Thursday, November 19, 2009

'Beat the Devil' is quirky fun

Beat the Devil (1954)
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Robert Morley, Gina Lollobrigida, Peter Lorre, Edward Underdown, and Ivor Barnard
Director: John Huston
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A down-and-out, formerly wealthy couple (Bogart and Lollobrigida) hook up with a group of international criminals who wish to use their reputation in order to facilitate a scam in British East Africa involving the acquisition of land rich in uranium. They befriend an English couple (Jones and Underdown) who will be traveling with them on the same tramp freighter to Africa, but their new friends aren't quite what they seem.

"Beat the Devil" is a low-key comedy that spoofs the crime dramas so popular in the '40s and '50s and that holds your attention with its fast-moving plot and witty dialogue. The characters featured are all seemingly stock characters from those movies--and the lead actors playing them have done exactly these types of characters in other films--but as the movie progresses, we discover they've all been given slight twists that turn them into mildly comic versions of their stock counterparts. (The exception is Bogart, who remains the straight man throughout, as the other characters have their ludicrous sides exposed and he tries to keep his ticket back to wealth from collapsing.)

Particuarly fun are Morley, who portrays a gullible and inept criminal mastermind; Lorre, who plays an escaped Nazi who now goes by the name of O'Hara, despite his accent marking him as anything but Irish; Barnard, who portrays the homicidal British ex-Army officer who thinks the defeat of Hitler has sent the world into a downward spiral; and Jones, who plays the wide-eyed British subject abroad but whose unending pathelogical lying (and her inability to keep her stories straight or even tell the same lie twice) serves as the catalyst that sows distrust and chaos among the story's characters. And things are all the more hilarious, because everyone is playing their parts straight and taking things as seriously as you'd expect them to in any other crime drama.

With an all-star cast giving fine performances, powered by John Huston's skilled direction and Truman Capote's sharp and witty script, "Beat the Devil" is another one of those classics that is seen too rarely.

If you decide to check this movie out, I want to warn you away from the version released by Passion Productions--it's got an orange cover with black-and-white images of Bogart, Jones, and Lollobrigida on the cover. The dialogue is out of sync for a good portion of the film, and it's very distracting.