Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Forty-Six

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#46 — Beat the Devil (John Huston, 1953)
Like most people, I suspect, I have a tendency to think of films of the nineteen-fifties–at least Hollywood films of the nineteen-fifties–as fairly staid and safe, lacking the rush of invention and discovery that characterized the form deep into the forties and as yet untouched by the revolutions that took hold in the sixties and exploded in the seventies. Certainly the consensus list of the best films of this era largely confirms that, with the truly risky largely showing up in the form of the rapid evolution stirred by the emergence of Method acting. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t wellsprings of cinematic wildness. And in the midst of the decade, there were few American directors more likely to deliver something radically, wonderfully unhinged than John Huston.

Beat the Devil, but Huston’s intent, is a wooly mockery of the sort of film noir offerings that the director himself helped pioneer with his very first film, 1941’s The Maltese Falcon. He’s once again teamed with Humphrey Bogart, the star also serving as a producer and instrumental in ensnaring Huston onto the picture. Based as loosely as a slipknot on a novel by Claud Cockburn, the film follows a motley collection of hucksters and schemers as they lie in wait in an Italian port city, all plotting to take over a Kenya uranium mine. At least they suppose that’s what they’ll do if they can ever get on the right boat to carry them to their fantasized fortunes. The screenplay was credited to Huston and Truman Capote, then a writer in his late twenties with two highly lauded novels to his name (but Holly Golightly still to come, and the Clutter family as yet unharmed). Supposedly the script pages were spun anew every day on location, with Huston even relying on his well-seasoned character actors to supply some of the wearily hard-nosed dialogue for their roles. After all, was there anyone by this time who could realistically come up with a better Peter Lorre character than Peter Lorre? Throughout the film, Bogart is bemused, the various side characters ooze oily menace, and the female leads (Jennifer Jones and Gina Lollobrigida, the latter in her first English language role) exhibit signs that they no longer have the required patience or fortitude to deliver the fatale to go with the femme.

The whole film is a wondrous, beautiful mess. At every turn, it’s completely apparent how close it is to going irreparably wrong, the entire thing careening off a cliff. Given the slapdash quality and the evident lack of rigor to the storytelling–with the possibly for amusement consistently trumping logic–Beat the Devil has every chance to transform in an instant to something miserable. The guardrail is in place, however, due to the clear sense of purpose to it, the way it exudes playfulness, as if Huston is trying to retrieve cinema from the dour self-seriousness he undoubtedly saw all around him. Movies can be a lark, he seems to argue. They can be a little goofy, a little loopy. Above all, they should be fun, dammit, brimming with the unexpected. That’s Beat the Devil. And then some.

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