Beat the Devil (1953)


(director/writer: John Huston; screenwriters: Truman Capote/based on a novel by James Helvick; cinematographer: Oswald Morris; editor: Ralph Kemplen; music: Franco Mannino; cast: Humphrey Bogart (Billy Dannreuther), Jennifer Jones (Gwendolen Chelm), Gina Lollobrigida (Maria Dannreuther), Robert Morley (Petersen), Peter Lorre (O’Hara), Edward Underdown (Harry Chelm), Ivor Barnard (Major Ross), Marco Tulli (Ravello), Bernard Lee (C.I.D. Inspector), Mario Perrone (Purser on SS Nyanga), Saro Urzì (Captain of SS Nyanga), Juan de Landa (Hispano-Suiza Driver), Manuel Serano (Ahmed – Arab Inquisitor); Runtime: 92; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: John Huston; Columbia TriStar Home Video; 1953)

“It looks like it’s going to be a riot, but turns out almost laugh free.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A campy satire on those Maltese Falcon type of noirs. It looks like it’s going to be a riot, but turns out almost laugh free. Director John Huston (“The Maltese Falcon”/”Key Largo”/”The African Queen”) had trouble putting the screenplay together and Truman Capote was called in for a last minute touch up. Capote, according to Huston, pinned star Humphrey Bogart in an arm wrestle three times, but might have spent his time better straightening out this muddled script (which he wrote at a feverish pace, keeping it just ahead of the scene to be shot). Nevertheless the poorly received film later became a cult fave movie because of its uniqueness.

The script was based on Claud Cockburn’s novel (written under the pseudonym James Helvick). Huston’s frequent collaborators Anthony Veiller and Peter Viertel (uncredited) originally worked on the script, but were fired when it turned out to be lackluster and not able to get by the censors of the Production Code.

It has the mysterious drifter Billy Dannreuther (Humphrey Bogart) and wife Maria (Gina Lollobrigida) in a small Italian port, where he’s associated with four seedy and sinister businessmen of different nationalities, Petersen (Robert Morley), Julius O’Hara (Peter Lorre), Maj. Jack Ross (Ivor Barnard) and Ravello (Marco Tulli), whom Billy has been representing in a scheme to acquire on the sly uranium-rich land in British East Africa.

When the rundown boat they’re to take to East Africa is delayed because of engine trouble, Billy and wife meet an English couple also booked for passage on the boat and befriend them. Gwendolen Chelm (Jennifer Jones) is a kook and a liar, while her priggish hubby, Harry (Edward Underdown), really runs a boarding house in Earl’s Court, London, but poses as a member of the landed gentry. Billy’s desperate business associates overhear her bragging to Billy about hubby going to East Africa to invest in uranium and on the boat plot to kill him. In the meantime, Billy’s wife, an Anglophile, falls for the charms of the Englishman, while Gwendolen puts some moves on Billy. When the boat blows up at sea all the passengers survive but for Harry, and the seven survivors end up in the police station of a hostile Arab police chief. But Billy promises to give him an intro to his idol, Rita Hayworth andthey are released. Back in the Italian port, they discover by telegram Harry’s alive and well in East Africa where he acquired the uranium-rich land. The four shady business associates are arrested by a Scotland Yard detective, visiting the port, for the murder of someone in London who they believed would interfere with their East African plans. All this gives Billy a good laugh in the end, but this viewer found this nonsense tale about greed and undetected motivations nothing to laugh about.

This was the last of six collaborations between Huston and Bogart.