[Metroactive Movies]

[ Movies Index | Metro | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

A Bag of Loot

[whitespace] Beat the Devil

'Beat the Devil' makes fun of imperialism

By Richard von Busack

T HE 1954 COMEDY Beat the Devil is one of the few movies released in the America of that era that was based on a novel written by a communist. The Irish journalist Claud Cockburn penned the satire under the name James Helvick; his son, Alexander, still publishes a political column in The Nation named in honor his father's most memorable work. To use the title of Alexander's own book of essays, the movie is a comedy about "corruptions of empire." The adventure of a few shady men trying to rip off Kenya holds up a cracked mirror to imperial pretensions--specifically British imperial pretensions. Beat the Devil caricatures the white man's burden as a bag of loot. It's a sly film indeed that can offer a scene of Peter Lorre giving a lecture on the importance of trustworthiness.

Cockburn's story is filtered through Truman Capote and John Huston's dialogue and given a change of scenery, from Franco's Spain to a dusty if handsome corner of Italy. Billy Dannreuther (Humphrey Bogart) has a tip on some uranium fields in Africa, and he's waiting, with several fellow adventurers, for transport there. They're terrified of being discovered, and as the story begins, an extra note of urgency is sounded: one of their number, Maj. Ross (Ivor Barnard), a hit-man with Rosicrucian sympathies, has knifed someone important in London.

During the forced wait, Dannreuther's wife, Maria (Gina Lollobrigida), takes a liking to a young upper-class Englishman named Harry Chelm (Edward Underdown). Fortunately for Dannreuther, Chelm has a neglected wife: Jennifer Jones, looking better in cat's-eye sunglasses than anyone has ever looked since. Her Gwendolen is such a devoted reader of romantic fiction that she can't help concocting unlikely explanations for why Dannreuther and his crew are lying around soaking up the sun and the Cinzano. "I think you're doctors. Evil ones, I mean," she decides. Perhaps Dannreuther's companions do look like graduates of the same med school that matriculated Moreau, Mabuse, Moriarty, Frankenstein and Julius No. His partners include Robert Morley, subbing for Sydney Greenstreet, and Lorre (as a German-accented "Mr. O'Hara"), his hair dyed an alarming platinum blond.

Beat the Devil suggests a remake of Huston's own The Maltese Falcon written by Joe Orton and Oscar Wilde. Supposedly, Bogart loathed the picture. Possibly this is because he sunk his money in it, and it, in turn, sank. ("Only phonies like it," Bogart used to grouse.) Too bad Bogart was blind to its merits; he displays ascot-wearing, rotting handsomeness and keen, raspy wit. It's a warm but acrid sunset performance, and it inspired a well-deserved cult. If Beat the Devil doesn't make a lot of logical sense, forgive it: as one character here sighs, "Charm and dependability so seldom go in the same package."

Beat the Devil (1954; 89 min.), directed by John Huston, written by Truman Capote and Huston, based on the novel by Claud Cockburn (as James Helvick), photographed by Oswald Morris and starring Humphrey Bogart and Jennifer Jones.

[ San Jose | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

Web extra to the January 29-February 4, 1998 issue of Metro.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.