Thursday, March 12, 2009

This Day in Film History (John Huston Cult Fave “Beat the Devil” Opens)

March 12, 1954—Perhaps the most unusual entry in the filmographies of Humphrey Bogart and Jennifer Jones, Beat the Devil, premiered in the U.S. on this date. 

The film, directed by John Huston, sank like a stone at the time, but after another decade had passed, revival audiences were hailing this shaggy-dog narrative for its off-the-wall humor.

Peter Viertel and Anthony Veiller had originally been engaged to adapt the whimsical crime caper novel by the same name by James Helvick (the pseudonym for British leftist journalist Claud Cockburn). 

But one look at their screenplay led Jones’ overbearing producer husband, David O. Selznick, to urge Huston to bring Truman Capote aboard to rework the script, lest his wife's career go up on flames. (Three years later, that same concern led Selznick to fire Huston from his adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms).

Though the location filming in Ravello, Italy, had its share of problems (e.g., communicating between English-speaking actors and directors on one side and an Italian crew on the other, not to mention staying in touch with the outside world in a town with only one phone), it sounds as if Huston and Capote reveled in each other’s company.

Usually better known for drama, Bogart trusted his frequent collaborator Huston (The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen) with this offbeat comedy, even though the director and Capote were often only finishing scenes just before camera crews were ready to start filming.

Bogie should have had another reason for concern—it was his production company that was footing the bill for much of the movie. Perhaps all the partying he did with the hard-drinking Huston made the whole thing go down a bit more easily.

This film might be the biggest eye-opener for those who only recall Jones for her sentimental (The Song of Bernadette) or romantic (Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, A Farewell to Arms) roles. Her character, Gwendolyn Chelm, has—well, a bit of a problem with the truth.

One of the eight characters pursuing uranium-rich land, Peterson (played by Robert Morley), asks Bogart’s character, in absolute stupefaction: “You mean Mrs. Chelm is an unqualified liar?" Bogie: "Well, let's say she uses her imagination rather than her memory."

In her blond wig and deadpan way with her lines (“Harry's been all out of sorts today; usually he's a wonderful loser"), Jones has never been better, in my opinion. The rest of the supporting cast—Morley, Peter Lorre, and Gina Lollobrigida as Bogart’s luscious but equally scheming wife)—are also a match for the principals.

While making the film, Capote trained his sharp eye on Huston. Five years later, in text accompanying photographs by Richard Avedon, Observations (reprinted more recently in Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote), he gave what might be the definitive summation of the director’s “stylized person”: “his riverboat-gambler’s suavity overlaid with roughneck buffooning, the hearty mirthless laughter that rises toward but never reaches his warmly crinkled and ungentle eyes, eyes bored as sunbathing lizards; the determined seduction of his confidential gazes and man’s man camaraderie, all intended as much for his own benefit as that of that of his audience.”

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