Beat the Devil, despite it’s 1953 release, may be the most relevant Huston film for our current Age of Self-Parody Performances. You know: once-serious actors who now seem to coast by on playing offsetting exaggerations of former roles–Christopher Walken, Gary Busey, and, of course, William Shatner, spring to mind.
I’m sure there’s plenty more, but these three are the front-runners (Nick Cage doesn’t quite make the cut because I don’t think he’s ever doing a parody of himself–it’s just him). Walken led the way somewhat accidentally, revealing a comic side on Saturday Night Live and showing the world that this creepy, Oscar-winning skeleton man can dance in Spike Jonze’s music video of Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice” (ahh 2001…).
Reading The Three Little Pigs; The Country Bears, “Poker Face.” Busey kind-of, sort-of predates even that with his cameo in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (“Gimme a kiss”), but with his recent Vitamin Water ads it’s become pretty full blown. Aaaaaaand then there’s Shatner.
But whatever the reason for our love of character actors mocking their early, legitimate stuff, it’s nothing new, because Beat the Devil is essentially the same thing, and one of the oddest entries into Huston’s filmography (a phrase I feel I’ve been typing a lot).
Co-written with Truman “In Cold Blood” Capote during filming, Devil brought back Huston standbys Bogart, Peter Lorre, and Robert Morley playing variations on their usual roles. Bogie’s the down-on-his-luck adventurer allied with a colorful assortments of seeds: Lorre as the oily henchman who’d just as soon gnaw your scabs off than say, “Hello.”
Morley plays the Sydney-Greenstreet-esque henchee who’d just as soon sell tickets to anyone who’d watch it; Jennifer Jones and Edward Underdown as a British married couple with possibly fluctuating morals; and Gina Lollabrigida as the saucy dame just dripping to done ’em wrong.
The Plot: The premise is that Bogie and his Bog-horts are trying to get their paws on some uranium-rich land in Kenya, which attracts the local interest and a bunch of others, leading to every man, woman, and Peter Lorre tripping over themselves to finagle the lion’s share.
What’s Good About It: The plot isn’t particularly important, as it’s simply the string upon which Huston and Capote line after quotable line. One of Lorre’s best: “Time. Time. What is time? Swiss manufacture it. French hoard it. Italians squander it. Americans say it is money. Hindus say it does not exist. Do you know what I say? I say time is a crook.”
Anyone who’s seen The Third Man may detect the reference. Or Morley’s nickname “Fat Gut,” which recalls Greenstreet’s “Fat Man” Casper Gutman from The Maltese Falcon. If you’re laughing at either of those, you’ll likely enjoy Devil.
The actors are all at the top of their game, too, and look to be having a lot of fun. Bogie and Lorre always had deft comic flashes that shone in the light of sharp, sardonic dialogue and playing to those hidden strengths is the film’s highest merit. Huston’s content to just sit back and let them talk and plot and ooze wit, and Capote’s writing nigh bridges the gap between screwball comedy and Quentin Tarantino.
What’s Wrong With It: Still, with all that, for my own part, I don’t think I’ve “got” it yet. Roger Ebert oddly added it to his “Great Movies” list, praising the use of what he refers to as the now-extinct character actor. I don’t think that’s the case (just that nowadays we call them “typecast”), but he’s right in that nothing much happens other than charming exchanges from naughty people. And while it’s good, the movie inevitably lags in parts and shifts tones much too often. There is a chaotic energy to Devil, but it’s reluctant to ground itself in either drama or comedy while strongly suggesting both.
Inevitable Hustonism: Regardless of both it’s critical and commercial failures, Devil enjoyed a resurgence among college kids in the ’60s and ’70s and remains a cult curiosity to this day.
Tales from Production: Bogart once famously said of it, “Only phonies like that movie.” Something everyone’s attributed to his losses as a producer. Also, Capote would frequently make calls to his pet raven during shooting.
Trivia: Beat the Devil is in the public domain, so you can watch it for free right now! Go!