Beat the Devil Blu-ray Review

Humprey Bogart’s last film with director John Huston is a campy spoof of Bogie’s The Maltese Falcon

A motley crew of swindlers led by screen legend Humphrey Bogart try to strike it rich in this sophisticated noir comedy from 1953. Beat the Devil was director John Huston’s last collaboration with Bogart. The screenplay was by Huston and Truman Capote, loosely based upon a novel of the same name by British journalist Claud Cockburn under a pseudonym. It is a parody of Huston’s The Maltese Falcon and other similar films. The stellar cast is loaded with stars, including Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, Robert Morley and Peter Lorre in his final movie with Bogart. Roger Ebert once called Beat the Devil the first “camp” movie.

Billy Dannreuther (Humphrey Bogart) is an American living in a tiny Italian port. He works for four unsavory characters who are trying to acquire uranium-rich land in British East Africa. Peterson (Robert Morley), ex-Nazi Julius O’Hara (Peter Lorre), Major Jack Ross (Ivor Barnard) and Ravello are a group of mostly bumbling roustabouts and poor criminals. Waiting for passage to Africa, Billy and his wife Maria (Gina Lollobrigida) make the acquaintance of an odd British couple, Harry (Edward Underdown) and Gwendolen Chelm (Jennifer Jones).

Harry is a proper English gentleman that always seems sickly. The charming Gwendolen is prone to flights of fancy. Billy begins flirting with Gwendolen, leading to an adulterous romance between them. The screwball caper gets hopelessly convoluted as each couple seems to be playing the other in this struggle over uranium deposits. Allegiances are tested between everyone in classic noir fashion.

The light adventure is heavily tinged with comedic overtones, working as a parody of Bogart’s prior noir films. Jennifer Jones is perfect as a flighty blonde that may be less innocent than she appears on the surface. Bogie is Bogie in Beat the Devil. That is not a critique but like many famous stars late in their careers, Bogart’s performance descends into a campy version of his earlier roles.

Scenes between Bogart and Jones… crackle with an electric energy proving their stardom.

Truman Capote’s influence can be felt in the sophisticated dialogue, polished with a literary shine beyond anything else coming out at the time. Lines are delivered so quickly that a momentary lapse in concentration will cause a viewer to miss a line. Beat the Devil was made outside the Hollywood studio system by Bogart’s own production house. That freedom resulted in strange, deadpan comedy years ahead of its time, even if the final product is somewhat uneven. Scenes between Bogart and Jones, both major stars in Hollywood’s firmament at the time, crackle with an electric energy proving their stardom. The freewheeling narrative develops more clarity once the audience has settled in with these oddball characters, which is tough to follow in the beginning.

Beat the Devil’s lasting fame was immensely helped by one quirk of fate. The movie slipped into the public domain many years ago, marking it as one of the few golden age films with major Hollywood stars to reach that status. That got it a fair amount of exposure on television by channels looking for free content. Beat The Devil is a worthwhile movie on its accord but public domain status has greatly helped it remain in circulation beyond a cult following. The smart but dry humor makes Beat the Devil a polarizing film with audiences.

Movie ★★★★☆

All together @ 11:05

New Blu-ray label The Film Detective, led by film industry veteran Phil Hopkins, offers Beat The Devil on a BD-R from their new 35mm film transfer. The 1080P video presentation is properly framed in Beat the Devil’s intended 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The Film Detective provides the 89-minute American cut of the film. A longer European cut of the film exists closer to 100 minutes with scenes unique to each version. The black-and-white movie shows modest improvement in resolution and definition with this new HD transfer.

One has to consider Beat the Devil’s public domain status when evaluating any home video version, since anyone with a film print or copy of the film can release it. Sony owns the best available elements for Beat The Devil but they show no intention of releasing it on Blu-ray. To my knowledge this disc is the first time the movie has hit Blu-ray from any distributor. Given my expectations, this is a reasonably solid effort from satisfactory film elements with some minor reservations. It is a stable presentation with steady contrast, lacking a truly film-like presence with dull black levels.

I have been assured by the people behind The Film Detective that this new film transfer didn’t use any stringent filtering. The 35mm film print has some incidental cases of wear and damage, mostly a few faint vertical lines in select moments. The amount of visible debris is less than I expected given its age and state of preservation. There is certainly no evidence of ringing in the mostly soft picture quality.

This is a Blu-ray so I know many expect outstanding definition oozing with depth and dimension. Does this version of Beat the Devil have the incredible sharpness and rich granularity of new 2K and 4K scans tossed out by large studios like Fox and Sony? The grain structure is soft, practically disappearing at times. A richer contrast with deeper black levels would have been better. Like many secondary film elements, this print has mildly washed-out highlights in a transfer that is a tad too bright for my tastes. That helps improve clarity a tiny bit but loses the rich black-and-white cinematography, turning it a dull gray at times.

Actual resolution is soft. Some would call it rolled-off in detail. This isn’t a film transfer bursting with fine detail or extraordinary definition, even by the standards of 50’s black-and-white cinematography. It resembles a telecine transfer from soft elements. The AVC video encode averages a strong 29.89 Mbps, preventing almost all digital compression artifacts. One scene in particular shows faint noise in the shadow gradients. Other than that scene, this is a flawless video encode.

I’ll recommend this Blu-ray with a few caveats. The mostly clean print offers a stable HD presentation, beating out most public domain offerings I’ve seen on the format. Some effort was made to get things right with the transfer, correcting the aspect ratio and other small things. I would largely ignore the hysterical fans that whine about the video quality of this public domain release. Its satisfactory video isn’t anything resembling a 4K film transfer from the camera negative, but Sony barely releases catalog movies on home video, much less an obscure, late-career Bogart spoof comedy. This Film Detective Blu-ray gets the job done for the time being.

Video★★☆☆☆

The original mono audio arrives in a robust 2.0 DTS-HD MA lossless wrapper. The razor-sharp dialogue is heard in perfect clarity. Whatever qualms one may have with the video, the audio is a shockingly pristine experience for the 1953 movie. It is a fine monaural mix with excellent bloom and warmth. A hint of surface noise is occasionally heard but the audio lacks that thin sound so common to older, beat-up films.

Optional English SDH subtitles display in a white font. That is a nice touch on a public domain release.

Audio ★★★☆☆

The Film Detective puts Beat the Devil on a region-free BD-R in a normal Blu-ray case. The cover reproduces the film’s one-sheet movie poster with visible aliasing. The package and disc show some thought and careful design, including a nominal menu for the movie. I understand that some get in a huff about BD-Rs but they look nearly identical to a replicated BD aside from the playing surface. This one includes a simple but classy label. I’ve dealt with BD-Rs for years and found them to be remarkably reliable. The Film Detective’s release is a professional effort from the top down.

Beat the Devil Trailer (02:02 in HD with 2.0 DTS-HD MA sound) – Getting the trailer in fine condition adds a little bonus feature to this set.

Extras ★☆☆☆☆

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For more information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

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Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.