From the first frame on this thing just screams “cult classic” with its pervasive close-ups of character actors, a compulsively watchable hang-out vibe, and a sense that all of the action is taking place with gigantic quotes around it. Beat the Devil, easily the oddest film in Humphrey Bogart and Jennifer Jones’ bodies of work, is a charming satire of the kind of films John Huston made with a straight face both before and after its release.
Beat the Devil has a charm that plays out like watching a group of improv actors spinning out an adventure story on the spot, complete with free-associative musings and character motivations. We open at the end of the film where a group of men are being carried away by the police, and we trace back as much as possible to explain how we ended up here. The journey doesn’t always make sense, but it’s a great time once you find its wavelength.
Just assume you’re spending 90 minutes with a group that’s permanently drunk, more than a little horny, and some combination of crazy and crooked. We expect this type of behavior from veteran character actors like Peter Lorre and Robert Morley, and they are a treat as expected, but seeing how great Jennifer Jones adapts to this material is the real shock. Ernst Lubitsch had displayed a latent talent for comedy, a talent that no film since bothered with until this one. Wearing a blonde wig and talking in a plumy English accent Jones is a revelation as she drops rapid-fire passages of dialog and tells one whopper of a lie after another.
For his part, Bogart does his romantic cynic routine, but this time that’s an undercurrent of a raised eyebrow and bemused smile to all of his actions. The story gives him plenty of wiggle room for gently mocking his major star persona, as much as there is a story in this film. It finds Bogart and his wife, Gina Lollobrigida, stranded in an Italian seaport waiting on repairs to a ship that will take them, a band of riffraff, to Africa to buy up uranium rich lands. A British couple, Jones and Edward Underdown, wander into this bizarre group and cause chaos and the eventual undoing of it all.
If that description sounds muddled and confusing, then I’ve described it accurately enough. Some films you watch for the strength of depth of their story, others for the beauty of their images, and some we watch for the vibe of them. Beat the Devil is very much a “vibe” movie. There was an original shooting script, but once on location Huston tore it apart and bought in Truman Capote to write scenes on the spot. This sense of the film inventing itself as it spirals out will keep many viewers at a remove, but I went with its blessed chaos from the beginning.
It doesn’t matter what may or may not happen in the story, all that matters is the sense of fun and tongue-in-cheek camp proudly on display throughout. There’s a series of smart bits of roundabout dialog that charm more than they guffaw. If you walk in expecting a complex adventure story or a laugh-out-loud comedy, then you’ll be sorely disappointed. All Beat the Devil wants to do is entertain and bemuse you for its running time, and it’s a masterpiece of kooky, eccentric camp cinema.