If you’re going to Beat The Devil, then who better than with a crew like Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, Robert Morley, Peter Lorre, John Huston, Truman Capote and Bernard (“Q”) Lee larking about in the sunny post-war Mediterranean?
(1953. B&W. Script: Truman Capote and John Huston. Direction: John Huston. Cinematography: Oswald Morris. Score: Franco Mannio. Ex-bullfighter’s limousine: Hispano-Suiza. Stills photographer: Robert Capa - yes, the Robert Capa.)
BTD was based on the eponymous novel by larrikin British journalist Claude Cockburn (under the pen name James Helvick) who, amongst other moments in his highly checkered career, had his 1930s current affairs magazine The Week shut down by a law suit after its film critic, one Graham Greene, suggested in his column that Shirley Temple’s screen persona was deliberately exploited by her handlers to appeal to pedophiles.
So as you’d suspect, the book was a pretty dark and very funny satire about a motley bunch of adventurers chasing after the rights to African uranium deposits. But after Truman Capote and John Huston spent many nights together on location consuming mucho whiskey to turn it into a film script, often producing pages barely in time for the next morning’s shoot, BTD metamorphosed on screen into Casablanca on nitrous oxide.
The plot is a farcical collection of double, triple and quadruple crosses where everyone’s lying, even when then they lie about why they are lying. Bogie, whose independent production company Santana financed the flick, apparently gave up on trying to follow the story and decided to just trust that Huston and Capote knew what they were doing.
Which was writing brilliant lines for and getting brilliant performances out of a brilliant cast in locations from a lugubrious Italian port hotel to the rust bucket tramp steamer the SS Nyanga, captained by Captain Haddock’s Levantine cousin, to flyblown Moroccan prisons presided over by fez-wearing, hubble bubble-smoking suavely corrupt bureaucrats.
And BTD is also beautifully lensed by in sunny noir by Oswald Morris whose other DOP credits include ‘Lolita’, ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold’ and ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ which has some interesting resonances with BTD. Huston seemed quite drawn to the theme of Western hustlers becoming unstuck in foreign lands.
Bogie cheerfully sends up his usual hard-bitten soldier of fortune with a heart of gold character, Robert Morley and Peter Lorre take turns outdoing each other as two of the most implausible, hapless and entertaining screen villains ever and Jennifer Jones and Gina Lollobrigida are equally gorgeous and completely crazy femme fatales. Especially Jennifer, who in a seemingly artless way, turns everyone else’s nefarious schemes completely on their heads.
All the secondary characters get right into the spirit of it as well, not least the Nyanga’s droll deadpan purser (Mario Perrone) who apparently has dealt with far worse than this mob and the Galloping Major (Ivor Barnard), five feet of knife-wielding fizzing rabies in a bowler.
I’ve always felt a easy way of padding out a film review was just to cut ‘n’ paste some juicy screen quotes. However I am above such lazy devices.
GrogFlog’s verdict: “I’m a typical rare spirit. I was an orphan until I was twenty, then a rich and beautiful woman adopted me.” 8 out of 10 lies.
Coming soon: Burt Lancaster and his deadly typewriter, a surprisingly submersible Gene Hackman and GrogFlog’s all-time top 10 movie themes which should inspire the kind of gracious and reasoned comment thread that has made the blogosphere what it is today.