Tuesday, November 29, 2011
Beat the Devil (1953)
Beat the Devil boasts an extraordinarily impressive cast, a clever and witty script (by Truman Capote) and a fine director in John Huston. The story combines adventure, romance and comedy in exotic settings. With those ingredients you’d think this movie couldn’t possibly go wrong, but it bombed at the box-office.
In fact it’s a terrific movie. Its commercial failure at the time may have been due to the fact that it wasn’t the movie that audiences expected, given the title. Rather than a straightforward adventure movie it’s an offbeat comedy. And perhaps it wasn’t what audiences expected from Bogart. Bogart in the 1950s was trying very hard to escape from stereotyped tough guy roles with movies like The African Queen (which gained him an Oscar), The Caine Mutiny (which earned him another Oscar nomination), The Barefoot Contessa and Sabrina. Beat the Devil is as good as any of these movies and better than most but the fact is audiences at the time just didn’t go for it. Its reputation has grown steadily since then.
The plot concerns an assortment of crooks who intend to get rich from buying up land in East Africa containing rich uranium deposits. Whether the uranium actually exists seems uncertain but it doesn’t matter since it’s purely a McGuffin.
Billy Dannreuther (Bogart) is penniless but he’s full of stories about the riches he used to possess. His wife Maria (Gina Lollobrigida) claims to be spiritually English and has tea and crumpets every afternoon. They’re perhaps not quite out-and-out crooks but they’re certainly possessed of flexible ethics. Petersen (Robert Morley) and his three associates are most definitely out-and-out crooks. They’re killing time in a small Italin port city waiting for the ship to Africa. Also en route to Africa are Harry and Gwendolen Chelm. Harry claims to be landed gentry from Gloucestershire. He is in fact an outrageous liar, as is his wife. But then all the other characters in the movie are outrageous liars.
Maria Dannreuther is soon conducting an illicit love affair with Harry Chelm while Harry’s wife Gwendolen is carrying on with Billy. Everyone else is waiting for an opportunity to double-cross someone. Things get even more confused once the ship actually departs, and it all culminates in a shipwreck leaving our assorted crooks stranded in the custody of an Arab governor with a Rita Hayworth obsession.
It was apparently originally going to be a straight adventure film until Huston decided that would be boring and called in Capote to rewrite the script as a comedy. He also decided that if Peter Lorre (as one of the crooks, a German named O’Hara) and Robert Morley wanted to make things up as they went along that was fine by him. That’s what he was doing as director.
All this could be a recipe for disaster. It works because the actors are superb and they’re all in fine form and striking sparks off one another. This is very much an acting ensemble piece. Robert Morley is magnificent but Jennifer Jones is every bit as good as the delightfully eccentric and breathtakingly dishonest Gwendolen Chelm. Bogart gives a free and easy performance and shows he can handle comedy without any problems. Edward Underdown as Harry isn’t the least bit intimidated by the bevy of stars surrounding him and gleefully chews the scenery, as does Ivor Barnard as a murderous British Indian Army officer.
The basic premise is of course very close to that of the movie that established John Huston as a director, The Maltese Falcon, but played purely for comedy this time.
The movie is one that has fallen into the public domain which is both good news and bad news, the good news being that it can be picked up very cheaply on various DVD releases, the bad news being that none of these DVD editions is exactly a pristine transfer. I have the Alpha Video version. Picture quality is fairly rough and there’s a definite lack of contrast but it’s watchable. It’s such a fabulous movie that it would be a great pity to be put off by the lack of a premium DVD edition. On the other hand this is a movie that really deserves a restoration and a good DVD release.
This is an immensely enjoyable romp, and very much a must-see movie.