John Huston (director)
16 March 2020 (released)
18 March 2020
This 1953 comedy-adventure is somewhat of a curiosity and it would be true to say that director Huston seldom, if ever, came up with a film that did not give the viewer more than a liberal amount of undiluted pleasure.
There is a lot of talent on show here and for a start, the premise is a novel by acerbic British critic Claud Cockburn (writing as James Hervick), the screenplay was written by John Huston and Truman Capote (which explains a fair bit) as well as a few others un-credited individuals, including Huston’s long time collaborator Anthony Veiller.
Most of the action takes place in a small town in Italy where American Billy Dannreuther (Humphrey Bogart) lives with his manipulative Italian wife Maria (Gina Lollabrigida). Billy, who was at one time doing rather well for himself but has fallen on hard times, is waiting for a drunken local man who owns a reasonably sized boat harbored some kilometers away to get him to a place in Africa where he has been well informed are large Uranium deposits. Also holed up in this town are four of the quirkiest (and to be sure this is a real quirky affair) villains imaginable and all known to Billy: foremost there is Peterson, better known as Fatgut (Robert Morley), Julius O’ Hara (Peter Lorre in a nice reunion with ‘Bogie’), the diminutive but totally psychotic ‘Galloping Major’ Jack Ross (former Shakespearian actor Ivor Barnard in his last role) and the tall and gaunt looking Italian actor Marco Tulli as Ravello. This of course is somewhat of an in-joke one supposes (the film is full of these) as the town in question is actually called Ravello.
Billy is having his rent paid by the corrupt Peterson who wants a large slice of the action with regards to the Uranium. Very soon a rather eccentric and seemingly upper class wealthy English couple arrive. They are Mrs. Gwendolen Chelm (played by Jennifer Jones who is sporting an unflattering blond wig and makes a brave attempt at a pukka British accent), and her hubby Harry Chelm (a hilarious Edward Underdown in what is possibly the most memorable performance of the entire film). While dining ‘al fresco’ with Harry in the village square, Gwendolyn soon clocks Billy and is immediately attracted to him, with a whirlwind romance ensuing quicker than you can say ‘Avanti’! Meanwhile Harry appears to be getting on rather well with Maria. Such a sophisticated attitude our players had for those days and you would never see the likes on 'Circus Television' these days. Now what exactly are the Chelms there for? It wouldn't be that they also are onto to this Uranium business? Peterson sends Julius out to spy on Billy and the rather forward Gwendolen. No one can really trust each other when we are talking about mega bucks. Eventually they manage to get the boat out to Africa - ALL of them that is; after a wrong assumption that Harry and Peterson have been killed in a Laurel & Hardy type road mishap as they were being driven down to meet the boat. It later appears that Ravello, assuming they were dead, put Harry in on the coup.
And now it really is all aboard for the skylark. Peterson is suspicious of Harry and gets the ‘Galloping Major’ to purloin Harry's luggage case from his cabin where delving through his contents it is discovered that the Chelms are not exactly who they appear to be. Due to a series of increasing and comic misfortunes the boat sinks though not before Harry has been chained to a deck-post after the stolen luggage business… and promptly disappears. Unfortunately the gang find themselves on an island run by Ahmed, an Arab official, and they are suspected of spying. Fortunately Billy, who does have a bit of nous thank goodness, is on hand to save the situation - especially when he discovers that Ahmed (an amusing appearance by Manuel Serrano) has a big thing about Rita Hayworth and thankfully Billy IS an American. Still, this reviewer has no further wish to reveal any more.
The film was considered too quirky (that word again) for 1953 and certainly deserved far more recognition, which it appears to be getting at long last courtesy of the BFI. Robert Morley is always Morley, Peter Lorre's part it must be said is not exactly on a par with his ‘Joe Cairo’ in THE MALTESE FALCON and he looks ill and overweight. Marco Tulli has little to do. Ivor Barnard is amusing as psychotic fascist murderer ‘Galloping Major’ Ross. Jennifer Jones is amusing and a million miles away from her ‘Bernadette Soubirous’ in THE SONG OF BERNADETTE. As mentioned earlier, Edward Underdown virtually steals the film. Bogie's strong presence completes the set; a pity he lost money on the project.
Admittedly it is not a great film but nonetheless it is much underappreciated with a very funny and witty script.