Hectoring becomes a professional endeavor, or professional filmmaking becomes a form of hectoring the audience in John Huston’s whacked-out Beat the Devil, entirely denounced when it was first released and somehow bent and mutated even further sixty four years later. Temptation begs that I reclaim the film by arguing that it was “misconstrued’ upon release, but I’m not entirely certain it exists to be construed. That might only breed domestication, curbing the film’s vigorous unruliness. With a regular goon squad of odd cartoon shapes masquerading as people waiting around in a squalid sea-port town, the whole film seems to exist to breathe in the salt water. The most exciting moment is entirely about an aging, wheezy Bogart and a pair of portly fellows schlepping after a runaway car, teasingly dramatic music massaging out the irony of their failure to exert more than a modicum of effort. It’s awkward, heinous, mismatched, and oddly brilliant in its idiom.
When one character is thought dead and suddenly shows up again, an acquaintance standing in front of him, in a parched, disinterested tone: “You mean you’re not dead at all?” Lines like that are courtesy of Truman Capote, who Huston hired after reading In Cold Blood and then subjected to daily rewrites. Since the film was essentially being taped together on the fly, it’s no wonder the production has the loose, hanging-around-and-getting-nowhere feel of one of those “the actors wanted to go on vacation, so let’s film a movie there” pictures that have existed seemingly since the dawn of movie-dom. At one point, during a nominal verbal-love-making match, Capote cunningly emasculates Bogart with lines like “I was an orphan until I was 20. Then a rich and beautiful lady adopted me.” The woman can only combat him with the likes of: “there are two good reasons for falling in love. One is that the object of your affection is unlike anyone else, a rare spirit like Lord Byron. The other is that he’s like everybody else, only superior,” delivered with all the finishing school diction of Winston Churchill on parade. Not to be outdone, one of the mousier villains reminds us that “Hitler had the right idea” a propos of nothing. The word “irk” is thrown out some two-dozen times.
Not to be outdone, the performers react in-kind, brandishing dialogue like an overactive high schooler’s first play, delivering every line in alternately arch and disinterested tones; half the time they’re asleep, only roused to sputter out lines like reciting “News On the March”. Poor Peter Lorre playing what might be called a “villain” in another movie, but mostly a misfit here, was on the eve of descent into irrelevancy, and he sounds dried up of life, staring off-screen in diagonal directions like he was really looking into his own soul, trying to find an ounce of charisma or purpose, rather than looking out at a camera or another performer. Also not to be outdone, Bogart appears aged beyond his years. Lorre at least had a decade of B-pictures ahead of him before his demise, but Bogart would in the grave even sooner. This film feels like a ninety minute premature burial for both of them.
But somehow, it’s entirely mesmerizing. This is a tale of tangents perpetually spinning their wheels. A haze of digressions become a lazy-day homage to narrative structure that never goes anywhere. With a band of actors playing understudies of their more famous characters wasting away the time in a seaport as repairs are conducted on their ship while they all dip into the swamp of misfit activities they were once born out of, this negative-energy display is an adventure story with the adventure (and story) excised. Largely, this takes the form of a promiscuous pair of couples becoming one congealed mash-up, swapping partners like proto-swingers on whatever “sexual innuendo” budget a 1953 production would afford. Anyone expecting a steamy delight will be certainly disappointed though; the tone of this production is a totally disfigured anti-farce, a sad and pathetic tragicomedy where the comedy overslept and didn’t show up for the day. The dialogue is so circular and so teasingly-British (in that it is archly contrived, mocking the politeness and false airs of the nation) that the whole script might as well be stuck on a roundabout. Dashiell Hammett wouldn’t have laid a finger on this.
Huston, as he always wanted, seems to have relative autonomy making the whole thing creep around on the ground, scraping up against whatever lies beneath. Although the film has recently been cleaned up by restorers, it preserves the purposefully rough, gangrenous lensing that restores every crack in Bogart’s face and drills even more of them to give him a face like a death-mask. Huston at one point has fun framing Lorre’s pudgy body overcoming a headless sculpture of a Greek goddess, but he enjoys the diaphanous group dynamics of Lorre’s cabal of lecherous sorts all the more so. All of them wearing their odd body proportions like a Hanna-Barbera animal collective, we get to trace the spaces between them in the frame and deserve a T-shirt for surviving the passage of treacherous dips and steep climbs between them relatively unscathed.
The whole film has that non-compliant air. Scenes end before they begin. Everybody seems to be privately amusing themselves. It’s like a satire of one of those “Come-Dressed-as-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe-Parties” before they even existed – you know, the ones Pauline Kael amusingly but dismissively referred to a couple of decades later. The phlegmatically arbitrary, totally circumstantial and anti-cathartic conclusion – justice dealt out over a glass of bubbly in about 30 seconds – is unbeatably nasty in its innocuousness and disdain for narrative convention. So the film is filled with a great many misunderstandings, but the greatest one is the audience’s if they expect a curdled-to-the-bone noir. By the end, we understand (I think) that miscommunication in this film is not in service of eventual revelation and tidying-up, stroking the audience’s ego by providing them a puzzle to fix, a nesting doll to get to the bottom of. Instead, it’s just one big tease. Really, the final comeuppance is not for a character but for the audience: the realization that, for all the rogues and ne’er-do-wells skulking about playing with one another, it is ultimately we who are had.