Home Video Hovel: Beat the Devil, by Tyler Smith
American film noir owes a great deal to John Huston. His adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon set a new standard in the genre. He also went on to direct such noir classics as Key Largo, Across the Pacific, and The Asphalt Jungle. The darkness, the cynicism, the tension; Huston had a knack for these kinds of films, often incorporating noir elements into his other films, like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Prizzi’s Honor.
So, it is with a heavy heart that I report that his film Beat the Devil– which attempts to parody the genre Huston helped create- just isn’t that compelling. All the elements are there; Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, a couple of gorgeous dames, and a serpentine story of greed and betrayal. That Huston attempts to turn the genre on its head and turn it into a dry, tongue-in-cheek comedy is actually commendable. It means he’s interested in coming at film noir from a different angle, to see what else can be mined from it.
Unfortunately, by trying to focus on the humor of the situation, the story comes to a standstill. Even in comedy, it’s important for a story to have a propulsive quality to it. In fact, perhaps it’s even more important in comedy, where timing is key. Instead, everything about Beat the Devil is so lackadaisical that I found my mind drifting. It’s almost as though the characters are aware they’re in a comedic interpretation of their story that they themselves lose interest in the proceedings.
There are, of course, a couple of nice moments. Peter Lorre is allowed a handful of amusing monologues, which he pulls off with his usual nervous fidgets. The characters experience car trouble at one point, and are forced to get out and push, ultimately resulting in accidentally pushing the car off a cliff. The characters’ look of disbelief- and the transition into quiet resignation- is one of the more satisfying comedic moments of the film.
Perhaps the most effective element of the movie is Robert Morley, the grandiose crime boss of the film. Written in a way that recalls the wonderful Sidney Greenstreet, Morley manages to capture the spirit that mostly seems to elude the rest of the film and cast. He is excessively polite, even when making threats, but we never feel like he’s totally in control. Unlike Greenstreet’s characters (in The Maltese Falcon, for example), this man isn’t nearly as smart as he lets on, and the impotent frustration that Morley conveys underneath the flowery poise comes through beautifully.
Sadly, the rest of the film never quite holds my interest. In attempting to echo the more serious films of the genre, all it succeeds in doing is make me wish I were watching those. After all, there’s already quite a bit of dark humor to be found in film noir, but it’s combined with a genuine sense of urgency that this film lacks.
Again, it is commendable that John Huston was so willing to deconstruct the genre, but along the way, he seems to have forgotten to craft a compelling story. With the movie so adrift, there’s nothing for the audience to latch onto. And without a basic anchor, it’s hard to know what we’re supposed to consider funny and what we’re not. Huston would go on to solve this problem in his masterful Prizzi’s Honor, which juggled humor and tension wonderfully. In Beat the Devil, unfortunately, he manages neither and simply drops the ball.