Beat the Devil (1953): John Huston’s Parody, Starring Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida

John Huston directed Beat the Devil, an adventure comedy, starring Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, and Gina Lollobrigida and featured Robert Morley, Peter Lorre, and Bernard Lee.

 

Beat The Devil - 1953 - poster.png

1953 film poster

Huston and Truman Capote wrote the screenplay, loosely based on the 1951 novel of the same name by British journalist Claud Cockburn writing under the pseudonym James Helvick.

John Huston directed Beat the Devil, an adventure comedy, starring Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, and Gina Lollobrigida and featured Robert Morley, Peter Lorre, and Bernard Lee.

Huston made the film as a loose parody of the 1941 film The Maltese Falcon, which he had directed and in which Bogart and Lorre appeared.

Capote said, “John Huston and I decided to kid the story, to treat it as a parody. Instead of another Maltese Falcon, we turned it into a spoof on this type of film.”

The script, written on a day-to-day basis as the film was shot, concerns the adventures of a motley crew of swindlers and ne’er-do-wells trying to claim land rich in uranium deposits in Kenya as they wait in a small Italian port to travel aboard a tramp steamer en route to Mombasa.

Billy Dannreuther is a formerly wealthy American who has fallen on hard times. He is reluctantly working with four crooks: Peterson, Julius O’Hara, Major Jack Ross, and Ravello, who are trying to acquire uranium-rich land in British East Africa.

Billy suspects that Major Ross murdered a British Colonial officer who threatened to expose their plan. While waiting in Italy for passage to Africa, Billy and his wife Maria meet a British couple, Harry and Gwendolen Chelm, who plan to travel on the same ship. Harry seems a very proper and traditional Englishman, while Gwendolen is flighty and a compulsive fantasist. Billy and Gwendolen have an affair, while Maria flirts with Harry. Peterson becomes suspicious that the Chelms may be attempting to acquire the uranium themselves. Though this is untrue, it seems confirmed by Gwendolen, who lies about her husband and exaggerates his importance.

 

Photo: Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida and Bogart

Billy and Peterson decide to take a plane instead, but their car runs over a cliff when they are pushing it after a breakdown and the pair are wrongly reported to have been killed.

In order to replace Peterson’s lost capital, Ravello approaches Harry Chelm. To everyone’s surprise, Billy and Peterson return to the hotel unharmed, just as the purser announces that the ship is at last ready to sail.

On board, Harry reveals that he knows about Peterson’s scheme and intends to inform the authorities. Peterson orders Major Ross to kill Harry, but Billy thwarts the murder attempt. Disbelieving Harry’s outraged accusations, however, the ship’s drunken captain has Harry locked in the brig.

The ship’s engine malfunctions and the passengers are told to escape by lifeboat. When Billy goes to rescue Harry, he finds that he has freed himself and left the ship, intending to swim ashore.

Having abandoned ship, the passengers land on an African beach, where they are arrested by Arab soldiers. They are interrogated by Ahmed, an Arab official who suspects that they may be spies or revolutionaries. Billy creates a distraction by fleeing the room, and befriends Ahmed when he is recaptured by talking to him about Rita Hayworth, whom he pretends to have known. Billy then persuades him to send the party back to Italy by sailing boat.

After the party land, they are questioned by a Scotland Yard detectiv,  investigating the murder of the Colonial officer. Just as he seems taken in by Peterson’s smooth talk, Gwendolen reveals Peterson’s scheme, his involvement in the murder, and his attempt to kill Harry.

The detective arrests Peterson, O’Hara, Ross, and Ravello. As the four crooks are led away in handcuffs, Gwendolen receives telegram from British East Africa saying that Harry has acquired the land where Peterson and the others were aiming to enrich themselves; now wealthy, he is willing to forgive Gwendolen. Billy laughs happily while saying, “This is the end, the end!”

During the shoot, Bogart lost several teeth in a car accident. Peter Sellers, then not known but with a talent for imitating voices, was hired to dub some of Bogart’s lines while Bogart was unable to speak clearly.

Much of the film was shot at Ravello, above Italy’s Amalfi Coast. The central piazza in front of the cathedral and the cafes around it are shown. Some scenes were shot in nearby Atrani, including the pool area of the Hotel Convento Luna.

Following previews, four minutes was cut, and the film was reedited with voice-over narration by Bogart and flashback structure.

The New York Times called it a “pointedly roguish and conversational spoof, generally missing the book’s bite, bounce and decidedly snug construction.”

Bogart reportedly disliked the film, possibly because he lost a good deal of his own money financing it.

In August 2016, an uncut version of Beat the Devil premiered at The Reel Thing Technical Symposium. The 4K restoration was done by Sony Pictures in collaboration with The Film Foundation and overseen by Grover Crisp. The major differences between the 2 versions were reported by Gary Teetzel for the website DVD Savant. Four minutes were restored, as compared to the original version, bringing the running time to 93 or 94 minutes.

Cast

Humphrey Bogart as Billy Dannreuther
Jennifer Jones as Mrs. Gwendolen Chelm
Gina Lollobrigida as Maria Dannreuther
Robert Morley as Peterson
Peter Lorre as Julius O’Hara
Edward Underdown as Harry Chelm
Ivor Barnard as Major Jack Ross
Marco Tulli as Ravello
Manuel Serrano as Ahmed
Bernard Lee as Inspector Jack Clayton
Mario Perrone as Purser on SS Nyanga
Giulio Donnini as Administrator
Saro Urzì as Captain of SS Nyanga
Juan de Landa as Hispano-Suiza Driver
Aldo Silvani as Charles, restaurant owner
Alex Pochet as Hotel Manager (uncredited)
Mimo Poli as Barman (uncredited)

Credits:

Produced, directed by John Huston
Screenplay by Huston, Truman Capote, based on Beat the Devil
by James Helvick
Cinematography Oswald Morris
Edited by Ralph Kemplen
Music by Franco Mannino

Production companies: Romulus Films; Santana Pictures

Distributed: British Lion Films (UK); United Artists
(US)

Release dates: November 24, 1953 (London); March 12, 1954 (NYC)

Running time: 94 minutes