Beat the Devil is one of John Huston’s worst movies (the only one I hate more is Annie). Basically, it was just an excuse for him and Humphrey Bogart to get blasted on the film set in Italy. You can tell there was really no script—even though the script is credited to Huston and Truman Capote, so it should have been good. Capote’s most notable credit as a screenwriter was for The Innocents, a screen adaptation of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. It goes without saying that other writers had a hand in the Beat the Devil script as well, particularly Peter Viertel. Although Viertel was not credited for it, he wrote quite a bit of The African Queen, as well as being the author of the roman-à-clef novel on the making of White Hunter Black Heart.
The film is loosely based on a novel by Claud Cockburn, writing under the pseudonym James Helvick. It’s a very messy script—some of it’s a crime story, bits of it are an adventure tale and some is supposed to be comedic, but it never really lands. A group of fortune-seekers is bound for Africa. They’re stuck in Italy, and all of them are trying to swindle each other. Bogart plays Billy Dannreuther, a schemer who used to be well-off but has fallen on hard times. He’s working with four conmen, trying to purchase land in East Africa. It manages to be convoluted and to plod along at the same time. And it’s one of Bogart’s worst performances as well, although he could do comedic stuff, as in The African Queen. After that film, Huston went off to do Moulin Rouge, then they reunited to make this one. Huston was not blacklisted, but he went off to live in Ireland and work in Europe because he was so disgusted by it.
Jennifer Jones is quite good, and although Peter Lorre is a great actor as always, he doesn’t have much of a role here. Gina Lollobrigida appears as Bogart’s wife, which finds the Italian star in one of her earliest American film roles. As far as the way it looks, it’s certainly no Maltese Falcon. In the end, it seems like it was mostly an excuse to enjoy some good food and wine in Italy while coming up with something that resembles a film.
Beat the Devil marked the last collaboration between Bogart and Huston, perhaps because Bogart had invested some of his own money on the film. When the film was being made, Bogart ended up in a bad car accident and lost a lot of his teeth. Young Peter Sellers, who was only vaguely known for his imitations, was brought in to dub some of his lines while he recovered.
It’s a BFI release, so there are plenty of extras: a newer commentary track with film historians; an older commentary with some of the then-surviving crew members; an interview with Alexander Cockburn, the son of source novel author Claud Cockburn; stuff from the BFI archives on the Englishness of the afternoon tea ritual and a nuclear power PSA; a stills gallery, and a booklet with new writing on the film.