Thursday 11 July 2013

Movie Review: Beat The Devil (1953)

A small story of greed and lust among a group of unsavoury characters, Beat The Devil sits out in the sun for too long, but is made tolerable by the presence of enough talent in the cast to overcome a sense of drift.

Four adventurers wait at a small Italian port town for a steamer to be repaired, so that they can travel to British East Africa. Through questionable means and using inside contacts, they plan to seize control of land rich in uranium. Three of the men appear to have shady pasts and criminal backgrounds: the fat leader Peterson (Robert Morley); the nervous O'Hara (Peter Lorre) and the thuggish Major Ross (Ivor Barnard). The fourth man is Billy Dannreuther (Humphrey Bogart), and he is the group's outsider, not friendly with the others but essential to the plan since he controls the corrupt official who will enable the land transaction. Billy's wife Maria (Gina Lollobrigida) is with him, but generally bored with her husband's antics.

Also at the port waiting for the same ship are the British husband and wife team of Harry and Gwendolen Chelm (Edward Underdown and Jennifer Jones). Maria is quickly enamoured by Harry, while Gwendolen falls hard for Billy. Peterson, O'Hara, and Ross don't like Billy getting involved with a new woman, and grow wary of the Chelms. Their suspicions are fed by Gwendolen's wild and ever-changing stories about Harry's background and the purpose of their trip. Eventually all six get on the steamer for a slow journey to Africa, and nothing on the trip goes as planned.

Peterson: You mean Mrs. Chelm is an unqualified liar?
Billy: Well, let's say she uses her imagination rather than her memory.

With a script apparently written on-set and day-by-day by director John Huston and Truman Capote, Beat The Devil emits the slightly off-putting whiff of a movie thrown together at the last minute, trading on star names and hoping for the best. The generally uninteresting characters sit around waiting for something to happen, as does the film. Stuck somewhere between a second-rate travelogue, an unconvincing romance, a clumsy comedy and an awkward attempt at recreating elements of The Maltese Falcon, Beat The Devil is a curiosity despite itself.

Gwendolyn: Harry, we must beware of these men. They are desperate characters.
Harry: What makes you say that ?
Gwendolyn: Not one of them looked at my legs!

After the initial six characters are set, which requires all of 15 minutes, Beat The Devil struggles through a solid hour of icky dalliances and amateurish scheming, burning time and money as everyone waits for the boat to be fixed. The slow-moving climax moves from sea to shipwreck to shore, with a painfully unfunny (was it meant to be?) excursion into an unnamed Arab country where all the characters get to experience local heavy-handed gendarme hospitality. Huston simply does not find any magic moments to brighten the film, his directing surprisingly bland, given the cast and the potential.

Billy (to Harry): The only thing standing between you and a watery grave is your wits, and that's not my idea of adequate protection.

But all is not lost. Beat The Devil boasts an admirable number of memorable lines, zingers delivered straight, perhaps intended as social commentary or outright comedy, but either way they help to keep the film watchable through the dead patches. The best lines may have little to do with the weak plot, but at least they keep a modicum of energy pumping against the prevailing lethargy.

Billy: I've got to have money. Doctor's orders are that I must have a lot of money, otherwise I become dull, listless and have trouble with my complexion.
Gwendolyn: But you're not like that now, and you haven't any money.
Billy: It's my expectations that hold me together.

And any movie boasting Bogart, Jones, Lollobrigida and Lorre is worth a look. Bogart tries hard to call on the ghosts of glorious roles from past movies, but his caustic charm flickers rather than shines. Jones is almost too perky, her character playing for comedy and almost leaning towards a plea for institutionalization, but she is plain fun to watch. Lollobrigida is the expected sultry European and Lorre is the typical nervous man with more to hide than his face is capable of concealing. Robert Morley lends heavy weight in support, the character of Peterson trying all too hard to reincarnate the fat man from The Maltese Falcon.

Beat The Devil is neither a hidden gem nor a lost classic, but survives as an odd film that could have been much better, but settles for not too bad.

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