Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Beat the Devil (1953) - John Huston

The film opens with the camera looking down on a hot plaza in a coastal Italian village. Police lead four disheveled prisoners to the military beat of the town band: Peterson (Robert Morely), O'Hara (Peter Lorre), and two companions to an uncertain fate. Humphrey Bogart's voice explains that this is the inglorious end of the seedy characters. From there, the story is told in flashback. We soon learn that Bogart was in league with these men (international criminals intent on swindling their way to riches), to secure uranium rich land in Africa. They are a motley crew, not nearly as clever they think themselves to be, but ruthless. Bogart plays Billy Dannreuther, a sort of advance man. He doesn't particularly like or trust his associates, who have killed a British official back in London, and they return the favor, suspecting he is merely out for himself. Dannreuther is married to Maria (Gina Lollobrigida). While awaiting for the steamer to leave they meet another couple on vacation, the Chelms (Edward Underdown and Jennifer Jones), who soon complicate matters, Harry by being insufferably British (he travels with his hot water bottle), and Gwendolen by seemingly falling in love with Dannreuther.

Who's playing who?
If a slightly odd film, it is also a fun one. Legend has it that director John Huston and cast somewhat flew by the seat of their pants, sometimes relying on ad libs and daily re-writes. At times it appears they are all on vacation. In any case, it was a fine formula for producing a superb tongue-in-cheek spoof of the caper genre. From the outset, you know the scheme will go a cropper somewhere along the way. The fun is watching how. Huston, with writer Truman Capote's help, created an intriguing cast of characters. None are particularly steeped in morals, though Bogart comes closest. Looking all his 53 years, he is alternating charming and devious. One can't quite tell if he is serious about leaving his wife for Mrs. Chelm, or just playing her along. As for Mrs. Chelm, her motives are similarly hard to decipher. She appears a little ditsy. At one point Bogart says she relies more on her imagination than her memory.  

Jennifer Jones and Gina Lollobrigida on the beach.
There are some quite funny scenes, one with Bogart and Morley chasing a runaway cab down a mountain road, neither man fit for the effort, and another on the beach in Africa when Morely and his companions scramble to hide their passports in the sand, in hopes of keeping their identity secret. When later questioned, they profess to be vacuum cleaner salesmen. There is also a nice sequence with Lorre and Bogart, old co-stars in several films who always played well of each other. There is a nostalgia about the scene. As O'Hara, Lorre is sent to divert Billy with idle conversation while Peterson tries to find out if the Chelms are onto the uranium deal. Lorre beats around the bush, going on and on about trust and confidence, not coming to any point. Sneaking a peek out the window, he notices that Peterson is finished and abruptly stands up, starts to back out through the door, turns and scurries down the hallway without finishing what he was saying.   

And there is some clever dialog. Lorre has the best line: "Time. Time. What is time? Swiss manufacture it. French hoard it. Italians squander it. Americans say it is money. Hindus say it does not exist. Do you know what I say? I say time is a crook."

Jones doesn't like Peterson and his crew, warning her husband to be wary:

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

Jennifer Jones is lovely as a blond and gives a terrific comedic performance. She was just 34 at the time. And it is easy to understand why Lollobrigida was considered such an international sex symbol. This is a 1950s bombshell. All of the characters are a little shallow; still, it stretches belief that someone with her beauty would be with Bogart's character. Currently down on his luck, Billy once owned a large villa in the town and employed a chauffeur; he apparently is a man who wins and loses large sums of money. Mostly, he keeps his wife comfortably in money, but surely any number of men would do the same. 

It is essentially a film in two parts, the first taking place in the port town and the second on board the steamer and in Africa where they encounter an Arab leader and his army. Lollobrigida steps out of a raft and walks up the beach in high heels (they have evacuated the steamer thinking it was about to sink). The first half is the better portion.    

What Makes Beat the Devil Special:

Besides the enjoyable script, the mood of the film is one of its best features. You are never certain who is double-crossing who. The four criminals are a ridiculous looking band: one tall and fat, one short and wiry, one pencil thin, and one short and round. They are never in control of things, and while they stumble confused through the story, their secret conversations would lead you to believe they are highly competent intriguers. Morely, the group's leader, has a wonderful doughy face and his occasional looks of incredulity are perfect.     

Inside Story:

This is the fifth and last film that paired Bogart with Lorre. The other four were, The Maltese Falcon (1941), All Through the Night (1941), Casablanca (1942), and Passage to Marseilles (1944). 

Prints of the film have not aged particularly well, which is a shame. The main location, Ravello, Italy, would look enchanting. The cinematographer was Oswald Morris, whose other credits include Fiddler on the Roof (1971), for which he won an Oscar, Oliver (1968), for which he was nominated, and Huston's own Moby Dick (1956) and Heaven Knows Mr. Allison (1957).   

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