Dir. by John Huston - 1 hr. 29 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
So, what if I told you that Humphrey Bogart and John Huston (and Peter Lorre) had done another film together, about a decade after "The Maltese Falcon?" Would you also like to know that Truman Capote co-wrote the screenplay? You might be interested in that film, based on nothing more than that information. I wouldn't blame you in the least if visions of a lost masterpiece were dancing around in your head. Now that I've gotten your hopes up, I'll tell you that "Beat the Devil" is no such masterpiece, but it is a perfectly enjoyable film.
Billy (Bogart) and his wife, Maria (Gina Lollobrigida) are stuck in an Italian villa, waiting for both the captain of a ship to sober up so that they can depart for Africa (there's a Uranium scheme involved), and for the last member of the scheming party to arrive. Billy's not in charge of this operation, that would be Peterson (Robert Morley), whom O'Hara (Lorre) also works under. None of them get along very well, and matters are further complicated when another couple, Harry (Edward Underdown) and Gwendolyn (Jennifer Jones), show up for the cruise. Almost immediately, Billy makes a play for Gwendolyn, and Maria makes a play for Harry. They love each other very much, but it seems this is how they pass time. Basically, everyone is cooling their heels and getting on each other's nerves until the captain sobers up, and then things get worse once they're all confined to a smaller space on the boat.
A little light internet research reveals that Huston and Bogart conceived "Beat the Devil" as a sort of a parody of the noir films they had pioneered. Fascinatingly enough, their idea of a parody doesn't resemble the Wayans brothers' idea of parody. There's nary a fart or a weed joke to be found (although Harry does make a joke, protesting that Maria had made love to him, and not the other way around, which I suppose is a 1950's version of a blow-job joke). Their idea of parody is pretty interesting, in that they basically flip everything you'd expect out of this collection of characters. Bogart is the star, and probably has the most screen-time, but he plays a subordinate instead of the loner that he's known for. Peter Lorre doesn't have a ton of lines (he makes the most out of them anyways). Unfortunately, although the Italian villa and cafe is a nice setting, it doesn't approach the iconic status of Rick's Cafe or Sam Spade's office, in terms of atmosphere.
But the real surprise of "Beat the Devil" is that the best characters (and best acting) comes from the two female leads. Gina Lollobrigida is free to be sexy and manipulative in the way that only foreign-born characters seem to be able to get away with. What can you do? She's Italian. And Jennifer Jones' perkiness and disconnect with reality (which is intertwined with a very quick mind, even if it's used for spinning tall tales) is the polar opposite. But the movie largely belongs to these two actresses. The men all have their schemes, but the women seem to spend their time jockeying how to most take advantage of the men.
The last laugh belongs to Bogart, of course, except it doesn't. He gets one-upped at the end, even after some admittedly brilliant scheming in cahoots with the administrator in the African country the entire group washes up on shore of, at the expense of Peterson. Huston and Bogart's idea of parody means giving an audience the exact opposite of what they expect they'll get from this cast and in this scenario. I've watched "Beat the Devil" three times now, and it's pretty decent. It's better to approach this film expecting to watch the equivalent of a pretty good obscure b-side. On it's own, it has merits, but if it was stacked along side Bogart's real heavy-hitters, it would look pretty shabby in comparison. So take "Beat the Devil" for what it is; a film about a bunch of schemers being manipulated by a pair of beautiful women, who are competing amongst each other as well. It just happens to have a bunch of famous people in it, too.
3 / 5 - DVD