Saturday 27 September 2014

John Huston's Beat the Devil (1953): Chaos and Carousing

Beat the Devil: 'It was a hell of a lark doing it'
Truman Capote wrote it on the hoof, Humphrey Bogart lost his teeth in a car crash during production, and director John Huston fell off a cliff … the chaos and carousing on set made 1953’s Beat the Devil a delirious cult classic

Thirza Wakefield
Wednesday 24 September 2014

“By some mysterious alchemy, the mood of a movie set is often reflected on the theater screen,” wrote Truman Capote’s biographer Gerald Clarke in 1988, referring to Beat the Devil (1953), which was scripted by Capote and directed by John Huston. “One of the reasons Beat The Devil is such a lark to see is that, as Huston recalled, ‘It was a hell of a lark doing it.’” That it screens next week at the BFI bears out Clarke’s estimation that the film would keep on delighting “for a long time to come”. Where behind-the-scenes stories tend to be garnish on a film, Beat the Devil is different: what’s most enjoyable about the film has everything to do with the congenially chaotic nature of its production.

Aged 28, Truman Capote had just completed his novella The Grass Harp and left his home of two years in Taormina for Rome. Huston, meanwhile, was en route to Ravello, a coastal village near Naples, to shoot his latest film. Deeply dissatisfied with the script he was carrying, he sought out the gifted writer during a stopover in Rome, and asked would he bring it up to speed? Adapted from the novel by Claud Cockburn (using pseudonym James Helvick), the screenplay’s authors – experienced screenwriters Peter Viertel and Tony Veiller – had given it up for hooey, and with the cast already hired and Capote whisked without another word to Naples, the novelist was aware that his first film script would be written day-by-day during the shoot. He knew, but the company didn’t, and keeping the secret were associate producer Jack Clayton, and the film’s star and joint financier Humphrey Bogart.

The decision to hide the fact that there was no film to be filmed set in motion a masquerade that doesn’t sit well with surviving impressions of these venerated movie makers. Stalling for time, Clayton fibbed when he told the cast that their director wanted them not to read their lines until the last minute. The deception went further, with Huston deliberately delaying the crew with complicated camera setups to give him and Capote an hour’s grace here and there to catch up with the schedule: “It was that close,” he recalled.

The film’s story centres on four felons waiting in a port town to board a ship to Africa to make their fortunes from the continent’s uranium deposits. Their associate, the married Dannreuther (Bogart), has other things on his mind, namely the wife of an Englishman tourist, the distrait Mrs Chelm (Jennifer Jones), who contrives her husband’s participation in the underhanded scheme. One marvels at how Capote kept in his mind the development of this knotty plot when writing the script.
Truth be told, he didn’t much. It was an unusual situation in that the film had already been cast, giving Capote the rare good fortune to write prescriptively (and playfully) straight into the mouths of Hollywood stars with established reputations.

This extended to bit-parts, such as the ship’s purser, for which they’d poached a restaurant pianist in Rome (it was only on his arrival in Ravello that they realised he could barely speak a word of English). To know Capote is to know it’s no accident that the purser has a grandiose manner of speaking: “I bring you the captain’s compliments along with the sad news that the sailing of the SS Nyanga has been postponed,” is his opening line.

The purser wasn’t alone in peculiar figures of speech. Capote put the entire cast at the mercy of eccentric epithets and mock-Wildean dialogue with a surfeit of clauses and overstatement. “My feet are on the ground, both of them,” says gang leader Peterson (Robert Morley) emphatically, and later exalts the fresh sea air with the inventive “Neptune’s mixture!” Dannreuther charms Mrs Chelm with: “Well, if you must know, I’m a typical rare spirit,” and has a sotto voce “Shut up, sugar” for his wife. A fantasist in the vein of Cecily Cardew in The Importance of Being Earnest, Mrs Chelm has a habit of prefacing a fib with her pet expression, “In point of fact …” Her claiming she’s a witch and “could have been a professional” was a funny too far for Bogart, who corpses in their scene at the lowering of the gangplank.

Silly it all may be, but Capote’s dialogue had a democratising effect on the cast – a levelling of stars and supporting performers that’s unusual to see in a film of the 1950s. There’s only so much of the finished film that can be attributed to the urgency of Capote’s task, but it took a man with his sense of irreverent humour to seize the opportunity as he did.

The main question is, did the actors know or care where the picture was going? Apart from Jones, who expressed concern for the continuity of her character, it seems everyone was having far too good a time to give it a moment’s thought. There was nightly revelling, arm wrestling and a recklessly high-stakes poker school, presided over by Bogart and Huston, which all but rescinded Capote’s writing fee with pots of $2,000 minimum. News of their frolics travelled wide, bringing Orson Welles and Ingrid Bergman to Huston’s veranda. One night, Huston stepped outside to take the air. Wandering in the dark with glass in hand, he fell 40 feet off a cliff edge, though, remarkably, remained unharmed.

It comes as no surprise to learn that Beat the Devil was a singularly accident-prone production. In 10 weeks there were two cases of hospitalisation on account of teeth: Capote’s impacted wisdom tooth and Bogie’s bridge, which was shattered in a car crash on the road from Rome to Naples and required a replica set of front teeth to be sent from his dentist in California. On a separate occasion, Capote fled the set for Rome to check on the health of his pet crow Lola, whom he talked to daily on the telephone and who had fallen enigmatically silent.

Whether or not one is aware of the trials and hi-jinks of its making, Beat the Devil remains to this day a highly entertaining film, dateless but for it being filmed in black and white. On its release it bemused the public but won the approval of some critics, who thought it a fine curiosity. Bogart regretted it seeing the light of day, but Huston, who felt fondly toward the film – it was his offbeat baby – wished his actor friend had lived long enough to hear it hailed a masterpiece, albeit of a cult variety.

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