Sun 5 Dec 2010
JAMES HELVICK – Beat the Devil. J. B. Lippincott, hardcover, 1951. Penguin, UK paperback, 1971, under the author’s real name, Claud Cockburn. Film: United Artists, 1953. Screenplay: Truman Capote & John Huston; director: John Huston.
I reviewed the film version of Beat the Devil earlier on this blog, but in a notable I’m-glad-I-read-it vein, there’s also the print version, an inexpensive copy of which I found thanks to the nice folks who hang out here. The Bogart film is a legendary mess, and I had fun seeing how the two of them compare.
Truman Capote’s script for the movie stays remarkably faithful to the book, with the notable exception that the book offers a couple of action scenes, which are carefully leeched out of the movie, to be replaced with something they thought was funny.
Thus an ambush on a lonely beach becomes a runaway jalopy, a tragedy at sea turns into a mere mishap, and one of the best bits in the book — a lengthy prison stay where the characters reveal some surprising facets of themselves — is replaced by a quick joke about Rita Hayworth.
Helvick/Cockburn’s book offers some engaging, often surprising characters (replaced in the movie by competent character actors given nothing to do) and off-hand moments of casual chivalry when they find themselves rising to occasions of their own making — again, replaced in the film with limp humor.
More important, as the book ended I saw what must have drawn director John Huston to film it: a moment when fate seems to smile at the characters and their little dreams, only to break out laughing at them the next moment. It’s a well-done resolution that recalls bitter wrap-ups in The Maltese Falcon and Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which I find even more surprising since Huston and Capote replaced it in the film with a cheap joke. Oh well.
At least the film offers one interesting variation, when the two female leads (played by Jennifer Jones and Gina Lollobrigida in the film) find themselves in competition for each other’s husbands. In the book, they go skinny-dipping to check out each other’s bodies. In the film, Jones simply finds an excuse to wave her butt repeatedly in Gina’s face, a moment of cheerful vulgarity so engaging one wishes the rest of the film offered more of it.