Sunday, July 02, 2006

Beat the Devil


Dir: John Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre)

Remember in Capote (see also here), when Truman is sitting around the kitchen table relating stories of the movie he wrote for Bogart that was filmed in Italy? He said no one understood that movie. And he was right; it is very odd.

Beat the Devil is a satire, but it refuses to let you in on the joke. Bogart is with a group of uranium speculators who are trying to make a land deal in Africa. Then end up on a boat with a British couple, he a pseudo-gentleman and she a beauty with a penchant for embellishment. All of these characters are over the top; the paranoid speculators, the flighty femme fatale, the super-British Brit. The increasingly bizzare set of circumstances they find themselves in, and their steadfast refusal to meet those circumstances with anything but more scheming and backstabbing, is where the humor lies. The movie is like Huston's Maltese Falcon, but so much so that we laugh at it.

None of this is clear on its face. The first half is just the prelude to the obviously satirical elements of the second half. Actually, the first half is a bit of a jumbled mess, which you would see as part of the humor if you knew it was humor in the first place. But once the boat ride begins, then the movie settles into a good comedic groove, giving me several out loud laughs.

The cast certainly helps things along. Bogart, Peter Lorre, Jennifer Jones, and especially Robert Morley (one of my favorite character actors) all do their roles without a hint of being in on the joke. Capote and Huston have written a comedy that constrains their actors within dramatic acting conventions. That is supposed to be the humor, but it is very difficult to pull off.

Beat the Devil is an interesting movie experience. I wager subsequent viewings would unlock more of the script. But it is hardly necessary to track down, unless like me you had a curiosity about Capote's work after the biopic.