Fuld af Løgn
The last movie of 1953 is ”Beat the Devil”, an oddity of a movie by all accounts.
I never entirely worked out what the movie was all about, except that everybody seems to be fooling everybody, but something tells me that the deeper meaning of this movie is not so important. While watching it I decided I liked it quite a bit, but the ending was something of a letdown. I had expected more, some shattering twists and reveals to turn the movie upside down, but instead it fizzles. It is a shame because the road there was funny indeed.
You know those movies where you suddenly see a lot of Hollywood A-listers in an independent movie going absolutely banana? “Beat the Devil” is exactly such a movie. We have John Huston as director, Truman Capote as writer and Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Perter Morley, Gina Lollobrigida and Jennifer Jones as principal actors and all outside the big studios.
What that means is that they all had a lot of fun playing scumbags in this outrageous comedy. There is a hilarity to the movie as if the actors were actually on vacation, which in a sense they were since the movie was recorded in very scenic surroundings (maybe Italy?).
A shady quartet of Petersen (Robert Morley), O’Hara (Peter Lorre), Major Ross (Ivor Barnard) and Ravello (Marco Tulli) is going to central Africa to put their clammy hands on some mineral rights. They are a vicious bunch of clowns. Their guide is Billy Dannreuther (Humphrey Bogart), and while not as idiotic as his employers he is no less a shameless crook. His wife and partner in crime is Maria Dannreuther (Gina Lollobrigida).
The first part of the movie takes place in the harbor town of Val Verde, where ever that is. The party is impatiently waiting for their ride to Africa which gives them a chance to meet a curious English couple, Gwendolen (Jennifer Jones) and Harry Chelm (Edward Underdown). Both are characters extraordinaire.
Gwendolen is extremely intelligent, but also impulsive, romantic and imaginative to the point of half living in a fantasy worlds. It is illustrated very well in their opening scene on their porch where Gwendolen is beating the crap out her husband in chess while her attention is entirely focused on fantasizing on what sort of mischief the random passerby’s are up to. Her husband Harry is every inch an Englishman, formerly of the British navy, with genteel aspirations. He is stubborn, single-minded and righteous to the point of idiocy (think something like a John Cleese character). Really a lovely couple.
For the better part of the movie Gwendolen tells fantastic stories to the different members of the team, one more outrageous than the next, to the effect of making the team run circles around themselves. Her very liberal interpretation of reality manages to entirely sabotage the entire expedition. The exact wheres and hows are much too fun to reveal here, but the resulting chaos is the strongest asset of the film.
From the town the mayhem continues on the boat taking them to Africa and this is really the boat ride from hell. No wonder everybody seem to go completely insane.
The quartet is excellent and Morley is effectively stealing the movie from Bogart as the ringleader. Just the sight of him is suspicious and his talk is pure corruption. Sleaze and menace. He is easily my favorite character of the movie. I love the scene where he tries to convince the Arab customs officer of his innocence. No, my friend, you look guilty as hell.
There is clearly something odd about the English couple. Who are they really? Obviously their wild stories are not true, but then what? Are they government agents? Or competitors to those mineral rights intent on sabotaging the opposition? Or are they just two crazy nobodies? I was much looking forward to the big reveal at the end, but without spoiling too much let me just say that that reveal left me rather deflated.
My copy was in poor condition and that is really a shame. This is an obvious candidate for restoration and definitely worth it. Fading sound and grainy, unfocused pictures simply do not do this movie justice.
I had a lot of fun watching this movie and would happily see it again. It is not perfect, even if it got restored, but it is stuffed with priceless scenes and that is what this movie is all about. To hell with meaningful plots and realistic characters. This is intelligent slapstick.