BOOTLEG FILES 215: “Beat the Devil” (1954 comedy from John Huston, starring Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones and Robert Morley).
LAST SEEN: Available on several online sites.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Only in public domain dupes.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A lapsed copyright doomed it to public domain hell.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Only in public domain dupes.
I have tried on three separate occasions to watch John Huston’s 1954 film “Beat the Devil” from start-to-finish. Inevitably, I lose the film around the 25-minute mark. Many people consider the film to be a cult classic. Personally, I don’t see why.
“Beat the Devil” was a bizarre endeavor that was created amid great confusion. It was a critical and commercial flop in its day, but was embraced years later with a surprising affection from many cinematic thought leaders, most notably Roger Ebert and Dave Kehr (who called the movie “the birthplace of camp”). And yet, I cannot tolerate this movie – I sympathize with the 1954 audiences who had problems enduring it, not with the later audiences who appear to be seeing the film as something it was never intended to be.
“Beat the Devil” takes place in a dingy Italian port where a group of travelers wait for a leaky East African-bound boat to be fixed. This collection includes a variety of petty crooks, shady characters and kooks, and all of them seem to be heading to Africa in search of uranium deposits. Key to that adventure is an American mercenary (Humphrey Bogart), who brings his Italian wife (Gina Lollobrigida) along for this work. There is also a British couple awaiting passage, and the blonde wife (Jennifer Jones) seems to have a fancy for the Yank gun-for-hire. Eventually, everyone sails off to Africa, where they become caught in a local uprising.
And that, quite frankly, is what “Beat the Devil” is all about. Seriously, it is just a lot of talk among eccentric and colorful characters, most notably Robert Morley as the gregarious leader of the would-be crooks. Most of the talk is actually quite witty, which is no surprise since the screenplay was co-written by Truman Capote. Consider this classic observation from Peter Lorre, playing a German crook with the unlikely name of O’Hara: “Time. Time. What is time? Swiss manufacture it. French hoard it. Italians squander it. Americans say it is money. Hindus say it does not exist. Do you know what I say? I say time is a crook.”
Or there is this exchange between the British couple, Gwendolyn and Harry (played drolly by Edward Underdown):
Gwendolyn: Harry, we must beware of these men. They are desperate characters.
Harry: What makes you say that?
Gwendolyn: Not one of them looked at my legs!
But Capote’s witticism came erratically. Huston reportedly threw out the original script to “Beat the Devil” at the start of production and flew Capote to the Italian location to rewrite the movie – literally on a day-by-day basis. No one, perhaps not even Capote, knew where the film was heading, which explains the meandering production, with scenes that dribble and hobble along without actually achieving a sense of purpose.
The raggedy, improvised nature of “Beat the Devil” confused those involved in the production, most notably Humphrey Bogart. The celebrated star was also the producer and chief financier of the film, and his regard for Huston and Capote barely balanced his confusion on what he was paying for. Adding to the confusion was Huston’s decision to cast Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida in her first English-language movie – which was a problem, since she didn’t speak a word of English. The actress learned her lined phonetically, but the disconnect between her and Bogart was painfully obvious.
Bogart’s financial and artistic discomfort was also aggravated by physical discomfort – during the shoot, he was in an auto accident that knocked out some of his teeth and cut his tongue. Unable to properly deliver his lines, he mimed several of his scenes that were later dubbed by a young and unknown British comic actor with a gift for mimicry. That actor was Peter Sellers, and to date no one has been able to differentiate between Bogart’s performance and the scenes that Sellers dubbed.
On the periphery of the film was David O. Selznick, the legendary producer who was married to Jennifer Jones. Selznick had no investment in the film, but he was highly curious about his wife’s involvement in what was turning into a bizarre production. He also had problems understanding why his wife was using a blonde wig and a phony British accent, doing what appeared to be an inane imitation of Vivien Leigh. Huston mischievously sent Selznick a three-page letter detailing the film’s plot and production goals, but he numbered the letter as One, Two and Four. When Selznick called Huston to ask specific questions, Huston kept telling Selznick to refer to Page Three of the letter for the answer.
United Artists picked up “Beat the Devil” for U.S. release, due solely to its star power, but the company no clue how to promote it. Offering it as an action/adventure presentation, the film opened in early 1954 and was a major bomb. The New York Times led the brickbats by sneering how “the fun wears mighty thin” and adding “the business of wondering what will happen next isn’t too beguiling when uneasily mirrored by about half the cast.“
Bogart was angry over the considerable loss he incurred on this film. When told that some intellectuals enjoyed the movie, he complained that “only phonies like it.” Peter Lorre was even more outspoken, telling an interviewer: “It was a flop in New York. Why shouldn’t it be? It was a delicious sardonic comedy, meant for art houses, and they opened it with a blood-and-thunder campaign. People just didn’t get it.”
“Beat the Devil” did not hurt anyone’s career – Huston continued making films for another three decades, Bogart had a personal triumph later that year in “The Caine Mutiny,” the other actors continued to work actively and Capote went on the literary greatness. Ten years later, United Artists brushed off the film and re-released it, but this time as a flat-out comedy. Incredibly, it resonated with audiences and turned in a small profit at the box office. Over the years, the film gained a reputation as being a parody of gangster and heist films – which is odd, since that was clearly never the intention from Huston, Capote or Bogart.
From my perspective, however, “Beat the Devil” is little more than an expensive home movie made by a group of talented people. But charming and erudite wordplay is not the same thing as a story that actually moves from Point A to Point B, and the improvised nature of the production is obvious when some performances (particularly Jones and Lorre) get too broad, as if overacting can compensate for pointlessness. After two reels, it gets boring and flat, and I never had the patience or curiosity to sweat it out to its finale.
It is also, quite frankly, a very ugly movie to watch. Now, that is a rude thing to say, but the New York Times shared that opinion with a comment on the film’s “harsh, neo-realistic photography, which authentically stalks and X-rays the joke to death.”
“Beat the Devil” fell into the public domain years ago and has been available in cheap dupes. The worst of the dupes take that “harsh, neo-realistic photography” and make the film look washed out and cruddy. As an orphan film, there is no incentive for anyone to come along and try to restore its initial visual quality.
If anyone is curious about Bogart or Huston (or even Capote, for that matter), I would recommend that they should probably leave “Beat the Devil” alone for as long as possible. This is not a great film, or even a good one, and there is superior work from all parties concerned that deserves to be celebrated before this little dud gets fished up.
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