Beat the Devil (1953) – Film Review

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Director: John Huston
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida
Certificate: PG

by Sarah Morgan

There are some directors and actors who go together like hand in glove, whose collaborations have boosted both their careers. John Huston and Humphrey Bogart are certainly one such pairing.

Their partnership began in 1941 with The Maltese Falcon; it continued with Across the Pacific, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Key Largo, The African Queen and, finally, Beat the Devil.

beat the devil film review coverThe film also re-teams Bogart with Peter Lorre for the last time after four previous productions, including the aforementioned Maltese Falcon.

“Larger-than-life characters”

The story was based on a novel by James Helvick, aka Claud Cockburn, a British journalist whose Communist sympathies made him a person of interest to MI5. He met Huston while living in Ireland and subsequently sold the rights to film the novel to him; although he worked on the screenplay, it’s Truman Capote and Huston himself who receive the on-screen credit.

Bogart is at the peak of his powers as Billy Dannreuther, a once wealthy American now struggling to make ends meet. He’s become embroiled in a get-rich-quick scheme involving a gang of crooks – two Englishmen, an Italian and a South American who think they can exploit the uranium-rich lands of British East Africa for their own ends.

Billy is married to the beautiful Maria, but nevertheless has his head turned by Gwendolen, the compulsive fantasist wife of English gent Harry Chelm. Chelm appears to be something of a buffoon, but as Billy and his cohorts are about to find out in spectacular fashion, they have very much underestimated him.

Beat the Devil could have been made as a straight thriller, but Huston treats it with a lighter hand. The result is a near-farcical adventure with larger-than-life characters and actors clearly having the time of their lives.

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It’s full of wonderful lines and moments, and features a delightful turn from Robert Morley (just two years after appearing alongside Bogart in Huston’s The African Queen) as the crooks’ ringleader.

Gina Lollobrigida and Jennifer Jones play Bogart’s love interests, while a young Peter Sellers is said to have dubbed some of the star’s dialogue after he lost several teeth in a car accident – if you can tell where, you have far better hearing that me.

Watch out too for terrific appearances by British character actors Bernard Lee, Edward Underdown and Ivor Barnard.

Special features include audio commentaries and a revealing interview with Cockburn’s son Alexander.

· Audio commentary featuring film historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman (2018)
· Audio commentary featuring DoP Oswald Morris, script supervisor Angela Allen and director’s assistant Jeanie Sims (2007)
· Alexander Cockburn on Beat the Devil (2012, 22 mins): the writer talks about his father, Claud Cockburn, from whose novel the film was adapted from
· By the Fireside (1945, 2 mins): an advertisement for Maypole Tea emphasising the quintessential Englishness of the afternoon tea ritual
· Atomic Achievement (1956, 19 mins): a public information film celebrating the advances of nuclear power in the UK
· Stills gallery
Beat the Devil is released on Blu-ray by BFI, £19.99

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