Film Review: Beat the Devil

Bogie fan alert! The original, uncut version of John Huston’s 1953 cult classic 'Beat the Devil' makes its belated premiere in the U.S. at New York’s Film Forum.
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This restored print of Beat the Devil will not necessarily convert its detractors—critic Phil Hall listed it in his recent Greatest Bad Movies of All Time book—but at least those who already love the movie will gain an upgrade in visual quality and a few extra minutes of fun.

Beat the Devil is not a case of David O. Selznick interfering with a production, resulting in two different “cuts” of the same film (that happened with Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case and De Sica’s Indiscretion of an American Wife). Though Selznick’s wife, Jennifer Jones, stars opposite Humphrey Bogart, director John Huston successfully thwarted Selznick’s legendary meddling; rather, it was the censors who demanded alterations (about four minutes of cuts) and a nervous distributor who decided to add a Bogart voiceover narration, putting the entire story in flashback. In this original version, Bogart’s narration is gone and the cut footage restored.

Changes aside, Beat the Devil remains a clever if confusing spoof of the genre pictures Huston had made in a more serious manner in previous years (particularly, The Maltese Falcon, 1941, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, 1948). Like those earlier classics, Beat the Devil concerns the efforts of a motley bunch of seedy characters greedily chasing a moneymaking entity; in this case, the MacGuffin isn’t a statue of a bird or pieces of unrefined gold but deposits of uranium.

Bogart plays Billy, the hired hand of a group of swindlers (Peter Lorre, Robert Morley, Ivor Barnard and Marco Tulli) out to falsely claim enriched land in British East Africa. Matters get complicated while the men wait in an Italian port town for their transport to Kenya. Billy’s accomplices become suspicious of a married British couple (Jones and Edward Underdown) who they believe are trying to steal the uranium for themselves. In the meantime, Billy falls for the flighty British wife while Billy’s wife (Gina Lollobrigida) falls for the stuffy husband. Later, Billy is mistakenly thought to have died in an attempt to leave the port. Then, most of the mix-ups and misunderstandings get sorted out in a climactic sequence on a sinking steamer ship to Mombasa.

Less like The Maltese Falcon and more like Bogart’s The Big Sleep (directed by Howard Hawks in 1946), Beat the Devil—from a novel by James Helvick (aka Claud Cockburn)—doesn’t have much clarity in its narrative. Reportedly, Truman Capote wrote the screenplay as production was already underway, but it hardly matters because the film contains so many enjoyable set-pieces—among them, Lollobrigida enticing Underdown with her racy version of English tea. Not surprisingly, the casual way these married couples change partners as pre-’60s swingers was one of the causes of concern by the Production Code censors, but this element (among others) makes the film seem ahead of its time today.

Shot by Osward Morris in somber black-and-white, Beat the Devil delivers mostly low-key laughs with stinging lines of dialogue (One character exclaims, “Say what you will about Hitler, but he had his points”). Such subtle yet daring bits of humor were probably not very appreciated in Eisenhower’s postwar America, which partly explains the box-office failure of the film in 1953. Audiences may have also scratched their heads over what is the true highlight of the film: Jennifer Jones’ unexpected comic turn (with blonde hair and British accent) as the compulsively lying heroine, a crazy change-of-pace role for the actor and a revelation for those who consider Jones a limited talent. The other actors more lightly parody their screen images, including Bogart and Lorre repeating their strained, distrustful Maltese Falcon alliance.

Beat the Devil might be an acquired taste, but film buffs will appreciate its knowing eccentricities and will be all the more delighted by having additional parts of the film now to experience.

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