Beat the Devil 1953

Beat the Devil - released Dec 17, 1953. Directed by John Huston

What genre is Beat the Devil? Humphrey Bogart looks healthy, robust and dangerous in the promotional art for this movie, throwing his fists and looking twenty years younger. On screen, though, he spends most of his time in an ascot, with heavy, jowly facial lines, voicing wry, sardonic dialogue from the Truman Capote-John Huston script (with uncredited work from Anthony Veiller and Peter Viertel).

Not that there isn't action in Beat the Devil, but most of our activity is made up of our characters bumbling around the Mediterranean talking (and talking) and trying to hatch a constantly mutating plot to get a hold of some African uranium.

I think Beat the Devil is trying to be an adventure film, but this is where the problem arises in designation: the cast of characters are almost entirely incompetent in advancing their mercenary activities toward their goal of riches. The script (and director Huston) isn't willing to move the simple plot forward without generous pitstops, and this gives the actors above and below the title a chance to carve out funny portraits of crooks and self-deluded adventurers on the make, with the exception of Edward Underdown as Harry Chelm, the "son of a boarding house in England," who spends most of the tale looking bewildered at everyone else's behavior and ethics, which adds to the irony and humor of the ending (you'll have to see the film to understand).

At times Beat the Devil is clearly more of a farce than anything else, but even that doesn't nail this movie down. There is an improvisational element to a lot of this tale, especially Jennifer Jones' performance where it looks like she is making dialogue up on the spot (to good effect) and this rhythm of actors being set loose appears also in other performances, though not in our star Humphrey Bogart. He sometimes appears to be standing rock still and simply watching the other actors, a little mystified, as if what is happening around him isn't what he expected.

But the sense the actors are enjoying the fun by creating odd characters isn't interminable because the action genre pushes back into the story at the end of a section with a cue, sometimes a strangely slow blast of orchestra wind instruments hitting a B note together, like a bell at a boxing match refocusing the athletes to the reason we're all here, at which point the observant audience member might reasonably ask: is this just flat-out parody of an action film which also happens to be titled Beat the Devil?

Or is Beat the Devil a cinematic prank? Yet, we know that a lot of money went into it, reportedly a million dollar budget in 1953 money, a chunk of it Bogart's personal funds through his production company Santana, money which he fully intended to get back from the grosses, and this disastrously didn't happen when the movie flopped on release, which makes Beat the Devil a rather pricey practical joke.

The script seems to have sincerely intended (with Viertel's and Veiller's original work) to produce a genuine Hollywood adventure film based on the novel Beat the Devil written by Huston's friend Claud Cockburn. But before filming in Italy started, Viertel and Veiller gave up on the story and Huston brought in Truman Capote. Somewhere in this Beat the Devil slid sideways out of the adventure genre, becoming a product of the gorgeous location shooting and the prodigious amount of alcohol consumed by star Bogart and director Huston (reminiscent of their production method on The African Queen), and ending up with something that defies category.

In the course of Beat the Devil some funny editorial is voiced about the quirky social mores of the English, less is said about the Italians who are shown regularly exploding like emotive volcanos in the background or heard off-screen screaming as something new has gone horribly wrong.

The gang's little Irish ex-Army "muscle" (Ivor Barnard as Jack Ross) is employed by master crook Robert Morley (as Peterson) as the gangs enforcer. The character actors in this film often get brief showcases for their talents (though Peter Lorre is strangely not provided with an extended scene), but Barnard excels with his few minutes. Once prompted, Barnard (as Jack) launches into a hurried bar room lecture lamenting the demise of Hitler and Mussolini, then claiming that he possesses "secret information" about how everything really works in the world and throughout history, that its all managed by hidden societies, orders and brotherhoods and "men who guard this trust from the deepest insides of the whatchamacallit... mystic rulers, all one club, chained together by one purpose, one idea, mankind's champions!"

Gina Lollobrigida is an Italian seductress who knows that "in my soul I am English. I take tea and crumpets daily." Beat the Devil is her first English language film. There is also funny work provided by a host of other Italian actors: Marco Tulli, Mario Perrone, Giulio Donnini, Saro Urzi, Juan de Landa, Manuel Serrano and Aldo Silvani.

The Bluray version an improvement

There are at least two versions of Beat the Devil, one that has been beating around the discount bins of Walmart since VHS tape days, and spread across the internet and now the streaming services, easily identified because it starts with voice-over narration from Bogart and with scenes cut and mixed-up by United Artists in the original panicked release. These versions have been from rather poor, choppy prints, but Twilight Time has released a 4K restoration made from the original 35mm film negs and a 35mm fine grain master positive print that is the original "director's" version, sans the narration and including the missing scenes, and with everything back in order.

Print clarity is good enough that the fine textures of all of the faces of the principals can be inspected (for example, sun burn on Jennifer Jones' cheeks) and we can see puffy swelling on some faces from time to time, presumably from skin rosacea or the reported large intake of alcohol during production. The cinematography by Oswald Morris includes a lot of beautiful location photography, carefully lit when it comes to the actors or perfectly balanced scenes using Mediterranean sunlight, mostly captured along the coast below Naples.

There's nothing like Beat the Devil and this release on Blu-ray disc is easily the best print version I've seen.

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Original Page June 2019 | Updated June 27, 2022