We’re No Angels (1955)

Posted on December 24, 2014

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Right around Christmastime, Joseph (Humphrey Bogart), Albert (Aldo Ray), and Jules (Peter Ustinov) escape prison on Devil’s Island to mainland French Guiana, on the north Atlantic coast of South America. In a coastal village, they go to the general store, planning to do whatever they must to get supplies for their escape.

There, they meet the Ducotels, who manage the store for its French owners: Amelie (Joan Bennett), Felix (Hitchcock veteran Leo G. Carroll, who would have TV fame in Topper and The Man from UNCLE), and their daughter Isabelle (Gloria Talbott). They decide to pretend to fix the store’s roof and steal what they need under cover of night. Over the course of the day, they learn all the Ducotels’ troubles. They meet the owner of the store, Andre Trochard (Basil Rathbone) and his cad son Paul (John Baer). The three escapees begin to wonder if life really is better outside the prison.

Short Version

This is one of my favorite Christmas movies, and one of the vanishingly few comedies that Humphrey Bogart made.

Long Version

In 1955, Devil’s Island lived only in reputation. France closed the island prison colony in 1953. It was, however, quite a reputation! Besides political prisoners, Devil’s Island housed some of the most dangerous and violent prisoners in all of France, including its colonies. Anyone who survived the island, much less escaped, had to be tough, resourceful, and dangerous.

So the setting of this film tells us a great deal about Joseph, Albert, and Jules. Their initial dialogue, full of hate for the prison guards, confirms their dangerous, angry natures. Even while they observe the Ducotels, they talk about people they robbed, strangled, poisoned, stabbed, or shot. These are three bad men.

For their part, the Ducotels are in a bad state. No one in the colony has any money. In fact, France had been trying to colonize French Guiana for over 300 years. 12,000 colonists took up residence in 1763, for example, and 75% of them died. Really, the only way to operate a store in a small village in that part of the world was through credit, and the owners, the Trochard family, are sick of it by the time the movie begins.

The Ducotels fear that Felix will be sent to prison for failing to cover the store’s debts. Amelie and Isabelle will be destitute. Their one hope is that Isabelle will marry Paul, but he arrives to tell her that he’s engaged to someone else.

At no time to do the Ducotel’s blame anyone else for their situation. They made the best decisions they could, out of kindness and compassion. They wish things were different, but this isn’t the kind of movie where wishes work.

Joseph, Albert, and Jules understand why they are in prison. They hate Devil’s Island, but they acknowledge that their own criminal behavior put them afoul of the law. There are honest people, and there are the criminals who prey on the honest people. Criminals spend part of their lives in prison. That’s just how life works, according to the three escapees.

They’ve never met anyone like the Ducotels. At first, they don’t believe what they see and hear. Surely, the Ducotels are running an elaborate con. Perhaps Felix is just bad at running a store. Gradually, the convicts come to see that there are genuinely good people in the world, and sometimes life shits on them.

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This was literally the only “free to use” image I could find.

 

When the Trochards arrive, the convicts are still planning on stealing from the store. They’re just waiting to do so until Joseph can cook the books and make it look like the store is turning a profit. They haven’t turned over new leaves. Oh, no. They would never do that. At least, not before they meet the Trochards.

Basil Rathbone makes Andre Trochard so despicable and hateful that we’re all willing to believe that the three convicts would refuse to stomach his actions. Granted, his death, and Paul’s are more or less accidents. Just because Albert has a pet viper named Adolphe, there’s no reason to suspect that it might bite anyone…

The lesson for writers is in using contrast to clearly delineate characters and motives.

Conclusion

This is not a complex, challenging, drama. It’s a bit of jaunty, Technicolor, holiday fluff. That said, the performances are fantastic. Bogart, Ray, and Ustinov are clearly having a wonderful time with each other.

Director Michael Curtiz, who won an Academy Award for Casablanca, displays the same lovely, light, touch throughout We’re No Angels that he does in the funny moments of Casablanca.

If you want a break from Die Hard (it is too a Christmas movie) and endless repeats of A Christmas Story (of which I’m a huge fan), add this one to your line-up. Just make sure you get this, and not the 1989 movie of the same title with Sean Penn and Robert De Niro.

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Posted in: Movies