BEAT THE DEVIL was a flop when it was released in 1953, despite an all-star cast, including Humphrey Bogart in the lead role with John Huston writing/directing and Truman Capote helping out with the script. Huston and Bogart’s collaborative track record had been phenomenally successful up to this point with tons of Oscar nods for THE MALTESE FALCON, THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, and THE AFRICAN QUEEN. But BEAT THE DEVIL just didn’t resonate with audiences, and Bogart, who bankrolled the film, lost a pretty penny in the fallout.
It’s easy to imagine that audiences at the time expected a by-the-numbers adventure flick. The film’s tagline went, “The bold adventure that beats them all!” which, from a marketing standpoint, makes the film come off way more serious than it actually is. If people had expected a typical Huston/Bogart adventure with complex, tortured characters and a serious, coherent plot, they got something entirely different.
They got camp.
Camp thrives on anti-seriousness. Film critic Susan Sontag defined camp as “seriousness that fails,” an over-the-top anti-aesthetic that fails so miserably that you enjoy it. In an episode of THE SIMPSONS, noted film director John Waters referred to camp as both “the tragically ludicrous” and “the ludicrously tragic.” Something like reality TV is a total camp institution in that, as Sontag might put it, it is “reality” in quotes. Camp is tacky, cheesy artifice like the cover of a bad romance novel.
In years since, BEAT THE DEVIL has found a lot of critical favor—it’s one of Ebert’s “Great Movies” —and has come to be regarded as the first camp film. The camp elements in BEAT THE DEVIL are subtler than what we see in modern media. This ain’t no ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW. The way the film attains camp status is through melodrama, absurdity, and plotlessness (i.e. not so much drag queens).
The film’s prime melodrama derives from an operatic love-quadrangle befitting the cheesiest soap. Dan (Humphrey Bogart) falls for Gwendolen (Jennifer Jones), who’s married to Harry (Edward Underdown), who falls for Maria (Gina Lollobrigida), who’s married to Dan.
A particular scene of note has the absolute WORST romantic music playing as Dan and Gwen oh so earnestly fall in love on some beautiful Italian veranda overlooking the sea. It’s a scene that is utterly manufactured and so perfectly camp. A little later on in the movie, they hold an intimate conversation at a pier that’s interrupted constantly by sailors yelling in the background, making it at once a serious and absurd moment.
On top of this, the film’s characters are all completely ridiculous. Each character has some little quirk like Gwen’s compulsive lying or Maria’s weird obsession with British-ness.
In one of a million great (or absurd) moments in BEAT THE DEVIL, you’ve got Peter Lorre as Julius O’Hara. He is this fantastically sniveling little gangster who talks and talks without really saying anything. He has this amazing speech that goes, “What is time? Swiss manufacture it. French hoard it. Italians squander it. Americans say it is money. Hindus say it does not exist. Do you know what I say? I say time is a crook.” This epitomizes how the film oscillates between profundity and nonsense.
We can use everyone else’s absurdity to infer a lot about Bogart’s character. Huston set out to make a parody of his older films, yet Bogart seems to be playing the straight man—a rough-and-tumble Sam Spade derivative who we usually treat as a serious character. Huston wants to suggest that Dan’s suave capability is just as outlandish as the other elements in the movie.
The absurdity doesn’t stop with the super-cool anti-hero and his pals. The plot is just as nonsensical as O’Hara’s speech. BEAT THE DEVIL is a film that goes nowhere fast. Plenty of stuff happens, but the characters remain stuck in Italy for most of the film. Plotlines shift and are discarded at the drop of a hat, as the characters wait around for their dead-in-the-water ship to be repaired—a ship that seems to promise to whisk everyone away into a more serious and dark drama if only the engine wasn’t busted.
Like SEINFELD: This is a movie about nothing. It’s a gangster flick, a rom-com, a rip-roaring adventure, and yet somehow it’s none of these things. BEAT THE DEVIL is a movie that’s all journey, no destination—all pomp, no circumstance. That’s what makes it good camp fun.