Beat the Devil – 1953
Director – John Huston
Starring – Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Jennifer Jones, and Gina Lollobrigida
So you’re fond of the big stars of the hollywood system? You like yourself a little bit of character acting, done by character actors, huh? What’s that? You like the whole thing tied together by a famous, yet dependable director? I guess I have the film for you…to skip in favor of something else.
Unfortunately, for all of us, Beat The Devil doesn’t quite live up to what it could have been. Though the film doesn’t really make any obvious miss-steps or do anything overtly wrong, it still manages to fall rather flat, and be somewhat un-inspired. All of the individual elements that make up this film are, on their own, very successful, but when they are tied together they cease to gel.
The plot. The plot is tricky, mostly because I don’t really remember it. What I do remember, however, is… International playboy, and conman…I think…, Billy Dannreuther (Bogart), and his gang of cronies (the best part of the movie played by talented character actors Peter Lorre, Ivor Barnard, and Robert Morley) are planning a heist of some kind when their ship is delayed and they are all stranded in a small coastal town in Italy. Mix in some love interests in the form of the sexy Gina Lollobrigida, and plucky Jennifer Jones, whose husband, the straight man, Edward Underdown, tries unsuccessfully to stymie the shady dealings the entire time.
Beyond that, the plot is a mystery. It’s simply an excuse to let these elements mingle, and with any luck, turn into cinema gold. Unfortunately, the luck doesn’t quite hold out. Instead, the charm and quick paced, sarcastic dialog of Billy takes the place of any plotting or exposition. The sexy femme fatale wife of Billy, played by Lollobrigida, never really seems at odds with the spunky, young, love interest, Jones, who overtly swoons over him despite her husband, and the gang of cutthroats who threaten her at every turn. Nothing builds on anything else, everything just sorta stops in its tracks before it can really get started.
The cinematography seemed like it was trying to borrow from the immediacy and off-the-cuff nature of Italian Neo-Realism, but paired with the convoluted plot and lack of motivation, it just seemed a little rushed and out-of-place. Shot in black and white, in mostly real locations rather than studio set-pieces, Beat the Devil seemed much grittier than a lot of films of the studio system. This had the unfortunate effect of making them seem somehow lower budget, or like it had a rushed production or something. I’m not really sure why, but it just seemed…light. Like it was missing something.
I realize that I’ve just spent this entire review bemoaning the film, but I really didn’t think it was bad, it was just…blah. There were bright spots though. Some of the dialogue was snappy and fun. The interactions, and rivalries that play out amongst Peter Lorre and Robert Morley as the gang of criminals was very entertaining and watchable, and in fact, those were actually the best and most memorable parts of the film.
After watching Beat The Devil, it makes me appreciate films that ARE able to pull off all of the different elements that this one tries. Films like The Third Man, The Big Lebowski, the original version of The Ladykillers, Kind Hearts and Coronets, After Hours and even His Girl Friday, which are able to flawlessly combine humor, action, danger, and even things like dark humor and death, to make something memorable, funny, and better than the sum of their parts.
It’s my impression that the only reason for the inclusion of this film onto this list of greatest films ever made, is the strength of its potential, rather than the success of the result. The hope is that when everything comes together you should have something really special, not something that you have trouble remembering a few minutes after its finished.
Not a bad watch, but if you’re spending your time looking through the list of movies you must see, you’ll more than likely want something more gratifying.
“Gina Lollobrigida – beautiful. Movie – meh.” – Ashley