As people ask me about this Sunday's Cinema Club presentation at the Ritz, I'm finding myself a little stumped and at a loss for words. What the hell is BEAT THE DEVIL? Is it a parody? A farce? A spoof? I don't know, or particularly care. Mainly, I like the out-of-control feel that the film gives me. BEAT THE DEVIL is like a train that jumps the tracks and, against all odds, keeps chugging along until it reaches a far more interesting destination than any dumb old train station.
The plot, such as it is, is wandering and desultory. An English couple with pretensions toward nobility find themselves stranded in a Neapolitan village while their ship is being repaired. The wife (Jennifer Jones) becomes fascinated with a quartet of suspicious characters led by Robert Morley and including Peter Lorre (as the German accented Chilean resident O'Hara) and their down-on-his luck middleman Humphrey Bogart. The film tells the loose story of their acquaintance and misadventures. By the end of the film, the proceedings begin to feel more like an epic Bugs Bunny cartoon as the story structure disintegrates and falls apart as the characters and relationships seem to spin off into a logic of their own.
I think BEAT THE DEVIL is a joke - partially a joke on those in the audience who would have narrative "order"; a joke on Bogart, who put up the money for the film expecting something much closer to the source novel; on mogul David O. Selznick, who lent his wife Jennifer Jones' services to the film, little suspecting she would be seen as a figure of such good humor; and finally a joke on the film "scholar" or "theorist" who would eventually try to make sense of it all. For me, if the choice is between rigid narrative sense and fun, I'm going to take fun most of the time.
It's not surprising that an international coproduction presided over by such a playfully perverse director as John Huston, aided and abetted by Truman Capote, would go off the tracks. And considering the talent involved, it's also not surprising that the results should be so engaging.
Though it didn't reach a large audience at the time of its initial release, the movie was among the most requested revival screenings in college towns throughout the '60s and BEAT THE DEVIL became one of the first "cult films." Its trajectory was a little something like THE BIG LEBOWSKI, which it resembles in many ways. LEBOWSKI also initially failed at the box office but found wide acceptance within 5 or 6 years.
We're very eager to show you BEAT THE DEVIL on an archival 35mm print. Our guest expert, filmmaker Andrew Bujalski knows a thing or two about taking creative approaches to narrative. His films BEESWAX, MUTUAL APPRECIATION and FUNNY HA HA have explored new ways of relating to performance and story. Please join us this Sunday for an hour and a half of bewildering joy as we watch the film, then conduct an audience discussion about the film with Alamo programmers and our guest expert Andrew Bujalski.