Beat the Devil (1953)
Directed by John Huston
Like in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Humphrey Bogart is a globe-trotting fortune hunter out to plunder the developing world like a Conrad antihero who grew up playing stickball—here, he and dreamy-divine wife Gina Lollobrigida are en route to a shady uranium fortune somewhere in Africa. Like in The Maltese Falcon, he’s racing for his MacGuffin in unfriendly competition with a seedy gallery of expatriate character actors of the kind you can imagine standing drink after drink on your one excursion into the kind of exile cantina they haven’t left in years—chiefly including Peter Lorre, who looks, as ever, like an Al Hirschfeld drawing of Peter Lorre.
The difference this time around is Huston’s cowriter Truman Capote, the real-life Man Who Came to Dinner of the talk-show decades—the two supposedly made up the film as they went along, pulling all-nighters to contrive the next day’s dialogue. Capote’s great gift is to make cravenness simply sparkle, and he does so here, in dialogue dropping wicked pearl after pearl as everyone waits around in dusty Italy for their ship’s captain to sober up; then regards each other warily on a choppy voyage ending and brief toe-tap into the global South, rendered in a postwar parody of prewar exoticism. As everyone eyes each other suspiciously, Bogie and La Lollo enter into casual, crisscrossing infidelities with outwardly crusty-genteel British reprobates the Chelms. Jennifer Jones, in blonde dye job and doll-like bangs, takes gleefully to the fanciful and frankly thirsty Mrs. Chelm—quite a surprise, and perhaps a genuine id-exercise for Mrs. David O. Selznick, the studio system’s most prized trophy. Mark Asch (February 17-23 at Film Forum in new restoration of original cut; showtimes daily)