Friday, December 13, 2013

Beat the Devil

All right, a film noir movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre and directed by John Huston. Widely regarded as the first Hollywood film noir, The Maltese Falcon concerns ... oh wait, wrong movie.

The Big Lebowski has often been called a film noir starring a burned-out hippy played by Jeff Bridges instead of a cool detective played by Humphrey Bogart. Beat the Devil (1953) is kind of like The Big Lebowski if it had actually starred Humphrey Bogart and been made during the genre's heyday. Sure, there's something resembling a plot buried in it, but the focus is more on the interaction among these rather eccentric and bizarre characters. It's about attitude, not narrative.

Based on a novel of the same name (and co-adapted by director Huston and Truman Capote), Beat the Devil  opens in a small Italian port town where Billy Dannreuther (Bogart) and his wife Maria (Gina Lollobrigida) plan to go to Africa with a multi-international quartet of criminal associates of his - Peterson (Robert Morley), O'Hara (Lorre), Major Ross (Ivor Barnard), and Ravello (Marco Tulli). The four crooks intend to pose as vacuum salesmen in Kenya where they can cheaply acquire land rich in uranium and make a fortune. When their departure is delayed, the Dannreuthers fall in the with peculiar British couple, the Chelms, Harry (Edward Underdown) and Gwendolen (Jennifer Jones). A number of schemes and escapades materialize, complicated by Gwen falling in love with Billy and Maria being attracted to Harry.

Compared to other film noir pictures of the time, Beat the Devil is lighter and sillier. Many such crime thrillers are set in grimy, dark urban streets with deep shadows and twisted villains driven by psychological compulsions. Beat the Devil, by contrast, is set mostly at day in wide open streets of a resort town, and the villains, while having a fair amount of comic menace, are mostly played for laughs, and much of the humor derives from seeing them being stifled in their criminal enterprises. There's a potential dark subtext about American and European powers exploiting the wealth of Africa for their own gain, but one thing after another keeps them from implementing, whether it's a delayed plane ride, a wrecked car, or British busybodies who seem to know more than they let on.

Even the supposed thrilling moments are underscored by comedy. When the group is taken prisoner after becoming shipwrecked, Dannreuther cons his way out of it by talking about Rita Hayworth with the Arab interrogator. There's another point when he causes a car to go off a cliff, and the angry driver demands compensation for the wrecked vehicle, to which Bogey replies he's the one who gave him the car as a gift while the driver argues it's immaterial how the car came into his possession. When a ship the characters are on begins sinking, the sequence focuses more on the drunk captain lamenting his ruined boat and the sardonic sailor who seems to amuse himself by stirring the pot rather than the central characters scrambling for their lives.

Bogart at times looks ready to turn to the camera to ask the audience, "Can you believe these guys?" Sure, he had his sharp one-liners and cool put downs in other movies, but he seems more tongue-in-cheek, more self-aware about it, here. Instead of trying to be cool, he's trying to be funny. And yes, he's still got some good lines:

- "I was an orphan myself until I was 20. Then a rich, beautiful lady adopted me."

- "You don't care what I think as long as I don't do anything about it."

- "Fat Guy's my best friend, and I will not betray him cheaply" (That's a line, if any, that belongs on Archer).

Sure, Bogart's the star, but the others hold their own just as well. Major Ross has some decidedly pro-fascist lines about how Hitler knew how to keep women in their place while Lorre does his weasel bit and has a great passage about time. "What is time? Swiss manufacture it. French hoard it. Italians squander it. Americans say it is money. Hindus say it does not exist. Do you know what I say? I say time is a crook." Morley is also funny as the ringleader who grows increasingly befuddled as all his plans fall apart. The women, meanwhile, are on hand to be merciless and right to the point about what fools these men all are.

I admit I was confused trying to follow the plot at the beginning. Something about that uranium scheme in Africa and a murder in London, but after a bit, I just stopped caring what the schemes were, what angle everyone was playing, who double-crossing or blackmailing who, and where it was all going, but oddly enough, for a movie with so much background material and plot mechanics, narrative serves a secondary function to the dialogue and situations that begin intense and build into comic payoffs. This is not a film noir to take seriously or study for serious analysis. If you want that, go watch The Maltese Falcon. 

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