The Plot Thickens: Angela Allen Remembers Beat the Devil (1953) at TCMFF

Once upon a time in Ravello, Italy, half a world away from Hollywood and tight studio control, John Huston arrived to shoot a thriller with a cast to die for. But Huston had a problem.

He didn’t like the script.

Fortunately, he had Truman Capote to write a new one, Peter Lorre and Robert Morley to embellish it, and script supervisor Angela Allen to keep track of it all.

“We had to shoot in order, because we didn’t know where the story was going!” Allen recalled with a laugh at the TCM Classic Film Festival. In conversation with film historian Cari Beauchamp, Allen discussed Beat the Devil, just one film in a career that included The Third Man, The African Queen, and The Dirty Dozen.

When I spoke briefly to Allen on the red carpet, I felt the humbling intensity of her laser-precise gaze, a real-life superpower sharpened by over 50 years of seizing on the smallest errors. She carries herself with a combination of affability and no-nonsense authority. You might assume that she was a career diplomat or businesswoman. And you wouldn’t be far off the mark. If she told you to do something, you’d better do it. (Even Katharine Hepburn found that out.)

During Hollywood’s Golden Age, women filled the role of script supervisor so predominantly that the terms “script girl” and “continuity girl” were the norm. Female professionals like Allen were vital guardians of continuity, the self-effacing, shot-to-shot illusion of a seamless cinematic universe. The stakes were high. A top-notch script supervisor helped create a film that audiences would accept as reality—and a bad one could torpedo that reality and sink the movie.

Before computers and instant photos, script girls documented each take and relied on their detailed notes, stopwatches, eyes, and memories to detect discrepancies. Was that cigarette lit before? Did he say a different word last time? Is there less food on the plate now? A script supervisor has to attend to a million details, editing the film in her mind and anticipating what will and won’t match up. From the sewers of Vienna to the waves of the Mediterranean to the jungles of Africa, Angela Allen did exactly that.

In addition to the pressure of overseeing continuity, Allen faced a problem that’s still far too common in the film industry: predatory men in power. Producer Sam Spiegel was a memorable example. “I was introduced to him by Guy Hamilton, who was an assistant director, then directed Bond films. And he was my protector at the interview, because Sam was quite a lecherous gentleman and I was very young and innocent. Sam said, ‘Take your coat off.’ And Guy said, ‘Don’t take your coat off!’ One said, ‘Sit.’ One said, ‘Stand.’” Allen chuckled at the memory, but I suspect that it would have been no laughing matter if Hamilton hadn’t been there at the time!

Her working relationship with John Huston, on the other hand, was built on respect and trust. “He never met me before I was sent to Africa on The African Queen,” she recalled. “He met me in the jungle. So it was a fait accompli as far as that job is concerned, but we obviously got on and he asked me on all the others.” Huston and Allen would work together on 14 films in total, many of them unpredictable location shoots and jewels of classic cinema.

Which brings us back to Italy and a caper film in search of a story. Through a production nearly as wild and zigzagging as its plot, Beat the Devil posed additional challenges for Allen.

Before shooting could start, Huston needed a script. He took advice from a big shot who happened to be around: David O. Selznick, accompanying Jennifer Jones on location. As Allen remembers, “Although he was not our producer in any shape or form, he recommended Truman Capote who had just written Stazione Termini [alternate title: Indiscretion of an American Wife] for him. So young Truman Capote arrived in Ravello, not knowing what he was going to enter into either.”

However, the film’s mixture of hardboiled dialogue and daffy comedy emerged not from Capote alone, but rather from what one might call a team effort. “He and John discussed something… [Capote] used to write the scenes,” Allen said, “then he’d give them to me in the morning. I’d take them onto the set, we’d change them all because Robert Morley and others were very good ad-libbers, and John would say, ‘Do what you want.’”

Morley and Lorre applied their theater backgrounds to amp up the film’s satirical comedy, resulting in an uproarious shoot. “We all used to laugh so much,” Allen recalled. “There’s a scene where they’re sitting and packing in the room with a suitcase. I must say, there was about 2 hours or more of rehearsal and it was so funny that everybody was on the ground afterward. They’d dream up something every minute. And eventually we sort of refined it to shoot it.”

Now, let’s pause and consider the difficulties of supervising a script that’s mutating before your very eyes. In addition to recording continuity minutia, Allen had to document unpredictable changes in a script with no definite conclusion. All while Lorre and Morley improvised line after side-splitting line. As Cari Beauchamp quipped, “This job brings a whole new definition to continuity, doesn’t it?”

After each day of shooting, Allen closed the loop between screenwriter and cast: “I’d take [Capote] back all the dialogue in the evening and say, ‘You’d better read what we’ve done today for whatever you’ve written for tomorrow, because, you know, it might not match up to what we’ve actually shot.’”

In other words, Allen went above and beyond the already demanding duties of a script supervisor. “Because I was on the set, and there were no computers in those days, I had my steady little portable typewriter—I think it was an Olympia—and I’d be battering out the lines for them once we’d sort of settled on what they were going to say and then they wanted to revise them,” Allen explained. “I’d be typing them out, which really wasn’t my job, but I did. And this was the way we used to go. If we didn’t, what were we going to do?”

One time, life imitated art a little too closely—and Allen stepped in when the cast and crew were quite literally getting lost at sea. “We did have a funny story one day when were were out at sea shooting. The cameraman was Ossie Morris…. We’d turned the boat around and around for the sun. But when we’d finished shooting he’d forgotten to tell the assistant to tell the captain. So we’re sailing and sailing.

“We’d sailed out of Sorrento. And my Italian was a bit better than some of the crew’s so I went and said, ‘How long before we get back to Sorrento?’ And the captain said, ‘Sorrento? We’re sailing to Morocco.’ And so we had to turn round and they’d put the search thing out for this boat, thinking we’d got lost at sea.”

Unsurprisingly, the movie took its good time to wrap up. “I think we were there probably 10 or 12 weeks,” Allen says. “In those days films took longer to shoot. They weren’t so fast. People like the director had a dinner date, so you normally finished by six or seven.”

The cast of characters careened through the production with plenty of funny business that no doubt contributed to the film’s askew humor. Gina Lollobrigida (who discussed Beat the Devil at last year’s TCMFF) had memorized an audition monologue in English. Huston hired her—not realizing that she hardly spoke the language.

La Lollo’s steep learning curve led to some moments of hilarity on the set, Allen remembers: “The English crew used to have rhyming slang in those days. And she had a line ‘tea and crumpets,’ but she didn’t know that crumpets had a double meaning. And everyone was falling about with laughter because she had no idea what they were laughing at. But also, you know, it wasn’t easy for her because she didn’t speak good English. She was learning.”

Lollobrigida claims that Selznick baulked at the prospect of a voluptuous Italian ingenue sharing the screen with Jennifer Jones. Angela Allen didn’t deny it, but said that she didn’t witness any hostilities between the film’s leading ladies. “Everybody got on with each other. There were no rows or anything else. Jennifer was a very nice person to everybody, actually.” That said, Jones seemed much “more relaxed” when Selznick wasn’t around, Allen reports.

And how did the unflappable Bogart, both acting and producing, put up with this screwball shooting experience? “Well, he was a bit, I think, irritated at times. But he was a great friend of John’s and they got on and he could always talk him ‘round. So Bogie was there as the actor, so he didn’t interfere in the production although it was his money that was helping us make the film.”

Finally, Allen told us about an unexpected guest on that cosmopolitan set: “Not only did I meet Truman Capote on that film, but a young man who came down with a friend of his whose father was a friend of Huston’s…. He didn’t always want to come out. He liked to tinkle away on the out-of-tune piano in the hotel. I said, ‘I think that young man is going to go a long way.’ And everyone told me how stupid I was.”

His name was Stephen Sondheim. Didn’t I tell you that Allen has superpowers?

So, the next time you watch a John Huston film, check the credits for the name Angela Allen. Every now and then, pry yourself away from the sweeping location scenery, the wry dialogue, and the absorbing performances. Take a moment to imagine an Englishwoman with a stopwatch, a marked-up script, and eyes that don’t miss a trick, standing calmly behind the camera. If you find it difficult to tear yourself away from the illusion, that’s a testament to Allen’s painstaking work. Cinema is an art of coordination and logistics and she is a master.

 

John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 22

The Asphalt Jungle throbs with adrenaline, yes, but with something else, too: regret. I’m thinking specifically of the bouncy yet melancholy scene in which Doc takes a fatal break from his getaway and sits among teenagers, watching a sweater-clad nymphet shimmy and shake to jukebox tunes played on his nickel.

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The jubilant jazz and the ignorant bliss of the youngsters accentuate Doc’s old age and his sense of loss—from the years spent in prison, yes, but mostly just from the implacable passage of time.

Doc insists to his driver, “We have time,” although the sad gleam in his eyes tells us he knows that’s a lie. He’s referring to a specific schedule, but the comment could apply more broadly to the inevitability of death and decline that hangs over the film—never more wistfully than in the jukebox scene. Indeed, Huston visually makes the connection between the girl and Doc’s doom: after she gyrates away from a window, the audience can see the police peering through the Venetian blinds, waiting for their quarry.

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In another poignant (if creepy) shot, the bobby-soxer dream girl dances right past the camera, revealing Doc’s spellbound, pathetic face as her swinging hips move out of the frame. Next, waving her dance partner away, she wiggles from across the room right into the camera; her undulating torso nearly fills the frame. The dynamism of that girl’s body—the optimism it implies and the hopelessness of Doc ever engaging with it as only a young man could—slaps the audience with agonizing obviousness.

But just as age craves youth, youth craves wealth. We get to listen to the jukebox nymphet precociously nag her boyfriends about their lack of means: “Nickels he’s complaining about. What a spender! Sure he wants a date. He always wants a date. And where do we go? A third-run movie!” As she chides the boys, Doc listens in close-up, wearing the hint of a knowing smile. Then we see the girl among her companions, continuing her complaint.

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Here Huston frames her from an awkward, slightly high angle, not really Doc’s point-of-view. The angle—working in conjunction with the low-key lighting, oddly moody for the portrayal of bright-eyed teenager—is just off-kilter enough to give us a sense of comic distance. The downward gaze enhances the bitter irony of the girl’s cajoling: the same desire for things, for little pleasures, drove Doc and his compadres to crime.

Who knows? Maybe this nice girl’s nice longings will tempt her and her nice boyfriends to not-so-nice deeds in order to obtain the money for the nice things they want. Or maybe they’ll just settle down and spend the rest of their lives consumed by the honest wants and needs that become the substance of most people’s pallid lives.

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The mildly kinky voyeuristic vibe of the scene also illustrates how adroitly noir connected sex and crime—even in a seemingly innocuous exchange. Raymond Borde and Edmond Chaumeton’s Panorama of American Film Noir:

“In its way of playing with official censorship, this eroticism [in noir] recalls the elaboration of the dream, according to Freud: instead of showing forbidden realities, one introduces seemingly neutral elements that will evoke them through association or symbolism. Thus dance is immemorial transposition of the sex act itself. But then the thriller has occasionally succeeded in employing such trite analogy with finesse. There are the ‘poses’ struck by Gilda or the frenzied whirling of the bobby-soxer in The Asphalt Jungle.”

John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 6

In many (if not most) cases, noir style is like red lipstick. You’re supposed to notice it. That’s the whole point. The Maltese Falcon, however, opts for a stealthier (though no less sizzling) shade of noir.

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Its self-effacing yet slyly cynical camerawork and découpage approximate the hardboiled assurance of Dashiell Hammett’s gripping prose. For instance, consider the scene in which Brigid O’Shaunessy confesses to Spade that she’s been bad, “worse than you could know.” From the moment Spade enters her apartment to the dissolve wipe that closes the scene, the action unfolds in 4 elegant shots.

As Spade sits down, a smooth, mid-sentence match-on-action gives us a cozy two shot of Spade and Brigid. The cut adds a jolt to the Spade’s accusatory remark, “You, uh, you aren’t exactly the sort of a person you pretend to be, are ya?”

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The space of the room has contracted at this moment of truth. We can see the wicked glint in Bogie’s eyes as he leans forward and chips away at the enamel on Brigid’s society-matron-of-the-underworld schtick. Once Brigid admits to her checkered past, Spade leans back in his chair, apparently satisfied, and suddenly we have some breathing room again.

Next Huston cuts to provide a view of Brigid’s reaction—or suspicious lack thereof—when Spade drops the name Joel Cairo. Without batting the proverbial eyelash, she asks, “Do you know him?” She’s good alright. Too good. Sangfroid and honesty seldom keep company. Composure belongs to the crooks of this world. It’s the rest of us who fret.

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But the shot of Brigid doesn’t last long, as though she can’t take the heat of Spade’s up-close scrutiny and knows it. And so begins the long take that’ll carry us to the end of the conversation.

As the two characters bluff each other out, Spade trying to figure out how much Brigid knows, Brigid trying to betray as little as possible, the camera gives us a prime orchestra seat to this duet for murderess and shamus. Our focus can drift back and forth between planes of action, Spade reclining in his chair wearing a wry grin (until he isn’t) and Brigid fidgeting in the foreground, facing more towards the audience than towards the man she’s trying to manipulate.

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The long take keeps the lid on the hystrionics; in the hands of a more flamboyant director (and other actors) this material could turn into pure potboiler brisket. Flurries of edits would undermine the cagey reserve of the characters. Instead they stay tough and defiant even when locked in one of noir’s most erotic clinches—which crowds the frame alarmingly after more than a minute dominated by comfortable open space.

By not cutting, Huston also refuses to release the simmering tension between Brigid and Spade. It’s the kind of effect that works on your nerves regardless of whether you’re conscious of it, as does the flickering light of the fire that Brigid stokes to feign nonchalance. Not unlike a good private eye (or any self-respecting femme fatale), The Maltese Falcon gets to you without you fully realizing it.

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The Maltese Falcon sounds like a film that was as fun to make as it is to watch. No doubt the actors’ breezy onset camaraderie contributed to the movie’s enduring freshness.

As Astor recalled in My Story, Huston “had the picture well organized so that we got things done in a miraculously short time. And we had fun—zany, lighthearted fun. We were an unusually ‘close’ company; players usually like to get away from each other at lunch time, but we would all go together across to the Lakeside Golf Club, where a big table was set on the patio for us. The normally frowned-on pre-luncheon drink was a must. We often took an hour and half, and still we stayed ahead of schedule. I remember one scene near the end of the picture, very complicated technically; it ran about six minutes—and six minutes of script an average good day’s work. We rehearsed the scene before going home one evening, and all the camera moves were carefully plotted. The next morning we shot it in one take and went swimming at Lakeside for the rest of the day.”

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Blogathon, Italian Style: Third Course

Gather ’round, cari amici! We’ve got a superb batch of Italian fare this week, including classical American cinema with unexpected ties to Italy and the lowest (or highest?) example of exploitation cinema. Enjoy!

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Since this blogathon is about all facets of Italy’s relationship with cinema, The Bogie Film Blog—all Bogie, all the time!—takes a vacation in Ravello with a review of Beat the Devil. “Italy’s not just the setting for this film as much as it is a supporting character.  The viewer is treated to a constant tour of Ravello’s plazas, piazzas, cafés, villas, and tunnel filled, mountainous roads.”

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Ray of WeirdFlix never cared much for the simple good-versus-evil conflicts in American war films—but Italian “macaroni combat” genre flicks are a different story entirely! Commenting on Commandos, set in the sandy waste of WWII Africa, he notes, “Sergio Leone’s western characters didn’t wear white hats or black; their morality was colored in shades of grey. Imagine my surprise and joy to find this same ethic applied to the Italian war films of the same era.”

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You’d better have a strong stomach before you dig into Cannibal Holocaust“one of—if not the most—violent and exploitive films ever produced.” Fortunately, Charlie of Terrible Movies gives us the low-down on this cult classic, as influential as it is extreme: “we should note at the outset Cannibal Holocaust started the ‘found footage’ genre.” Warning: animals WERE harmed in the making…

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For some lighter fare, Quinn Hough offers a short review of Rosselini’s The Machine that Kills Bad People and discovers surprising nuggets of humor.

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Lastly, your humble host has cooked up a typically verbose love song to art house giant Michelangelo Antonioni’s first feature. While discussing this lyrical film noir, Cronaca di un amore, I also commit sacrilege against the doctrine of auteurism. Hey, all in a day’s blogging…

If you enjoyed these posts (and, come on, you know you did), be sure to check back for the next course on June 27. Be sure to check out the entries for Week 1 and Week 2. Gripping stuff!

And please consider blogging about some aspect of Italian film culture yourself. Click on the banner below to learn more. 

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