On Making “Alexander Cockburn: Beat the Devil”

Perhaps the first moment of irony in the most ironical of all John Huston movies “Beat the Devil” is the opening credits: “Screenplay by Truman Capote and John Huston, based on the novel  Beat the Devil by James Helvick.” Who really wrote the movie? Truman Capote? John Huston? James Helvick? The uncredited screenwriters Anthony Veiller and Peter Viertel? Perhaps none of the above!

Flashback: some people grow up with religion, I was brought up –unquestioning- in the cult of “Beat the Devil.” My own father, a Viennese sociologist –- and film buff –must have seen the movie more than fifty times, long before the advent of dvd and streaming. A line of dialogue from the Huston movie would be his response to almost any situation. He would speak Beat the Devil(ese) with my Viennese psychoanalyst aunt, another aficionado. We even showed excerpts of “Beat the Devil” at my father’s funeral! It was our bible.

When I first read “Beat the Devil”- the novel- I was amazed to discover that James Helvick was the pseudonym for blacklisted journalist Claud Cockburn, father of my good friend Alexander, (also my friend Andrew). The Scottish/Irish journalist and communist, Claud Cockburn, published this – his first novel- in 1951, during the height of McCarthyism.

Flash forward: Alexander Cockburn on a visit to Paris – where I live- asks me if I would be willing to “scientifically” compare novel and film, for a reprint of “Beat the Devil”? I willingly rise to the challenge. The next day, after dinner at chez Les Cocottes, Alex hands me an original edition of his father’s book, recently procured online. Wikipedia says the film was loosely based on the novel and the script was written “day-to-day,” meaning that some scenes were improvised or created on the spot. Yet, on Cockburn_DVD_1000_5INCH_WALLET_Coverclose comparison of the Helvick/Cockburn novel and the Huston film, I discover that almost every line –including the wittiest- as well as all the character descriptions–and almost all scene descriptions are contained in the book.

Granted, there are changes, an excellent editing job condensing the action, transforming book into movie and an unforgettable cast. On Huston’s suggestion, and in defiance of the House of Un-American Activities, Humphrey Bogart bought the rights to the book and put up the money for the film. One can only assume that actor Humphrey Bogart was attracted by the main character: Billy Dannreuther, “a middle-aged roustabout and hired man”. In the Huston movie, the British Dannreuther becomes an American, so that Bogart can play the part of a bankrupt go-between, working for “the committee”, an association of international crooks trying to get to Africa to “tap” into it’s mineral wealth. This was Humphrey Bogart and John Huston’s first film together since the Oscar winning African Queen. Bogie had starred in Huston’s first motion picture The Maltese Falcon, as well as Key Largo and Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Maria Dannreuther, the Hungarian wife of Dannreuther is played by the ultra-Italian Gina Lollobrigida, which probably
explains why the “Hungarian” references to her background are dropped from the dialogue. Alexander felt that Lollobrigida didn’t live up to his image of the Hungarian Mrs. Dannreuther from his father’s novel- personally, I grew up liking Lollobrigida’s hilarious depiction of Mrs. Dannreuther. The main action of the Helvick-alias-Cockburn novel, set in Perpignan, Southwestern France, near the Spanish border, has been transported to the Amalfi coast of Italy, a town called “Portoverdo? Fortoverde?.” The “Portsmouth” character, a member of the “committee”, played by Italian actor Marco Tulli, has been rebaptized “Ravello ,” after the hilltop town near Positano where “Beat the Devil” was shot.

Flash forward: On a visit to Northern California, planning a trip to Petrolia, and chez Alexander, I asked if he would let me do a filmed interview on our favorite topic: “Beat the Devil”. I had only packed my small HDV camera, a few cassettes and tripod – and a DVD of the Huston movie to refresh Alex’s memory.

Alex watched some of “Beat the Devil” on his computer and reminisced about meeting the Oklahoma born, Jennifer Jones, cast in the John Huston movie as Mrs. Harry Chelm. As soon as my camera was set up and rolling, and Alexander began to speak – his songbirds began loudly chirping, competing with Alex for screen time. He said “they always behave like that when there’s an interview” and promptly found a solution – sort of — by covering the birdcage with their night cloth.

Flash forward: June 2012. Alexander is in Paris with his daughter Daisy, alas, for what was to be a last visit. By July, we hear the sad news of his passing, in Germany.

Immediately on our return to Paris from a few days in Corsica, I digitized the cassettes and set to work editing. My way of bringing him back.

Elizabeth Lennard is a photographer and film-maker living in Paris. Her films include: The Stein Family: the Making of Modern Art and Edith Wharton: the Sense of Harmony. Her latest film is Alexander Cockburn: Beat the Devil.


Below is a sample of my notes from AC’s assignment: Beat the Devil, book vs. movie a comparison:

The novel opens in a hotel dining room where Billy and Maria Dannreuther are having breakfast; in the movie the Dannreuthers breakfast in their room. In both, Maria looks up from her newspaper:

(Book & movie) Gina Lollobrigida/Maria uttered a cry. Humphrey Bogart/Dannreuther paid no attention. “But listen, Billy,” she said, “this is of interest. That man in London (Brussels- in the book )– – he’s been killed.”

“What man,”  said Dannreuther, still reading, “has been killed?”

“The one Petersen was worried about. Mr. Vanmeer. It says here…   (…) victim of a knife attack.”

Vanmeer, high-ranking official … found stabbed…(…) (In the novel, Vanmeer is stabbed in a Brussels night club, in the movie: a Soho night club)

Gina Lollobrigida /Maria Dannreuther: What is it Billy? In heavens name say something.

(Book & Movie) Humphrey Bogart /Billy Dannreuther: You understand that Petersen arranged this.

Maria Dannreuther: There’s been a lot of violence lately. (book: a lot of knife fights in the section lately)

(Book & movie) H.B./ Billy Dannreuther: Don’t pretend to be a fool.

Maria D: But look Billy this happened early Tuesday morning. (book: This happened at two o’clock yesterday morning.)

(Book & movie) H.B./ Billy Dannreuther: What about Jack Ross, what about the Galloping Major?

Maria D: I thought he only stayed behind to get that phone call from Mombasa, (London in the book) If it came through. He’ll be here this morning…

Dannreuther: Well?

(Book & movie) Maria D: Don’t get so excited, don’t jump to unpleasant conclusions.

BILLY D: Jump, (…) they might as well have drawn a map. (…)

Maria D: Why was Petersen worried about Vanmeer? (Book: Dannreuther: Petersen, you said it yourself, worried about Vanmeer)

BILLY D: He was afraid Vanmeer wouldn’t stay bought  (in the book: He thought he might spill the beans) (…) had visions of him trotting upstairs to his superiors and announcing that I have certain information that certain sums of money have been paid by certain persons

(Book & movie) Maria D: « Don’t talk so loud, Billy. (…)

BILLY D: to secure for them illegal rights to exploit certain mineral resources … (This line, page 51 of the first edition, is said by the character, Julius O’Hara: “He could go to the Chief of Police and say « I have certain information that certain people are paid certain sums of money (..) to secure for them illegal rights to exploit certain mineral resources …”)

(Book & movie) Maria D: That Indian that Rajah … that you worked for in the old days, he killed a lot of people, didn’t he?

(Book & movie) BILLY D: But he had a better style (..) Besides he was out for a kingdom half the size of France!

Movie: Maria D: What’s the difference between that and millions of dollars? You must think of the future Billy. Except for Mr. Petersen we couldn’t even pay last night’s hotel bill. (Book): Without Mr. Petersen you can’t do anything. Without the backing.

(Book & movie) BILLY D: I want to go and sit in a café and have a lot of Pernods and listen to the band.

(Book & movie)Maria D: And you won’t make a fuss, will you? It doesn’t do to make a fuss. You have to think of the main objective.

(Book & movie) BILLY D: Naturally it doesn’t do to be fussy.






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