What came out when John Huston, Humphrey Bogart, Gina Lollobrigida, Jennifer Jones, Peter Lorre, and Truman Capote collaborated? You wouldn’t expect a farcical, nearly improvised study in eccentricity, but here we have it. Beat the Devil, which you can watch above, simply confused audiences when it opened in 1953, but humanity has since — with, for better or for worse, the thoroughgoing senses of unseriousness and irony we’ve cultivated — come to appreciate it. This story of would-be uranium pirates stranded in an Italian port on their way to Kenya began, like Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, as an adaptation of a high-minded, stone-faced novel, in this case an eponymous one by Claud Cockburn (father of the late Alexander Cockburn, author of, yes, The Nation‘s “Beat the Devil” column). Also like Dr. Strangelove, it took a dose of absurdity somewhere in pre-production, turning from drama into comedy.
Bogart, not just one of the film’s stars but one of its major investors, thought he’d signed up for a Graham Greene-ish thriller but wound up in what many consider the first “camp” film. He must surely have come to understand the scope of his misapprehension by the time Truman Capote turned up on set, rewriting a whole new script — if the proud midcentury film industry would have dignified it with that term — on the fly, throwing together new and more ridiculous scenes each day. This and other unconventional production strategies have all become part of the body of Beat the Devil lore, which Roger Ebert examines in (speaking of ultimate validation) his “Great Movies” essay on the picture. He includes a telling quote from Huston, who supposedly told Jones, “Jennifer, they’ll remember you longer for Beat the Devil than for Song of Bernadette.” Adds Ebert: “True, but could Huston have guessed that they would remember him more for Beat the Devil than for Moby Dick?”
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, aesthetics, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.