. And then here is Ahmed shushing Jennifer Jones: “in my country, a female’s lips may move but her words are not heard.” That’s just strange. One wonders what Ahmed would have done had he ever met his profane idol, “the peerless Rita Hayworth.”
*. Three faces in the frame. Such a composition makes sense when dealing with the gang — the “three men in a tub” as Bogart calls them — but we see the same technique elsewhere throughout the film, and in fact there are four members of the gang.
*. Three is an ideal dramatic number. The third wheel might be an audience, or a mediator, but is never superfluous. And three figures work so well together in a shot, especially when they’re stacked, as they so often are here, without crowding.










*. Is the geography worth wondering about? Where are we? Somewhere in Italy? And then . . . ?
*. Is all the adultery worth wondering about? It’s remarkably casual. You have to wonder whether the Dannreuthers and the Chelms are really married, or even count as couples. They certainly seem to go at it without any hang ups.
*. I was relieved to see Gwendolen’s frank recognition of the age gap. Bogart was twenty years older than Jones, and looks forty years older. It’s another thing that makes you not quite trust her.
*. It’s so sad what happens when these movies fall into public domain, the “tragedy of the commons.” I wish someone would take the care to put out a cleaned-up, special edition of this one. My DVD is dubbed a “Collector’s Edition,” but that’s another joke.
*. Parts of it are still quite funny, especially the more absurd moments. I love the scene in the square with Peterson getting nowhere in his interrogation of Gwendolen Chelm (“Sin?”). And I’m very fond of the entire Maltese Falcon-style cast of eccentrics: Robert Morley as a downmarket Sydney Greenstreet (from Gutman to Fat Gut), Peter Lorre a bit older and much rounder, and a really nasty Ivor Barnard as a ridiculous but not-quite-harmless British thug.
*. Does it look forward, or back? Here are a couple of expert opinions.
*. Roger Ebert, looking back: “Now that movies have become fearsome engines designed to hammer us with entertainment, it is nice to recall those that simply wanted to be witty company.”
*. David Thomson, looking forward: “It’s as if, by 1954, if you please, enough knowing people had got the sure sense that it was all over, that more or less everything that followed was going to be a camp version of some lovely, foolish memory of the golden age. That anxiety has not been dispelled. Equally, who is to say that every film fan is not now as daft and as isolated as the Arab prince who hungers for word of the great Rita Hayworth?”
*. Yes, we do know the type. The hookah-smoking Ahmed is an onanistic fanboy. Perhaps a species of cinephile, but not a moviegoer (if they even have theatres in his desert land). He would have thrived on the Internet. And what kind of a shirt is he wearing in his first scene? It looks suspiciously feminine.
*. Personally, I’m not sure if it looks forward or back. There are few movies quite like this, but they do happen, and they have happened at all different times. James Whale’s The Old Dark House is one example, and I’m also reminded of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven, another celebrity genre lark where you have an even stronger sense that you might not be having as much fun as the people involved.
*. The ending, with Bogart pronouncing “this is the end” (he was originally to say “if this doesn’t beat the devil,” thus explaining the otherwise enigmatic title), suits such a shaggy-dog story. At least he’s laughing though. So somebody must have thought it was funny.


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