Thursday, August 12, 2010

BEAT THE DEVIL (1953) - way more subtle than the "Satan gets his ass kicked" plot you might expect from the title

Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre discuss finding a precious uranium ore worth a load of cash. This was back when uranium was a precious metal, and not merely fuel for nuclear power plants, like Silkwood and Chernobyl (the only two I have ever heard of).

Beat the Devil is possibly a precursor to The Big Lebowski, at least spiritually speaking (keep in mind I’m an atheist). Here is a group of odd characters forced to come together in a heist plot of sorts, resolutely remaining themselves amidst potential danger and the curious developments of the plot. This leads to what the true punters call REAL FUCKING COMEDY. This is no common heist spoof, where you might see some fat goofball reach for a diamond and slip onto his arse instead. Rather, John Huston subverts his earlier film The Maltese Falcon, while slyly painting American colonialism as a cash grab free-for-all for those lucky enough to find themselves on the right side of the action. Here is another case of Huston employing social commentary within the (sort of) Hollywood machine, albeit with a lighter touch.

I have heard several supposed John Huston fans tell me how this movie was “absolutely terrible”, or "total dogshit", or the like. I assume these people cannot appreciate a comedy built on character, instead of the usual slapstick and rattled off faux-witticisms. If you think the average sitcom is funny, yet stare blankly when W.C. Fields sits down at the breakfast table with his incredibly annoying family, attempting to read the paper while failing to swallow both his pride and sorrow, you sir are an ASSHOLE. That’s right, I said it.

For example, Peter Lorre has a wonderful speech about time, breaking it down like nobody’s business. He asks “what is time? Swiss manufacture it. French hoard it. Italians squander it. Americans say it is money. Hindus say it does not exist. Do you know what I say? I say time is a crook." Brilliant and amusing, me thinks. Hell, it may even be profound. Although Lorre initially seems to be a weasel of low morals, this speech also shows that he benefits from an extremely sharp intellect. However, Bogie later cuts him down to size with the line “he smokes, he drinks, he philosophises”. Bogart is a man of action and not of talk, resolutely determined to find his fortune, and considers such intellectual rumination as merely another vice to indulge in; an opiate for the intellect, if you will. He doesn’t robotically finish the punchline, but creates humor through rich conflict instead. You know, like a REAL man.

SO, I could go through the entire plot of Beat the Devil, but why bother (effort is overrated anyway). The film is in the public domain, and therefore available to watch free of charge all over the internewebs. Just watch the fucking thing, I say. It’s a comedy, yes, but not a mediocre sitcom that smacks you over the head with shitty punchlines, allowing you to passively be administered laughs, like an empty vessel resting at the end of a conveyor belt, waiting to be filled. Just imagine yourself surrounded by a cast of oddballs in an exotic location, all of whom are completely unaware that they are impossible to take seriously. That there is some REAL comedy. You know, the kind that manly men like Bogie enjoy over a bottle of scotch. Then again, I don’t know why he would want to watch his own movie. Also, he’s dead. Boy that was a shitty example, but the point remains…watch it as an active participant and get ready to CHUCKLE the whole way through (well, mostly).


As to whether or not John Huston was an auteur, I tend to say no. While filmmaking is no doubt a very collaborative process, the way an “auteur” shines through his/her work, at least according to me, is through composition, movement, and editing, the basic tools that differentiate cinema from a play or novel. If these visual characteristics come through in a form unique to the filmmaker, and are a central focus of the film, instead of merely “flourishes” for a script, I say they qualify.
Orson Welles is an auteur, in other words, as the aspects I mentioned that are unique to cinema tend to drive his films, where as Sidney Lumet is not, as he seems to be more concerned with how to tell a story in an effective way, like a stage director working in another medium.

Keep in mind that this is a fairly nebulous idea, but I specify the auteur definition in that way because it seems to me to be the distinction that is most useful. Depending on how the label is defined and applied, one person's auteur can be another's faceless hack. Also, this tells us nothing about a director's "greatness", as far as I'm concerned, unless your idea of greatness is automatically weighted towards the more "cinematic" filmmakers. So, in other words, John Huston may not be an "auteur", but, in the long run...who gives a shit. The important thing is what you get out of a filmmaker's works (like me laughing my ass off watching Beat the Devil), and not whether you can come up with an objective slotting system for "greatness".

P.S. This piece was written as part of the John Huston blogathon over at the Icebox Movies blog. Check it out here

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, I'd be hardpressed to think of somebody as a true fan of Huston if they weren't fond of Beat the Devil. I love it. It's not exactly a masterpiece, but it represents Huston and Capote at their most free-spirited.

    I see what you mean about how Huston wasn't an auteur in the sense that his films all share the same type of compositions in common. To me he's a thematic auteur, not really an aesthetic one.