12 December 2007

We're No Angels (1955)

Rediscover We’re No Angels This Christmas
By Kristin Battestella

Robert De’Niro, Sean Penn, Demi Moore. I love the 1989 drama We’re No Angels. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. No, that departure stems from the 1955 classic of the same name. Humphrey Bogart, Aldo Ray, Peter Ustinov. That’s what I’m talking about.

We're No Angels (1955)Maybe you’ve heard the story. Three convicts (Bogart, Ray, Ustinov) escape from a prison on Devil’s Island just before Christmas. They want to steal some money and clothes, then be ship bound and on their way, but they take a liking to Felix Ducotel (Leo G. Carroll) and his general store. Instead of stealing from Felix and his family-wife Amelie (Joan Bennett) and daughter Isabelle (Gloria Talbott) the criminals seek to keep up the family’s Christmas Cheer against the vile Uncle Andre Trouchard (Basil Rathbone)-who’s trying to close the store that’s making no money for him.

The story is heartwarming enough for a tune in. Scrooges dethawing, crooks doing right, a family trying to keep things together at Christmas. Written Ranald MacDougall from a play by Albert Husson and Directed by Michael Curtiz, We’re No Angels is sold by its cast and its cast alone. Casual fans know Bogie for his dramatic turns in Casablanca (Also directed by Curtiz) or The Desperate Hours or his Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon- or many others, of course. Here-in color no less- Bogart shows a wry, underutilized comedy note that delivers just as many quotable lines as Casablanca. Together with Ray (Battle Cry) and Ustinov (Spartacus), talents also known more for drama, the trio creates a witty, intellectual comedy. There isn’t much side splitting laughter in We’re No Angels-simply quirky puns, funny mannerisms, and quick, but light physical comedy. It’s not The Three Stooges. It’s better.

Of course, humor isn’t funny unless there’s a straight man. Hitchcock alum Leo Carroll’s Felix is wonderful as the kindly, but financially troubled storekeeper who can’t see the crooks for what they really are. He’s blissfully innocent and trusting, as is Joan Bennett as Amelie. Strange on my part that I recognized her voice from Dark Shadows, but the hint of chemistry between Bennett and Bogart is delightful. Likewise Aldo Ray’s liking of church-going daughter Isabelle adds another dimension to the film. She also, is innocent and accepting-not seeing the criminals as such, but rather as angels.

Even the notion of their pet snake Adolf could be handled very poorly in today’s cinema, cgi and all the hijinks. Bogart, Ray, and Ustinov, however, do most of the work regarding the snake simply by looking into its basket. Some dismiss comedy as easy, or of a lesser value, but the cast here proves that humor is not done lightly. On the contrary, one false move, and the entire illusion falls apart. Everyone in We’re No Angels is on his or her mark. A case for each as the star could be made. The script is tight, quick, all the storylines and misunderstandings weave into a fine conclusion.

Traditional villain Basil Rathbone (The Mark of Zorro, alas a hero as Sherlock Holmes) also serves perfectly as snooty rich Uncle Trouchard. His uppity attitude versus the average joe crooks makes it easy for the audience. We want the crooks to be our good guys. Even Bogart says you meet better people in prison. I can’t spoil the ending, but as unbelievable as the starting premise may be, the conclusion has you believing that angelic peoples do in fact walk among us.
Young folks may find We’re No Angels slow, as there are several segments of silence that require complete attention to catch the onscreen hijinks-probably lingering from its transition from stage to screen. The coloration on my VHS is odd, too, and the younger set might also chuckle at such signs of the times-both in the onscreen turn of the century style and the fifties film making look and techniques. By contrast, also check out the aforementioned 1989 remake. It’s serious, heavy, and dark. Still good, but not as charming. We’re No Angels is kind of like those weird big old fashioned outdoor lights on your grandparents house. They are still ticking, after all these years, aren’t they?

Fans of classics no doubt already know and love We’re No Angels. Upgrade to DVD and share this one with anyone who’s willing to view this Christmas season.

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