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BEAT THE DEVIL: John Huston's 'Lark' of a Film Becomes a Cult Classic

“Time. Time. What is time? Swiss manufacture it. French hoard it. Italians squander it. Americans say it is money. Hindus say it does not exist. Do you know what I say? I say time is a crook.” -O’HARA

The inside stories of a film’s production usually bear little impact on the actual art of its making. Such facts usually end up as fodder for the publicist’s and gossip’s grist mill. However, in the case of BEAT THE DEVIL, those stories are everything.

It was not until he was virtually to Ravello, Italy — the soon-to-be primary location of his film’s lensing, that esteemed director John Huston realized, after reading the script in its entirety, that he very likely had a dud on his hands. It was not for lack of expertise, though — the screenplay had been adapted from the James Helvick (aka Claud Cockburn) novel by the more than capable team of Peter Viertel and Tony Veiller.

The husband to Huston’s starring actress of Jennifer Jones, suggested he look up a promising new writer for help. Jones’ husband at the time was David O. Selznick — the writer’s name was Truman Capote.

Huston explained to Capote that he was in a jam and asked if could he help him out. Capote agreed, proceeding to write a totally new script day by day, with scenes sometimes being composed just a few hours short of the cameras rolling.

To cover the ruse, Huston had the camera & lighting crews execute elaborate shot setups which bought the new screenwriter some time. Only the Associate Producer Jack Clayon was informed. Somewhere it has been said that artists create some of their best work when they are under the gun, and that is definitely true in this case. Capote wrote sparkling dialogue custom-tailored to fit, not only to each of the film’s enigmatic characters, but to the screen personas each star was known for. The result is endlessly quotable. The film was not without its troubles, though. Humphrey Bogart lost his front teeth in an auto accident during the shoot and had to have a replacement bridge sent from his dentist in L.A. Also, one night after a long session of drinking and cards, director Huston inadvertently stepped off a 40 foot cliff. Luckily for Huston (and us) he was not seriously hurt. Although it might have mystified audiences in its day, now that we’re in on the joke, this film can truly be appreciated! - KCJ

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