Giving This Devil Its Due

Giving This Devil Its Due

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Dec 25th 2018

Another eminent birthday celebrated on Christmas is that of Humphrey Bogart (1899-1957), another historical personage with a considerable following, and likewise a principled loner with an antiestablishment bent. Throughout two decades worth of movies, his presence was largely a gift in almost all of them, whether they ultimately turned out as B-level potboilers or legendary cinematic art. Whether you question that his arrival on the silver screen had any kind of messianic effect, at least in film historian David Thomson’s estimation, “For 20 years or so, Bogie was untouchable, not just the best but dismissive and corrosive enough to strip out all the pomp, smugness and medals that went with it. He made the kids’ films of America seem grown up.” 

One fellow grown-up who partnered in establishing that untouchable aura was good friend John Huston, courtesy of a stunning array of popular properties: High Sierra (1941, co-written by Huston), The Maltese Falcon(1941, Huston’s directing debut), Across the Pacific (1942), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Key Largo (1948) and The African Queen (1951, which earned Bogart the Best Actor Academy Award®). Huston instigated their next – and final – collaboration, in which Bogart would not only star but also function as a producer, to his subsequent regret. Thomson described it thus: “It’s as if a dozen years later, Huston had come out of a hangover and thought to himself, what if the characters and the types from The Maltese Falcon all teamed up in the new crazy Europe. The whole thing was Huston’s doing. A neighbor of his in Ireland, Claud Cockburn, had published a novel, Beat the Devil [1951], and Huston asked Bogie to buy it – cheaply, not a real burden. The falcon this time was a uranium mine and the people after it were a motley crew: Billy Dannreuther and his lustrous but not terribly bright wife (Bogart and some fabulous Continental sexpot to be named later); two classic villains, Greenstreet and Lorre – except that Greenstreet was dead. So Robert Morley took over. Lorre was not well either but alive enough to be himself and so anxious to be reunited with Bogart that he took the job for peanuts. There was also an English couple, him stupid, her crazy. The two big female roles ended up as Gina Lollobrigida and a blonde Jennifer Jones. And the idea was to shoot it all in Italy. What was missing were Sam Spade and his moral resolve. All players in the game were now on the same slippery slope.” 

That slippery slope, the now-legendary film of Beat the Devil (1953), became notorious as a disjointed party-styled escapade, filmed from February to May of that year in stunningly scenic Ravello, Italy, with adaptors Huston and Truman Capote writing and rewriting throughout the shoot, and critical and audience apathy once the finished product, edited and reordered by the producing partners, emerged that December in Italy and the following February in New York. It accrued admirers throughout the years as a project that seemed more fun to make than it was to comprehend. John Huston: Courage and Art biographer Jeffrey Myers sealed the Falcon connection: “A beautiful woman lies to everyone, a group of rogues pursues unobtainable riches and the quest for uranium reprises the search for the falcon. Though the picturesque setting could have been shot in color, Huston used black-and-white to allude to the earlier film. The lying Jennifer Jones parallels the deceitful Mary Astor. Robert Morley, an equally rotund but more genial villain, replaces the ailing Sydney Greenstreet. Ivor Barnard, the irrational and violent Major Ross, has the same function as the gunsel Elisha Cook Jr. In The Maltese Falcon, Lorre had British, French and Greek passports; in Beat the Devil, he’s a cosmopolitan German-Irish Chilean. In Cockburn’s novel, O’Hara (played by Lorre) says, like Greenstreet continuing his pursuit of the black falcon, ‘Although our present venture is wrecked, one can always, as it were, pop up again.’ Captivated by Capote’s blond hair and bangs, Huston had Lorre’s hair bleached and cut to make him look like a grotesque version of the writer. Annoyed that he had spent a lot of money for what turned out to be a gigantic private joke, Bogart bitterly complained that ‘only phonies think it’s funny.’ Moulin Rouge [1952, Huston’s previous film] had been a great success, partly because the marketing campaign was so effective. Beat the Devil was a flop, chiefly because the publicity was completely wrong. Sixty years on, Moulin Rouge is a maudlin bore, while Beat the Devil is still witty and entertaining, with excellent character roles and vivid, sun-bleached crime scenes. The film is much more amusing the second and third time around when the viewer has a clearer idea of its satiric comedy.” 

The news is ever better this time around, so much so that even disgruntled untouchable birthday honoree Bogart might be sardonically pleased. Twilight Time’s hi-def Blu-ray presents for the first time on home video a 2016 Sony Pictures/Film Foundation 4K restoration of the cult favorite in the form its gambler-director intended. As the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Wilmington wrote upon seeing this version last year: “It is a uniquely punch-drunk champion in the annals of rogue cinema. And thanks to the timely discovery of the film’s uncensored international version in a London vault, contemporary curiosity-seekers are treated to four additional minutes of footage; a reordered narrative chronology; the removal of some really lazy voiceover narration spoken by Bogart; and a clearer, better, brighter visual palette than Beat the Devil [photographed by long-time Huston collaborator Oswald Morris] has had in decades. Result: The new introductory scenes focus on Jones' character in an intriguing way. The Bogart narration vanishes. The flashback structure is no more. Certain sexual aspects of the so-called storyline come through more clearly now, including dialogue about Jones waiting for Bogart to make a pass at her, and a rhyming scene (the movie tiptoes up to a double infidelity) featuring an outrageous shot of Lollobrigida's cleavage, unseen by U.S. audiences.” Adding to the glamour quotient, a more revealing Rita Hayworth wall pinup shot is also now in evidence. Casting more light on the authorship quotient is a fascinating supplemental extra, artist/documentarian Elizabeth Lennard’s video essay Alexander Cockburn Beat the Devil, in which the Irish-American political journalist (1941-2012) discusses how much of his father’s original, dialogue-driven novel [published under the pen name of James Helvick] infuses the Capote/Huston screenplay. There’s also the off-screen camaraderie of the TT historian trio of Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman on a breezy and informative Audio Commentary. You can join no finer gallery of rogues and scalawags when Beat the Devil debuts January 22. Preorders open January 9.