Plot: A broken down ship docks in a small Italian port, where repairs will be made and the journey can then continue on to East Africa. The destination promises potential wealth beyond measure for some, as the locale is ripe with uranium and that market is red hot, to say the least. Billy Peterson (Humphrey Bogart) is one of the many interested in the property and while he has a plan, even his own associates seem to all have plans of their own, not all of which involve Billy’s concerns. Billy and his cohorts now have to pass the time until the boat is repaired, which seems like a good opportunity to get to know some of the other passengers, some of whom also seem like they might have secret schemes up their sleeves. With this kind of rogue’s gallery of charlatans all playing the game, who will end up with the uranium claim?
Entertainment Value: This is an interesting one, as Beat the Devil was a bomb when it was first released, but it would go on to become a cult classic, sometimes even called one of the first movies to do so. The narrative is thin, to be kind, but it has the bare essentials of a plot involved, with the focus on the cast & characters instead. So this doesn’t have the intricate twists and turns of some crime capers, but it is a colorful movie that lets its talented ensemble put on a show. The movie pokes some fun at the other caper and heist movies of the time, so the tone is comedic and despite the criminals involved, remains light and brisk throughout. In other words, tension runs low and the stakes aren’t that high, but this makes sense, given that Beat the Devil focuses on the light laughs and humorous performances. But it does feel uneven overall and makes some odd choices, especially given the level of talent involved on both sides of the camera, so I can see how some would be let down here. I appreciated it for the quirks however, as it has a unique atmosphere and seeing a star studded ensemble like this in such an offbeat movie does wrangle your interest. I had fun with Beat the Devil and I think it earns its cult classic reputation, as it is odd at times, but quite worthwhile.
As the narrative is dicey in this one, the movie relies heavily on the cast to deliver the entertainment and with a lineup like this one, that is just what happens. Even if the story makes no sense at times, the talent here keeps things moving forward and holds our attention in the nonsense. Humphrey Bogart is here and displays his usual charm and sense of humor, but he is upstaged for better or worse, as Jennifer Jones and Gina Lollobrigida tend to steal the scenes. Now I can understand if the performances and characters from these two rub you the wrong way at times, but I just embraced the camp value and I think both are fun to watch here. Jones is on point with her dialogue and I always appreciate sharp banter, which she has in spades and especially when she plays off Bogart. But she has a number of people to bounce off in this one and she does, so her honed verbal skills are a pleasure to watch. I also have to mention Peter Lorre, who I always like to see at work and he is terrific here, in a role that likely only he could play this well. The cast also includes Robert Morley, Edward Underdown, and Ivor Barnard, while John Huston is the director of Beat the Devil.
The Disc: Beat the Devil is released on Blu-ray by Twilight Time and the presentation is nothing short of spectacular, the kind of visual treatment I think fans assumed would never be offered. As the film has languished in public domain editions that left a lot to be desired, this restoration is like seeing Beat the Devil again for the first time, it is that much of an improvement. The print looks pristine in most scenes, with minimal signs of age or wear, while fine detail is stunning, such depth and even the most minute of visual cues are crystal clear here. This version also restores some footage that had never been released on home video, so it is not only looks excellent, but offers up the most complete version of Beat the Devil. The disc’s extras start with an interview with Alexander Cockburn, the son of Claud Cockburn, then takes us to an informative, in depth audio commentary with film historians Nick Redman, Julie Kirgo, and Lem Dobbs, who discuss the film’s offbeat production and lasting legacy. The disc also includes the film’s theatrical trailer.