Billy Dannereuther, an American, and his Italian wife, Maria, along with a group of four associates, all of them crooks, are setting off on an ocean voyage to Africa, where they plan to smuggle uranium. While waiting for their ship to be made ready, they find themselves in an Italian port town where Billy and Maria befriend an English couple, Mr. and Mrs. Chelm, who claim they are on their way to British East Africa to run a coffee plantation. The two couples become attracted to each other’s spouses, raising concern and then suspicion amongst Billy’s partners in crime, especially of the scheming and duplicitous Gwendolyn Chelm, who swears she’s fallen in love with Billy. Their voyage finally begins, along with multiple complications which seem to render moot the issue of whether anyone will ever lay claim to the uranium deposits all of them are seeking to possess.
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“Beat The Devil”, based on a novel of the same name by James Helvick and adapted for the screen by John Huston and Truman Capote, was a departure in filmmaking style, though not substance, for Huston when it was made in 1953. Rather than the more carefully planned and executed films of his early career, Huston dispensed with the shooting script on the set and invited Capote to help him create a new film, more or less on the spot. Gerald Clarke, in his biography of Capote, quotes the writer describing his and Huston’s attitude toward the work, “When I started, only John and I knew what the story was, and I have a suspicion that John wasn’t too clear about it.” Robert Morley, who played one of the con men, said of the process, “He (Capote) wrote it page by page and read it aloud to us all, page by page, every morning.”
This loose goose approach is evident in the final result and, as a viewer, you either fall in with the rhythm of the film and enjoy the sometimes haphazard but often very funny ride, or, if you’re expecting a more taut, focussed picture, you may find it disappointing. Capote’s and Huston’s interpretation of the con game is not results oriented, to say the least. It’s the crazy journey all of these off beat characters are on, each in their own way, that amuses both writer and director. For Huston, particularly, this material was familiar ground. He loved stories about outcasts, misfits and/or con artists who are not just gaming the system but each other. From “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’, through to later films such as “The Man Who Would Be King”, these characters would provide him with some of his best drama. In “Beat The Devil”, however, Huston goes further and seems to be in a mood to satirize his fascination with these characters. Nothing, and no one, is taken seriously, and everything is ripe for parody.
The film was made independently by Bogart’s own company Santana Productions, and cast with a mixture of stars. Apart from Bogart himself, the film features one of the young stars of the moment in the early ‘50s, Gina Lollobrigida as Maria Dannereuther and Academy Award winner, Jennifer Jones as Mrs. Chelm, along with a stellar cast of character actors.
Huston’s use of natural light in the Italian scenes seems to be especially harsh on the aging Bogart, but he remains a calm, almost passive, centre of the film. He was apparently unhappy about the way the film was made, as well as the fact that it failed to make much money, and it was the last film he made with Huston. Peter Lorre was another veteran of the Warner Brothers films that Huston and Bogart made together, but the former chemistry was no longer present. Lorre just seems tired here, and not entirely engaged with his role. These are the low points in the cast, but there are high points as well. One of the most enjoyable performances comes from an uncharacteristically blonde Jennifer Jones as the scheming Mrs. Chelm. She is surprisingly funny and is an important focal point for the film. Whenever she shows up, the picture pulls back into focus as you wait to hear just what her next crazy move will be, and to see where it will drive the story. The other stand out is Robert Morley as the lead con man. His send up of upper class English indignation at anything getting in his way, combined with a low, conniving thievery, alone makes the movie worth watching.
“Beat The Devil” is a sometimes slapdash take on the caper film, and defies easy categorization. It’s uneven but still enjoyable if you don’t bring high expectations to it.