Beat the Devil
Action, Adventure, Comedy | 89 mins | Released: 1953
Director: John Huston
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, Robert Morley, Peter Lorre, Edward Underdown, Ivor Barnard
Our Rating: 7
Black & White
On their way to Africa are a group of rogues who hope to get rich there, and a seemingly innocent British couple. They meet and things happen…
The script, which was written on a day-to-day basis as the film was being shot, concerns the adventures of a motley crew of swindlers and ne’er-do-wells trying to lay claim to land rich in uranium deposits in Kenya as they wait in a small Italian port to travel aboard an ill-fated tramp steamer en route to Mombasa.
Beat the Devil is a 1953 film directed by John Huston.
The screenplay was by Huston and Truman Capote, loosely based upon a novel of the same name by British journalist Claud Cockburn, writing under the pseudonym James Helvick.
It is a parody of Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) and films of the same genre.
In a review coinciding with the film’s release to 68 New York metropolitan area theaters, The New York Times called it a “pointedly roguish and conversational spoof, generally missing the book’s bite, bounce and decidedly snug construction.”
Humphrey Bogart never liked the movie, perhaps because he lost a good deal of his own money bankrolling it, and said of Beat the Devil, “Only phonies like it.”
Roger Ebert, who included the film in his “Great Movies” list, notes that the film has been characterized as the first camp movie.
In the biographical film dramas Infamous (2006) and Capote (2005), Truman Capote, portrayed respectively by Toby Jones and Philip Seymour Hoffman, reminisces about life during the filming of Beat the Devil.
Humphrey Bogart was involved in a serious automobile accident during production of this film, which knocked out several of his teeth and hindered his ability to speak.
John Huston hired a young British actor noted for his mimicry skills to rerecord some of Bogart’s spoken lines during post-production looping.
Although it is undetectable when viewing the film today, it is Peter Sellers who provides Bogart’s voice during some of the scenes in this movie.
This was the fifth and last movie that Humphrey Bogart would make with Peter Lorre. The other four were, The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942), All Through the Night (1941), and Passage to Marseille (1944).
Stephen Sondheim got his start in films working as a clapper boy on this film.
Either the writer or the director was playing an inside joke by naming two of the characters ‘Chelm’. Chelm, in Yiddish folklore, refers to a village in eastern Europe that is ruled by the “wise fools”.
Claud Cockburn (aka Claud Cockburn) wrote the screenplay based on his novel. Truman Capote was purportedly brought to complete the script late in the piece when Cockburn left or was fired.
Jack Clayton, the Scotland Yard inspector played by Bernard Lee, is named after the film’s cameraman, Jack Clayton, who later became a well-known director.
William Styron’s second novel, “Set This House on Fire”, describes a film crew on location – obviously based on director John Huston and gang during the shooting of this film. The town in the novel is Ravello on Italy’s Amalfi Drive, where most of the film was shot.
John Huston was star/producer Humphrey Bogart’s first choice to direct. However, Huston had some scheduling conflicts – he was due to make a movie with Katharine Hepburn (which was never made, as Hepburn graciously stepped aside to help out Huston), not to mention that he had to finish his then-current project Moulin Rouge (1952). Nicholas Ray, who Bogart had worked with twice before, was considered to direct in case Huston could not finish in time.
At one point in the film, Ivor Barnard’s character is referred as the “galloping major”. This is the title of a film from 1951, also made by Romulus Productions, and starring Basil Radford. The Galloping Major (1951) in this other film is a racehorse.
Billy Dannreuther: “The only thing standing between you and a watery grave is your wits, and that’s not my idea of adequate protection.”
Ahmed: “Your demands are very great, under the circumstances.”
Billy Dannreuther: “Why shouldn’t they be? Fat Gut’s my best friend, and I will not betray him cheaply.”
Purser: “Do you know that your associates are all in hoosegow? Oh, not that I’m a bit surprised. I put them down as thoroughly bad characters, right off the bat. But then there are so many bad characters nowadays. Take mine, for instance.”
Petersen: “You mean Mrs. Chelm is an unqualified liar?”
Billy Dannreuther: “Well, let’s say she uses her imagination rather than her memory.”
Gwendolyn Chelm: “Harry, we must beware of these men. They are desperate characters.”
Harry Chelm: “What makes you say that ?”
Gwendolyn Chelm: “Not one of them looked at my legs!”
Gwendolyn Chelm: “You know, I’ve changed my mind about you being an evil doctor. You’re off to keep a rendezvous someplace in Africa sacred to the tribesmen. You’re going to found a new empire, and make yourself master of the riches of the world. But you need a beautiful blonde queen to impress the natives as, ah, the incarnation of the Queen of Sheba. That’s why you’re making a pass at me.”
Billy Dannreuther: “Am I?”
Billy Dannreuther: “Trouble with England, it’s all pomp and no circumstance. You’re very wise to get out of it, escape, while you can.”
O’Hara: “I give you my word, I feel to you like an older brother. Oh, it’s not so much a difference of age. It’s probably, yes, the reason is, because I come from a culture which is so much older than yours. In my country, a child of 6 years old is older in his heart than you’ll be at, at 60.”
Billy Dannreuther: “It smokes, it drinks, it philosophizes… at this rate I’ll be 60 before you get to the point.”
Billy Dannreuther: “I’ve got to have money. Doctor’s orders are that I must have a lot of money, otherwise I become dull, listless and have trouble with my complexion.”
Gwendolyn Chelm: “But you’re not like that now, and you haven’t any money.”
Billy Dannreuther: “It’s my expectations that hold me together.”
Ahmed: [to Dannreuther] “I believe you must have Arab blood. Westerners are not usually so subtle.”
Ahmed: “Our country is in a state of unrest.”
Petersen: “Oh, I am sorry!”
“I have a theory about you and your friends.”
Billy Dannreuther: “Correction – my associates.”
Gwendolyn Chelm: “As a matter of fact, I think you’re doctors. Evil ones, I mean. You’re going to the heart of the jungle where human life is cheap, to perform ghastly experiments which require the sacrifice of thousands on the altar of science.”
Gwendolyn Chelm: “I am a British subject!”
Billy Dannreuther: “I wouldn’t say that too loud.”