Beat the Devil [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - British Film Institute
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (31st March 2020).
The Film

"Beat the Devil" (1953)

English couple Harry Chelm (played by Edward Underdown) and his wife Gwendolyn Chelm (played by Jennifer Jones) are on a getaway in southern Italy where they meet the charming Billy Dannreuther (played by Humphrey Bogart) and his wife Maria (played by Gina Lollobrigida). The Dannreuthers like the Chelms are at the port town waiting for a boat to Africa. While the Chelms going there for pleasure, Billy is tangled in a scheme to invest in a uranium plantation in Africa, along with a cohort of dangerous and questionable men. They are the heavyweight leader Mr. Peterson (played by Robert Morley), the tall Italian Ravello (played by Marco Tulli), the Argentine settled German O'Hara (played by Peter Lorre), and the Nazi sympathizer Jack Ross (played by Ivan Barnard). While each have their quirks and rules, there is little to trust in one another, and their journey becomes a battle of who is playing who.

"Beat the Devil" was based on the book of the same name written by Claud Cockburn, under the pseudonym James Helvick due to his political affiliations. While the book was set in a port town with a cast of characters that was untrustworthy and waiting for a ship that would not sail, the adaptation to screen took a few additional twists and turns, but not to the liking of Cockburn who wrote the original screenplay. Director John Huston" and actor Humphrey Bogart invested in the rights to adapt the book, but Huston was not pleased with the script. Through connections with Jones' husband David O. Selznick, the young writer Truman Capote was hired to give a go at a rewrite, but this came in while the film was already in production in Italy. Day by day, Huston and Capote rewrote the script only being ahead a few days before the scenes to be shot. Besides the move from the French setting to Italy, there were quite a few additions such as having the characters actually reach Africa rather than have the story as a single setting character study. Apparently Huston and Capote decided to play with humor more, and making the production more of a parody of the gritty noirs that were popular. While some see it as a partial parody or homage to Huston, Bogart, and Lorre's collaboration from 1941 "The Maltese Falcon", "Beat the Devil" is a far cry from that classic, and more of a mess of a production that wasn't sure where the tone or the direction was going, just like the characters themselves.

"Beat the Devil" is quite a disappointment compared to many of the films made by the actors and Huston. It seems to have the adventure of "Treasure of the Sierra Madre" or "The African Queen", the twisting characters of "The Maltese Falcon", but "Beat the Devil" seems to miss the mark on quite a lot of points. The humorous aspects such as Maria and others being shocked when Billy is seemingly alive, Lorre with his dyed hair to look like Capote and his Irish name being mispronounced as "O'Horror", the antics on the ship itself are not exactly laugh riots. The quirky cast of characters don't particularly have the likability of the characters in the above mentioned features. Nor do they have the memorable moments to stand out from the rest. A changing script and differences from the source material causing confusion during production is not particular a way to craft characters and a consistent story. There are still some positives in the piece. Bogart's one liners and smirks are undeniably fun to see. Lorre's wickedness and strangeness is as unique as they come. But even with their characters, the actors have certainly done much better in other productions before and after the film.

"Beat the Devil" was an independent international a co-production of Romulus Films and Bogart's Santana Pictures Corporation. Huston's original cut was screened for test audiences which brought negative feedback. Nearly four minutes were cut from the film and some of the scenes were rearranged with Bogart recording lines of flashback dialogue to play over some scenes. Even with the recut implemented, the reception to the film was poor. Released first in the UK on November 24th, 1953, and later in the US on March 12th. 1954, the film was not a success with critics or audiences. Bogart disowned the film as he was not happy with the quality and the fact that his production company lost money on the production. Over the years the film has found some critical appreciation from some and even audiences that would find the charms of it with repeated viewing. In the home video age, numerous companies issued the film due to it seemingly being in the copyright greyzone, and all of them were shoddy versions of the recut version of the film. In 2016, Sony Pictures completed and first screened a 4K restoration of the long thought lost original cut of the film, using original film materials to reconstruct and restore Huston's original version. Sony Pictures states the film was always copyrighted and the restoration also adds a small "copyright renewed in 1996" text in the opening credits of the restoration. After touring in some cinemas and festivals, the 4K restored version was first released on Blu-ray in the US by Twilight Time, limited to 3000 copies. For the UK, the BFI is finally presenting the 4K restored version on Blu-ray and DVD in this dual format release.

Note this is a region B Blu-ray / region 2 PAL DVD set

Video

The BFI presents the film in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio in 1080p AVC MPEG-4. Sony Pictures headed the 4K restoration of the film in partnership with The Film Foundation. The 35 original camera negative and a 35mm fine grain master positive from Romulus Films were used to reconstruct and restore the film in its original state. As the film was shot and processed in Italy, it certainly has a similar look to the Italian neo-realist films of the era in its grain structure and greyscale, looking a little rough and ragged in comparison to the black and white Hollywood productions of the same period, which was something apparently intended and wanted by Huston. The restored image has been cleaned very well, with damage marks being removed and looking quite clean while still leaving film grain intact. There are still some speckles and dust remaining in certain portions and crossfades and certain segments look a like rougher as expected. In comparison to the public domain releases that flooded the marketplace over the years looking questionably bad coming from 16mm dupes of the recut version, this restored original version of the film is a true revelation.

The film's runtime of the restored original version on the disc is 93:50 on the Blu-ray and 90:00 on the DVD accounting for PAL speedup.

Audio

English LPCM 2.0 mono
The original mono track has also been restored. While a lot of sound was recorded on location unlike most Italian shot films of the time period, there are some moments of overdubbing in post production. This was due to some of the Italian actors' lines being overdubbed as well as some of Bogart's, as he broke some teeth in a car accident during the production, and some of his lispy lines from dentures were dubbed later, rumored to be done by Peter Sellers. The sound is fairly good with the dialogue being mostly clear but with some tinny and echoey points in certain scenes, but regarding hisses, pops, or crackle, the soundtrack is very smooth. Dialogue, music and effects are well balanced, and there are no errors to speak of.

There are optional English HoH subtitles for the main feature in a white font.



















Extras

This is a dual format set with the film and extras on the Blu-ray being repeated in standard definition on the DVD.

DISC ONE (Blu-ray)

Audio Commentary with film historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman

In this commentary, the three discuss the film's differences between the original novel in comparison to the screenplay, the cult status of the film, the background of the production including its troubles, information on the actors and staff, and much more. There is fun banter throughout as the three have done multiple commentaries in the past, with even one teaching the other, such as Dobbs instructing that Cockburn's name is pronounced like "Coburn" to Kirgo's surprise. This commentary was first released on the 2019 US Twilight Time Blu-ray.
in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

Audio Commentary with director of photography Oswald Morris, script supervisor Angela Allen, and director's assistant Jeanie Sims
Recorded in 2007, this commentary includes some of the staff recalling the production from more than fifty years prior. They discuss the making of the production, some behind the scenes antics, about the processing of the film to have the intended gritty look, and much more. There isn't a moderator to guide them along which is fine for the first half, but towards the end there are quite a few blank spaces in the audio track.
in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

Extras (with Play All) (52:22)
All the extras listed below have an option to "Play All".

"Alexander Cockburn: Beat the Devil" documentary (22:30)
This is a 2012 interview with author Claud Cockburn's son Alexander, who became a fairly prolific and controversial journalist and writer in his own career. Cockburn talks about his father and his career as well as the controversy surrounding his political affiliations, as well as the book "Beat the Devil" and the film that followed. The interview takes place in his home which is not soundproof, so there is quite a lot of echo as well as birds chirping noisily. Sadly this was one of if not the last video interview with Alexander Cockburn, who died on July 21st, 2012 at the age of 71. This interview was previously included on the US Twilight Time Blu-ray.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.78:1/1.33:1, in English LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles

"By the Fireside" 1945 advert (2:05)
A short ad for Maypole tea is presented.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, in English LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles

"Atomic Achievement" 1956 public information film (20:08)
This information film shows the amazing technology of nuclear power at Calder Hall, which was the world's first power station to generate electricity on an industrial scale. The documentary shows how elements are handled in the plants and the wonders of how nuclear power would change everything about power stations for the future. The color photography is very nice as well as the quality of the print presented here.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, in English LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles

Stills Gallery (7:41)
A series of lobby cards, promotional stills, production photos in an automated slideshow.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4


DISC TWO (DVD)

Audio Commentary with film historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman
Audio Commentary with director of photography Oswald Morris, script supervisor Angela Allen, and director's assistant Jeanie Sims
Extras (with Play All)
- "Alexander Cockburn: Beat the Devil" documentary (21:33)
- "By the Fireside" 1945 advert (1:58)
- "Atomic Achievement" 1956 public information film (19:17)
- Stills Gallery (7:21)

The film and extras are repeated in standard definition.


Booklet
A booklet is include in the first pressing. First is the essay "Respectability Be Damned: The Curious Case of Beat the Devil" by author Peter Tonguette which is a great discussion of the film and its reception. Next is "My Father, Huston and Good Intentions" by Alexander Cockburn which was originally included as an introduction to the reprinting of the novel in 1985. Then, there are full film credits, special features information, transfer information, acknowledgements, and stills.


The film has had releases on Blu-ray in the United States and France in the past. The French Rimini and US Film Detective discs have the recut version of the film. The Film Detective release only has the trailer as the extra while the Rimini disc has a French language featurette with Patrick Brion and a John Huston documentary. The US Twilight Time release had the restored original version of the film, with the commentary and interview listed above, plus the trailer. The UK release adds a few of its own extras, but the inclusion of the tea commercial is odd (because of the British-ness of some of the characters?) and the nuclear power documentary (yes there is a subplot about uranium but that is a stretch).

Overall

"Beat the Devil" may have some cult fans, but it was a troubled production and the finished product fell flat to my eyes with the inconsistent tone and a cast of not so memorable characters coming from accomplished actors and filmmakers. The BFI release features a great transfer of the 4K restoration of the original cut with some interesting extras added.

The Film: C- Video: A- Audio: A- Extras: B Overall: B-

 


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