Beat the Devil (1953)

This is Huston in laissez-faire mode as a group of men with an ulterior motive to milk the riches of Africa meets unexpected obstacles in the form of a British couple, as the film explores human temptations of greed, lust and pride.    

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Review #2,378

Dir. John Huston
1953 | UK | Drama/Comedy/Adventure | 94 mins | 1.66:1 | English, Arabic & Italian
PG (passed clean)

Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, Edward Underdown, Peter Lorre
Plot: A group of international crooks are headed to East Africa in hope of claiming uranium-rich land. Joining them are the Dannreuthers, an innocent-looking English couple. However, the group strands in Italy whilst their boat is repaired. With scheming and ruses aplenty, nothing is quite as it seems.
Distributor: Sony

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Scheming; Greed; Lust
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Normal
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream

Viewed: MUBI
Spoilers: No

Coming off The African Queen (1951) and Moulin Rouge (1952), Beat the Devil is a decidedly less serious effort by John Huston. 

In an attempt to have fun with the material at hand, penned together with co-writer Truman Capote, and based on the novel of the same name by Claud Cockburn, Huston is strictly in laissez-faire mode here. 

There is a casualness to the filmmaking, yet the characters are cautious and wary.  The result is an interesting crime caper-type movie that isn’t exactly one to begin with.  It’s an odd film but it is also accessible enough that moderate fans of Classical Hollywood cinema could enjoy. 

A group of men with an ulterior motive to milk the riches of Africa meets unexpected obstacles in the form of the Chelms, a British couple who happen to be waiting for the same boat trip. 

“The Swiss manufacture it. The 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.”

In the thick of things is Humphrey Bogart’s Billy, who hopes to fulfil his side of the bargain with the crooks, but he becomes enamoured by Mrs Chelm’s passionate lust for him. 

Mutual infidelity is a core theme as Billy’s wife inadvertently falls for the charms of Mr Chelm.  Out of this complicated concoction, Huston cranks up the mystery. 

We never know why these people are here, except for what the plot tries to tell us. There’s frustration, anger, hate, betrayal, even revenge, yet Beat the Devil isn’t necessarily a dark film. 

Ultimately, I think what Huston is trying to convey is the nature of temptation—greed, lust and pride are particularly prominent.  And by “beating the devil”, are the characters fighting off temptations, or conversely, fanning its flames?

Grade: B


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