Beat the Devil – 1953

beat

My Review

—A Cult Classic— 

Bogie Film Fix:

3.5 Bogie out of 5 Bogies!

Director:  John Huston

The Lowdown

Four crooks (Humphrey Bogart, Robert Morley, Peter Lorre, and Marco Tulli) meet up with a British couple (Edward Underdown and Jennifer Jones) as they all make their way from Italy to East Africa in order to obtain, and exploit, uranium rich land.  Billy Dannreuther (Bogart) finds himself pinballing between the three crooks he’s travelling with, his wife (Gina Lollobrigida), and the con woman (Jennifer Jones) who continually feeds him lies while simultaneously professing her love for him.

What I Thought

(This post was written in response to @NitrateDiva’s 2013 Italian Film Culture Blogathon, and you should check out the rest of her great entries here.)

While Beat the Devil can be one of those polarizing cult classics (I happen to love it), I think everyone across the board can admit that it’s one of the most eclectic and eccentric casts and crews that Bogart ever worked with.  You’ve got the wild and hard-drinking director, John Huston, the flamboyant and witty writer, Truman Capote, the Italian sex bomb, Gina Lollobrigida, the thick-accented Hungarian-American, Peter Lorre, and academy award winning actress, Jennifer Jones.  Whether you’re an avid supporter of Devil’s cult status, or you simply find it a convoluted mess, there’s no denying that the film fascinates movie buffs and casual fans on multiple levels.

Filmed on location in Ravello, Italy, the first half of the film is almost stolen by the backdrop of the Mediterranean cliffs and seacoasts.  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.

Huston uses the Ravello location to its fullest, tying several key plot developments directly into his locations:

-Bogart’s car flies off a cliff and into the Mediterranean Sea, causing a busload of locals to claim that they witnessed his death.

-Several big scenes are shot in an Italian villa and a restaurant owned by Bogart’s character as he earns the trust of the young British couple, claiming to be a wealthy U.S. expatriate.

-Almost every significant conversation is shot outdoors in a café over drinks, on a cliff overlooking the sea, or inside of Bogart’s car as it tours around the Italian countryside.

In fact, one could argue that it’s the Ravello setting itself that seems to be desperately trying to keep the film’s main players from leaving.  Their ship breaks down while in port.  They lose their car into the sea on their way to the airport.  The lure of the romantic countryside keeps a swooning Jennifer Jones in love with Bogart, tempting him to leave his scheme behind and run away with her.

It’s not until the group finally sails away from Italy that things turn dangerously sour in a hurry.  Forced into a life raft after their ship breaks down, they are adrift overnight, finally washing up somewhere on the African shore.  Once beached, they’re immediately arrested, interrogated, and roughed up by the local authorities, until it’s finally discovered that the land they were trying to swindle has been swindled away from them by the least conniving man among them.

If they’d only stayed in Ravello, right?  Yet, the whole time they’re in the picturesque Italian town, all they can do is verbally degrade it as they desperately try to escape it.  Their greed for the uranium land blinds them to the surrounding paradise.

Perhaps my favorite bit of movie lore about this film comes from the fact that a young Peter Sellers was hired to dub some of Bogart’s lines.  After missing a hairpin turn on one of Ravello’s winding roads, Bogart’s driver crashed into a stone wall, sending Bogart face first into the front seat.  After several broken teeth and a new false dental bridge, Bogart’s lisp was stronger and more distracting than usual.  Huston hired Seller’s to help out during postproduction by re-recording several lines of Bogart’s dialogue.  Seller’s impression was so spot-on that Huston and Bogart were reportedly the only ones who could really tell the difference.  After watching the film a half a dozen times, I honestly can’t discern which lines aren’t spoken by Bogart.

The Bogart Factor

I’m a big Capote fan, so for me, hearing his droll and playful dialogue come out of Bogart’s mouth is an incredible treat.

“I was an orphan until I was twenty.  Then a rich and beautiful lady adopted me.”

“The only thing standing between you and a watery grave is your wits, and that’s not my idea of adequate protection.”

“They’re English, going out to the British East.  They have a coffee plantation. . . there’s a certain type of Englishman that goes off to coffee plantations without caring if there’s any money in it or not.  Relatives leave them coffee plantations and they go out to them.”

There’s no doubt that Bogart’s the star of this movie, and his character, Billy Dannreuther, is in complete control of every situation – even when all control seems lost.  It’s a wonderful exhibit of the confidence that Bogart was able to display onscreen.  He plays a man who can always keep his cool – talking his way in, and out, of practically any situation that arises.

It’s tough to learn that Bogart considered this film “a complete mess” after it was finished.  I would have loved for him to see the future and know how many people revere it now.  If nothing else, he could at least read Roger Ebert’s take and have a little satisfaction that Beat the Devil wasn’t a waste of his time!

The Cast

Robert Morley plays Mr. Peterson, the apparent ring leader of Bogart’s crew of criminal rascals.  It’s a complete about-face from his role as the missionary brother to Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen, and it’s great to see him get to show a more devious side.  There’s an especially fun scene where Jennifer Jones tells him that she and her husband are headed to East Africa on a spiritual journey in an attempt to exorcise their lifetime of sins.  Whether it was in the original story, or thrown in as a nod to Morley’s character from The African Queen, it plays out very funny as we watch his face go aghast at the thought that Jones is using religion to con him.

Jennifer Jones is very convincing as the sweet, young con girl who really seems infatuated with Bogart.  She hits all the right notes as Gwendolen Chelm, the unhappy English wife who’s actively trying to escape one relationship by starting another.

Gina Lollobrigida plays Maria Dannreuther, Bogart’s bored and gorgeous wife who begins to fall in love with another man (Edward Underdown) while her husband is falling for Jennifer Jones.  Lollobrigida agreed to the role after being promised top billing in Europe, and I thought she did fine here despite her tepid reception by critics at the time.

Edward Underdown is Henry Chelm, the prim and proper English husband to Jennifer Jones.  What’s so great about Underdown is that his stuffy and upper-class British persona is as close as we get to a moral character in the film.  It’s not that he’s a good person (which he’s not, as he continually ignores and belittles his wife, abandoning her emotionally, as well as physically, until she runs into the arms of Billy), as much as it’s the fact that he’s a person who simply believes people should behave with a constant air of dignity, despite the feelings of others.  By not asking us to root for Underdown, Huston gives us full permission to enjoy his downfall – and then sets us up to be suckered by the final con in the film, right alongside of Bogart and Jones.

Peter Lorre . . . what can I say?  This was his last collaboration with Bogart, and while it’s not a huge role, Lorre gets to do what he does best – squirm, smoke, and connive his way through the film while looking for his chance at glory.  Perhaps my favorite moment in the movie comes when Lorre is lecturing Bogart and Jones on the value of trustworthiness, all the while doing his best to sneak out the door and hurry on to the next part of his dirty dealings.

Classic Bogie Moment

One of the best aspects to many of Bogart’s expatriate loner characters is that they struggle so hard between doing the right thing and looking out for number.  And so, when Bogart and his crew are arrested and subjected to a little rough treatment, we get the following exchange that always makes me smile:

Jennifer Jones:  Are you going to allow them to bully you in this way?  Why, it’s, it’s, it’s simply-

Bogart:  Shocking?

Jones:  Harry wouldn’t have let them do it.  He had a sense of dignity.

Bogart:  (RESIGNED) Well, I have a sense of survival. . .

The Bottom Line

I admit that it took more than one viewing of this film for me to “get it,” but I’m okay with that. I think some of the best films in history often need a chance to grow on us as viewers, and as more time goes by, I respect and enjoy this film more and more.

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2 thoughts on “Beat the Devil – 1953

  1. Pingback: Blogathon, Italian Style: Third Course | Nitrate Diva

  2. Pingback: John Huston | The Bogie Film Blog

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