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Truman Capote and John Huston film a New Yorker cartoon
on October 19, 2004
Beat the Devil is a subtle comedy of manners. It's not a big Hollywood film, but a small independent (Bogart's own production company) that happens to have an amazing cast, is directed by one of the best (John Huston), with a Truman Capote screenplay. It's become one of my favorite off-beat films and can't recommend it enough.
What's not to like? Quite a bit if you read some of the disgruntled reviews below! But don't be dissuaded, it's a gem. And remember, Pauline Kael was a huge fan of this movie; if she's a reviewer you trust, that might be enough for you.
Other reviewers have outlined the plot so I won't go into that, and in any case, that's not the reason to watch this movie. The plot's certainly as good as any amusing Hitchcock film, with its MacGuffin and several surprising twists and comic suspense subplots unraveling throughout.
There are subtleties to Beat the Devil that apparently escape many reviewers, who perhaps wanted another formulaic 'noir' classic or some kind of slapstick laff-fest. If you like New Yorker cartoons, you'll likely enjoy this movie as much as I do: I've watched this movie at least 5 times and still love it.
Beat the Devil escapes categorization, except to say that it's a brilliant comic screenplay performed with skill and insight by several of the best actors of the 50s. Robert Morley is sublimely funny, and brings out the best in Peter Lorre and the other criminals in the gang.
Jennifer Jones is sexy and charming in her role as a compulsive liar, as is her classic and earnestly doltish husband. They reek naive British charm and are marvelous together, providing a poignant tension in contrast to the gang of conniving scoundrels.
Bogart himself has one foot in each boat, and much of the film revolves around the conflict he suffers in this double life, playing each off the other. As in most Bogie flicks, he's hilariously dry and sly, with lollapalooza actress Gina Lollobrigida playing his scheming wife. Everyone's on the make except Harry Chelm, Jennifer Jones' character's husband.
There isn't the passion of a Bogie/Bacall film, and it's not the classic noir we all love with Bogart, so don't be disappointed.
One word of warning: Beat the Devil slipped into the public domain, so the DVDs on the market are of varying quality. The one I have is ok, but only just... it's like watching an old movie, with herky jerky pops and cuts and some noise. It doesn't bother me that much though, and emphasizes the 'rare find' quality if you're feeling charitable. If you're a digital maniac, you'll be better served watching something Criterion's had its way with.
Beat the Devil is one of the most unusual 50s movies I can think of, and I don't normally watch any movie as often as I've watched this one. With the possible exception of other Bogart classics.