Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Beat the Devil (USA, 1953)

Beat the Devil is a fluffy little film, meanderingly enjoyable, but as that it has long fallen into the public domain, the quality of the sound (at least on the no-name DVD we watched) is less than ideal and thus the dialogue is often a bit unintelligible. But despite the questionable quality of the transfer, the charms of the movie itself, as well as its oddly un-bothersome flaws, remain eminently evident.
It is both easy to understand why the movie flopped when originally released, and why it has become such cult fave since then. The movie is light and airy and quirky and ridiculous and fun much in a manner similar to that of Steven Soderbergh in his Ocean's 11 (2001 / trailer) phase, but in B&W. Indeed, the number of Beat the Devil's cast might be substantially lower than that of Ocean's 11, but the film is easily just as strikingly loaded with memorable and loved names and faces (just all from a different decade). 
Trailer to
Beat the Devil:
Based on the eponymous novel written by "James Helvick", otherwise known as Claud Cockburn (12 Apr 1904 – 15 Dec 1981), director John Huston (The Maltese Falcon [1941 / trailer], The Treasure of the Sierra Madre [1948 / trailer], Fat City [1972 / trailer, with Susan Tyrrell] and more) hired him to deliver the first draft of the screenplay but later, while filming, rewrote the script as he went along with the assistance of Truman Capote (30 Sep 1924 – 25 Aug 1984). To what extent the movie follows the book, we do not know, but the fly-by-night approach to the screenplay is probably responsible for the almost elliptic narrative, which sort of wanders all over the place without any obvious intention of reaching an end point until the movie's rather abrupt, if appropriate and ironic, non-resolution.
Beat the Devil is in no way ever the rip-roaring adventure the original poster (further above) sold it as, even when it does get "adventurous", but the chuckle-inducing 1.5-hour running time nevertheless flies by swiftly and the movie never gets tedious. There really isn't any point to the movie, or at least to the movie's narrative, but much like the similarly paced and meandering fave The Big Lebowski (1998 / trailer), Beat the Devil is enjoyably idiosyncratic and dryly whimsical.
Shot on the Amalfi coast of Italy, the beauty of which is hardly done any justice in the movie's oddly noir-like B&W photography, the plot of Beat the Devil concerns the formerly rich, down-on-his-heels Billy Dannreuther (Humphrey Bogart) who has grudgingly joined forces with four crooks — Peterson (Robert Morley [26 May 1908 – 3 Jun 1992] of The Loved One [1965 / trailer] and Theater of Blood [1973 / trailer]), Julius O'Hara (Peter Lorre [26 Jun 1904 – 23 Mar 1964] of The Beast with Five Fingers [1946], The Verdict [1946], Background to Danger [1943] and The Lost Man [1951]), Major Jack Ross (Ivor Barnard [13 Jun 1887 – 30 Jun 1953] of The Queen of Spades [1949 / trailer], in his last film role), and Ravello (Italo character actor Marco Tulli [20 Nov 1920 – 20 Mar 1982] of Messalina, Messalina [1977 / German trailer]) — to make a killing with some Uranium-rich land in Africa. Unluckily, they are all stuck in Italy until the boat they are booked on can finally leave.
Entering from stage right is stuffy Englishman Harry Chelm (Edward Underdown [3 Dec 1908 – 15 Dec 1989] of Dr. Terror's House of Horrors [1965 / trailer], Traitor's Gate [1964 / German trailer] and Beast of Morocco [1968 / opening titles]) and his attractive but flighty wife Gwendolen (Jennifer Jones [2 Mar 1919 – 17 Dec 2009] of Angel, Angel, Down We Go [1969 / trailer]), an inveterate fabulist. She promptly falls for Billy, while Billy's sexpot Italian wife Maria (a breathtakingly babe-a-licious Gina Lollobrigida [4 Jul 1927 – 16 Jan 2023], who did not appear in The Deadly Thief [1978]) develops feelings for Harry. The Sinister Four begin to think that Billy might be double-crossing them, which leads to low-key comedy and situations, and eventually everyone thinks Peterson and Billy are dead, which leads to low-key comedy and situations. Once the motley group finally get aboard the boat, there is more comedy and situations and one sequence of undeniable tension, before more low-key comedy and situations occur and the movie resolves in such a way that would have easily allowed for, say, Beat the Devils, had Beat the Devil not been such an unmitigated flop at the box office.
It is often said that with Beat the Devil, Huston and Bogie were trying to make a spoof of The Maltese Falcon. In that, they failed, alone because Beat the Devil is not a detective movie and is anything but as tightly plotted. But like The Maltese Falcon, Beat the Devil is populated with some wonderfully drawn characters and top-notch acting. But when it comes to the plot, well, much as in the case of Ocean's 11, Beat the Devil very much conveys the feeling that the narrative is secondary to everything else in the movie.
And as in Soderbergh's film, "everything else" is pleasantly captivating and enjoyable, even if it does cause you to raise an eyebrow more than once. The people making the movie seem to be having fun, and this fun is transmitted to the viewer — without the movie ever coming across as overly indulgent or lazy. That alone reveals how masterful Beat the Devil is: there is so much about the movie that should make it "not work", but it "works" 100%.
Postscript: Like the modern science fiction classic Blade Runner (1982 / trailer), which flopped when it came out and went on to become a classic, after Beat the Devil was previewed, the powers that be had the film re-cut and added a voiceover. This is the version we watched. The original cut, without the flashback structure or the voiceover, has since been rediscovered, cleaned, and released on DVD. We would recommend that should you choose to watch Beat the Devil, you try for that version: the commercial-flop cut is in the public domain and thus easy to find for free anywhere (YouTube and Internet Archives, for example), but particularly the sound quality of most online versions is pretty crappy at times, to the detriment of some pretty good dialog.

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