Huston and Capote’s ‘Beat the Devil’ Is a Party Out of Bounds. Plus: ‘Harlan County U.S.A.’


In a letter sent to an old roommate, dated February 1953 and composed in Ravello, Italy, Truman Capote
recalled some of the occasionally wearying escapades of the director and headliner of Beat the Devil, the film that the author of Other Voices, Other Rooms was working on: “The last few weeks here have been filled with peculiar adventures, all involving John Huston and Humphrey Bogart, who’ve nearly killed me with their dissipations…half-drunk all day and dead-drunk all night, and once, believe it or not, I came to around six in the morning to find King Farouk [the ruler of Egypt overthrown in a 1952 coup and living in exile in Italy] doing the hula-hula in the middle of Bogart’s bedroom.” Writing to that same correspondent later in 1953, after a month spent shooting in London, Capote was more buoyant about the project: “It’s a mad camp — I had fun doing it.”

Beat the Devil, which plays for a week
at Film Forum in a new 4K restoration,
careers from scene to scene with barely contained, wholly invigorating chaos. The disorder is made even more delectable by a game cast, each performer, without exception and regardless of celebrity status,
embracing and in sync with the movie’s shambolic energy. Huston, unhappy with the original screenplay — an adaptation of the 1951 thriller of the same name by the political journalist (and former British Communist Party member) Claud Cockburn — asked Capote, then in the first blush of his literary superstardom, to rework the script, labor that was completed piecemeal on a day-to-day basis during the shoot. As Capote, recounting the “houseparty atmosphere” on and off the set, put it in a letter written in 1961, “a film was being made, or at any rate improvised.”

When distilled to its purest essence, the byzantine plot — which spins out from a murdered military officer, uranium mines in British-ruled Africa, partner-swapping, shipwrecks, and hot-water bottles — is a simple matter of outsize characters all biding time in Italy before
a steamer ship takes them to Kenya and who are made even more flamboyant by the actors playing them. Jennifer Jones, with whom Capote worked earlier on Vittorio De Sica’s Indiscretion of an American Wife (1953), savors the task the most with her fruity portrayal of Gwendolen Chelm, the mythomaniac spouse of enfeebled Harry (Edward Underdown), a man quick to take his to bed with complaints that he has a “chill on his liver.” Harry and his missus are from the U.K., which makes Mr. Chelm irresistible to anglophile Maria (Italian sexpot Gina Lollobrigida, here in her first English-language role, really drizzling the “glaze” in inglese), who’s married to Billy (Bogart). While Maria quotes George Moore and brings tea and crumpets to ailing Harry, Billy puts up no resistance to Gwendolen’s audacious flirting — and also acquiesces to a quartet of malefactors whom he disdainfully calls his “associates.”

Among that foursome is Peterson, played by the character actor and thickly sliced cut of succulent ham Robert
Morley, and Peter Lorre’s Julius O’Hara, whose surname doesn’t quite square with his heavy Teutonic accent. He explains: “Many Germans in Chile have come to be called O’Hara.” It’s one of innumerable spiky quips, delivered with impeccable deadpan by Lorre, who, with his peroxided hair, bears more than a passing
resemblance to the effete, towheaded 28-year-old who supplied the dialogue. Lorre isn’t the only bottle blond in the film, or necessarily the one with the best lines: Flaxen-haired Jones utters Gwendolen’s favorite curlicued filler — “In point of fact…” — with supreme relish. Those ornate locutions make Jones/Gwendolen the perfect cinema sister to another blondie prone to silly phrasings in another great film (also set partly on a ship) from 1953: Marilyn Monroe’s Lorelei Lee (“A girl like I…”) in Howard Hawks’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Screening four times at Metrograph in 35mm, Barbara Kopple’s landmark documentary Harlan County U.S.A. (1976), about a coal miners’ strike in southeastern Kentucky, exemplifies a kind of nonfiction filmmaking — unabashedly partisan yet patient and perceptive, years in the making, and expertly assembled — that I fear grows ever rarer in our era of quickie, muddled advocacy docs. Arriving with her crew in this patch of Appalachia in 1973, when the multiyear strike against the owners of the Eastside Coal Company began, Kopple lets the laborers and their equally committed wives tell their own story. The emphasis on first-person witness accounts is similar to the strategy deployed in Winter Soldier (1972) — made by a then-anonymous fifteen-filmmaker collective that included Kopple — in which Vietnam vets relay the mutilations, rapes, stonings, and other atrocities they either participated in or witnessed while in Southeast Asia, testimony that lays bare the U.S. military’s deepening depravity.

The corrupt practices of Big Coal (and, as Kopple also points out, of one-time United Mine Workers of America president Tony Boyle) are likewise flagrant. Kopple’s film is filled not just with the talk — aggrieved, mournful, funny, inflamed — of the miners and their families but with their songs. When bird-boned Florence Reece, nearing 75 at the time, sings her anthem “Which Side Are You On?” to an auditorium of strikers, her voice is almost whisper-soft. The lyrics, though, are emphatic, urgent, and always timely, as is Harlan County U.S.A.

Beat the Devil

Directed by John Huston

Sony Pictures

Film Forum, February 17–23

Harlan County U.S.A.

Directed by Barbara Kopple

Cabin Creek Films

Metrograph, February 17 and February 20–22