Beat the Devil: Watch John Huston’s Campy Noir Film with Humphrey Bogart & Gina Lollobrigida (1953)

Beat the Devil (1953) poster

What came out when John Hus­ton, Humphrey Bog­a­rt, Gina Lol­lo­b­rigi­da, Jen­nifer Jones, Peter Lorre, and Tru­man Capote col­lab­o­rat­ed? You would­n’t expect a far­ci­cal, near­ly impro­vised study in eccen­tric­i­ty, but here we have it. Beat the Dev­il, which you can watch above, sim­ply con­fused audi­ences when it opened in 1953, but human­i­ty has since — with, for bet­ter or for worse, the thor­ough­go­ing sens­es of unse­ri­ous­ness and irony we’ve cul­ti­vat­ed — come to appre­ci­ate it. This sto­ry of would-be ura­ni­um pirates strand­ed in an Ital­ian port on their way to Kenya began, like Stan­ley Kubrick­’s Dr. Strangelove, as an adap­ta­tion of a high-mind­ed, stone-faced nov­el, in this case an epony­mous one by Claud Cock­burn (father of the late Alexan­der Cock­burn, author of, yes, The Nation’s “Beat the Dev­il” col­umn). Also like Dr. Strangelove, it took a dose of absur­di­ty some­where in pre-pro­duc­tion, turn­ing from dra­ma into com­e­dy.

Bog­a­rt, not just one of the film’s stars but one of its major investors, thought he’d signed up for a Gra­ham Greene-ish thriller but wound up in what many con­sid­er the first “camp” film. He must sure­ly have come to under­stand the scope of his mis­ap­pre­hen­sion by the time Tru­man Capote turned up on set, rewrit­ing a whole new script — if the proud mid­cen­tu­ry film indus­try would have dig­ni­fied it with that term — on the fly, throw­ing togeth­er new and more ridicu­lous scenes each day. This and oth­er uncon­ven­tion­al pro­duc­tion strate­gies have all become part of the body of Beat the Dev­il lore, which Roger Ebert exam­ines in (speak­ing of ulti­mate val­i­da­tion) his “Great Movies” essay on the pic­ture. He includes a telling quote from Hus­ton, who sup­pos­ed­ly told Jones, “Jen­nifer, they’ll remem­ber you longer for Beat the Dev­il than for Song of Bernadette.” Adds Ebert: “True, but could Hus­ton have guessed that they would remem­ber him more for Beat the Dev­il than for Moby Dick?”

Beat the Dev­il has been added to our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More. It also appears in our list of Free Noir Films.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Jean-Paul Sartre Writes a Script for John Huston’s Film on Freud (1958)

How Ray Brad­bury “Became” Her­man Melville and Wrote the Script for John Huston’s Moby-Dick (1956)

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, aes­thet­ics, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (5)
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  • Ronny says:

    This movie is hilar­i­ous! I would def­i­nite­ly rec­om­mend it.

  • doug says:

    Just came across this film, tru­ly a gem, full of life and great per­for­mances through­out, high­ly enjoy­able.

  • Jack Messenger says:

    I’ve enjoyed watch­ing this film ever since I first saw it a few years ago. A cast of eccen­tric char­ac­ters, great dia­logue and splen­did per­for­mances make for a supreme­ly know­ing and self-aware film, the theme of which is that the mediocre shall inher­it the Earth. ‘The End … The End.’

  • Stefanie August says:

    YES an hilar­i­ous movie. Peter Lorre alone made this movie great with his body lan­guage and eye con­tact! Very cute. Wish it did not cut out at the end where they are in the Ara­bic police office! Allu­ah Aleshe!

  • Erland Tollendal says:

    Hon som ar huvud­per­so­n­en som dri­ver héla hor­den med sig som vanar­ti­ga skol­un­gar ar d’en harligt bab­b­lande Lil­la skol­fro­ken fran lil­la on dar till va’n­ster OM Europa’ Oh. I JUST adore you ” ”

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