BEAT THE DEVIL (1953)

Jennifer Jones’ surname in this film provides a key to its tone: in Yiddish folklore, “Chelm” is the name of a village ruled by fools. On-screen and off, this takeoff on international caper films seemed to be a tale told by idiots. The plot, from a serious novel by Claud Cockburn, involves a group of misguided con artists out to snare a uranium mine in North Africa. Humphrey Bogart backed the project expecting to make a tense thriller, but then Huston threw out Cockburn’s screenplay and brought in Truman Capote. With director and writer so far behind schedule they had to read the script to the actors before each day’s shooting, the film took on a more comic tone. Wisely, Huston had the cast play it straight, which was hilarious, particularly for Jones as a compulsive liar and Peter Lorre as one of the crooks. Capote may have been the only one on the film who truly understood the plot and early audiences were baffled. As a result, the picture lost money. In almost record time, however, the film shifted from flop to cult favorite as more sophisticated audiences took to its absurd plot, offbeat comedy and deliciously deadpan performances. (d. John Huston, 94m, DCP)

In attendance: ANGELA ALLEN, CARI BEAUCHAMP