‘Beat the Devil,’ the Bogart Flop That Spawned a Cult

‘Beat the Devil,’ the Bogart Flop That Spawned a Cult

John Huston’s “Beat the Devil,” the Humphrey Bogart vehicle once advertised as a decade ahead of its time, is now an official senior citizen, having opened in New York 65 years ago this month.

One of the first Hollywood productions to be hailed as a cult film, this parodic thriller about a bumbling scheme to loot Africa’s uranium mines was an outlier in the successful Huston-Bogart collaborations. With Huston directing from a script doctored by Truman Capote, the film was initially promoted as a romantic adventure in the tradition of “Casablanca.” On its release in 1954, however, “Beat the Devil” baffled audiences, who didn’t get the in-jokes and plot twists and turns.

Bogart stars as a middle-aged fixer hired by a ragtag group of crooks who become entangled with a seemingly innocent British couple (Jennifer Jones and Edward Underdown). Given the movie’s shaggy-dog quest, Huston evidently imagined “Beat the Devil” as another “Maltese Falcon,” his first film, even casting Peter Lorre, a featured player in “Maltese Falcon,” for good luck, with the portly Robert Morley standing in for Sydney Greenstreet, a seeker of the falcon. Visiting the town of Ravello on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, where “Beat the Devil” was being filmed, a New York Times reporter noted that Huston was harking back to another one of his Bogart triumphs, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”

The gale of laughter that ends “Beat the Devil” does recall “Sierra Madre,” but this time the joke was on Huston. “A potential treat emerged as a wet firecracker in some sixty-eight neighborhood theaters yesterday where United Artists unveiled its singularly unorthodox ‘Beat the Devil,’” the Times review said, comparing the movie unfavorably to its source, a potboiler of a novel pseudonymously written by the left-wing journalist Claud Cockburn.

Huston, a friend of Cockburn’s, prodded Bogart to buy the rights and put money into the film. Vexing the Production Code censors with its relaxed take on criminal behavior and tolerance of spouse-swapping, the movie played down the novel’s anti-imperialist bent but maintained its worldly attitude — something for which Capote took credit.

Jones was cast as Bogart’s dizzy adulterous love interest. Consequently, the actress’s real-life husband, the powerful producer David O. Selznick, watched over the film, bringing on Capote, who had recently worked on a Selznick production, to fix the script. Although the late scenes set in North Africa are likely Capote’s doing, his influence has been exaggerated. Many of the movie’s most memorable dialogue involving Bogart’s cutting witticisms and Jones’s contrived innocence can be found in Cockburn’s novel.

“Beat the Devil” is a film whose supposed shortcomings are actually its appealing qualities. Introduced wearing a floridly patterned robe with matching ascot, Bogart is less formidable than the tough guys he played in the 1940s, marginalized by a colorful parade of character actors including the unexpectedly droll Gina Lollobrigida, appearing in her first major English-language film.

Thanks to Bogart’s perplexed underplaying and the anticlimactic ending, “Beat the Devil” was misunderstood in much the way that Elaine May’s not dissimilar anti-thriller “Ishtar” would be in 1987. Overshadowed by its much-mythologized back story — Capote and Huston claimed that the movie was more-or-less made up as they went along — the project lived in infamy. “Bogie sent me a copy of an advertisement an exhibitor had taken out in a newspaper saying this was the worst picture he had ever had in his theater,” Huston would recall. “Beat the Devil” disappeared from view, a notorious flop that rarely, if ever, was shown on television. Then in February 1964, it reopened in a Greenwich Village movie house and proved so successful that it enjoyed an uptown move-over and revival showings in other cities.

“The film that was ten years ahead of its time is ten years old … (It’s time!),” a newspaper ad proclaimed. Yet “Beat the Devil” was very much of its time — not just because it was a star vehicle produced by the star rather than by a studio.

For one thing, the movie was released during a thaw in the Cold War, among a flurry of films that made light of international tensions. For another, it rode the wave of a growing popularity of Italian movies. Besides Lollobrigida, who was praised by Bogart as a woman who “makes Marilyn Monroe look like Shirley Temple,” the cast included Italian character actors. (Indeed, the mood anticipated Italian comedies like Mario Monicelli’s “Big Deal on Madonna Street.”) The Times’s on-set report notes the proximity of Roberto Rossellini’s current production, “Voyage to Italy.” In his account of “Beat the Devil,” Huston credits himself with Rossellini’s strategy of giving his actors their lines moments before a scene was shot.

What had changed? The Bogart cult that began in Cambridge, Mass., in the late 1950s had gained traction. (Peter Bogdanovich published his report “Bogie in Excelsis” in the September 1964 issue of Esquire.) “Sick comedy” and “black humor” entered the mainstream. James Bond’s gleeful irreverence took hold; “Dr. Strangelove” opened less than a month before “Beat the Devil” was reissued. The ’60s were underway! “Camp” was a buzz word, although Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp,” which appeared in the fall of 1964, slagged “Beat the Devil” as a movie so desperate to be campy that it was “continually losing the beat.”

In the mid-1970s, around the time the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” cult was attracting attention, Huston gave an interview maintaining that people had seen “Beat the Devil” multiple times, knew the dialogue by heart and would recite the lines along with the actors. I find that hard to imagine — but no more so than that critics and audiences in 1954 failed to appreciate “Beat the Devil” for the charming jape that is.

“Beat the Devil” can be found on YouTube and streamed through Amazon Prime.

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