Perhaps not a top-level classic but a terrific, underrated movie nonetheless. Frank has watched it many times, and heartily recommends 1953’s Beat The Devil.
How can you resist a picture that (1) began production a week late, awaiting the arrival of the leading man’s false teeth; that (2) featured a principal character whose surname sounds suspiciously like “Dan Rather”; that (3) was directed by a distinguished veteran who literally fell off a cliff, martini in hand; and that (4) costarred Gina Lollobrigida speaking mangled English?
If you haven’t seen it, please do yourself the favor.
It’s on DVD, although the visual quality of the copy we have leaves a lot to be desired. Turner Classic Movies runs a visually much-improved edition occasionally. Its late host, Robert Osborne, described the movie as a mixture of film noir and comedy without making up its mind which genre it really is.
Fair enough. But look what Beat the Devil has going for it. A cast headed by Humphrey Bogart (who also coproduced the picture, meaning he put his own money into it). There’s Ms. Lollo in full flower as Bogie’s wife. (She is the one who enunciates her husband’s surname, Dannreuther, as “Dan Rather.”)
There is also an exceptionally strong supporting cast including Robert Morley, Peter Lorre , Edward Underdown, Ivor Barnard and Bernard Lee.
It was directed by John Huston, who, of course, cut his professional teeth along with Bogie and Lorre in the 1941 classic, The Maltese Falcon. The two stars appear older if not wiser in Beat The Devil. (And it was Huston who took a tumble with martini glass in tow down a steep 40-foot embankment; he swore he emerged unhurt.)
Beat the Devil was shot on location in Ravello, a steeply banked mountaintop village behind Sorrento on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. Much of the movie was shot in a grand villa that was once Greta Garbo’s romantic hideaway.
An added advantage of the gorgeous Italy locale is the presence in the cast of several fine Italian actors including Marco Tulli, Mario Perrone and Saro Urzi, as a loud-mouthed, drunken ship’s captain.
But the movie’s real surprise is Jennifer Jones as quirky, blunt-spoken British wife. The surprise, at least for some of us, is that Jones was quite the sexpot, every bit the Lollobrigida’s physical rival. She comes across as a feisty sparkplug. No languorous romanticism here.
Jones was about 35 when she made Beat the Devil, and her lithe, athletic figure is fully on display in several scenes. Enough said that she looked great in a bathing suit. Lollobrigida appears almost matronly by comparison.
At the time the movie was made, Jones was married to mogul David Selznick. Although he had nothing whatsoever to do with the picture’s production, Selznick felt he had plenty to protect in how his much younger wife was handled.
As Huston recounts in his most entertaining 1980 memoir, An Open Book, Selznick would dispatch multi-page cables to the set providing his unsolicited opinions on how his wife should be directed and photographed.
“One day, after receiving a particularly long cable from David, “ recalled Huston, “I sent him a cable back. Page one answered various points he had made. I then omitted page two and jumped to page three. From then on I answered anything he asked me by replying: ‘Refer page two my cable X date.’ I understand this drove him right up the wall. It was rough on the cable company, too, because David was out to find that missing page. You might say that Page Two was Gone With The Wind.”
The script for Beat the Devil was a last-minute affair, literally composed on the set before and during shooting. The movie is based on a novel by one “James Helvick,” the nom de plume of a British newspaperman and Huston pal, Claude Cockburn. Huston turned to a 29-year-old Truman Capote to help out after an earlier screen treatment was junked.
Beat the Devil’s plot is difficult to summarize coherently but it has to do with the search for supposed uranium deposit in East Africa by a shifty international cabal stuck on a dilapidated Italian cargo ship. In one scene, an Arab chieftain (holding stranded passengers captive) poses this question to the film’s world-weary narrator-protagonist, Bogie:
“Now tell me, do you really know Rita Hayworth?”
Bogart and the rest handle such lines and situations with great aplomb. And, oh yes, by the time he made this picture, Bogie was sporting dentures.
Huston remembered that he and Bogie were provided by an Italian co-producer a Mercedes to make the trip from Rome to Naples on their way to the film location. The problem was that the chauffeur provided was less than reliable.
Somewhere around Monte Cassino, the Mercedes went flying into a stone wall and into a ditch. No one was seriously hurt but Bogie’s false front teeth were knocked out. A new bridge was promptly ordered sent over from his dentist in California. “Waiting for Bogie’s teeth delayed things for a week or so and gave Truman and me a chance to work on the script,” Huston wrote.
Beat the Devil was not well received when it first came out. It was, Huston felt, “ahead of its time. A few critics hailed it as a masterpiece… but they were all European. There was not an American among them.”
Despite its early reception, the picture has developed an enthusiastic audience over time. “Beat the Devil has done well over the years,” concluded Huston. “I only wish Bogie could have been around to see this happen.”
Bogart died four years after Beat the Devil was released, of cancer; he was 58. It was the last picture he and Huston made together.