Any young man looking to attract a romantic partner can tell you, “travel to another country — your accent will drive them wild.” Somehow, Humphrey Bogart and Gina Lollobrigida both capitalized on the exotic mystique that accompanies a commanding voice with a touch of something that’s difficult to pinpoint. Hailing from Manhattan, New York, it seems like it would be easy to nail down the origin of Bogie’s brilliant drawl, but the stories about his accent seem to outnumber the films he starred in.
In “Beat the Devil,” accents abound. This story is set in Italy, where Maria, played by Gina Lollobrigida, sounds at home, but John Huston cleverly makes sure the American audience understands with a handy little trick. In revealing the film’s first major plot point, Maria reads from a newspaper. Huston sets up a single shot of the newspaper she’s reading so the audience can read along. Maybe modern directors of reality TV can learn from the classics that you don’t always have to provide a subtitle for those who come from the deep bayou in Louisiana or the Jersey Shore.
Bogart, who seems at home in any locale, had an accent that commanded attention anywhere. Many stories about his trademark enunciation trace its origin not to his home, but to an injury to his upper lip. Many who met him referred to his speech pattern as having a lilt or a lisp. Maybe the mysterious leading man’s scar tissue is the source of all the attention.
Some stories recount an abusive father who gave young Humphrey a fat lip that never fully healed, but the most often repeated tale comes from Bogart’s days in the military. Apparently, Bogart was involved in transporting a prisoner who took advantage of an opportunity to smack his captor in the mouth with his handcuffs. Any assistance provided by the military doc may have made matters worse, leaving Bogart with significant scar tissue that paid dividends. You can just imagine a young beauty approaching Bogart in a two-bit gin joint and asking where his accent came from. “Experience, sweetheart. That’s where it’s from,” Bogart would reply. Maybe the best answer to the mystery accent is the one that accents the mysterious origin.
It seems that Bogart’s accent wasn’t the only gem to emerge accidentally, when it comes to “Beat the Devil.” The film would be the last that John Huston and Bogart would do together. The collaboration that started with “The Maltese Falcon,” and also produced “The African Queen” would finish here with a Truman Capote script.
As Bogart was the main backer of the film, and had such trust in his colleague, Huston, Capote was given the freedom to do much of the writing as the film was being filmed — a situation that would scrap any production.
The resulting film, Beat the Devil is unexpected and intriguing — just like Bogart’s accent.