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Desperate Characters: Beat the Devil on Blu-ray

  "It's a mess - only the phonies liked it!" So said star Humphrey Bogart about Beat the Devil, probably because he invested a fair sum of his own money into the production and it fell with a resounding flop at the 1953 box office. He thought he was signing up for another John Huston romp like The Maltese Falcon, but in effect it was a piece that pleased the cognoscenti, one of the first films to be termed a cult movie, and the vast majority of the public either stayed away or if they did give it a try, were baffled as to what it was supposed be. Was it a comedy? A romance? A thriller? Some kind of adventure?

It was all those things, but most of all it was one long in-joke on the type of international adventure that was popular at the time, where your Hollywood star would appear in an exotic location (or in a studio in front of a backdrop of an exotic location) and get up to all sorts of shenanigans before THE END appeared and the hero and heroine walked off into the sunset. Set in Italy, Beat the Devil was having none of that, and preferred to spoof those archetypes, the hero and heroine, yes, but also the innocents abroad and the untrustworthy foreigners who spoke English with a non-American accent, no character escaped ridicule.

With that in mind, it was a bit of a coup to get Bogart involved, since he apparently thought he was in a straightforward picture with none of the satire or parody Huston and his co-writer of the script Truman Capote (fresh from his first big success penning Breakfast at Tiffany's) were dedicated to portraying. The rest of the cast appeared to be variously in on the gag or similar to Bogart, playing it with sincerity, creating a tone that veered wildly from scene to scene and would only have veered all the more had there not been so much dialogue to chew over. Only occasionally do these folks stop jawing and spring into action.

That inaction is a joke in itself, as they boast about their big dreams, covet the other character's ambitions for their own, and scheme over how to get ahead in a world that is heavy with impediments to succeeding in that capacity, almost as if the titular Devil is not about to let anyone get their way. God is notable in His absence. Nevertheless, for actor fanciers there were solid reasons to watch this, not Bogart alone, but Gina Lollobrigida as his Anglophile wife, Jennifer Jones as a tourist who is a compulsive liar (there with husband Edward Underdown, also a fantastist), and Robert Morley as the ringleader of the villains.

One of his henchmen was Peter Lorre, seemingly happy to go along with the sly spoofing, and indicating that by sporting a blond Capote-style hairdo; reports indicate he loved working on Beat the Devil because he was heading into career doldrums thanks to his weight problems, and this film reminded him of his heyday. Huston patently was enjoying arranging the cast in the frame for interesting combinations, from the portly Morley to the small and wiry Ivor Barnard, a scene stealer as the psychopathic Major, but opinions vary wildly on how effective or hilarious it was; it was a bit like laughing at Shakespeare, patting yourself on the back for being on the inside.

The BFI release Beat the Devil on Blu-ray with a restored print, in 1:37 ratio (some prefer it matted to 1:85), and a selection of extras, including two audio commentaries. One from 2018 with Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, and the other from 2007 with director of photography Oswald Morris, script supervisor Angela Allen and Huston's assistant Jeanie Sims. It's certainly an entertaining film to discuss, whether that be from the experts or from those who actually worked on the movie.

Also on the disc is a featurette, Alexander Cockburn on Beat the Devil, where the son of Claud Cockburn who wrote the original novel as James Helvick, talks about his father while in the confines of his cluttered home, this in the year 2010, two years before he died of cancer. Over the cheeps and twitters of pet budgies, he sketches his father's life story of how he was a dedicated Communist constantly under the eye of MI5, how he persuaded Huston to make the film because he really needed the money, and how Graham Greene was an admirer of his literature. Both father and son may be more forgotten than remembered now, so this is a nice reminder.

To sum up the quintessential Englishness of the Jones and Underdown couple (which is not what it seems, but nevertheless) an advertisement for Maypole Tea is next, leaning heavy on the national identity as depicted by the idealised home life of 1945, just after the Second World War was over. Here there's a roaring hearth of crackling logs to come home to, crumpets and buttered bread with jam to accompany your brew, and a sense that all was right in the world now you had your cuppa. For the Brits of the era, this was a seductive scenario, and the commercial exploits that just as keenly as today's advertisers target their markets.

Lastly, there was an image gallery with production stills and a public information film (in colour!) from 1956 called Atomic Achievement which expanded on the benefits and processes of nuclear energy, an innovation that was then new as harnessing the atom for peacetime was regarded as the acceptable face of the power. Modern audiences with long memories may have a wry smile at the plant featured being Windscale, which was about to suffer a potentially catastrophic accident, part of the reason it was renamed Sellafield. The reason this is here? The characters in Beat the Devil have a yearning to be rich through uranium mines, something that is just out of reach for every one.

Author: Graeme Clark.


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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018