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Review: John Huston’s Beat the Devil on Twilight Time Blu-ray

The gorgeous 4k transfer rescues Huston’s cult classic from the grips of the public domain.

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Beat the Devil

It’s impossible to discuss Beat the Devil, John Huston’s 1953 send-up of the caper film, without addressing its tumultuous production, as that chaos very much worked its way into the fiber of the film. During the making of The African Queen, Huston spent as much of his energy hunting down an elusive elephant as he did behind the director’s chair, and two years after wrapping production on that Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart vehicle, the filmmaker jetted off to the Amalfi Coast of Italy for another strange adventure. Once there, Huston, unhappy with Beat the Devil’s screenplay, tore it up and subsequently hired a young Truman Capote to help him churn out fresh pages, which were often delivered to the actors just hours before the cameras started rolling.

Beat the Devil evinces the free-wheeling spontaneity of a film constructed on the fly. Jacques Rivette once wrote that “every film is a documentary of its own making,” which certainly applies, and then some, to Huston’s ramshackle, whimsical farce—often considered the first cult film and the birth of cinematic camp. Huston’s original intention was to make a half-serious thriller with an anti-colonialist bent, but the gentle Mediterranean breeze seems to have dissipated any hint of import in the story and self-consciousness in the actors’ uniformly relaxed performances. Like the ship that’s been docked for “one day to a fortnight” in the small Italian town of Ravello so the captain can recover from a severe hangover, no one—not the cast, not Huston, not even the plot—appears in a hurry to go anywhere.

The narrative of Beat the Devil, such as it is, involves a motley crew of liars, criminals, and scoundrels, all of whom have either grandiose visions of their futures or fantastical delusions about their present-day realities. Only Billy Dannreuther (Bogart) is somewhat connected with reality, accepting his fate as the unwitting lacky of the film’s ostensible baddie, the jovial and ever-sweaty Peterson (Robert Morley), who offers Billy the only convenient way to continue paying his hotel bill. They and the rest of the film’s motley crew of international characters are heading to Africa, supposedly to either mine for gold, diamonds, or uranium, or to grow coffee. But Huston is scarcely concerned with any of this. Beat the Devil is all about the follies that happen while its characters are busy making other plans.

Nearly all of these eccentric types lie about their intentions, while others speak of global conspiracies and massive shadow organizations. Lorre plays a supposedly Irish lackey named O’Hara, who quips at one point that many Germans in Chile have taken such a name and happily loses himself in the international crowd, which is equally fueled by post-war paranoia as it is by aperitifs. As O’Hara dodges his national identity, likely because he was a Nazi, the British Major Ross espouses a strange fondness for strong men like Hitler and Mussolini. At the same time, a married couple, Gwendolen (Jennifer Jones) and Harry Chelm (Edward Underdown), play at being part of upper-crust British society while not-so-secretly swapping partners with Billy and his beautiful Italian belle, Maria (Gina Lollobrigida).

Beat the Devil is a gleeful mess of narrative false starts and fake-outs, simmering in its own narrative ambiguity as everyone deceives everyone else as well as the audience. But a clear end game is always obscured by the pervasive aura of mistrust in the air. The plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but Beat the Devil isn’t trying to be a sensible film. For a spell, it even seems like there are invisible forces, like those at play in Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, preventing anyone from leaving town. For one, when Billy tries to head out for the day with Peterson, their car breaks down and they end up accidentally pushing it off a cliff. And once everyone finally sets sail, their ship, in a fitting metaphor for the film itself, soon breaks down. This dastardly bunch of ne’er-do-wells may have some pretty evil plans in place, but in thwarting their moves at every turn, Huston defuses their treacherous ambitions, inviting us to laugh at their increasingly disastrous blunders.

Image/Sound

After decades of being stranded in the public domain, almost any half-decent transfer of the film would be welcome. But, fortunately, Twilight Time’s transfer of the 2016 4k restoration of Beat the Devil is better than one could have hoped. The film’s gorgeous Italian vistas are rich in detail, and the actors’ often exaggerated expressions now exude a clarity certainly unseen since the film’s theatrical release. The image also has a nice balance of blacks, grays, and whites, only occasionally losing a bit of detail in the more darkly lit sequences. If anything, the transfer is too clear, occasionally making such flaws as the edge of Bogart’s wig appear unmissable. The DTS-HD audio track is consistently balanced, though dialogue is a little muddled throughout a few outdoor scenes.

Extras

The audio commentary with film historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman is, in the spirit of Beat the Devil, a bit scattershot. The trio covers an array of topics, from the film’s divisive reputation to the various differences between this newly restored cut and the public domain version that most people have seen before now. They are only too happy to tell us that Peter Sellers dubbed many of the Italian actors’ voices, and that a young Stephen Sondheim worked as the clapboard boy. But as light-hearted and conversational as much of the commentary is, Dobbs, Kirgo, and Redman approach Beat the Devil not merely as a great cult film, but as a great John Huston film. A short featurette, “Alexander Cockburn: Beat the Devil,” finds the son of Claud Cockburn, author of the novel upon which the film was based, throwing much shade at Truman Capote for taking credit for dialogue taken straight from the source material. An essay by Julie Kirgo, which offers additional context to the film’s bizarre production history, rounds out the package.

Overall

Twilight Time’s gorgeous 4k transfer rescues John Huston’s cult classic from the grips of the public domain, restoring the original cut of the film that’s been unseen for decades.

Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, Robert Morley, Peter Lorre, Edward Underdown, Ivor Barnard, Marco Tulli, Bernard Lee, Mario Perrone Director: John Huston Screenwriter: Truman Capote, John Huston Distributor: Twilight Time Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 1953 Release Date: January 22, 2019 Buy: Video

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