Saturday, December 25, 2021

Stubs - We're No Angels


We’re No Angels (1955) Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov, Aldo Ray, Joan Bennett, Basil Rathbone, Leo G. Carroll. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Screenplay by Ranald MacDougall. Based on the play La cuisine des Anges by Albert Husson (Paris, 12 Feb 1952). Produced by Pat Duggan. Run time: 105 minutes. USA. Color. Comedy, Drama, Christmas.

Michael Curtiz directed Humphrey Bogart in eight films during their years of working in Hollywood. including Casablanca (1942). Their first film was Black Legion (1937) and their last We’re No Angels (1955). It is this final film that we will look at mostly because it is one of the few Christmas-themed films Bogart would make but it is also a rare comedy from a man noted for his tough-guy roles.

Bogart by now was no longer tied to Warner Bros. and was not only making films through his own production company, Santana Productions but also for other studios. In the case of We’re No Angels, Paramount Pictures. Bogart had already made Sabrina (1954) and would go onto make The Desperate Hours (1955) for the same studio.

Based on a French play La cuisine des Anges by Albert Husson, We’re No Angels was not the first adaptation. Another play, My Three Angels, which also was based on Husson’s play and had opened on Broadway in 1953. While Paramount didn’t own rights to My Three Angels, it is believed that some elements from the play found their way into the final Paramount product. The authors of that play, Samuel and Bella Spewack would file an injunction against the film four months after its release. The final disposition of the lawsuit isn’t public record but the film is still available.

While Bogart may have been the lead all along, his co-stars seem to fluctuate during pre-production. At one point, Van Heflin was announced as a co-star, as was John Derek. There were reports that Dan Towler and Harry Thompson, members of the Los Angeles Rams football team, had been cast. The one cast member Bogart apparently fought for was Joan Bennett, whose career had been stopped by a scandal.

On December 13, 1951, Bennett was having a meeting with her agent. Jennings Lang. Her husband, producer Walter Wanger, in a fit of jealousy, shot Lang twice, wounding but not killing the agent. While her agent recovered and Wanger resumed his career after serving some prison time, the scandal damaged Bennett’s career. Bogart and Bennett were longtime friends and the former pleaded with Paramount on her behalf. While We’re No Angels would be one of her last films, it did revive her career which moved on to the stage and television, where she would find success.

Production began on July 17, 1954, but the film would not be released until July 7, 1955.

We're No Angels opens with the escape of  (from l to r) Joseph (Humphrey Bogart),
Jules (Peter Ustinov) and Albert (Aldo Ray) from Devil's Island.

The film opens on Christmas Eve, 1895 in French Guyana. Three convicts Joseph (Humphrey Bogart), Albert (Aldo Ray), and Jules (Peter Ustinov) have just escaped. Jules is a swindler but both Albert and Jules are convicted murderers. The one possession they have with them is a small box containing a viper they call Adolphe. They are quite attached to the snake as it had rid them of a particularly nasty guard who had used a whip on them. Still dressed in their prison garb, they manage to fit in, as trustees of the penal colony are allowed to roam free.

But they don’t want to stay and plot to board a Paris-bound ship anchored offshore. However, they know they’ll need money and new clothes before they can. A sudden rainstorm disrupts the prison’s pursuit as the bloodhounds lose their scent.

While they plot their next move, they are approached by Arnaud (John Smith), the ship’s young medical officer. He has a letter to deliver and asks for directions. While they’re chatting with him, Jules, a former safecracker, picks his pockets and inadvertently steals the letter, which is addressed to Felix Ducotel (Leo G. Carroll), the local general store proprietor.

The convicts convince store proprietor Felix Ducotel (Leo G. Carroll) that they can fix his leaking roof.

The three decide to deliver the letter and rob the store. They manage to exchange their hats for ones they find on display before the absent-minded Felix makes his way to the front of the store. They hope for a reward but the shop isn’t doing well so he offers them cigars instead. The roof is apparently leaking and as a ploy, the convicts pretty much hire themselves to fix it.

From their vantage point, the convicts observe and sympathize with the Ducotel family.

Once on the roof, the convicts eavesdrop on Felix and his wife Amelie (Joan Bennett) as they discuss Felix’s cousin, Andre Trochard, the store’s owner. While Felix is in no position to rile against Andre, he’s not a fan.

Felix Ducotel: Don't misunderstand me. It's true that I never liked my cousin, only because he was not likable. He had a number of good points, I'm sure. I just can't think of any.

But Amelie despises Andre for using his wealth to control the financially strapped Felix and threatening to fire him if the store fails to show a profit.

To make things worse, their eighteen-year-old daughter Isabelle (Gloria Talbott) is in love with Paul, Andre’s nephew, and heir. Paul lives with Andre in Paris and Amelie knows that Andre will never approve of the match.

When Isabelle returns from church, she asks her father about the still unopened letter, Felix realizes it is from Andre and panics. After reading that Andre has been quarantined on the ship and is demanding that Felix secure his release, Felix scurries away to the docks to see what he can do. Isabelle then reads the letter and faints.

When Isabelle (Gloria Talbott) reads the letter she faints.

Seeing her prostrate, the convicts climb down from the roof and also read the letter. Amelie is shocked when she sees the men with her daughter and they explain that Isabelle fainted upon reading Andre’s announcement that Paul is to marry the daughter of a rich business acquaintance.

While young Albert carries the unconscious Isabelle to her room, the bell on the store’s front door rings and Joseph jumps at the chance to serve a customer. He manages to talk a bald man, the postmaster, into buying an expensive comb and brush set from the store that has been there for years, not to mention hair tonic.

He then sits down to inspect Felix’s account books which are apparently a mess.

Although Jules and Albert begin to question their plan to rob and kill the Ducotels, Joseph insists they need money to escape. Joseph then proceeds to sell an expensive coat for Felix, even though the coat doesn’t fit the customer.

Felix and Amelie, touched by the convicts’ apparent concern, invite them for Christmas Eve dinner which they accept. The plan is to bide the time until they can kill and rob the family. But first, they decide to make the meal.

Joseph: I'm going to buy them their Christmas turkey.

Albert: "Buy"? Do you really mean "buy"?

Joseph: Yes, buy! In the Spirit of Christmas. The hard part's going to be stealing the money to pay for it.

While Joseph is out Albert, who was jailed for killing his uncle over money, encourages Isabelle not to give up on Paul who is also on board the ship. He tries to convince her that Paul is there because he loves her.

Albert: A man doesn't travel 4000 miles just to prove he's a louse, he could do that in a letter, like I always did.

Buoyed by Albert’s flattery, Isabelle tells the convicts they are like the three angels on her favorite Christmas tree decoration.

The convicts supply a Christmas tree for the celebration.

The convicts manage to throw a very elaborate party for the family, including a tree and flowers, both stolen from the Island Governor’s garden.

The convicts serve Christmas dinner to the Ducotel family.

That night after dinner, a grateful Felix gives the men some cash, and Albert and Jules again wonder if they can go through with their plan. But Joseph insists:

Joseph: We came here to rob them and that's what we're gonna do - beat their heads in, gouge their eyes out, slash their throats. Soon as we wash the dishes.

Not there to spread Christmas cheer, Andre (Basil Rathbone) and Paul (John Baer) show up.

Just then, Andre (Basil Rathbone) and Paul (John Baer) show up, having been released from the ship, and Andre declares that he has come to inspect Felix’s books and check the store’s inventory. Before retiring, the snide and suspicious Andre also tells Felix that Isabelle, who he assumes is after his money, cannot marry Paul.

Over Joseph's objections, Andre insists on examining the books.

After lying to Andre that the store is making money, Joseph begs Felix to allow him to fix the books to show a profit. Felix is about to agree when Andre reappears, demanding to check the books that night. Although Joseph and Jules are now ready to give up and leave, Albert convinces them to stay to help Isabelle with Paul.

Joseph forges a note from Paul to Isabelle, begging her to meet him in the garden.

Albert: What if she knows his handwriting?

Joseph: If you got a beautiful note like this, would you bother comparing signatures?

Albert: No. It'd have to be signed by a girl, though.

After being cajoled into talking to her, Paul is nearly convinced by Isabelle to defy his uncle and marry her. But he loses his nerve as soon as Andre catches them together. Paul is sent to his room and given Felix’s books to look over that night.

Infuriated by Andre’s accusations and bullying of the family, the convicts conduct a mock trial to determine punishment. After Jules, who is assigned to represent the defense rests, Joseph condemns Andre to death.

Jules: The defense -- rests. How's that for a defense?

Joseph: It reminds me of my lawyer.

Joseph immediately changes his mind, but just then, Andre bursts in. Yelling about missing store inventory, Andre grabs the decorative box, with Adolphe inside, which he believes Albert has stolen from the store.  He retreats to his bedroom, dismissing Albert’s warning that the box contains his poisonous pet viper, Adolphe. The convicts pretend to worry if they should do something.

Joseph: Jules, you rush in and tell him before it's too late. Tell him there's a snake in that box.

Jules: He won't believe me. He doesn't like me.

Joseph: Albert, maybe you ought to run in and warn him.

Albert: Why don't we cut cards for it?

Joseph: Good idea. I'll get the cards.

[Long pause as he slowly saunters over to get a deck of cards and returns]

Joseph: Who cuts first?

Finally, Joseph goes to warn Andre, but it proves to be too late.

Jules: Tell him there's a deadly poisonous snake inside of the cage. Tell him.

[Joseph eaves the room. Re-enters a few seconds later]

Jules: You didn't tell him?

Joseph: [after a pause] He knows already.

The next day, Joseph forges a will leaving half of Andre’s estate to Felix and leaves it in Andre’s suitcase so that it can easily be found. They then try to get various family members to discover the body.

Jules: [after failing to get any of the Ducotels to discover a body] Isn't that always the way? When you have a body you don't want found everybody falls all over it!

At the same time, Albert and Jules search all over for the now missing Adolphe.

Paul finally finds his uncle’s body. When they give him his uncle’s things he discovers the forged will, and barely hiding his glee, burns it assuring he will inherit everything.

Paul then returns to his uncle’s room and while going through Andre’s pockets is bitten by Adolphe. The convicts escort the dying Paul to the summer house, where he is later discovered by Isabelle, who has already decided that she’s no longer in love with him.

The convicts make sure Arnaud and Isabelle meet.

At that moment, officer Arnaud, representing the board of health, arrives, having been summoned by Amelie and Felix. The convicts size him up and determine he’s good enough for Isabelle. After making sure that Isabelle and the handsome Arnaud meet (she faints when she sees Paul's dead body and Arnaud picks her up when she does), the convicts steal some suits and bid the Ducotels farewell.

At the last moment, the convicts decide not to complete their escape.

At the dock, however, they realize that they don’t have it so bad in prison. At least there they know where they’re going to wake up each morning. Besides, if things don’t work out, they can always escape again next year.

Reviews at the time were mixed.  H. H. T. writing for The New York Times picked up on the comparisons between the film and My Three Angels play. The critic claims the film “stalks the Spewacks almost scene by scene, without, alas, most of the fun.” Adding that We’re No Angels is” a shrill, misguided picture that should have been a honey.”

Variety complained the film is “too consciously cute and stage origin of material [a play by Albert Husson] still clings since virtually all scenes are interiors with characters constantly entering and exiting.” However, “Michael Curtiz’ directorial pacing and topflight performances from Humphrey Bogart, Aldo Ray, and Peter Ustinov help minimize the few flaws.”

I lean more towards Variety’s assessment of the film. Yes, there is the aura of a stage play all over the film but frankly, that is some of its charms. It is the closest thing we have to someone like Bogart acting on stage, which is, of course, where he began his career before coming to Hollywood. The dialogue is subtly funny with the convicts never sure how they feel about the Ducotels. Do they want to kill them or do they pity them?

Michael Curtiz was a director who never saw a genre he couldn’t master. While I’m no authority on his work, I would still be hard-pressed to name a bad film that he made. He certainly keeps the pace moving in We’re No Angels which is one of the film’s best features. The film keeps moving forward at a steady but not overly fast pace, which seems to fit the story. The dialogue, which can be both witty and sarcastic doesn’t get lost in the flow.

Bogart in an apron, tough guy in pink.

The acting is superb. Bogart shows that he can handle comedy and uses his tough-guy image to enhance the humor. As an example, there is a scene where he is cooking the Christmas turkey and wearing Amelie’s apron, which is bright pink. He shows that he is willing to do what is necessary for the joke to work.

Peter Ustinov shines as Jules, a safecracker who was sent to Devil’s Island for murdering his wife who was having an affair. Someone with a gift for dialects, Ustinov began making films in England, working with Michael Powell on One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1941). During World War II, Ustinov worked with director Sir Carol Reed on some propaganda films. He began to write films as well, including Reed’s The Way Ahead (1944). This led to his first directorial assignment, School for Secrets (1946).

He made his Hollywood debut playing Nero in Quo Vadis? (1951), for which he received an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor. In We’re No Angels, his performance is understated and he handles the character’s sarcasm with great aplomb.

Perhaps the biggest surprise, at least for me, is Aldo Ray’s performance. His athletic build and gruff, raspy voice saw him frequently typecast in "tough guy" roles in films. Here, he’s a tough guy with a heart.  At one time a leading man at Columbia Pictures, Ray’s career became as Sight & Sound called in a profile of the actor, “nomadic drifting round the studios looking for the right kind of film.” With We’re No Angels he seemed to have found the right kind of film.

Basil Rathbone is best known for playing Sir Guy of Gisbourne in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), as well as fourteen film appearances as Sherlock Holmes is an accomplished actor.  His Andre is self-centered and money-grubbing. Since it's Christmas Eve, Dickens’ Scrooge character seems an appropriate comparison.

There is so much to like about We’re No Angels. I thoroughly enjoyed the ensemble acting and I think the stagey-ness of the production actually works in its favor. While neither Curtiz nor Bogart are names you normally associate with the holiday spirit, their final collaboration should be a holiday go-to.

To read reviews of other Christmas films, please see our Christmas Review Hub.

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