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Monday, April 16, 2018

10 ... 20 ... 60 Years Ahead Of Its Time ...

Have We Caught Up With Beat The Devil Yet?

Shot in early 1953, but released in March 1954, this was sold by braver exhibs in terms of black-and-white flatness we should celebrate --- a deliberately old-fashioned show amidst shape-shifting screens. Beat The Devil would have been better off had it been more like the thrillers it proposed to spoof. The satire was obscure enough to need helpful narration confirming that indeed this was a lark, otherwise you could go the whole thing figuring Beat The Devil a plain misfire. Humphrey Bogart tagged it for exactly that, resenting his money wasted on such smug self-indulgence. The star spent personal funds to accommodate friend and Devil's director John Huston, who handed Bogart his 50's triumph The African Queen and the Academy Award it yielded for an actor too-long typed as urban tough-guy. Beat The Devil then, was a hiccup among post-Warner Bogarts that were uniformly successful otherwise, and it would be after HB's death before a meaningful cult would form around he and Huston's "shaggy dog" spoof (that usually a critic's designation for pics everyone but the public will like).

Origin story of Beat The Devil has been given two ways. One version has John Huston being handed the source book and imploring Bogart to invest and star in it, but Bogart told LOOK magazine in September 1953 that someone had lent him the novel and he said to Huston, "Let's buy it." Bogart added that he "raised the dough" to make Beat The Devil. On the last detail, there seems to be no argument. In fact, Bogart would lose something upward of $450,000, a 1953 equivalent to four million today. This certainly would not have been loss to laugh off. Location shooting was in Ravello, Italy, where cast/crew spent seven weeks, according to Variety, much of that partying and writing just ahead of the camera, Europe a social mecca for tax-dodging Hollywoodites of the day (it was claimed you could duck the federal tab by working fourteen straight months offshore). There were many old friends who'd link up far from home. Director pals of Huston visited Ravello --- William Wyler and Howard Hawks sighted among passers-through. David Selznick gifted the company with a ping-pong table to pass idle hours, his wife Jennifer Jones among the "international" cast. Home movies were made of this vacation enjoyed largely on Bogart's money, fascinating to watch because they are in color, unlike the feature.

What may have started off as serio-comic became altogether farce as writer Truman Capote joked up dialogue and Huston got into spirit of fun. The cast was less convinced as words were handed them right before scenes to be taken. Wiser heads saw the hangover to come once Huston or whoever assembled the mess. Fullest awakening came as the director did his editing in August 1953. Plan had been to get Beat The Devil into release for September, triad of Huston, Gina Lollobrigida, and Bogart to thump the show with personal apps during July-August-September. That plan had to be scotched after participants, and distributor United Artists, got a look at Huston's finished product. Beat The Devil seemed not fish nor fowl, and sloppily made in the bargain (deliberate? It looks as though Huston was emulating imports that he, and others, admired). Fall '53 was also the coming of The Robe and others of widened screen that would render old-style square frames obsolete. Every month that Beat The Devil stayed in the stall would make it seem more of an antique when audiences finally saw it.

Emergency measures would have to be applied to put the film in releasable shape. Bogart invited a director panel for advice toward salvage. One can imagine polite silence when lights went up. Trouble among both insiders, and civilians who got a peek, was not knowing if Beat The Devil was straight melodrama or a send-up. To hopeful rescue came husband-wife editing team of Gene and Marjorie Fowler. They would reminisce about their time on Beat The Devil for a 1964 Variety article which was part of the trade's thirty-first anniversary issue. The Fowlers had been shown the film and were told that it had been distributed during fall 1953 in England and "was doing very poorly." Beat The Devil would have to be "saved" by the editing team to have any hope of success in US markets. "We decided that the simplest solution was to let the audience in on the fact this was a comedy," trouble being the Fowlers having access only to a cut negative, and a final dubbed track, essentially what patrons were then seeing in the UK. "We started by transposing some scenes, eliminating certain story points, and punching up others with inserts. Then we took the tail end of the picture and put it up at the beginning, telling the story in flashback form. We opened on a close shot of four somber faced gentlemen marching along purposefully, while a new narration, spoken by Bogart, stated, Here are the four most successful criminals of Europe." The Fowlers were satisfied that their work helped transform Beat The Devil  into what they said became "an esoteric classic."

Reshuffle of the narrative was accompanied by censor call for "some snipping" to certain views of Gina Lollobrigida, said Army Archerd in his 11-18-53 column for Variety. The trade reported two days later that Bogart had given UA "the right to lease (Beat The Devil ) to TV if it doesn't make the grade theatrically." Deal further called for Bogart to receive "15% per run" in the event such option was taken (as things turned out, Beat The Devil would not appear on television until fall of 1964). Toward agreed-upon March 1954 release, United Artists set simultaneous opening at 68 theatres in the New York metropolitan area, a bid less to beat any devil than beat word-of-mouth which was expected to be bad. Some initial dates did OK, but sure enough, the smell got out. Dorothy Kilgallen's Screenland column laid a haymaker on Beat The Devil --- customers, she said, "gasped" at the previewed film, saying that the players "couldn't possibly have given such performances unless they were drunk, drugged, or didn't give a darn ..." Exhibitor comments agreed that Bogart had let down his public. Part of trouble was UA grossly misleading audiences with promise of "Adventure At Its Boldest --- Bogart At His Best," accompanied by the star laying a sledgehammer blow to villainy, and fondling a falling-out-of-her-gown Lollobrigida. To promote Beat The Devil as sly farce would likely have been ruinous, however, as such content was not what Bogart's following was known to embrace. Whatever the missteps, Beat The Devil would be, along with In A Lonely Place, the only Humphrey Bogart vehicle during whole of the 50's to earn less than a million in domestic rentals. $975,132 from 8,891 engagements was plain disaster, but not one that would come as surprise to those who had scurried to make something commercially viable out of Beat The Devil.

One-Sheet For The 1964 Reissue

Pitching Beat The Devil To TV Stations For Fall 1964

Alternate Style For The 1964 Syndicated Pitch
Bogart sold his Beat The Devil interest to Columbia in February 1955, along with his ownership in The African Queen and all the Santana titles produced by that company in which he was a partner. Beat The Devil would become the object of a very interesting reissue experiment in 1964. Columbia by then had an art subsidiary called "Royal Films International" to handle their elevated stuff, and Royal put together a fresh campaign for Beat The Devil as a film "Ten Years Ahead Of Its Time." That having been ten years before 1964, Royal figured our greater sophistication had caught up with Beat The Devil and now was time to finally appreciate it. The film, said Variety (4-23-64), would be "getting a strictly high-brow treatment" via bookings through 36 venues nationwide that were controlled by the Art Theatre Guild chain. A New York run at the 5th Avenue Cinema lasted six weeks and took $30,900, which was awfully good for a 273 seater. Variety attributed Beat The Devil "comeback" success to an "expanded market for the so-called "sophisticated" pix, new sales approach, and that "Bogie" craze now booming after grassrooting in colleges." The revival would play out as Columbia-Screen Gems put Beat The Devil into a feature package for fall 1964 syndication to TV, where it was alternately marketed to buyer stations as an "offbeat ... comedy classic," or Bogart the "International Swindler" up to old tricks.

I've watched Beat The Devil again, and as with past viewings, have liked it more each time. It's not that I finally "get" the humor, as frankly that still eludes me, but as a curiosity and record of what Euro influence had done to Huston, nothing equals Beat The Devil. This was no movie for hopeless provincials we Americans were. Bogart in straight-up crime fighter mode (Deadline USA, The Enforcer) was what Yanks preferred, though The African Queen demonstrated tolerance for offbeat path, so long as comedy and romance were served. Bogart is certainly not flattered by the camera. And donning ascots?? We realize suddenly why it was necessary for Bogie to be under studio protection where he could be carefully photographed. The African Queen got by because his "Charlie Allnutt" was an extreme character whose sweat and grime enhanced the part. For Beat The Devil, Bogart is assigned to suavity and Gina Lollobrigida for onscreen wife, plus Jennifer Jones with whom he'll steal kisses, none of which an emaciated HB seems fit for. There was an auto crack-up on location that sliced his tongue, broke out some teeth, for which he'd have stitches and rush order for new bridge work. Beat The Devil also has a scene where Bogart's badly swollen lip is clear in evidence. He would frankly look and comport better two years later in his final film, The Harder They Fall.

Beat The Devil Makes The Art House in Cleveland For Spring 1964

Jennifer Jones came off best of the cast for me. Someone told her later that this would be the picture she'd be remembered for, and JJ was non-plussed. Everyone associated with Beat The Devil would write it off as a disaster. The inevitable cult formed around coffee tables in university towns (Harvard's Brattle Theatre an early champion), and revivals sold Beat The Devil as mockery it only fitfully was. Bogart festivals had less luck because his legion wanted straight dope of a Maltese Falcon, not a movie that would ridicule it. There is lately a "Director Cut" that loses the narration and has added footage, essentially what was shown in Europe and the UK over latter months of 1953 while UA, Bogart, et al, struggled to fix Beat The Devil for stateside consumption. This "restoration" has played revival screens but is not yet available on home disc. It did, however, turn up unexpectedly, and most welcome, on a late night TCM broadcast, so we can at last see Beat The Devil as John Huston presumably intended it.


Blogger Michael said...

Growing up with it regularly on TV when I hadn't yet seen the Casablancas and Maltese Falcons, I've always found it a hoot, and a couple of lines find all-purpose use around our house, especially "Breathe deeply, Billy, every breath a guinea in the bank of health!" (used to get the kids moving to clean their rooms) and "Many Germans in Argentina have come to be called O'Hara" (when someone says something baldfaced unbelievable).

Peter Schickele, of P.D.Q. Bach fame, talks on one of his Schickele Mix shows about he and the other Juilliard kids attending those '64 revival shows and digging the self-sending-up humor. I suspect it was received a bit like the Ed Wood films would be a decade or two later (no offense to Huston), or like Leslie Nielsen in later years-- for showing Hollywood slickness and self-seriousness cracking and revealing the comedy under the mask. 1964 was a good year to try that, certainly, as something of the same humor sensibility mocking the squares and the authority figures is at work in two hits of that year, Dr. Strangelove and A Hard Day's Night.

There's a blu-ray/DVD release of the Fowler version, I guess we'd call it, out from a label called The Film Detective that is supposed to be far better than all the PD ones. How did the original version play? Did it work-- or did you hear the narration in your head anyway, as I can't watch Blade Runner without knowing the things Harrison Ford said in the release version?

9:31 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

The original version is fine, not radically different from what was US-released, but probably an improvement, at least to my reckoning. Quality is the best I've seen. The Film Detective Blu-Ray is quite good. It's nice having access now to both.

9:42 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

You go, Michael! That is my favorite line from the movie and one had to mine deeply to extract it, but it is a gem. The Wolf, man.

1:02 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

I will never forget Gina Lollobridgida's anecdotes about filming this movie that she use to tell on TV interviews. In particular, she mentioned that frequently during filming would engage into big physical fights with lots of blood in their faces. She never mentioned anything that the film was ahead of its time, although that is what Fernando Martín Peña did say on occasion when he introduced the movie in his show.

5:46 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Maybe I should check out the restored version, because the US edit was like "Ocean's 12" -- an excuse for audiences to watch rich actor's home movies.

Let's not forget that Peter Sellers dubbed some of Bogart's dialogue, too, allegedly because of the latter's early stages of cancer.

10:00 PM  
Blogger Neely OHara said...

I'll give it another try -- it was one of my late husband's FAVORITES (hence multiple trips to Ravello and the Amalfi Coast) but I could never get into it (just like his other favorite THE BIG STREET -- I guess I like my Lucy more screwball than sourpuss). Great post, though, actually has me looking forward to trying it again -- thanks John!

10:29 AM  
Blogger b piper said...

I've loved BEAT THE DEVIL ever since I first saw it on a lousy PD tape borrowed from the local library. I'm delighted to finally see it in good shape, although I frankly prefer the "Fowler" cut. The famed director/cinematographer Freddie Francis, who was camera operator on DEVIL, claims that no one knew if it was a comedy or a thriller until Robert Morley showed up "and he, being Robert Morley, decided it was a comedy." Good for him.

1:04 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

We're almost there. I'd say give the film another 50 years....
The Wolf, man.

P.S. I AM a robot!

9:58 AM  
Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

Stinky enjoys this one, mostly because of how noncommercial it is. Huston's only "comedy"?

6:54 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Wise Blood?

6:28 PM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

Must admit,on first view, I was expecting a MALTESE FALCON, what with Bogie, Lorre and Morley standing in for were my fellow viewers on that it wore on,and their patience ever thinning, I started to realise that this was a horse of a different colour...but it took later viewings to pick up just how satiric/deconstructive this really was...always pick up something new with every THERE'S a tag line for the posters!!

6:57 AM  

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