Kooky. Bizarre. Silly. Odd. Original. It’s difficult to sum up the strange charm of Beat the Devil (1953), that Truman Capote-penned film* that fits no genre and makes no sense. You have the feeling as you watch that Capote must have been tripping, but his quirky personality, not to mention the strange antics that took place on the set–arm wrestling competitions between him and Humphrey Bogart, celebrity drop-ins who dictated costuming, etc.–may do something to explain its odd mishmash of mystery, comedy, and social commentary. I’ve never been a fan of Jennifer Jones, but she won me here as Mrs. Gwendolen Chelm, a seemingly ordinary wife who has the imagination of Capote, and no compunction about confusing her fantasies with reality. She is truly the director of the show. Just ask this question: “What would a film be like if a compulsive, whimsical fantasist got to rule the plot?” Your answer is Beat the Devil.
The film’s heroine reminds me of Arnold from the hilarious musical The Book of Mormon, and his twisting of the Mormon faith to convert Ugandans. (Minor spoiler: If you haven’t seen it, Elder Arnold Cunningham adds Boba Fett and some unfortunate AIDS-curing frogs to his faith’s origin story.) While an everyday liar provides little narrative interest, Chelm’s degree of imagination, as with Wes Anderson’s many heroes, seems to color the world with such an enormous brush that it’s hard not to become enthralled by her, as Bogart’s character is throughout Beat the Devil.
I dare not attempt to explain the plot to you, what little there is of one. It’s better if you simply start watching and see where it takes you. That’s clearly what Capote intended, and as any casual reader of his life knows, hanging out with Capote on a boring, rainy Sunday was probably thrilling. Watch the film. It’s as close to experiencing the mind of that fascinating socializer and entertainer, that creator of world-famous parties and disastrous scandals, as any of us are now likely to get.
*According to Gerald Clarke, Truman’s biographer, John Huston’s screenplay contribution was probably negligible.