From the Vault: We’re No Angels (1955)

0 Comments 12 July 2011

I never expected to see Humphrey Bogart – the original hard-boiled noir detective – in a comedic role. In We’re No Angels, which started out as a French play (named La Cuisine des Anges), Bogart delivers a hilarious, bone-dry performance. Along with Peter Ustinov and Aldo Ray, they make what I consider to be one of the best comedies I’ve ever seen.
Joseph (Bogart), Albert (Ray) and Jules (Ustinov) are three convicts on the French colony Devil’s Island at Christmas time. They escape their captors and hide out in a general store, intending to stow away on a ship to France. Masquerading as roof repairmen, they listen in on the storeowner’s conversations with his family. The interplay between the three convicts while on the roof is fantastic. I thought that Aldo Ray was a particular strength. He’s got a great voice for his role and his down-to-earth style suits his character quite well. The Ducotel family – Felix the shop owner (Leo G. Carroll), his wife Amelie (Joan Bennet) and their daughter Isabelle (Gloria Talbott) – have some great dialogue.
You can tell that this was originally a play. There’s only about three or four main sets, and the actors make great use of what they’ve got. The convict’s skills are put to good use, and it never really feels like they’ve written a scene just to show what they’re good at. I was glad to see that the romance in the film was handled more creatively than you might think, and they didn’t go down the easy route. The first half of the film even has moral ambiguity! Each convict has their own style – Ustinov is the softly spoken charmer, Bogart is the swindler and Ray is (for want of a better term) the comic relief.
The script has its fair share of more serious moments, but these are never enough to bring down the rest of the movie. Characters reflect on the decisions they made that landed them in prison. Luckily, these scenes are balanced out with more ridiculous exchanges (e.g. Bogart in a pink apron). The Technicolour is beautiful, with every colour standing out.
This challenges It’s A Wonderful Life for Best Christmas Movie. I would consider this to be superior to many modern comedies. Unfortunately, you’d be lucky to find this in a store, but if you can find it, don’t hesitate to get your wallet out.

(Don’t confuse this with the 1989 remake with Robert de Niro. I don’t think it could be any better than this.)

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