05 February 2011

Beat the Devil

Sometimes I do myself a favor by remembering that I very much want to see a film and allowing myself to forget the reasons why. It gives me the impetus to pay attention and adds the fun of trying to figure out what piece of long lost lore or trivia led me here in the first place. I remembered that Beat the Devil was a less popular (non-blockbuster) Huston film with Bogart, and that at one point I was very excited to watch it, but by the time I sat down to do so I'd forgotten why, and watched it with a blank slate.

Immediately it was obvious that Bogart was playing a kind of posh John Huston. Aged as he was, with his skin starting to sag and his teeth looking more and more like old-man teeth, he even looked like Huston. The mannerisms were good too -- a little affected, a little entitled, but also gruff and no-bullshit.

Billy Dannreuther (it sounds distractingly like everybody calls him "Dan Rather," and Humphrey is no Billy) is cynical and manipulative and knows when to put survival before dignity. He plays everyone against each other and like his Spade or Marlowe he tries to stay out in front of the various conniving bad guys so he can score the loot and get the girl. I found it impossible to watch this movie and not keep comparing it to The Maltese Falcon, right down to the appearance of an always-fun Peter Lorre and a languidly verbose, sweaty fat man who seems sometimes like the leader of the ragtag gang of ambitious crooks -- it isn't Sydney Greenstreet, but Robert Morley plays it with the same kind of fondness for his own blather. The main difference, though, is that here everything seems to go wrong, and often comically. The car going down the hill and off the cliff; the boat sinking; Billy fleeing the Arabs, getting caught, weaseling his way out of danger by throwing his companion under the bus in his place. It was almost like Huston was turning his own film on its head and shaking out all the hard-edged bravado, leaving only the nonsense and schemes and shifting loyalties and ever-changing backstories.

And so, when I finished the film I peeked online to see if I could figure out what had drawn me here in the first place. Sure enough, plain as day, Wikipedia says, "It was intended by Huston as a tongue-in-cheek spoof of his earlier masterpiece, The Maltese Falcon, and of films of its genre." Written (apparently on the fly, day to day) by Huston and Truman Capote, it was the director taking the piss out of a genre he helped make huge. It apparently tanked and Bogart disowned it to some degree ("Only phonies like it") and Wikipedia goes on to call it "the first camp movie," but I admire it beyond all of that. It has undeniably fun characters, and isn't boring for a moment. (The romance is just as rushed as its forebear, but there's vastly more chemistry between Bogart and Jennifer Jones than he ever had with Mary Astor.) The plot is insane, leaping (fairly seamlessly) from manic slapstick to shifty-eyed noir to weapy romance to high-stakes thriller, and it never slacks in any of these.

Beat the Devil comes off clearly as the work of an old-hat at genre film who's bold enough to challenge the expectations of an audience, but it's also got the punk attitude of a great director rewriting old formulas. If artists didn't so willfully color outside the boxes every now and then, we'd never move forward artistically. In that sense, it's easy to see this film as a predecessor to anything from Romancing the Stone to The Big Lebowski to Shaun of the Dead. Anything with a gleefully deconstructionist bent, really.

Personally, while I can see why it wasn't a huge success and isn't as fondly remembered as The Maltese Falcon or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or The Asphalt Jungle, I still really enjoyed this and am very glad to have seen it. It feels in its way like an important film, because it's bold enough to spit in the face of something both I and the filmmakers clearly hold dear. Dismantling a thing you love is a hard thing to do but it's so rewarding when it's done well. And here it's done well.

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