Beat the Devil review by Jackass Tom

The enticing dollar bin of cheap-o movies lead me to Beat the Devil. The stat line on this one is very impressive. Humphrey Bogart stars for one. John Huston directs for two. The two teamed up on Maltese Falcon, Key Largo, and Treasure of Sierra Madre in the forties. Powerhouse combo! Add to that writing credits from author Truman Capote and a role played by Peter Lorre and you have a pretty enticing sell. Unfortunately the market value of this DVD is probably justified by the quality of the movie.

So I might as well summarize Beat the Devil’s plot despite it being a useless part of the movie. A Billy Danreuther (Humphrey Bogart) has teamed up with a group of three to four (depending on the scene) oddball associates in a business deal of sorts. Their plan is purchase a plot of land in Africa that they are hoping contains valuable uranium. He doesn’t trust his associates, but feels he can keep them at an arms length enough to make a boat load of money off of them. Billy runs into a British couple, Gwendolen and Harry Chelm (Jennifer Jones and Edward Underdown) who are also booked on a ship to the same spot in Africa, for what seems to also be a business trip.

After his encounter with the Chelms, there are a series of disjoint events; someone we don’t know is killed, the boat is delayed because the captain is drunk, a car drives off the cliff with no one in it; then they finally get on the boat and head for Africa but run into numerous problems. Then there is an odd crossing of relationships without either of the parties knowing of the other: off-beat say-anything Gwendolen and Billy start a thing on the side immediately, while Billy’s wife Maria (Gina Lollabrigida) and stuffy Brit Harry Chelm begin a thing of their own. It all seems too all-of-a-sudden, convenient and at the same time without purpose.

Then there is the group of no-goods Billy works with that run around like the three (or four) blind mice stepping on each other’s heals who pop up at various times to discuss plans. Petereson (Robert Morley) is the pudgey leader, O’Hara (Peter Lorre) is the wittier one of the bunch, Ravello is the gaunt Italian whose purpose I’m unsure of, and the Jack Ross is ole captain stabbin’ whose rants about ‘great’ leaders invokes Dr. Strangelove flashbacks. All-in-all, the movie gets distracted over and over with little subplots and side characters and never seems to move forward. This would be ok if the subplots were of any interest; but honestly it all feels very haphazard.

So I read numerous things on the internet about this movie. As you can imagine from the incoherency of the story, it was a box office bomb. With Director John Huston and Humphrey Bogart teaming up previously on Maltese Falcon and Treasure of Sierra Madre you would expect much more as a filmgoer. Some of the same themes between those movies and this one exist. All three movies have a big score that all the greedy characters are after but in the end it all seems to be more ‘dream’ than anything else. But with no direction, I can see how audiences would reject this immediately.

In more recent times, however, this film has developed quite a cult following. There are groups out there who love the movie for its self-satire (taking jabs at previous Bogart-Huston movies I suppose), and for its endless character actors filling in their small parts. The love the fact that this movie was “bold” enough to ad-lib many lines and poke fun at some stereotypes in to the type of movies that Bogie and Huston had made in the past. To me it just sounds like excuse making for liking a terrible movie. I don’t see the satire as being altogether comical or even justified. It’s not as if they are poking fun at a well defined genre and even if you could make that argument most of the jokes lack the timing to make it work.

As far as the character acting there are some good moments and lines, but they stand out apart from the film as opposed to working with making the film better as a whole. The actors themselves ad-libbed or were fed lines day to day by writer Truman Capote, but none of them really seem to work together convincingly. It seems as if all parties involved in the film were ad-libbing (I can see the cameraman “Yeah this looks like a good spot to shoot, lets set up and get out of here so I can get a drink.”). Deadlines probably crunched this film to the point where they had to get it done in whatever condition possible and it shows.

After seeing Beat the Devil I remain torn on the John Huston as great director question. Treasure of Sierra Madre and Maltese Falcon are considered classics, but many stand to debate whether how much credit can be given to Huston. After seeing movies like Beat the Devil and Casino Royale I’m starting to lose faith. How can one director who is considered great fall so far from the top with numerous bad movies? The jury is still out and his fate shouldn’t be decided in one single movie review. Beat the Devil ,while considered a cult classic, isn’t very accessible to a wide audience or even to most classic movie buffs.

2 out of 10 Jackasses
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