Saturday, January 14, 2012

Beat the Devil


Continuing to use up the additional broadband we took on for this month, I began to watch Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood.  Unfortunately it was all in Russian, without subtitles.   Still, it looked good!

As an alternative I turned to Beat the Devil.   The only thing I'd heard about this was the title - I had no idea it had such a fabulous cast and that, supposedly, it was rewritten as they went along.  I'm always a bit suspicious of these sorts of stories - the script being handed to the cast as the scenes were being shot.  Knowing something of just how difficult it is to pull a movie together in the first place, and then to keep it ticking, it always strikes me that such stories may be more than a little apocryphal.   Still, when an authority like Roger Ebert quotes such stories, you have to wonder if they're not at least partially true.

Anyway, Beat the Devil has almost no story to speak of.  It was based on a novel, but it seems that the connections between the novel and the film may be few.  Having got a marvellous cast together, John Huston, the director, lets them rip.  They almost don't need a script; they could probably have made the thing up as they went along.  However, there is a semblance of a plot about uranium and Africa and colonialism and such.  Truman Capote is credited with scriptwriting, but whether there really was a Capote script or not is moot.

Humphrey Bogart is the ostensible hero, but barely makes a showing in this department.   He just plays Humphrey Bogart, pretty much as he always does, and gets away with it. He hardly breaks into a sweat (except when pushing a car uphill and then watching it run away by itself downhill.)   He has two leading ladies, after a fashion: Jennifer Jones as an English woman who lets her imagination run wild to the extent that even the audience isn't quite sure when she's telling the truth or embroidering it.   And Gina Lollobrigida who undercuts her glamour with quite a witty performance.

It's the quartet of rogues who make the movie what it is, however.  Robert Morley leads the charge playing Robert Morley (who else did he ever play?) aka Mr Peterson; Peter Lorre plays a German called O'Hara, using his baby face to its fullest advantage; Marco Tulli plays the Italian of the four, munching his lines with great vigour; and Ivor Barnard plays what must be one of his scariest roles as a murderer who looks like a civil servant - until he opens his mouth and goes on with enthusiasm for Hitler and Mussolini's worthwhile ways.

Edward Underdown, as the stiff upper lip Englishman who turns out to be not quite such a posh gent as he claims, seems at first to be the only actor taking anything seriously, but by the end even he's chewing the scenery with gusto.

The camerawork by Freddie Francis is a delight, though the bright Italian sun seems to have flummoxed even his expertise in some scenes.  Would it really have been intentional to have two of the actors' faces in the shadow while their stomachs reflected the sun?   Probably not.   And Huston directs the whole thing for laughs - not the laugh out loud kind, but the quiet amusement gained from seeing a bunch of artists thoroughly enjoying themselves.
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