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Beat the Devil

by Glenn Erickson Jan 22, 2019

The star lineup sparkles in this witty, lighthearted tale of a gang of international schemers and cutthroats trying to — well, what they’re trying to do is all but irrelevant. John Huston throws his picture together like a party, for a droll ‘thriller’ that yields off-kilter comic riches. It’s Bogart, Robert Morley, Peter Lorre and Gina Lollobrigida, plus Jennifer Jones as we’ve not seen her before or since. Truman Capote’s sly, unbeatably hip dialogue — reportedly written on the fly — celebrates the underhanded ambitions of greedy fools everywhere.


Beat the Devil
Blu-ray
Twilight Time
1953 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 94 min. / Street Date January 22, 2019 / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store / 29.95
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, Robert Morley, Peter Lorre, Edward Underdown, Ivor Barnard, Marco Tulli, Bernard Lee, Mario Perrone, Giulio Donnini, Saro Urzì, Manuel Serrano.
Cinematography: Oswald Morris
Film Editor: Ralph Kemplen
Continuity: Angela Allen
Dialogue Coach: Harriet Medin
Art Direction: Wilfrid Shingleton
Original Music: Franco Mannino
Written by John Huston, Truman Capote from the novel by Claud Cockburn
Produced by John Huston, Jack Clayton, Humphrey Bogart
Directed by
John Huston

 

Beat the Devil is a 1950s production that has become a legend, a genuine cult item. Although a bust when new, it figures strongly in the hipster fame of Humphrey Bogart, John Huston and the eccentric Truman Capote, who reportedly wrote the screenplay on the fly, while the film was in production. Acting as his own producer, with help and cash from Jack Clayton and Humphrey Bogart, Huston clearly wanted something wild and very un-Hollywood. As Pauline Kael reported, the actors didn’t know the story in advance, therefore giving each day’s shoot an off-balance aspect. Filming on Italy’s glorious Almalfi Coast must have been a major motivation for the very unique cast: Jennifer Jones and Gina Lollobrigida in the same show, vying for Bogie’s attention?

John Huston was likely the only director who could throw a wedge between Jennifer Jones and her husband/micromanager David O. Selznick; perhaps Capote, who had just worked on Selznick’s disastrous recut and rewrite of De Sica’s Stazione Termini, contributed some good suggestions for convincing David to buzz off. Even in her odd blonde hairdo, Ms. Jones shows qualities not seen in her other, ‘serious’ pictures.

 

This crime thriller about a group of international uranium swindlers could easily have been played straight, with the usual schemes and double-crosses. It instead comes of as a comically absurd extension of those scenes in Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, where ‘colorful’ co-conspirators sit around hatching plans, spinning lies and deceiving nobody. Thanks to Capote’s timelessly witty throwaway dialogue, the show just gets funnier. This lunkhead pack of frauds and cheaters think they’re pulling off a crooked coup, but they can’t even fool a hotel manager or a ship’s steward.

One of the original posters, used as the cover art for Twilight Time’s release, ought to let SOMEBODY know that the film is at least 95% tongue in cheek. The exploits pictured look like a James Bond movie, only better.

A suspicious quartet of ‘businessmen’ arrive in Ravello, waiting for passage to North Africa, where a shady deal in uranium awaits. Corpulent Englishman Peterson (Robert Morley), nervous Irishman Julius O’Hara (Peter Lorre), creepy Italian Ravello (Marco Tulli) and brooding thug Major Jack Ross (Ivor Barnard) suspect each other and their new partner Billy Dannreuther (Humphrey Bogart), an American with the connection to seal the Uranium deal. The problem is that the paranoid schemers become convinced that Billy and his not-particularly-adoring wife Maria (Gina Lollobrigida) have their own double-cross going. Billy begins a fairly amorous flirtation with the flighty, reality-challenged Mrs. Gwendolen Chelm (Jennifer Jones), the husband of the penniless but stuffy titled Englishman Harry Chelm (Edward Underdown). Adding to the nervousness is Billy’s observation that Major Ross has likely murdered a man in London as part of the scheme. With the transparently untrustworthy Peterson leading the group, any bellhop or waiter would know that a sleazy crime was being hatched. The group finally boards a broken-down ship, where too many screwy personalities in close confinement all but guarantee to louse up everything.

 

Capote and Huston’s show has been called a Black Comedy, but it really doesn’t have any mordant social message to impart — it’s just quirky for quirkiness’s sake. Huston said that he wanted everyone in it to be slightly absurd, yet poor Bogart doesn’t seem to be in on the joke. Although most everybody gets good lines, not all stars are created equal. Ms. Lollobrigida makes a fine impression as a cookie fully capable of her own greedy calculations. She proves that she’s not just another Italo starlet, but it’s Jennifer Jones who shines, as an atypical funny ditz who amuses herself by constantly making up stories. When meeting her fellow travelers, Gwendolen tells them that she thinks they’re mad scientists heading for the jungle to commit horrible medical crimes. Dannreuther’s shifty associates barely pay attention to her from that point forward. Ms. Jones adopts the film’s carefree manner of storytelling, surrendering herself to the absurd vibe that Huston’s after. Compared to the pictures that her husband Selznick produced and/or meddled with, Devil comes off as a healthy stretch for the actress.

The ‘minor’ parts are gems. The baleful Ivor Barnard is a marvelous bulldog of a cutthroat, perpetually scowling. Marco Tulli’s deceptive simpleton act makes us laugh every time we see his cloying smile. Truman Capote gives the ship’s wisecracking purser (Mario Perrone) some of the wittiest throwaway lines — he’s consistently more in control than these ‘brilliant’ crooks. Only Edward Underdown’s insufferable snob seems a bit shallow… at first. When Bernard Lee’s policeman drifts through at the finish, it’s as if the breeze brought some reality back to the proceedings.

 

The marvelous Peter Lorre, surprisingly, doesn’t delight us as much as we expect — he underplays, skipping the scene stealing eccentricity that lifted scores of so-so thrillers assigned him by Warners. Lorre’s somewhat depressive Irishman makes a Welles/Cuckoo Clock speech about the tyranny of time, touching on existential malaise, but there’s not a lot of thrill in his words. He looks defeated all through the picture.

Coming out WAY on top is Robert Morley, the acting favorite who exercised his unique voice in a number of classics, like Huston’s own The African Queen and Carol Reed’s seldom-screened masterpiece Outcast of the Islands. Morley makes a full meal of the patented ‘fat man’ conspirator Peterson. Bumbling about and verbalizing his crooked thoughts for all to hear, Peterson foolishly thinks he can intimidate people. In the only plot complication that resembles a normal crime adventure intrigue, the entire company is marooned on North African soil and immediately arrested. Morley’s grinning puss is the most hilarious of the gallery of ridiculously guilty-looking faces — he tries to communicate with the arresting official with ridiculous baby talk. It’s possibly the funniest lineup of suspects in movie history:.

Is this the first movie in which the heroes are saved by a sarcastic Hollywood in-joke? Bogart’s Dannreuther invokes the magic name Rita Hayworth, much the way Peter Cook and Dudley Moore would summon the magic of Julie Andrews in a much later comedy. The finish upends all the givens of shady international crime intrigues — there are no nighttime chases, reveals of hidden identities, or theatrical confrontations wherein everybody suddenly has a gun in his/her hand. We instead are given what’s come to be known as a pretty standard John Huston finale. The lofty plans of mice and men crumble to nothing, leaving the survivors laughing at their own folly.

 

The stories of a confused and disorganized shoot for Beat the Devil are not reflected in the polished production. The Amalfi coast looks marvelous. Huston’s direction of dialogue scenes in hotels, on the street and aboard ship are fluid and focused — he simply concentrates on the amusing performances. A set piece scene where a car rolls away from Morley and Bogart on a steep cliff road is very neatly sketched — no cheats or fake cutaways. The only visual hiccups I noticed are a few scenes that seem to fade out rather abruptly, as if Huston and his editor decided to chop the show down at the last minute.

Two ‘legendary’ stories about Beat the Devil have been repeated ad infinitum. I believe it is Pauline Kael who said that Sam Spiegel, who invested some money in the movie, was shipping a large crane back from a distant location. He had it dropped off to the Devil company in Ravello for a single day, with the instruction that Huston use it for added production value. Huston dutifully dropped in two superfluous swooping crane shots, as if adhering to Hollywood law. Then, it is said that Peter Sellers, then a radio comic, was hired to mimic Humphrey Bogart’s voice for some dubbed lines, perhaps because the actor had hurt himself in a car accident. Although this certainly sounds more than possible, ‘One can’t tell when Sellers’ voice takes over’ sounds an awful lot like code for ‘ Mr. Sellers’ agent secured a nice publicity blurb for his client.’


The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Beat the Devil may be six minutes longer than the film we saw at UCLA way back, and on TV through the 1980s… it is said that the original UK cut was restored just a short time ago. We’re told that scenes were dropped and others reshuffled for the recut American release version. I remember not really following what was happening in previous viewings, and not really caring because the characters were so funny. The basic story now seems easy to understand. Beat the Devil may have simply flown over the heads of mainstream audiences not expecting ‘something entirely different.’ We sometimes forget how dumbed-down most pictures were, when even Alfred Hitchcock repeated key plot points three times each, to insure that no viewer was left behind. In the 1950s many patrons routinely dropped into theaters mid-movie — they’d really have been lost in this show.

 

Sony’s new 4K restoration looks really good at all times, revealing new graces in the show’s cinematography. Although released in America after widescreen was introduced, Devil was filmed earlier, in the flat Academy format. I can see audiences being even more confused, if theaters matted the image and robbed the film of its handsome compositions. Adding insult to injury, Devil was considered for quite a while to have slipped into the Public Domain, which resulted in some pretty bad copies floating about. Twilight Time’s encoding is a beauty. The jaunty music track by Franco Mannino is no longer slightly distorted.

A 22-minute featurette Alexander Cockburn Beat the Devil is a talk with the son of the controversial journalist and blacklist target Claud Cockburn, who took the name James Helvick for his movie work. Alexander was a noted controversial journalist as well; speaks his entire piece through a cacophony of squawking parrots. The fuzzy film clips seen in this film are a record of what Devil used to look like. No wonder we L.A. film fans rushed to the County Museum, the Vagabond and the Encore to see studio prints of movies that we already had seen on television or in 16mm — in the right format and aspect ratio, the experience was entirely different.

Julie Kirgo, Lem Dobbs and the late Nick Redman appear on a bright and casually conversational commentary. Redman’s soothing voice sounds a tiny bit rough, but he directs the discussion with charm and ease. Some accounts make it sound as if Truman Capote made up the storyline of Beat the Devil, but Lem Dobbs assures us that Huston closely followed the plotline of his book source. That was the director’s usual modus operandi — The Kremlin Letter is almost a direct transcription of the novel. Kirgo and Dobbs sort through the scores of potentially apocryphal stories associated with the film’s making. Stephen Sondheim gets thrown into the mix as well — he was apparently part of the film crew. Ms. Kirgo’s comments always connect — she fixates on some of the same things in the film that tickle me, like the bright sarcasm of the ship’s purser.

Julie Kirgo contributes another set of funny liner notes. She downplays the Maltese Falcon connection and emphasizes the party-vacation atmosphere on the the Italian location. She tells us that Lorre’s character might be modeled on Truman Capote, and reminds us that the original U.S. cut employed a narration by Humphrey Bogart’s character. The way the U.S. version was chopped into incoherence, it almost sounds as if David O. Selznick got involved in Beat the Devil after all.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Beat the Devil
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Audio commentary with Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman, Alexander Cockburn Beat the Devil, Original Theatrical Trailer, Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: January 20, 2019
(5911beat)

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.