How can you go wrong with Humphrey Bogart? I decided to give a try to Beat the Devil on the strength of Bogart being its star. After all, I'd enjoyed his performance in The African Queen a great deal, andBeat the Devil seemed to promise the same style of adventurous fun as that film.
Alas, Beat the Devil never really takes off. The film's storyline revolves around a bunch of mercenary characters who plan to sail to East Africa where they propose to (illegally) make their fortunes in the uranium mining business. Ironically, the crucial point of the movie is precisely that they don't go anywhere, but are kept waiting impatiently around the docks as one thing and another go wrong, until it all falls apart. This isn't a spoiler, by the way, since the opening sequence of the film is the criminals being led away in chains with Bogart announcing that he's going to tell us what led up to their capture.
Like the plans of the incompetent crooks, Beat the Devil feels like a mish-mash that never fits together properly, and it never offers a particularly interesting story. Nor does it ever succeed in being funny, despite being billed as a comedy; the story simply sags along quietly from beginning to end.
True Bogart fans won't find this release of Beat the Devil to be satisfying, either: it's the 1954 edited 89-minute version of the film, not the original 1953 100-minute version.
The other main feature on The Humphrey Bogart Era is an episode of the Jack Benny Show featuring Bogart as a guest star. The complete 30-minute program is included on the DVD. Personally, I didn't find it particularly interesting, and the abysmal image quality certainly made it more difficult to appreciate to begin with; I'd expect this segment to be of main interest to viewers who are already familiar with (and fond of) The Jack Benny Show.
Speaking strictly from a historical perspective, there is one aspect of The Jack Benny Show episode that is macabrely fascinating: its sponsorship by Lucky Strike cigarettes. I'm a non-smoker myself; I grew up with Surgeon General's warnings and I've witnessed the gradual dwindling of smoking as an accepted and normal activity. But even though I know to expect a lot more smoking in older movies than in modern ones, my jaw dropped at the opening sequences of The Jack Benny Show. First, we get a lengthy testimonial from "Lou Little, football coach" extolling the virtues of cigarette smoking and the tastiness of Lucky Strikes; then we get a healthy-looking advertising man enthusiastically promoting the Lucky Strike brand; last but not least, Jack Benny himself reminds us that the show is sponsored by (you guessed it!) Lucky Strike. It's one of those moments that in a small way captures the change from one generation to the next.
The black-and-white feature film Beat the Devil is presented in 1.33:1, which is reasonably close to its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio; unfortunately, it appears to be in nearly its original state of disintegration as well. Some shots are obviously unrestored, with a brownish tint and a distinct flicker that's particularly noticeable in the light-colored areas of the image. The larger portion of the film's footage appears to have been cleaned up very slightly, insofar as the flicker is concerned, but the image is nonetheless very poor. The image is degraded by noise and numerous print flaws and scratches. Contrast is too extreme throughout the film, with light-colored areas generally completely white and darker areas easily becoming solid black; the result is an over-bright and over-dark image with little detail.
At some point, a line has to be drawn to say "this material is in too poor a condition to sell on DVD," and I have to confess that I'd put The Jack Benny Show segment of The Humphrey Bogart Era well over the "not acceptable" line. In addition to noise and print flaws, the contrast is completely off: the image is essentially pure white with black outlines indicating the bodies of the cast and the furniture. Faces are white blobs with only an occasional detail visible to tell one actor from another.
The two-channel mono soundtrack for Beat the Devil is acceptable, considering the poor condition of the accompanying image. I did notice a touch of harshness in the sound at times, particularly in the band music played at the beginning and end of the film. Overall, the sound is very flat, but dialogue is strong and clear even when there are other noises in the background. Sound quality for The Jack Benny Show segment is slightly worse but still in the same general range.
It's difficult to draw the line on this disc as to where the feature ends and the special features begin. If we consider that Beat the Devil and the episode of The Jack Benny Show are the main content of the DVD, the special features are all found on the second disc of the two-disc set. This is actually a music CD, not a DVD; it contains twenty tracks from the 1940s, ranging from Louis Armstrong to Billie Holliday to Bing Crosby.
Die-hard Bogart aficionados may find this disc to be of minor interest, but given the poor image quality of the material here, I really can't recommend even a rental. Probably the best bet is just to skip The Humphrey Bogart Era completely.