Thursday, January 29, 2004

Beat The Devil

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 January at the Brattle Theater (Humphrey Bogart: The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of)

Heh. The Brattle listing calls this one a "self-parody", but I prefer to look at this 1953 movie as just being about 40 years or so before its time. It's a wonderful movie about inept scoundrels trying to get one up on each other with people who are innocent to the point of parody throwing a monkey wrench into their plans. Though it was adapted by John Huston and Truman Capote from a more serious James Helvick (real name Claud Cockburn) novel, it's the sort of thing that fans of Barry Sonnenfeld and Elmore Leonard would feel right at home with. Bogart's character has been hired by a quartet of thieves to help steal a plot of land loaded with uranium, but the boat which will take them to British East Africa is delayed, so they're killing time in a small Italian village. Also waiting for the boat are the Chelm's, an English couple consisting of a very proper Englishman whom the Bogart character's wife (Gina Lollobridigida, a sexpot name if I've ever heard one) takes an immediate shine to and a clever, perky blonde (Jennifer Jones) who quickly finds Bogart much more interesting than her stuffy husband.

There's a plot, to be sure, but the thing of the matter is, there are all manner of things going wrong and preventing it from actually advancing. No problem, though, as it allows the cast of eccentrics to play off each other in delightful fashion. The quartet of would-be villains are a mix of physical and emotional types - the gigantic Robert Morley, the sad-faced Marco Tulli, the small but combustible Ivor Barnard, and the ever-dependable Peter Lorre (Quentin Tarantino must occasionally weep about never getting a chance to use Lorre in a picture). The diversions grow more and more outlandish, but by the time the characters have washed up on the shore of the wrong part of Africa, the audience should be enjoying the gleeful absurdity.

This has probably been my favorite discovery in the Brattle's recent Bogart series; indeed, one of my favorite classic films period.

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