The preliminary number on the Brattle card this week is a UPA cartoon version of James Thurber's fable for our time, The Unicorn in the Garden. An expansion of the theme ("Don't count your boobies before they are hatched") serves as the main event, with Humphrey Bogart compensating for the absence of technicolor.
Hitherto unreliable sources have issued the unconfirmed report that Beat the Devil is a lampoon of The Maltese Falcon. Now there may be some who hate the thought of that picture being spoofed, and others who feel it needs no spoofing, but they can simply regard Beat the Devil as a general satire on Hollywood's preoccupation with undercover men. At any rate, this is one motion picture not to be taken seriously.
John Huston's direction has given the film sufficient plasticity to pour it into any definition of farce, but let us settle for Fowler's: "Farce raises laugher by the outrageous absurdity of the situation or characters exhibited." Which doesn't yet bring us to Gina Lollobrigida (she comes later), but provides a good excuse for a summary of the situation.
In a small, unexceptional Italian port, an American operator-of-sorts (Mr. Bogart) is stranded with his wife (Miss Lollopalooza). Stranded with them are a small (but disciplined) 'group of intriguers, who boast some of the world's greatest faces. The stout Englishman, the spaghettilike Italian, the German exponent of German culture (Peter Lorre) and Mr. Bogart, with his own lovably singular mug, encompass the cinematic world of racketeers, spies, secret agents, etc.
And while this attractive little crew is waiting in port for their captain to sober up (it's been two weeks, y'know), so they can sail to Africa and make a killing in uranium, they become entangled with a British tourist and his wife (Jennifer Jones'). These tea-soaked commoners hold illusions of grandeur and romance which fool the intriguers as thoroughly as they fool the Britishers themselves.
So the script goes bouncing along from gag to gag, and the next thing you know Bogart thinks the tourists own uranium-rich land, the English lady wants to run away with him, the rest of the mob wants in (on the uranium, not the lady), and the chilly British tourist asks for a hot water bottle but gets Gina Lollobrigida.
So much for the simple part. The captain, who bears an unfortunate resemblance to people's hero of Latin America, decides to hoist sail. The waves toss, the plot thickens, the romances and intrigues intensify, and the British tourist finds his chill growing worse. The cry "Abandon ship!" is the least of everyone's troubles.
All survive, only to be captured on an Arabian shore. Just as we expect to see Bogart face the firing squad, we find him sitting on a couch with the Arab leader, who asks, "Tell me more about Rita Hayworth."
Which is about as close as Beat the Devil comes to having a point. It's a sprawling, funny film, reminiscent of the good old days when our Movie Industry was alive. It might pay to forget those grand resolutions about buckling down for the new semester. The term can just as well go to pot while there's a good movie around.