BEAT THE DEVIL
Beat the Devil has been variously described as 'oddball' and 'bizarre', something akin to the murky The Big Sleep, a film people think highly of even if they don't understand what the actual plot is. I don't think Beat the Devil is that perplexing. It might be a bit too clever for its own good, but this send-up of heist films might be worth a look-over.
With voiceover in the beginning and end, Billy Dannreuther (Humphrey Bogart) remarks on a group of criminals with whom he is involved. This motley group is headed by Peterson (Robert Morley), whose avuncular persona hides a more nefarious manner. Along with Peterson are Ravello (Marco Tulli), a more dimwitted criminal, Julius O'Hara (Peter Lorre), who despite his Irish surname has a German accent, and Major Ross (Ivor Barnard), who is either a Nazi sympathizer or actual Nazi collaborator.
Billy isn't keen on being in league with these men, but he has to in order to get at land in East Africa that may have mass quantities of uranium. His wife Maria (Gina Lollobrigida) insists she's English despite her Italian accent, or at the very least has British aspirations such as making afternoon teas.
Into this web enter Harry and Gwendolyn Chelm (Edward Underdown and Jennifer Jones). Gwendolyn is fascinated by Billy, much to the disdain of the uptight Harry. Gwendolyn soon romances a flattered Billy, and they start cavorting together.
More mishaps and mayhem aboard ensue, with the result that Harry is locked up as being insane due to Gwen's statement about him being out-of-sorts, despite the fact that she knows Ross tried to kill Harry on Peterson's orders.
The ship sinks, forcing everyone to the lifeboats, and Harry unaccounted for. The other criminals attempt to hide their passports that will reveal their true identities but the local official, not as foolish as Peterson thinks because he is a 'native', has everyone except Billy, Maria and Gwen locked up. The official is too fond of Billy, who claims to know Rita Hayward personally.
Once they are locked up, Billy reads with amusement a cable from Gwendolyn, telling her he got the land where the uranium might be.
I think part of 'the problem' with Beat the Devil is not so much that it's confusing but that it plays things too serious for the spoof that it appears to be. As such, sometimes it's hard to see that this is meant for laughs and it ends up looking as though this is serious but rather oddball, even a bit crazed.
We get hints that this whole thing is meant as a lark, such as when the ship's jolly purser walks across the ship's salon and asks "Do I hear a lady screaming?" when Harry is attacked. Lorre's reply, "One down," shifts the tone somewhat from mirth to menace, so I can see how someone watching Beat the Devil might not be sure where exactly they stand.
As John Huston directed most players to play things straight, we do wonder what exactly is going on. There is a touch of winking to the audience with Jones, who is completely unrecognizable as the accidental femme fatale.
She pegs Peterson's group as criminals instantly. "They're desperate characters," she says. "How do you know?" Harry replies. Her answer? "Not one of them looked at my legs". She delivers the line with a perfectly straight face, and that is amusing. Jones shows a surprising knack for comedy, which is wonderful except that when she is asked to be more dramatic, it still plays a bit like a spoof.
Oddly, Robert Morley, known for more jolly or bumbling characters, shows he could play quietly menacing as Peterson. Despite his size and manner, you sensed that Peterson could be more dangerous and deadly if you crossed him. It shows an untapped potential with him too.
However, as he played it generally straight, one wonders if he was in on the joke.
Also someone who doesn't appear to be in on the joke is Lorre. He expresses some great lines from Truman Capote's adaptation of James Hevlik's novel. When waxing rhapsodic about time, he remarks, "Swiss manufacture it, French hoard it, Italians squander it, Americans say it is money, Hindus say it doesn't exist. You know what I say? I say 'time' is a crook".
Despite looking shockingly old and frail, Lorre at least seems able to keep up with everyone, but he too plays it straight.
The other players look as if they are in on the joke, but it looked like it was too much of a joke. Underdown and Barnard seem to play camping it up as the haughty Brit and the crazed Nazi, to where their spoofing of these characters seems wildly broad even for a comedy.
Bogart, to his credit, seems to be in on the joke, playing things remarkably cool and going with the flow.
Beat the Devil is an odd picture as one never quite knows if it is all playing things for laughs or not. I think it might be worth a remake, but if that were to happen, they'd have to decide how exactly they want to play it and how far they should go one way or another.