Cast & Crew
In a small Italian port, as the four businessmen, Petersen, Julius O'Hara, Maj. Jack Ross and Ravello, whom Billy Dannreuther has been representing in a scheme to acquire uranium-rich land in British East Africa, are led away by police officers, Billy relates how they came to be arrested: Six months earlier, Billy, an American, his Italian wife Maria and his business associates are about to board a tramp steamer to Africa, where Billy has a contact who will arrange for the group to benefit at a land auction. The ship, however, develops engine trouble and the group's departure is delayed. While they wait, Billy encounters an apparently upper-crust, proper, English couple, Harry and Gwendolen Chelm, who are traveling on the same ship to take over a coffee plantation Harry has inherited. The eccentric Gwendolen, who lies about their background and has a vivid imagination, tells Billy that he and his associates are very mysterious and that she suspects they are evil doctors, bound for the heart of the jungle to perform experiments on the natives. Later, Billy meets with Petersen and the others, who are concerned that Billy's friend may make another deal when they do not arrive on time. After accusing Ross of the London murder of a British Colonial officer who was part of their plan, Billy reassures them his friend will not let them down. When Billy and Maria take the Chelms to dinner, Billy reveals he has extensive personal knowledge of the area. The next day, Harry has a cold, so Billy invites Gwendolen to visit a villa he once owned and experiences more of her fanciful notions when she claims he is making a pass at her. After overhearing Gwendolen tell Billy that the plantation Harry is inheriting is rich in uranium deposits, O'Hara informs the others. Meanwhile Maria, an Anglophile, brings the ailing Harry afternoon tea and later tells Billy that she is interested in the Englishman. Soon O'Hara, on behalf of the group, expresses his concern that Billy may not be entirely committed to them and, despite Billy's reassurances, Petersen tells Billy that they both will now fly to Africa to protect their interests. Although Billy points out that the auction is two weeks away and their early arrival might be considered suspicious, Petersen insists and he and Billy leave in an old taxi for the nearest airport. En route, the taxi breaks down and when they push it, they accidentally launch it over a cliff into the sea. After Harry learns that Billy and Petersen are presumed to have died in the accident, he breaks the news to both Maria and Gwendolen. The money Petersen was carrying in a suitcase was also lost, so Ravello tries to raise new capital by explaining their scheme to Harry. Just then, to everyone's surprise, Billy and Petersen return to the port and the purser announces that the ship is finally ready to sail. Gwendolen informs Billy that she has told her husband that she is in love with him and wants Billy to go away with her. When Billy refuses, they both board the ship. Soon after, Petersen receives a cable from a colleague in London who has investigated the Chelms and states that they are not the rich, landed gentry Gwendolen has claimed them to be. Later, after Gwendolen confesses the same to Billy, Harry states that he learned from Ravello that they are a gang of crooks about to swindle a country out of its uranium deposits and that he intends to report them to the authorities. The ship's engine breaks down again and Harry, an ex-Royal Marines officer, attempts to fix it but, after a further explosion, the captain blames Harry and takes him prisoner. Billy, concerned that his associates will murder Harry to silence him, warns Gwendolen that they have already killed a man in London, and together they manage to thwart an attempt on Harry's life. Later, when informed that the ship is sinking, Billy goes to free Harry, but discovers that he has escaped, leaving behind a note saying that he hopes to swim to shore. All the other passengers, including Maria and Gwendolen, jump into a lifeboat and eventually land on a sandy beach, where they are arrested by Arab horsemen. After they are interrogated by Ahmed, an Arab official who suspects that they may be spies or revolutionaries, Ahmed surprises Billy by asking him about film star Rita Hayworth. Capitalizing on Ahmed's obsession with Miss Hayworth, Billy persuades him to release them in exchange for a large bribe and a promise to arrange an introduction to Rita. The group then returns in a small boat to the Italian port from which they sailed and are met by an inspector from Scotland Yard, who is investigating the Colonial officer's murder. When it appears that the inspector believes their various stories, Gwendolen takes it upon herself to implicate everyone except Billy in the London murder and in the attempt on her husband's life. After the four are taken into custody, Gwendolen receives a telegram from British East Africa and shows it to Billy, who bursts into laughter when he reads that Harry has acquired the land Petersen and the others had attempted to steal and that he expects to become rich from the uranium. Harry also writes that he is willing to overlook Gwendolen's extraordinary behavior and asks her to join him.
Juan De Landa
Louis H. Lavelly
Beat the Devil
Bogart stars as Billy Dannreuther, frontman for a group of sinister "businessmen" stranded in an Italian port town, scheming for a way to take ownership of uranium-rich, government-owned land in Africa. Into this nest of vipers falls a naive British couple, Mr. and Mrs. Chelm (Edward Underdown and Jennifer Jones). As the lonely Mrs. Chelm flirts with Mr. Dannreuther, she weaves an outrageous tapestry of lies about her husband's financial and political interests, not realizing the ocean of deceit into which she is submerging them. Dannreuther's wife (Gina Lollobrigida), meanwhile, begins a flirtation of her own with Mr. Chelm, so that every allegiance is tested, every loyalty questioned in this romantic and criminal merry-go-round.
Originally the script, based on Claud Cockburn's novel (written under the pseudonym James Helvick), was penned by two of Huston's frequent collaborators, Anthony Veiller (Moulin Rouge, 1952) and Peter Viertel (author of the semi-biographical novel about Huston, White Hunter, Black Heart). But by all accounts, the resulting screenplay was lackluster and had been deemed "unacceptable under the provisions of the Production Code" by the censors. Producer David O. Selznick, who was not involved with the production but who was married to Jones, recommended that Huston call in writer Truman Capote (Breakfast at Tiffany's, 1961; In Cold Blood, 1967), who had worked on the script of Selznick and Jones's Indiscretion of an American Wife (1953). Capote's touch, it turned out, was exactly what the film needed to be transformed into something unique. Capote wrote the script while on the set, working two to three days ahead of the shooting schedule. The resulting screenplay is spontaneous, unpredictable and, one could argue, unbothered by the obligation to form a traditional Hollywood narrative.
At times the film seems more like a literary parlor game than an espionage thriller, with dialogue scripted so intricately that one dare not laugh for fear of missing the next turn of phrase to tumble from the actors' lips.
The effectiveness of the film lies in the actors' deadpan demeanor. Rather than play the film as a conventional comedy, every line is delivered with utter seriousness, which only adds to the film's eclectic tone. Bogart was even more tight-lipped than usual, possibly due to an automobile accident he and Huston were involved in while being driven to a location in Ravello, Italy - an accident that badly cut Bogart's tongue and knocked out his bridge of front teeth. The devilish Huston couldn't stifle his laughter at the sight of the bloody-mouthed (but not seriously injured) Bogart, whom he remembered muttering in response, "John...you dirty, no-good thun-of-a-bith!"
Capote cut a strange figure among the uber-masculine Bogart and Huston, but the five-foot, squeaky-voiced, openly gay writer quickly won their favor. It is said that Bogart challenged the diminutive Capote to an arm wrestling bout and lost. When Bogart challenged him a second time, Capote insisted they wager $50, which the writer won by defeating the actor again. After a third match - and another victory for Capote - the evening degenerated to full body wrestling and Capote again reportedly was triumphant. "He put Bogie on his ass," Huston later said. "He was a little bull."
The actor and director were not merely impressed by Capote's strength but awed by his skills as a writer. "He wrote like fury," Bogart said. "He had the damnedest and most upside-down slant on humor you've ever heard."
Beat the Devil was the last of six collaborations between Huston and Bogart, and brought their partnership full circle as it spoofed the detective-story conventions that flavored their first film together, The Maltese Falcon (1941). In the roles of two of Dannreuther's confederates, Huston cast Peter Lorre (who had played Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon) and Robert Morley (in homage to Kasper "Fat Man" Gutman, as portrayed by Sydney Greenstreet). Both films are labyrinthine dramas in which one is never sure of anyone's true motive and the guiding factor in everyone's life appears to be greed.
Producer/Director: John Huston
Screenplay: Truman Capote and John Huston
Based on a novel by James Helvick
Cinematography: Oswald Morris
Production Design: Wilfred Shingleton
Music: Franco Mannino
Principal Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Billy Dannreuther), Jennifer Jones (Gwendolen Chelm), Gina Lollobrigida (Maria Dannreuther), Robert Morley (Petersen), Peter Lorre (O'Hara), Edward Underdown (Harry Chelm), Ivor Barnard (Major Ross), Marco Tulli (Ravello), Bernard Lee (C.I.D. Inspector).
by Bret Wood
Beat the Devil
The only thing standing between you and a watery grave is your wits, and that's not my idea of adequate protection.- Billy Dannreuther
Time. Time. What is time? Swiss manufacture it. French hoard it. Italians squander it. Americans say it is money. Hindus say it does not exist. Do you know what I say? I say time is a crook.- O'Hara
Your demands are very great, under the circumstances.- Ahmed
Why shouldn't they be? Fat Gut's my best friend, and I will not betray him cheaply.- Billy Dannreuther
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.- Purser
You mean Mrs. Chelm is an unqualified liar?- Petersen
Well, let's say she uses her imagination rather than her memory.- Billy Dannreuther
Jack Clayton, the Scotland Yard inspector played by Bernard Lee, is named after the film's cameraman.
According to John Huston's autobiography, An Open Book, after he read the novel Beat the Devil, written by James Helvick (the penname of his friend, the controversial British journalist Claud Cockburn), he persuaded Humphrey Bogart to buy the film rights. The purchase was made through Bogart's Santana Pictures, Inc. Romulus Films, Ltd., the British company with which Huston had worked on Moulin Rouge and The African Queen then entered into a partnership with them. That group then created a co-production arrangement with Italian producers. A New York Times article of January 18, 1953 stated that Santana's financial obligation of $400,000 covered the salaries of Bogart, Jennifer Jones and Huston plus the cost of the screenplay to be written by Huston and Peter Viertel. Bogart reduced his normal salary of close to $200,000 to a lower amount.
According to a November 28, 1953 article in Cue, reported by Joe Hyams, Viertel and Anthony Veiller completed a screenplay that was deemed unacceptable. As filming was about to start, Jones's husband, producer David O. Selznick, eager to protect her career, suggested that Truman Capote, who had recently contributed to Selznick's Indiscretion of an American Wife (see below), write a new screenplay. Huston's autobiography reveals that he and Capote frequently wrote scenes just hours before they were to be shot.
Production began with exteriors in the town of Ravello, south of Naples, Italy, and nearby at Palazzo Ruffolo, Palazzo Confalone and the Villa Cimbrone. Interiors were subsequently shot at Shepperton Studios outside London. A New York Times article of April 5, 1953 reported on a visit to the filming in Ravello and commented upon the production's informal atmosphere and the problems entailed in working in a town with only one phone line. In the Cue article, Bogart mentioned the difficulties of communicating with Italian-speaking actors and a predominantly Italian crew. He also described co-star Gina Lollobrigida as "the most woman I've seen for a long time-makes Marilyn Monroe look like Shirley Temple."
Beat the Devil was not successful on its initial release but was re-released in 1964 and has subsequently acquired a cult status for its sardonic humor. According to a Daily Variety news item of April 23, 1964, United Artists, the original distributor, relinquished its rights to Bogart's Santana company in 1957. Subsequently, Columbia bought out the late actor's interest and redistributed it through their art-house subsidiary, Royal Films.
Voted One of the Year's Ten Best Films by the 1954 National Board of Review.
Released in United States March 1979
Released in United States Winter December 1953
Since its initial release "Beat the Devil" has developed an enormous cult status.
Released in United States Winter December 1953
Released in United States March 1979 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (FilmEssay: Misappreciated American Films) March 14-30, 1979.)