Director: Michael Curtiz
Writer: Samuel and Bella Spewack (Play); based La Cuisine Des Anges by Albert Husso; Ranald MacDougall
Cinematographer: Loyal Griggs
by Jon Cvack
Michael Curtiz’s We’re No Angels is another of Humphrey Bogart’s weird forays into comedy. The film takes place on Devil’s Island, whose primary industry is the prison that sits high up on a mountain and houses some of the world’s worst criminals. When escapees Joseph (Humphrey Bogart), Albert (Aldo Ray), and Jules (Peter Ustinov) all make it to the mainland and need to kill time to make a fairy to the mainland, they come across a local store that’s struggling financially. The shop is owned by Felix Ducotel (Leo G. Carroll), whose beautiful daughter Isabelle (Gloria Talbott) is heartbroken after discussing her second cousin doesn’t share the same feelings, and Felix’s wife Amelie (Joan Bennett) does her best to maintain order in the home. Having to kill time, the three fugitives decide to help out with the store.
It’s not entirely clear what makes Joseph, Albert, and Jules suddenly shift their criminality and toward helping helping the Ducotel family. Taking place during Christmas I suppose it has something to do with the holidays. Although the story takes awhile to get moving, what was most impressive is how modern both Aldo Ray and Peter Ustinov felt, both in their look and how they spoke. There was a sarcasm and gentleness to their performances, allowing the characters to feel incredibly real, which was particularly strange given the film’s theatricality and largely comedic flavor. It was though you could take these two men and place them into a Coens brothers film and find it just as hilarious.
Of course, there are peculiar elements that haven’t aged all that well, such as Isabelle’s frustration over the unrequited love she has for her second cousin, or Albert’s obvious and creepy attraction to Isabelle, although she’s only seventeen. In other ways, the story felt modern, with Felix as aloof, unconfident, and undependable, which Amelie tries to make up for.
It takes awhile for the story to get going, and I imagine this would’ve played much better as a 90 minute film rather than two hours. I grew impatient as I was watching the cons manipulate the family, expecting something more exciting to happen, such as taking advantage of their trust in order to exploit the situation, or failing to control their criminal impulses. Perhaps that was the point. It was interesting to have your expectations flipped, although it wasn’t all that entertaining. Still, when the story gets going there are some great laughs, straight out of any slapstick comedy, involving a lot of people walking in and out of doors at perfectly timed moments and utilizing the space of the home and store to build tension. However, when you think about what could have been done if the police were closer to catching the fugitives than you see what could have been a highly entertaining film falling a bit flat compared to Curitz’s other movies.
In the end, after the three cons save Felix’s store, create an amazing Christmas dinner for Amelie, and find a new boy for Isabelle they take off for the docks and get ready to leave. Unfortunately, much to my frustration in any film like this, they have second thoughts and decide to return back to prison. As they walk off, Angel halos appear above their heads. I’m not sure if this was in the original play or not, but aside from always resenting when this happens in the film (that is, when a central criminal character decides to give up the treasure/money/girl/etc. as a poor and uninspired attempt at reform) I particularly didn’t understand it in this one. They are clearly pretty good guys, and unless they hoped to serve their time in order to see the Ducotel family again, I’m not entirely sure what this was trying to do, other than accommodate some studio heads who were concerned about showing fugitives going free. The whole film felt like it was only giving 75% of what it could have. It’s worth checking out, just not one of Curtiz’s best.
BELOW: The hilarious snake scene (with a terrible transfer)
Thoughts on films, old and new
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