“To be trustworthy is not more important than seeming to be trustworthy.” That line from “Beat the Devil” is delivered by Peter Lorre, of all people—a marvelous character actor but never one cast for his innate trustworthiness. And that’s the joke. “Beat the Devil,” a 1953 film about a bunch of disreputable people scheming to take control of uranium deposits in British colonial Africa, is a movie that always knows exactly what the joke is. And it’s often a funny joke that lands with a sting.
Directed by John Huston from a screenplay co-written with Truman Capote, this curiously laid-back film, which is being re-released to theaters this week in a new digital version, has been described by critic Dave Kehr as “the birthplace of camp.” I’m not sure camp is the correct word for what “Beat the Devil” is, but we might as well just go ahead and accept it in the spirit of a self-aware, often self-deprecating movie that’s filled with characters who always feel emboldened to make up whatever story they wish and represent themselves and their motives however they see fit, and even filch each other’s words when it suits them. Several times in the film you hear a character trot out a particular observation or turn of phrase and then hear it repeated by another character who was there when they said it, in a different context, as if they just made it up on the spot.
Matt Zoller Seitz
Film critic and filmmaker.