John Huston’s Beat the Devil was for many years consigned to public domain hell, but it has been given new life thanks to a beautiful restoration by Sony and The Film Foundation, which in turn has enabled the release of this superb Blu-ray from Twilight Time.
The Production: 4.5/5
The plot of Beat the Devil is pretty much an afterthought, merely a vague device which allows the audience to observe the enjoyable interactions among a disparate group of rogues. The Blu-ray version opens with four minutes of footage which has been missing from every other version of the film I have seen. Harry Chelm (Edward Underdown) and his wife Gwendolen (Jennifer Jones), a British couple, are walking through a seaside town in Italy. They are waiting for a boat to take them across the Mediterranean to Africa, supposedly to buy land for a coffee plantation. While strolling along they encounter three men who hurriedly rush past them. “Harry,” says Gwendolen, “we must beware of those men. They’re desperate characters.” When Harry asks how she has come to that conclusion, she responds “Not one of them looked at my legs.”
The three men are Mr. Peterson (Robert Morley), who obviously is the leader of the group; an Italian named Ravello (Marco Tulli), and Julius O’Hara (Peter Lorre), a post-war German who ridiculously tries to pass himself off as Irish. “Why do you always make jokes about my name, huh?” O’Hara protests. “In Chile the name of O’Hara is – is a tip-top name. Many Germans in Chile have become to be called O’Hara.”
While scurrying along the three men pass by the hotel where their accomplice, Billy Danreuther (Humphrey Bogart), is staying with his wife Maria (Gina Lollabrigida). When Maria asks Billy why he isn’t more cordial with Peterson, her husband replies, “If I were to treat him with more than common politeness he’d misunderstand and try to push me around. Mr. Peterson is a bully.” It turns out Billy, Maria, and the other men are also waiting for the boat to Africa. They have hatched a plan to become wealthy by snatching up land in Africa that is rich in uranium. Billy is in on the plan because he has a contact in Africa who will help them with their scheme.
The plans are put on hold when it is discovered that the ship needs a new oil pump. This gives Billy the opportunity to meet and flirt with Gwendolen, and in turn Maria finds herself attracted to Harry (a scene where Maria nearly pulls Harry’s face into her impressive bosom was trimmed from other versions I have seen, but is has been restored here). The schemers are then joined by a former Nazi officer turned assassin, Jack Ross (Ivan Barnard), who continues to lament the deaths of Hitler and Mussolini.
Beat the Devil has elements of film noir, but in a playful fashion. It is unclear if any of the characters are quite who they claim to be. Are the Chelms really well-heeled Londoners who are planning to grow coffee beans in Africa? Can Mr. Peterson be trusted? Was Billy once a wealthy landowner in Italy?
The story takes a number of twists and turns, but the main characters in the film are so interesting that the plot hardly matters. All of the actors are superb, but I was particularly taken by the performance of Jennifer Jones. Her work is all the more impressive because, as film critic Michael Phillips has reported, she “never understood what her character was supposed to be thinking, or saying, or feeling.” Beat the Devil is based upon the novel by James Helvick (a pseudonym for Claud Cockburn), but director John Huston was unhappy with the script. Shortly before the filming in Italy began Trump Capote was brought in to re-write the script, and the re-writing continued while scenes were being filmed. The final script is credited to Capote and Huston.
Following previews, Beat the Devil was re-edited and re-structured for its American release. An unnecessary narration by Bogart was added, the opening scene was trimmed, and parts of the story were shown in flashbacks. None of that helped and the film tanked at the box office. Nevertheless, as the years went by it gained cult status and the approval of prominent films critics such as Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert. Michael Phillips’ essay on the restoration can be found here:
I admit that when I first tried to watch Beat the Devil on a fuzzy public domain DVD I had trouble getting into it, but this stunning Blu-ray from Twilight Time has changed that. I found it to be fascinating and thoroughly entertaining from beginning to end.
3D Rating: NA
This gorgeous black & white Blu-ray is presented in 1080p via the AVC codec. It is framed at 1.33:1 and the restoration is almost miraculous. The wonderful cinematography, much of it on location in Italy, is the work of the great Oswald Morris (Fiddler on the Roof, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Moby Dick, Moulin Rouge, etc.). But do not take my word for it – read the comments by our resident expert, Robert A. Harris:
The English 1.0 DTS-HD MA audio is virtually flawless and is a vast improvement over the muddy audio I have heard on previous DVD releases. The music by Italian composer Franco Mannino is reproduced with clarity and without distortion.
English SDH subtitles are available.
Special Features: 3.5/5
The extras on this Blu-ray disc include the original theatrical trailer and an 18-minute featurette with Alexander Cockburn, the son of Claud Cockburn. There also is an informative commentary track by film historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and the late Nick Redman.
An eight-page illustrated booklet by Julie Kirgo is very insightful and informative.
Beat the Devil may be Humphrey Bogart’s most unusual film, and his fans will want to own this wonderful Blu-ray release. It has been issued in a limited edition of 3,000 copies, so its availability should be checked at the Twilight Time website or the Screen Archives website.