Old 01-19-2009, 08:30 PM
John Huston's Beat the Devil

Beat the Devil (1953)

What a horrible trick for a movie to set up an incredibly intriguing plot and then never get around to actually delivering on it. When "Beat the Devil" was over, it felt like I had been slapped in the face or like John Huston was laughing from the grave at some big gag he had set up in this film.....except nobody else was laughing.

"Beat the Devil" follows a pack of crooks as they wait in an Italian seaside town for their boat to be ready to take them to Africa. Their plan is to buy up some African land and smuggle the uranium off the continent. Among this group of crooks is Billy Dannreuther (Humphrey Bogart), Peterson (Robert Morley), and Julius O'Hara (Peter Lorre). Billy meets up with a charming British couple, Mrs. Gwendolen Chelm (Jennifer Jones) and Harry Chelm (Edward Underdown), who are also going to Africa. Gwendolen falls in love with Billy and reveals to him that they are also going to Africa because of the uranium that is supposedly on some land that Harry recently inherited. Through a misunderstanding, Harry finds out about the crooks' plan, making for a very awkward situation aboard the boat.

John Huston's "Beat the Devil" is an example of a film that just doesn't know what it wants to be. It has a little bit of so many genres that it loses itself among them. If it wanted to be a heist film, it should have gone all the way with that story. If it wanted to be a comedy, as apparently Huston meant for it to be, then it needed a lot more of it. There are even a couple of romances thrown in that never go anywhere. If Huston had focused on one of these ideas, it would have been a much better film.

What is most bothersome about this whole film is that we are told early on of the plot to steal uranium from Africa, therefore we are waiting the whole film for this plot to be taken under actually consideration, but that time never comes. Instead, the film meanders from one scene to the next, in no particular direction, not giving the characters anything of particular interest to do.

It's such a shame because the film is filled with such great acting talent. There is the always great Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre, who have teamed up for such classics as "Casablanca" and "The Maltese Falcon." Unfortunately, Peter Lorre is barely ever on screen, and when he is, he is usually only given a line or two to mumble, leaving us waiting several minutes to hear from him again. His character definitely needed to be used more, especially if you're going to get somebody as good as Peter Lorre, who is a tremendous actor (see Fritz Lang's masterpiece "M" for an example).

There is a possible reason the story seems so meandering at times. The screenplay was written by John Huston and Truman Capote (Yes, THAT Truman Capote). According to Roger Ebert's "Great Movie" essay, Capote was brought in to help write new scenes after Huston tore up the original screenplay on the first day of shooting. However, Capote was not exactly in a great mental state. He would talk with his pet raven via telephone everyday, but when the raven refused to talk to him one day, Capote flew all the way to Rome to console it, delaying production on the film. Not exactly the kind of dependability you want in a screenwriter when you're trying to meet deadlines.

The film is based off of the novel of the same name by James Helvick and was originally set in a French town. It was also originally supposed to be a halfway serious thriller before John Huston made the odd decision to turn it into a comedy. However, even comedies need to have some kind of plot. They can't simply wander aimlessly from one scene to the next. It's even more insulting to the audience to have a perfectly good plot dangling in the background that is never used.

Now, all that being said, it isn't a complete disaster. Bogart is charming as always and Lorre, though underused, does a good job. Robert Morley also gives a satisfying performance as Peterson, the suave, smooth-talking crook. We also get an early appearance of Bernard Lee as Inspector Clayton near the end of the film. Lee would go on to play M in several "James Bond" films, which is probably his most well-known role.

John Huston was obviously a very talented writer/director as we can clearly see from his masterpiece "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," which also starred Bogart and for which Huston got two Oscars as writer and director. Perhaps if he had just gone with his original draft instead of trusting the screenplay to a guy who had discourse with his raven, the film would have been more focused. Unfortunately, the good intentions of the filmmakers ended up leading the audience from one continent and back without anything to remember the trip by. 2.5/4 stars.
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