EDITOR’S NOTE: Jeanne Moreau, the grand dame of French cinema, died on July 31 in Paris. She was 89. One of the stalwart figures of the mid-20th century French “New Wave,” she was internationally renowned for her superb performance as the impulsive love interest of two men in director Francois Truffaut’s 1962 period romance, Jules and Jim. Her minimal exposure to Hollywood — she played a sympathetic hotelier hiding Burt Lancaster from the Nazis in director John Frankenheimer’s 1964 war drama, The Train — was more important for personal reasons. She conducted a passionate love affair with Lee Marvin, and married director William Friedkin in 1977 (it last two years). Moreau was nonetheless huge in Europe, acting onstage and in movies (check her out in director Wim Wenders‘ Until the End of the World) well into her Eighties. She was an imposing person offscreen as Frank found out once during a fleeting meeting at a Tokyo film festival. Moreau was indeed the grand dame of French cinema. May she rest in peace.
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?
Before we discuss this movie, it should be said Joe and Frank have differences about its merit. Joe regards it more or less as an amusing trifle, once seen and that’s it. Frank has enjoyed watching the movie again, and again and cannot get enough. That pretty much defines the public’s split reaction to Beat the Devil since it first came out in 1954.
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 bit to be desired. Turner Classic Movies runs it occasionally although we suspect it is not one of their favorites. They have described it as a mixture of film noir and comedy without making up its mind which genre it really occupies.
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 a terrific supporting cast including Robert Morley, Peter Lorre , Edward Underdown, Ivor Barnard and Bernard Lee. It was directed by the 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 this film. (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 real surprise is the wondrous presence of Jennifer Jones as a quirky, blunt-speaking 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 this film 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. One night, undoubtedly after the liquor flowed, Bogart and Capote got into an arm wrestling contest that turned into a genuine wrestling match. Tempers got the better of both men.
The plot is difficult to summarize coherently but it has to do with the search for supposed uranium deposit in East Africa by a motley international crew 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. The performances overall, as mentioned, are most enjoyable. 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 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.”
It was the last picture Huston and Bogart did together. (Bogart died three years after the picture was released; he was 58.)