Christmas is so universally loved and its themes and monikers lend themselves so well to film that literally hundreds of movies have been made featuring Christmas, taking place at Christmas or taking for itself a Christmas theme or aspect. Some have Christmas directly in their heart–A Christmas Carol or Miracle on 34th Street–while others are only related to Christmas accidentally, a la Black Christmas or Silent Night, Deadly Night. But the end result is that because so many Christmas films have been made that many of them fall between the cracks and are forgotten. And while for some this is justified (no one I know of is breaking YouTube to watch Scrooge’s Rock and Roll Christmas) for other’s it’s a shame. We’re No Angels falls into the latter category.
We’re No Angels plays cat and mouse with the audience; the story of three escaped prisoners trying to get off Devil’s Island–the embezzler, Joseph (Humphrey Bogart) and murderers Jules (Peter Ustinov) and Albert (Aldo Ray)–and conning the Ducotel family to let them stay in their store performing minor house repairs until nightfall when they plan to kill the family and escape with clothes and money, sounds like it would be a movies that only uses Christmas as a backdrop. And, at first, that is what happens.
The Ducotels may be a happy family–even in the French colony, away from their homeland–and it may be the merriest time of the year, but black clouds hang over them: the store belongs not to Felix Ducotel (Leo G. Carroll) but to his penny pinching cousin, Andre (Basil Rathbone in a wonderfully “light” villain role) who is en route to inspect the books and profits for the year. Which would not be such a cause of concern if Felix actually had a head for business; his too meek manner and his scattered mindedness has left the store in ruin (where people, if they come in at all, simply take what they want and instruct Felix to charge it to their account) and he knows that when Andre discovers the truth, he will be sent to the prison for embezzling. To make matters even worse, Isabelle Ducotel (Gloria Talbott) is in love with Cousin Andre’s nephew, Paul (John Baer) creating a soft Shakespearian dilemma. It all gives our three convicted protagonists amusement as they watch and listen while pretending to fix the store roof…but as time passes, they find themselves more and more inclined to help the Ducolets however they can–even if it hampers their plans for escape.
We’re No Angels benefits from three aces–the acting, the director and the writing. In 1955, Humphrey Bogart was the undisputed king of Hollywood; the technically minded might quibble and say that Clark Gable was the only “king” of Hollywood’s Golden Age and, no offense to Gable, but the press boys and paparazzi and king makers spoke too soon when they gave him that moniker. Bogart at this point in his career, had proven that he could do it all–gangster pictures, comedies (All Through the Night especially), dramas (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and In a Lonely Place) romance (Sabrina), leading men, villains, PIs, soldiers–he could do it all and proved it time and time again. This film allowed him to have fun with his early image as a crook and gangster (the scenes of him minding the store, getting unsuspecting customers to buy things they don;t need through his fast, flattering patter are gold) but to also tap into his comedic abilities. Although he didn’t make many out and out comedies, many of his films allowed him some comedic moments; think of Rick talking to Captain Renault in Casablanca or quipping with Mary Astor as they went Across the Pacific. We’re No Angels let Bogart go full out:
Joseph: You talk like you don’t want to cut their throats.
Jules: Well, speaking for myself, I’d just as soon not.
Albert: After all, it might spoil their Christmas.
Joseph: I don’t care how nice things are, they’re not going to soften me up. We’re escaping, and this is our only chance. We came here to rob them and that’s what we’re going to do—beat their heads in, gouge their eyes out, cut their throats…as soon as we wash the dishes.
For directing duties, Paramount selected Michael Curtiz, the director behind Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Life with Father, White Christmas and The Comancheros. A WWI vet and an emigree from Europe (his father, brother and sisters all died in Auschwitz) Curtiz was like Bogart in that he was not only versatile but a master jack of all trades, directing dramas, musicals, adventure (he is credited with popularizing the swashbuckler with the like of Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk) film noir, Westerns, melodrama and comedy. That might be why he and Bogart worked so well together; all in all, Curtiz directed Bogart in eight pictures. Curtiz was a firm believer that character and story were the foundation of a good story, saying, “…human and fundamental problems of real people” were the basis of all good drama. He demonstrated that commitment to the human element in We’re No Angels conveying to the screen what screenwriter Ranald MacDougall put in the script.
And this is where the real spirit of Christmas shines in the movie. The title of the film is a play on the classic, French carol, “Three Angels Came Tonight,” with the three angels, of course, being Joseph, Jules, and Alfred. But unlike in other Christmas movies, these three have to earn their wings. Their camaraderie and quips make them seem like good hearted men but, as they themselves remind each other, they are ruthless criminals–there is no revelation of being framed or of mistrials; Joseph did swindle people while Jules and and Alfred did murder people (Alfred, when asked by young Isabelle, with whom he is smitten, tells her that his trial established that he hit his uncle fourteen times on the head; when she asks how he could do such a thing, he replies, “With a poker, mademoiselle”); they fully intend to kill the Ducolets and rob them to escape. It is not just seeing and interacting with Isabelle (Joseph tells her mother, Amelia (Joan Bennet) that she reminds Jules of his youth and himself of the family he never had) that changes them; it is seeing the entire family unit; Isabelle’s naivite and happiness, Amelia’s love and loyalty to her husband, and Felix’s honesty wrapped in the season and spirit of Christmas.This is a movie where the family who needs help rubs off on the angels sent to help them, where the heroes need just as much saving as the people they’ve been sent to save.
This would be good enough but the story is taken one step further by having the three angels not just solve the Ducolets’ problems but rubbing off on them as well; by staying and helping the Ducolets, the family, especially Amelia (and by extension, us), sees that there is still good in them and that while they may not be the angels sung about by the carol, with gold halos and perfect wings, they are still angels; perhaps even providentially sent for that specific Christmas.
Surprisingly, We’re No Angels was a failure when it premiered in 1955; critics stated that Curtiz couldn’t seem to make up his mind whether he was directing a crime drama or a light hearted comedy; furthermore, they ruled the movie as unfunny. Luckily, time has proven them wrong. And though it may not be the equivalent of a present you find under the tree, it is definitely one that you would find in a stocking.