I have read passing references to John Huston’s Beat the Devil over the years, so I was aware of its reputation as a quirky adventure comedy. Since that genre is not high on my list of preferences, and my interest in Huston’s work is recent, it is not surprising that I have only now gotten around to seeing the film. It is definitely original and worth watching. Whether it is likable is another matter.
Beat is more a situation than a story. Billy Danreuther (Humphrey Bogart) and his wife Maria (Gina Lollobridgida) work with a motley crew that includes Peter Lorre and Robert Morley. Waiting in a small Italian port to set sail for East Africa, they are joined by a British couple, the Chelms (Edward Underdown and Jennifer Jones) who are also marking time in the town.
These unpredictable characters display their idiosyncrasies largely through dialog and bizarre behavior, in what must be one of the talkiest ‘“adventure” films ever made. Stalled in park, the nearly total lack of external development gives plenty of ammunition to those who criticize Huston for being more interested in literary than cinematic values. Even pure action sequences seem included more for how the characters react to them than for themselves. For example, when an ancient relic of a car plummets off a cliff into the sea, the accident produces only temporary plot complications and those only because the characters mistakenly believe the occupants were killed.
As a consequence, the lovely locations become little better than backdrops to the dialog. There is a good deal of understated cinematic flash (that car wreck is well staged, for example), but it is the words and the characters’ almost incomprehensible behavior that help the actors keep Beat chugging along with their flamboyant turns. (My favorite gag: Lorre’s character, named “O’Hara,” is so obviously German that none of the others can remember what to call him and end up inventing names for him.) The results certainly entertain, but the well-honed speech (co-written by Truman Capote) punches holes in the realistic milieu.
If the performers keep things moving, they are handicapped by the fact that none of the characters are particularly likable. Danreuther may be meant as the sympathetic center, but looking tired and slightly ill, Bogart gives one of his weakest performances. Moreover, Billy is the story’s least developed character, more a bewildered spectator than an active participant. The others have their moments, but none are sympathetic enough to make us care what happens to them. In fact, their antics start to grate as the plot runs out of steam. It doesn’t help that the reason why the characters are waiting in that Italian port is treated almost as an irrelevance.
On the other hand, any film as unique as Beat the Devil deserves attention. If the overall purpose seems obscure, isolated moments have a vivacious charm.