Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on laptop.
Film noir wasn’t known as film noir until after the style was no longer in vogue. There had to be a sense of it, though, because John Huston managed to parody the style with Beat the Devil. This was a film that was not warmly received when it was originally released, but that has grown in stature over time. It’s become quite the classic, and has a cast that backs up that sort of evalutation.
We have a trio of criminals looking to exploit the mineral wealth of Africa. Specifically, they are looking to get their mitts on uranium deposits, since those deposits are essential for the production of both atomic energy and atomic weaponry. These men represent the varying fading powers of Europe. Specifically, there is the British Peterson (Robert Morley), the German-by-way-of-Chile O’Hara (Peter Lorre), and the Italian Ravello (Marco Tulli, who is perhaps the most angular human being to ever exist). They are joined by the fascist and Hitler-boosting Major Jack Ross (Ivor Barnard).
Working for them is the real star of our film, Billy Dannreuther (Humphrey Bogart), who knows the people who can help them get the uranium land in Africa. Billy and his wife Maria (Gina Lollabrigida) are running out of money it appears, although Billy evidently once had quite a bit. Billy is disturbed at the beginning of the film when he discovers that someone named Vanmeer in the U.K. has been killed, and he immediately suspects the men he is working for.
Into this mixture we throw the Chelms, a British couple also on their way to Africa to start a coffee plantation. Harry Chelm (Edward Underdown) is a proper gentleman who soon takes an interest in the exotic Maria Dannreuther. Gwendolen Chelm (Jennifer Jones) similarly takes an interest in Billy and begins spinning a tale of the enormous amount of (wait for it) uranium wealth on her husband’s land. She and Billy immediately become an item in that way that really only happens in movies. Or, at least in movies they call in love while in the real world it’s all about infatuation and lust.
Regardless of this, everyone is scheduled to sail to Africa on the same boat, and they are initially delayed. It’s not until the midpoint of the film that the boat sails, and then all of the little plots and intrigues that have bounced around in the film so far become far more pronounced. Everyone scams everyone else. Maria is scamming Harry, Gwendolen is scamming Billy and her husband both, and everyone wants the uranium for themselves.
Beat the Devil purports itself to be a comedy. The problem is that it’s not really that funny. In fact (or as Gweldolen is fond of saying, “in point of fact”), the only really comic character is the ship’s purser (Mario Perrone). The adventure is peculiarly madcap throughout, but it really just isn’t very funny. I realize that the drunken captain (Saro Urzi) of the ship is intended to be funny, but a drunken Italian man screaming constantly really isn’t much for comedy, at least for me. It’s not too long before he becomes a character I could easily live without, and it’s not without some pleasure that our principles leave the ship and we don’t have to listen to him screaming.
A bigger problem is one that might not so much be the problem of the film. It’s that I had most of this figured from about 15 minutes in. Once we’ve been properly introduced to all of the various characters, it’s pretty evident where this film is going from stem to stern. The double crosses and more didn’t surprise me at all. I was expecting something far more interesting.
It’s disappointing. As much as I wanted to like this film, I didn’t crack a smile once. It very well may be that I have seen too many other movies that do something similar, that attempt to tweak the viewer into thinking one thing and then constantly tweaking them into something else. The truth is that filmmakers have gotten better and better at this. Huston’s film is decidedly ham-handed in this respect.
Ah well. Even Bogart couldn’t bat 1.000.
Why to watch Beat the Devil: It’s got Bogart and Peter Lorre, and that’s generally a good and worthwhile combination.
Why not to watch: It’s supposed to be a comedy, and it’s really not that funny.
Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeah... While I feel as though I owe this movie a second viewing, I feel very much the same way as you. It's dull, it's predictable, it's not funny. I did not like this one.ReplyDelete
Apparently, all the stories about making this movie are more entertaining than the movie itself. I think the movie exists was just so Huston could pal around with Bogie and get drunk on location.
edit: "the *reason* this movie exists..."Delete
Yeah, it was quite a disappointment. Maybe some day I'll give it another shot, but it'll be awhile.Delete
This has turned into a cult classic over the years. It is such an odd film that I don't know if it's possible to label it--it's a multi-genre vehicle. The women are funny to me, but I don't know if that is what Huston had in mind. It seems really low budget, but then when you see who's in it you just can't believe it.ReplyDelete
It is difficult to classify. However, I'm not sure it's really even worth classifying as anything more or less than a noir spoof.Delete
I can't figure out why this film has grown in stature because it's pretty bad, like you said. I can put up with pretty bad if it's entertaining, witty, or interesting, but this just isn't. It's as flat as a 3-day old Coke.ReplyDelete
Y'know, I'm always a little nervous when I put up something that stomps a bit on something considered a classic. It's nice to know that I've hit closer to something that a lot of other people think, too.Delete
Ah, well, you know I liked this one a lot more than you did and the main reason seems to be that I actually found the gags funny. If they fall flat there really is not much left.ReplyDelete
I will agree with you on the resolution. I had expected the Chelms to have some deeper hidden agenda, that maybe they were government spies, or maybe they were super crooks moving in to rob out these amateurs, but it was so disappointing to find out that they were just exactly what they appeared to be: A British stiffneck with genteel aspirations and a silly woman with a penchant for inventing stories.
Yeah, it just fell flat for me. There's a possibility that had I seen this earlier in my life or even in my movie binge I'd have liked it more.Delete
This is a great movie! I first saw it in about 1990 and I bought a cheap VHS tape and I watched it repeatedly in the 1990s. And I bought a cheap DVD later on. So I've been able to watch it over and over. I hadn't seen it for a while when I noticed it was on Cinemoi, so I watched it last week. It's still hilarious.ReplyDelete
It has a following, but it seems like the people who like it all stumbled on it by accident. I know a lot of people who like it, but I don't think I ever recommended it to anybody who ended up liking it.
I don't get it. What's not to like? Jennifer Jones and Peter Lorre are both hilarious. Almost everybody has a few funny lines. That bit with Ivor Barnard going on about Hitler's good points and trying to start a fight in the bar, that's hilarious.
I suspect people may develop a specific idea about what Beat the Devil is, and then when it's not quite that, they don't like it. I hope you give it another chance some day. I think it's masterful.
I don't think my problem here is misidentifying it. I just didn't find it funny, and that's deadly for a comedy. I also didn't find it confusing or twisty, which is a problem for a film that purports itself to be exactly that.Delete