If you are a fan of slapstick comedy, this movie is not for you, but if you like your humour dry then John Huston’s Beat the Devil will provide plenty to chuckle about. Other than directing the movie, Huston also wrote the screenplay in partnership with Truman Capote allegedly as the film was being shot. This might explain the “off the cuff” and “wing it” feel to the plot as if the cast had little knowledge of “what might come next”.
Humphrey Bogart is Billy Dannreuther who was once filthy rich but has fallen on hard times. He’s offered the chance to be wealthy once again by an unlikely group of charlatans led by Peterson a most unsavoury character; a not untypical role for the wide-eyed portly Robert Morley. The other members of the gang are Julius O’Hara, always the first to panic, Ravello who would swindle his own mother if he had one, and Jack Ross a sneaky assassin of small stature. They have a plan to acquire land for a song in East Africa that, unknown but for a select few, is rich in uranium. Their information source in the Foreign Office has been permanently eliminated, and there are no prizes to identify the villain.
The gang are stuck in an Italian backwater port waiting for repairs to be finished on the SS Nyanga, a passed its best beat-up freighter, for passage to Africa where Billy has a contact who knows the exact location of the tract of land in question. The Chelms are English new arrivals to appear on the scene; Harry and his flirtatious wife Gwendolen, a role for the delicious Jennifer Jones. Booked on the same freighter, they soon cosy up with Billy and his wife Maria who is played by the shapely Gina Lollobrigida. For a while, it looks like a wife swap as Gwendolen throws herself at Billy and Maria takes a shine to Harry. Of course, in accordance with the etiquette of the times, there are no steamy passionate scenes in the movie, it’s all left to one’s imagination just as it should be. Harry is a bit of a worm as he pretends to be an upper-class law-abiding gentleman of means, but is he the worm that turns?
Plots and counterplots are the order of the day while they wait for the Nyanga to be seaworthy. Who will eventually come out on top? Peterson and his fellow crooks, the Chelms, or Billy. Eventually, the ship’s drunken captain declares the ship is ready to depart. So with ample Dramamine, they all board for passage to their land of promise, although judging by the amount of rust evident on the Nyanga none could possibly have acquired travel insurance. This is when the real infighting begins, and even the crew joins in. With the ship systems failing the lights start to go off for short periods. All kinds of skullduggery take place in the dark with poor old Harry forced to swim for it in the middle of the ocean. With disagreements at every turn, the captain cons the passengers into thinking the ship is sinking hoping they will leave him in peace. If this is unfortunate for the land grabbers there is much worse to come. A run-in with a dissatisfied Arab former customer needs all of Billy’s negotiation skills and Rita Hayward to save Peterson from a firing squad (no she’s not one of the cast). It’s then back to the Italian port where they started and another obstacle to their plans. A police officer has arrived in town complete with handcuffs looking for the killer of the Foreign Office official in London. Once this is dealt with there is a somewhat unexpected ending to the proceedings.
Overall it’s a cracking little known movie with Robert Morley at his pompous best. Peter Sellers has a small-unaccredited role in this film. Humphrey Bogart had a car accident during production and lost a number of his teeth making speech difficult. So they hired Sellars to imitate and dub some of Bogart’s lines. It’s done so well that It’s impossible to determine which lines are dubbed. While It isn’t Bogart’s best film performance, he does have the last laugh and it’s a real rib cracker.