John Huston, Humphrey Bogart, the Devil, and a certain black bird: Sunday at the Castro

Sunday I attended the Castro John Huston/Humphrey Bogart double bill of Beat the Devil and The Maltese Falcon. Much as I love Falcon, Devil was the real attraction. I had only seen it once before, long ago, and wasn’t impressed. But the Film Foundation recently restored the movie, reconstructing director John Huston’s original cut.

This time, I loved it.

Beat the Devil falls into the category of Huston’s quest movies. These include The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, Moby Dick, and The Man Who Would Be King. The quests are almost always for selfish motives, and they usually fail. The African Queen is the exception on both counts.

Unlike most of his quest films, Beat the Devil is a comedy. Set in Italy, Africa, and a very bad boat in between, it follows a group of crooks hoping to take control of a uranium mine. Or something of that nature; we’re never told the full plan.

Humphrey Bogart stars as a formerly-rich American who has joined in with the crooks in hopes of renewing his fortune. The outlaws include Robert Morley and Peter Lorre, whose character has the questionable name of Julius O’Hara. Humphrey’s character has an Italian wife, played by Gina Lollobrigida.

But the real fun comes from a British couple who find themselves on the same boat. The husband (Edward Underdown) is as proper as the queen, and as stiff. He can’t possibly control his bubbly, silly, imaginative, and much more intelligent wife (Jennifer Jones in a wonderful comic performance).

The dialog, by Huston and Truman Capote, swings from screwball comedy to strange philosophizing. Lorre casually offers a short monolog on the meaning of time. Bogart notes that “The problem with the English is that they’re all pomp and no circumstance.” Jones flirts with Bogart while beating her husband at chess without even trying.

The movie is merry, silly, mildly suspenseful, and a lot of fun. I give it an A-.

I can’t really say that the new restoration is gorgeous, because Beat the Devil is not a gorgeous movie. But the 4K DCP appears to capture the look of the original prints.

And what about The Maltese Falcon?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this important precursor to film noir. I can tell you that until Sunday night, I hadn’t seen it theatrically in a very long time. I’d forgotten how fun it is with a full audience, where the humor becomes stronger without hurting the serious crime plot. The casting is perfect, from Bogart on down. I’m upgrading my grade from A- to A.

The Castro screened The Maltese Falcon in a 35mm print that has seen better days. Scratches and missing frames kept popping up, mostly around the reel changes. Something very wrong hit at the start of one reel. Luckily, the projectionist shut down the machine immediately and soon had it running fine again.