The place is a small Italian port where a motley group of unlikely individuals are gathering. One of them is Billy Dannreuther (Humphrey Bogart) who is there with his wife Maria (Gina Lollobrigida) to make some money and with any luck extricate himself from a plan drawn up by a band of four criminals led by the rotund Peterson (Robert Morley). Peterson wants to sail to Africa so he can exploit the undiscovered uranium reserves there, but Billy is concerned when Maria calls attention to a newspaper report saying that one of their associates who might have double crossed Peterson in London is now dead in mysterious circumstances...
In some ways the story behind Beat the Devil is more interesting than the film itself; it lends the oncreen action a greater depth at any rate. An almost instant cult movie, mainly due to its lack of success at the box office, co-producer Bogart famously hated it - "Only the phonies liked it!" he protested - yet its flagrant send up of the kind of films that its director John Huston had made his name with, specifically The Maltese Falcon, offered a strange fascination for film buffs and even casual viewers.
Truman Capote was the man adapting James Helvick's novel, reputedly while the project was still being shot, and it does have a loose, making it up on the day feel throughout. There is an abundance of characters to contend with, possibly too many for its running time so just as you're getting used to one another comes along in their place. Also appearing were a blonde Jennifer Jones as Gwendolen, one half of British couple, her husband being the no-nonsense but ineffectual Harry (Edward Underdown). Gwendolen claims Harry has inherited a uranium-rich plantation, but then she is a compulsive liar.
Nevertheless, this interests Peterson and his heavies, unaware of Gwendolen's yarn-spinning. In fact, the whole story resembles a tall tale which may be responsible for a lot of the enjoyment, but also the airless feel of a prank dragged out for too long. That said, there are incidental pleasures, such as Peter Lorre as the difficult to believe German Irishman O'Hara: Lorre dyed his hair blond for the role to greater look like Capote, or so the legend has it. He is patently there for his Falcon echoes, just as Morley is for his Sydney Greenstreet girth but Bogart is no Sam Spade here, mainly an amused observer.
For the first half, this dodgy crew discuss themselves near-endlessly in the town, scheming to leave for Africa while Gwendolen falls for Billy, realising that he is a better bet than her cold fish husband. Maria seems oblivious to this, incidentally. This is in some ways a comedy, so there are setpieces such as Peterson escorting Billy to the airport so they can reach Africa first, only for their car to break down, run down the hill without its driver and plummet over the barrier into the sea, leading the others to think they have perished. Funny? Sort of. Beat the Devil has its roguish charms, but it's a mishmash that never really pulls together as satisfyingly as you want it to, in spite of elements that you would expect to work some magic. It's almost deliberately anticlimactic, a sly put-on. Music by Franco Mannino.