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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Classic Movie Review: Beat the Devil (1953)

I still can't remember why I got my hands on Beat the Devil to review - it is an obscure movie with a very peculiar comedy to it.  It stars Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, and a supporting cast of four "desperate fellows" on an ill-fated trip to Central Africa to exploit a lead on a Uranium-rich tract of land.

The trip serves to provide the setting, first an idyllic seaside stop-over then an ocean voyage, and the intrigue. a 5-way business arrangement held together more by suspicion then trust.  The real story here is not the Uranium mine at all, but the bizarre antics of these characters as they all interact with one another.

Much like while doing my review of Bringing up Baby I was surprised at the timelessness of the comedies of the 50's.  Co-written by Truman Capote, the script was produced day-by-day and the actors tasked with performing them hot off the presses.  This plays through in the way this movie feels more like skilled improv than a traditional movie.  There are some wonderful characters at play, from the Chilean German with an Irish name who waxes poetic about the meaning of time, to the Blonde Beauty who is fickle with her affections yet liberal with her imagination.

Beat the Devil is punctuated by stunning set pieces of dialogue.  Tongue-in-cheek interchanges and occasionally insightful mini-soliloquys make quick work of your defences and will render you raptly aware of the bizarreness of each character.  For me, it is reminiscent of the distinct characters found in Charles Dickens - lively, colourful, and just a bit bent.  Although there is at most 3 settings throughout the movie it has the feeling of being a mad capering adventure in that the situations seem as improvisational as the acting.  Whether it was the dialogue or the situations, I found myself laughing out loud more than once and chuckling over the few recurrent gags that sneak in under the wire.

I've never seen Humphrey Bogart in a film before and I'm not sure this was the best introduction of him as an iconic actor, although it has the benefit of my seeing him disarmed from any affected grandeur.  Now I know him as an interesting actor, who can turn a deadpan phrase and still seem the dashing lead.  I want to note also that I had never heard of Jennifer Jones before, but after her charming, intelligent turn in this film, I can imagine she had the hearts of many young men firmly entrenched in wishful thinking.

One thing you can expect from Beat the Devil is never to hear a bland or clichéd statement responded to without a cupful of wit and on that topic I'll let our protagonist Billy have the last word, "The only thing standing between you and a watery grave is your wits, and that's not my idea of adequate protection."

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