The Devil's in the Details
Andrew Bujalski and Cinema Club screen an overlooked John Huston gem
"I would beware of those men. They're desperate characters."
"What makes you say that?"
"Not one of them looked at my legs."
That sassy exchange between a pair of mismatched-but-married expat Brits (played by Jennifer Jones and Edward Underdown) sets the tone for John Huston's criminally underrated masterpiece of offbeat postwar noir Beat the Devil. What follows is no more nor less than one of Huston's – and cinema's – most unique, biting comedies. It's also one of Huston's least-screened films (unless you count a dodgy YouTube burn), but the Alamo Drafhouse's Cinema Club, co-hosted this time by Austin filmmaker Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha, Beeswax), is about to rectify this travesty of cinephiliac amnesia.
Beat the Devil's story, co-written by Huston with an ailing Truman Capote (who, as the story goes, literally wrote the day's dialogue in the morning, to be shot in the afternoon, all the while keeping up a running conversation with his pet raven back in New York City), is little more than a peg upon which to hang one of the quirkiest grab bags of equally mismatched character actors from Hollywood's golden era.
"I knew Beat the Devil's reputation as a film that people always seemed to talk about in terms of being a send-up of other John Huston movies," says Bujalski, "as if it were Huston poking fun at himself or a parody of The Maltese Falcon and all that. So when I first saw it, I went into it knowing that reputation but I came out thinking: 'That wasn't a parody! That was better than watching The Maltese Falcon!' Maybe that's a slightly heretical opinion, but I had such a good time with [Beat the Devil] that that's how I really felt."
He speaks the truth: Beat the Devil could well be the most fun you'll have at the movies all year. And that has everything to do with the cast. A more shifty-eyed alliance of squirreliness you're not likely to find, even in Huston's already overpopulated oeuvre.
First and foremost there's Humphrey Bogart (fresh off the director's The African Queen two years prior). The front man for a quartet of schemers traveling from southern Italy to British colonial Africa in hopes of plundering the Crown's newly found uranium riches, Bogart is paired with Italian sex bomb Gina Lollobrigida, who proves as adept at playing broad, slinky comedy as Bogie is at hard-bitten snark.
And that quartet of radioactivity-obsessed scoundrels? Peter Lorre, pop-eyed and chain-smoking; Robert Morley, quivering with false solicitude and post-war British chip; cadaverous Italian scarecrow Marco Tulli; and, bringing up the sociopathic, apoplectic rear, tiny Ivor Barnard. It's a glorious orgy of character-actor perfection, simultaneously hilarious and surreal, and seemingly existing within a cinematic alternate reality that could only have been dreamed up – on the fly, no less – by a crazed Capote. It tanked at the box office in 1953. Go figure.
"Watching it again, as we prepared for the Cinema Club screening," Bujalski says, "I can't even say that it was ahead of its time, or even the current time. It's almost like it's separate from time completely. It's such a unique, strange film, and whatever's magical about it is really hard to put your finger on. It's a seriously weird, funny movie, and I think a lot of people have tried to capture some of the magic of it over the years, but no one's ever done it."
Capote's dialogue comes off like Graham Greene's scenario for The Third Man rewritten by a cackling Orson Welles; Lorre even has a brief monologue about the nature of time that sends up, intentionally or not, Harry Lime's famed "cuckoo clock" diatribe from Carol Reed's film. As Bogart's character, Billy Dannreuther, says of Lorre's patently amoral (and decidedly un-Irish) O'Hara: "It smokes, it drinks, it philosophizes. At this rate I'll be 60 before you get to the point."
Couple these outlandishly entertaining characters with famed cameraman Freddie Francis' European location shooting and a brassy, sunlit score by Franco Mannino, and the result is, indeed, magic. And if it seems much ado about nothing all that much by the end, well, it's still one of the most consistently (and perhaps surprisingly) entertaining trips everyone involved ever embarked upon.
"The fact that the film has these longtime journeymen character actors is part of what makes it unique," Bujalski explains. "That whole part of film culture has disappeared. You can't get guys like these who knew how to do this specific type of role without winking at the camera. That's what's so amazing about Beat the Devil. It's obviously this outrageous comedy, but the actors play it totally straight and never seem to wink at the audience in the way that you have to today if you're making that kind of movie."
Andrew Bujalski will introduce Beat the Devil and lead a post-film discussion on Sunday, Nov. 21, 7pm, at the Alamo Drafthouse at the Ritz.