Guardian angels can come in many forms, and in the film “We’re No Angels” (1955), help arrives from three convicts.
Early Christmas Eve, Joseph (Humphrey Bogart), Albert (Aldo Ray), Jules (Peter Ustinov) and Adolf the poisonous snake, escape from prison on French colonial Devil’s Island in 1895. Joseph embezzled money, and Albert and Jules are murderers. They are able to blend in easily in the town in their prison clothes, as many paroled convicts work out in the open.
They deliver a letter to shop owner Felix Ducotel (Leo G. Carroll), hoping for a tip, and offer to fix his roof. From the roof, the three observe the family’s problems: Felix and his wife Amelie (Joan Bennett) aren’t making any money at the store owned by his cousin Andre Trochard (Basil Rathbone) and their daughter Isabelle (Gloria Talbott) is in love with Andre’s nephew Paul (John Baer), who lives in Paris with Andre.
“They’re in their own kind of prison,” Joseph says.
But regardless of the sympathy they may have, their plan is to kill the family and steal their money.
“That’s the kind of thing that makes you stop believing in Santa Claus,” Jules says.
The Ducotels learn that Andre and Paul are unexpectedly in Devil’s Island, quarantined in a boat in the harbor. Andre wants to spend Christmas Day going through Felix’s accounts and finances. However, it turns out Paul is engaged to be married. Isabelle faints when she reads the news, and the convicts help take care of her. Joseph also swindles store customers into buying items they don’t need and paying cash, which is rare because most people who shop there owe money.
The family is thankful for their help, and they invite them to Christmas dinner. The three convicts help decorate their house, steal a turkey for dinner, steal a Christmas tree, serve dinner, and serenade them with carols. The family thanks them by giving them money.
“No one has been nice to me since October 1891,” Jules says.
However, even after their kindness to the family, Joseph is still set to murder the family, but the other two are reluctant.
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.
However, the three convicts again come to the family’s aid when Cousin Andre and Paul show up. Andre threatens to send Felix to jail because of his financial mismanagement. The three make sure that Andre cannot get to the authorities or bother the family ever again.
I love this movie. It’s difficult in a brief review to describe just how hilarious this black comedy is. All of the humor is subtle but very funny.
However, the critics at the time didn’t care for the movie, and even Leonard Maltin calls it “Mild entertainment, giving it 2.5 out of 4 stars.”
July 8, 1955, New York Times review calls it “a shrill, misguided picture that should have been a honey” and Time magazine called it “overly-whimsical” and that director Michael Curtiz couldn’t “decide whether he was reading a fairy-tale or a police blotter” and they weren’t pleased with the actors, according to “Tough Without a Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart” by Stefan Kanfer.
The New York Times review mostly seems disappointed that the film doesn’t live up to the 1953 Broadway play “My Three Angels” that starred Walter Slezak, Darren McGavin and Jerome Cowan.
But, I love the ensemble of fairly mismatched actors: Bogart, who always played gangsters, husky and tough Ray, and proper Ustinov.
One review says three “try very hard to be funny,” which is ridiculous to me. They didn’t try; they were funny.
The comedic roles are deviations from Ray and Bogart’s usual gruff roles, which I enjoy. I love seeing actors perform in different genres. “All Through the Night” (1941) is one of the few Bogart comedies, but Bogart played a gruff character with the comedy all around him in that film.
“We’re No Angels” was a small career boost for Joan Bennett. In 1951, Bennett was involved in a scandal that severely hurt her career. Her husband Walter Wagner shot her agent Jennings Lang in the leg and groin in a jealous rage. Bennett wasn’t in any films in 1952 or 1953, because she couldn’t find film work,” according to “The Bennetts: An Acting Family” by Brian Kellow.
“I might as well have pulled the trigger myself,” Bennett said.
Bennett’s role in “We’re No Angels” was thanks to lobbying by Humphrey Bogart, who was trying to help her out. He thought it was unjust that the studio punished Bennett for the lunacy of her husband. Though it was a small role, it showed she was willing to work, according to Kanfer’s book.
“He made a stand to show what he thought of the underground movement to stamp out Joan Bennett,” Bennett later said.
Basil Rathbone’s role is minimal, but as always, Rathbone is memorable.
The funny thing about “We’re No Angels” is that you keep thinking these three chaps are sweet, helpful men until you remember they are murderers and crooks, setting out to murder for money.
If I have any complaints, I wish the movie was 10 to 20 minutes shorter.
For a slightly off-beat Christmas black comedy in the form of the classic film, check this one out. You won’t regret it. If you don’t enjoy the story, you can at least enjoy looking at handsome Aldo Ray.