Beat the Devil

Many people don't have an appetite for campy movies. I grew up watching them, since my dad loves all forms of strange, campy movies. I don't know many people who watched The Abominable Dr. Phibes when they were 13 or 14, aside from myself. For some reason, in a film noir class in college, my professor screened Phibes for us. He asked us if anyone had seen it before, and as I expected, I was the only person with their hand up. He started the movie and sat down next to me. "How in hell did you see this?" he asked me. "It's one of my dad's favorite movies, and I watched it with him a while ago," I told him. He smiled and said, "Your dad has great taste in movies!" While that may be a debatable fact, I have him to thank for my love for stupid campy movies. And today, I got to watch one that Ebert enjoys - Beat the Devil, directed in 1953 by John Huston. It was, oddly enough, written by Huston and Truman Capote. It's a strange film, with a stupid nonsense plot. It's mostly fun to watch to just see all of the characters, and to see how the actors can barely take it seriously while filming it.

The plot of the film, summarized on IMDB, is such: "On their way to Africa are a group of rogues who hope to get rich there, and a seemingly innocent British couple. They meet and things happen..."( I don't usually like to just copy summaries, bu this one is pretty perfect for the movie, since the plot matters so little. So much of the dialogue is funny and witty, and some of it is unintentionally so. Much of it feels like a riff on noir films, which is interesting in it's own right, since Bogart was involved in a lot of them. It makes element of a parody even funnier, to me.

Of course, I'm not the only one here who loves plotless, campy movies. Ebert writes, "Once we catch on that nothing much is going to happen, we can relax and share the amusement of the actors, who are essentially being asked to share their playfulness. There is a scene on a veranda overlooking the sea, where Bogart and Jones play out their first flirtation, and by the end of their dialogue you can see they're all but cracking up; Bogart grins during the dissolve. The whole movie feels that way" (Great Movies II, 48). Loved that scene, and I love what he says about just relaxing and having fun with the movie. I didn't know much about it going into it, so I tried to focus on the plot as though it was a serious noir or something. It took me a while to think, "Man, screw this plot," and just enjoy the absurdity of it all.

In his essay, Ebert writes a bit about the history of the film, and some of the madness that went on while filming. He writes, ""Beat the Devil" went straight from box office flop to cult classic and has been called the first camp movie, although Bogart, who sank his own money into it, said, "Only phonies like it." It's a movie that was made up on the spot; Huston tore up the original screenplay on the first day of filming, flew the young Truman Capote to Ravallo, Italy, to crank out new scenes against a daily deadline and allowed his supporting stars, especially Robert Morley and Peter Lorre, to create dialogue for their own characters. (Capote spoke daily by telephone with his pet raven, and one day when the raven refused to answer he flew to Rome to console it, further delaying the production.)" (Great Movies II, 44-46).

I hate to use big quotes like that, but just reading that in his essay made me love the movie even more. The bit about Capote's raven cracks me up! I read this after I watched the movie, and then I thought about how interesting it must have been on set. Bogart sulking around, surly, waiting for the day's script to be written, while Capote speaks on the phone to his bird. I'm sure it didn't go quite like that, of course, but just imaging is funny to me. I want to say that part of the appeal of campy movies is that you feel friendly with the actors in it, like you are sharing an inside joke. It's like what Ebert says about how we share in the amusement of the actors. I think that's why stories about filming campy movies are endearing to me, because it sort of enhances that feeling.

The movie is currently public domain, so it's really easy to find this short, hour and a half movie online. It's on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu,  and The Internet Archive. I love campy movies, so I really enjoyed this. It was different and funny, and I hope you check it out if you are a fan of this type of film!

Have any of you seen Beat the Devil? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Ebert's Great Movie Essay on Beat the Devil

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