Beat the Devil (1953)

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

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The African Queen (1951)

The African Queen – 1951

Director – John Huston

Starring – Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn

When I was in junior high, I got my first computer.  Along with a 14.4 kbps dial-up modem, floppy disk drive, and the home-edition of Microsoft Works (not Word, mind you, works.) that machine of the future came with a copy of the Encarta Encyclopedia CD-Rom.  That laughably slow and instantly outmoded program, had a whole glossary of movies, a few with accompanying video clips, only the best ones mind you.  Now since only the most renowned films came with video clips, it goes without saying that it was a point of pride for me that I had seen all but two of those select few films.  The first one was 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the second…was The African Queen.  Take that Encarta!  It took me till 2012, but I finally beat you!

The African Queen is at its heart a love story, though it’s a love story that’s wrapped up in a war, adventure, thriller, and at times a comedy.  It’s the early days of World War 1, and we start at a british-run mission in the heart of an African colony of Germany.  Reverend Sayer and his sister Rose (Hepburn) staff the mission, attempting to spread the gospel to the un-enlightened natives, when they receive word of the start of the war.  They are advised that German soldiers are on their way to oust any enemies to the interests of Germany, and have to leave behind their life’s work if they want to escape with their lives.  This news pushes the reverend too far and, unable to cope, he falls ill and eventually dies leaving his sister to fend for herself.

As the arrival of the German soldiers looms close at hand, supply ship captain Charlie Alnut (a particularly grizzled Bogart) arrives just in time to offer Rose a mode of escape.  Though he is course in his manners and seems generally uncouth to the prim and proper English upbringing that Rose is used to, Charlie is a welcome sight.  The two make their way down river toward friendly territory, all the while avoiding Germans, Alligators, mosquitos, leeches, harsh weather, white water rapids, and each other along the way.

So I’ve made it fairly plain that I haven’t ever really been a fan of Katherine Hepburn.  This has been a point of contention between my wife and I, as she simply adores Hepburn (despite the fact that she has seen Bringing Up Baby, which is one of Hepburn’s most terribly annoying roles).  My dislike is ingrained in me so deeply, that I’ve actually avoided The African Queen because of its star.  Upon having actually seen it, I am disappointed to say that maybe I was being a bit harsh with my immediate dismissal of Hepburn.  It’s a good film.  More than that, it’s a great film!

To classify this film is not as easy as it can be with some other films.  With so many genres mashed up together in the story, it really fits into so many different categories.   Perhaps the best fit for my purposes here is to call it a romance.  We really get to see a pair of people go from not really liking the other, through friendship, courting, and eventually we see them emerge as true companions and best friends.  While the going is tough, the nagging and pestering they inflict upon each other actually strengthens the bond they have, and raises the stakes of the film in direct relation to the danger level.

When Rose demands that they try to strike a blow on behalf of the british navy against the Germans, Charlie is initially against it.  He stands to lose his boat, his lively hood, and potentially his life.  It is plain to the audience that without someone to share his life with, a friend, a purpose, he really has nothing to live for anyway.  The companionship with Rose illustrates this fact to him, and as they draw closer to their target, the thing he fears most is losing the woman he loves and respects.

Rose, too, gains from this relationship.  She learns to soften her rather stuffy and stuck up exterior.  Charlie shows her that there is a romance, and beauty to the world that she was here-to-for un-aware of, and that it can’t necessarily be attained through scripture and strict adherence to manners.  Ultimately, they learn that they need one another.  The off-hand relationship they have at the beginning of the film becomes all-consuming, dwarfing the danger, uncertainty, and even the beauty that lies ahead of them.  Each becomes the other’s reason for moving forward, and the pair becomes the reason and the reward for the audience’s continued attention.

As far as the performances, I don’t think Humphrey Bogart has ever been bad.  He makes everything I see him in at least a little bit better, and more than likely, he is the reason that it was excellent.  There are a select few actors who are capable of doing what other actors accomplish in half the time and with a quarter of the exertion.  Bogart is one of them, and is most deserving of all of the praise that is lumped upon him.  Hepburn on the other hand is equally matched to Bogart…in this movie.  I remain skeptical as far as her other roles go, but I am at the very least excited to find out if my initial impression of her holds true, or if I had her wrong the whole time.  I’m not quite sure what to wish for…to be right from the start, or to be wrong but with a fresh new body of films to look forward to.

All in all, I was very pleasantly surprised by the African Queen.  For a film that I had such an adverse reaction to before watching, it was certainly a treat to be proven wrong about it.  The plot, pacing, cinematography (gorgeously filmed in Technicolor, by the way), and yes, even the acting, really do make this one of the best films ever made.  A deserving addition to this list, and definitely something worthy of your time and attention.

“Told ya so!” – Ashley