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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A Night at the Opera (1935)

A Night at the Opera – 1935

Director – Sam Wood

Starring – Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Kitty Carlisle, and Allan Jones

The Marx Brothers films are quickly becoming some of my favorite of the ones that I’ve watched for this blog so far.  While I have seen only two now, this one and Duck Soup, I am hoping there are a few more on the list.  If not, I suppose I’ll have to rent and watch them in addition to whatever is next to see on the list.

As with most comedies of this era, the plotline is a simple one.  Groucho’s character is the manager of a small opera house in small Italian town, Harpo plays the unhelpful assistant to the conceited lead singer, and Chico plays the manager for the up and coming young talent who’s currently working as a backup singer in the show.  The plot really takes off when blah blah blah blah blah…blah, blah blah…..  Basically, the story doesn’t matter.  The film is a series of set ups for one-liners, sight-gags, singing, and clever instrumentation.  It doesn’t have a message, and doesn’t pretend to be anything other than entertaining.

As far as comedians go, Harpo is still my favorite with his innocent yet devilish destructiveness.  Groucho comes in at a close second, often times providing the group a kick in the pants by way of witty dialogue.  This keeps the plot and the action moving forward.  Chico acts as a good in-between man, balancing the loose energy of Harpo and the cynicism of Groucho.  Each is talented in their own rights, but alone they wouldn’t remain as consistently interesting.  Operating as a team they feed off of and support one another.

I’ve read that this film was the first to not feature Zeppo Marx, instead featuring Allan Jones as the straight man come love interest for the lead actress.  Jones’ character is virtually unnecessary to the film, except as a plot device to get the brothers on to the steam ship bound for New York.  The same can be said for virtually every other actor and actress save for one, Margaret Dumont as Mrs. Claypool.  Dumont, a favorite of the Marx Brothers, has co-starred in quite a few of their films, including At The Circus, Cocoanuts, A Day At The Races, and Duck Soup just to name a few.  She always manages to play the put-upon, yet the eternally forgiving upper-crust subject (victim?) of Groucho’s advances, one-liners, and lewd remarks, and she always does it with a straight face.  When describing his and Dumont’s chemistry on-screen, Groucho credits it’s success to the fact that she “never understood what he was saying”.

If this list of films has done anything for me, it has opened my eyes to the fact that my movie education has had some gaping holes in it for sometime.  The Marx Brothers have long been one of those holes, but thankfully they are a gap that is getting filled in.  If you are a fan of the Three Stooges, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or W.C. Fields, it is more than a safe bet that you’ll love the Marx Brothers too.  I can certainly attest to that.

P.S.  This review marks the 1 year anniversary of this blog being around (well… one year and a handful of days anyway).  In that time, I’ve seen and reviewed 70 different movies from 1900 through the 2000’s.  I’m very glad to see that I am still keeping up with it, sometimes not as quickly as others, but for the most part fairly regularly.  Thanks to those who comment, and thanks to those bloggers whom I comment on!