BR: Beat the Devil (1953)

July 5, 2019 | By

Film: Very Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Very Good

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: A

Released:  January 22, 2019

Genre: Comedy

Synopsis: A group of shady eccentrics and a wealthy couple awaiting a ship from Amalfi to Africa seem to be vying for a uranium-rich plot of land.

Special Features: Audio Commentary with screenwriter Lem Dobbs and film historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman / 2012 Short: “Alexander Cockburn Beat the Devil (22:44) / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and




One of the oddest films ever made, Beat the Devil is many things: a dry comedy, a slick celluloid pastry with a hollow centre, a cheat, and an interminably dull production which even Twilight Time’s commentators admit has evolved into a cult classic for reasons no one quite understands.

There’s probably a few fans who loved the film upon first viewing – its cast and stunning location filming in Italy’s Amalfi coast are an immediate lure – but others may well have required a few viewings to warm up to the film’s truly strange tone, and the fact whatever the finale may be, it’s irrelevant, because the attraction lies in the wealth of talent who seemed to have had a lot of fun making a movie that’s almost about, well, nothing.

You could draw parallels between Devil and the Coen brother’s The Big Lebowski (1998), another oddball comedy packed with stars, weird episodes, and a work that took time to evolve into a cult film; perhaps the TT historians aren’t far off in calling Devil the first true cult film – a bomb during its theatrical release, and a movie its U.S. distributor recut to spotlight one of many primary characters.

Based on the 1952 novel by Claud Cockburn (and written under the pseudonym James Helvick), producer-director Huston hired newcomer Truman Capote to fix earlier drafts by the author, and Anthony Veiller and Peter Viertel (screenwriter of Huston’s The African Queen). Capote had recently written material for Vittorio De Sica’s Terminus Station / Indiscretion of an American Wife (1953), the David O. Selznick produced mess that starred wife Jennifer Jones and Montgomery Clift.

For Devil, Capote wrote scenes two days ahead of filming, and although the story is more or less about attempts to get hands on uranium-rich land in Africa, it’s a fuzzy, nebulous MacGuffin; the real intrigue comes from watching characters navigate through a bit of danger, illicit romance, and sort of seething conflicts aboard a freighter in the second half.

Full confession: the first time I saw Devil, it bored me to death. The second time elicited a fascination in watching the three stars – Humphrey Bogart (who also co-produced), Jones, and Gina Lollobrigida – trade barbs with scene-stealing character actors Robert Morley, Peter Lorre, Edward Underdown, Ivor Barnard, Marco Tulli, and Manuel Serrano. And the third-go-round with TT’s superb commentary by Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and the late Nick Redman, the film seems even funnier. Perhaps this helps rationalizing a cult film’s evolution: it may not make more sense with repeated viewings, but it’s the nuances and oddness that are the main draw.

Devil isn’t really the ‘opposite’ of Huston’s other Bogart-Lorre classic, The Maltese Falcon (1941), but a lark; an adventure directed by a filmmaker / big game hunter who liked to take risks with wild personalities, exotic locales, heavy drinking, and gamble that everything might click in the end – and if the film was a flop, who cares; just make another movie and roll the dice.

In a porous nutshell, Devil has Mrs. Gwendolen Chelm (Jones) arriving in Amalfi with husband Harry (Underdown), and meeting toothy fellow traveler Billy Dannreuther (Bogart) and his wife Maria (Lollobrigida), as well as Billy’s scheming associates Julius O’Hara (Lorre), Ravello (Tulli), murderous Maj. Jack Ross (Barnard, in his final film), and the group’s agreed-upon leader Peterson (Morley).

Billy woos (and beds off-screen) Gwendolen, Maria messes with Harry, and Peterson attempts to get info on that uranium-enriched property. Leap forward to the group trapped on a boat, one character feared lost at sea, the group being snatched and arrested in an unnamed Arabic pocket of Africa, and an interrogation by a sly marshal and Rita Hayworth uber-fan.

There’s a car crash, attempted murder, and lots of dry, fast banter; the latter certainly showcases Capote’s marvelous gift for idiosyncratic language and setting up ridiculous circumstances. The performances are severely nuanced, but so beautifully timed that Devil is also a giddy ensemble piece featuring master character actors in their prime. Everyone bounces off the other and tries to steal attention – among Peterson’s gang, Morley’s quivery lips and giant eyes go against Lorre’s facial gestures and handling of a cigarette stick, while Barnard glowers and excels in playing an annoying little twerp.

Early into production Bogart was involved in a serious car accident, so not unlike the weirdness in spotting the before / after car crash shots of Montgomery Clift in Raintree County (1957), one can discern the shots where Bogey received new teeth, yet in spite of that nearly devastating hiccup during production, Devil features one of Bogart’s best performances: he’s neither a hero or full-blown cad, but perhaps like Huston, a sly gambler who massages and teases and manipulates to get what he hopes with odd stoicism to acquire.

When facing dire circumstances, something always pops into a scene and punctures the drama, shifting it to absurdism. Case in point is the driver of a doomed taxi sedan who keeps referring to “My beautiful car!” as he demands payment from Billy; and the ship’s first mate, who delivers danger alerts with a cheerful smile.

Franco Mannino’s sparse score isn’t isolated on the Blu-ray, but TT’s Region A-only release was sourced from Sony’s recent 4K transfer of the original 94 min. cut. All prior releases, including Film Detective’s 2014 Blu-ray feature the shorter 89 min. U.S. edit which trimmed material for pacing, focus, and featured periodic narration by Bogart.

The commentary is one of TT’s best, partly because Dobbs is also a fan of the Devil, having grown to love its oddness in spite of the obvious flaws. Having read the novel, Dobbs notes several changes, including tempering the steamy sexuality which Huston infers with looks and body positioning. (The most amusing has Lollobrigida facing the camera on the beach, while Jones repeatedly folds herself into a ball in front of the camera; both actresses never miss beats in their dialogue, and Osward Morris’ camera remains locked, presenting the pair’s dialectic as a streamlined, lightly clothed peepshow.)

A lot of production minutia are discussed by the trio – Peter Sellers was reportedly hired for some dubbing – and the film serves as a marker for discussing short bios of the cast, such as Bogart in the final years of his life, and Jones trapped in a deeply unhappy marriage to OCD producer Selznick.

The historians also cite the curious career tethers among the cast & crew: Huston would hand over direction of the 1957 Jones-starring remake of A Farewell to Arms after Selznick proved too meddlesome and ruinous of Hemingway’s work, and associate producer Jack Clayton, who snagged Capote to write the horror classic The Innocents (1961).

Julie Kirgo’s notes highlight what was either a planned production turned vacation, a lark, or a booze-boosted attempt to have fun making a movie in Italy without a finished script. Capote reportedly claimed to have written most of the material, whereas in an interview, Cockburn’s son Alexander says whole chunks of dialogue stemmed from the novel proper.

Directed by Elizabeth LennardAlexander Cockburn Beat the Devil (2012) has the author’s son (himself a noted writer) recalling his father, the novel’s elements, memories of filming, and being the son of ‘the most dangerous communist in the world.’ (Claud Cockburn was under constant surveillance by the British intelligence, yet managed to write several novels and enjoy the success of Devil‘s publication and film sale.)

Lennard interviewed Alexander at his bird-filled home, and his recollections are interspersed with occasional film clips and details of mementos from his past. It’s an eccentric portrait of an eccentric son’s wry memories of his father, and features an amusing anecdote of British agents snooping for incriminating materials.

John Huston would close his 1950s filmography with the baroque Moby Dick (1956), the sublime Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957), The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958), and the slightly less odd but no less engaging The Roots of Heaven (1958).

In spite of his ailing health, Humphrey Bogart would appear in several more genuine classics, including The Caine Mutiny (1954), the dreamy oddity The Barefoot Contessa (1954), We’re No Angels (1955), The Left Hand of God (1955), The Desperate Hours (1955), and The Harder They Fall (1956).



© 2019 Mark R. Hasan





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