Beat the Devil flopped in 1954 but today is appreciated as pioneering camp cinema.
We’ll tell you right now that we are not neutral when it comes to John Huston’s Beat the Devil. We love it. It has Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Gina Lollobrigida, and the exquisite Jennifer Jones, so we loved it immediately. If only audiences had felt the same. The movie was such a flop that not only did it lose money, but its copyright went unrenewed, causing it lapse into public domain. But keen observers, after they got over being misled by the promotional campaign into thinking the movie was a standard Hollywood adventure, soon realized that what they had on their hands was something new—a camp satire bringing together some of the most distinct voices of 1950s cinema.
And we mean voices literally. You have Humphrey Bogart with his famous lisp, Gina Lollobrigida with her vampy Italian drawl, Jennifer Jones trying on an English lilt, Peter Lorre with his trademark Germanic-accented sniveling, and more. The accents are your first clue that the movie is going to be all over the place.
The plot concerns a group of raggedy adventurers who hope to buy uranium-rich land in East Africa. Problem is, they need to get there. Seems straightforward enough, but the cosmos itself is aligned against them—cars fail, boats sink, betrayals ensue, information gets garbled, and just about any other obstacle you can imagine appears.
But Beat the Devil isn’t slapstick. It’s satire, which means it isn’t funny in a conventional way. In fact, maybe there isn’t a real laugh in the entire movie. Yet you have to smile when Marco Tulli introduces Peter Lorre’s character O’Hara as O’Horror, you have to marvel at Jennifer Jones’ crazy accent that sounds like an English version of Bogart’s lisp, and you have to watch with heightened interest during her famous calesthenics sequence, in which she has an entire conversation with Gina Lollobrigida while doing... well, we don't know what she's doing, but it looks like this.
Despite these and other charms, Beat the Devil is polarizing. Bogart declared that only phonies liked it. Huston, on the other hand, was well aware of its uniqueness and even told Jennifer Jones—who had already been nominated for four Academy Awards and had won once—that Beat the Devil would be one of her most remembered roles. True enough. The French and Dutch language poster you see above is for the Belgian release, and was put together by S.P.R.L. Belgique. Beat the Devil opened in France today, and Belgium this month in 1954.