We're No Angels Review
Not to be confused with the not-very-good remake in 1989 starring Robert de Niro, Sean Penn and Demi Moore, Michael Curtiz’s original 1955 version of We’re No Angels is closer to the style and theme of It’s A Wonderful Life, and just as successful as Frank Capra’s film at overcoming the sentimentality of the feelgood Christmas spirit through it’s mordant black comedy edge and some great performances.
It’s Christmas Eve 1895 on Devil’s Island, a penitentiary island in the French Guyana. Three prisoners have escaped and are planning to make their way back to Paris as soon as possible. The heavens seem to be looking down favourably on Joseph (Humphrey Bogart), Jules (Peter Ustinov) and Albert (Aldo Ray), sending a sudden downpour of rain to put the dogs off their trail and then directing them to the Syndicate Merchandising Company. The general merchandise store under the running of mild-mannered Félix Ducotel (Leo G. Carroll) has been going through a tough period, losing money and allowing customers too much credit. The three escaped convicts offer to help out with a few chores around the store, starting with a leaking roof, but these guys are no angels, and as soon as night falls, they intend to cut Ducotel's throat and rob the store for all the provisions necessary to facilitate their getaway.
However, up on their elevated rooftop perspective, peering through the windows like three fallen cherubs, they are able to observe the fortunes of the Ducotel family. The daughter Isabelle (Gloria Talbott) is in love with Paul (John Baer), the Parisian nephew of Félix’s cousin André Trochard (Basil Rathbone). André is the owner of the store and has come with his nephew to Devil’s Island to check the accounts of the failing company, and also to deliver the news that he certainly doesn’t approve of his nephew marrying poor relatives, and has made other arrangements for Paul. The news of their arrival causes great consternation for the Ducotel family, but as their ship is in quarantine in the port for 24 hours, the three convicts have time to intervene and find themselves assisting the Ducotel family with some guidance, advice and maybe just a little bit of not-so-divine intervention.
Observing the lives of the family from the rooftop, one of the convicts observes – “Look at ‘em, they’re prisoners too like us”, yet despite other similar heavy-handedness in the script and some unlikely dramatic contrivance, the film mainly steers clear of saccharine cosiness. It’s not so much through Michael Curtiz’s direction, which for the most part is perfunctory or just plain obvious (adopting the godlike overhead perspective of the convicts for much of the early part of the film, with them having little more to do than observe and react), and the film, despite a couple of attempts at opening out the drama a little with a few elaborate exterior backdrop paintings, never really escapes from its stagy origins as a play. The plot itself, featuring the unexpected arrival of "three wise men” who overcome their baser instincts as criminals and murders and use those talents to make Christmas special for a family whose good natures and kindness is being taken advantage of in a cruel and cynical world is nothing special either, though it does all slot together with ease and precision. The script and dialogue are full of clunky lines like the one mentioned above (not to mention, “Papa, it’s me, Isabelle, your daughter”), but it does have a wicked sense of black humour, with some delightful passages, particularly when the convicts reminiscence on the activities that led them to their incarceration – often blaming it on a single twist fate, such as when Albert reflects that if only his uncle had said yes when he asked him for money, everything would have been different and he wouldn’t have battered his head in with a hammer.
This kind of black comedy however depends heavily on the delivery and it is the casting that is the real key to the success of We’re No Angels. Bogart plays his tough-guy with a heart of gold act to perfection here showing a not often seen comic talent - looking just as convincing at threatening to cut the throats of the family as wearing a pink apron and helping cook the Christmas turkey for them. Ustinov gets all the best lines, or perhaps he just makes the most of them, since even the most throwaway of comments is delivered with wistful pauses and dry enunciation. Aldo Ray’s womanising hardcase gives the team a younger romantic dimension. The teamwork of this sardonic, irreverent and insolent group is even better, complimentary in their attitudes but individually characteristic, allowing for some wonderful comic interplay and exchanges. The rest of the cast also perform their roles to perfection, from Leo G. Carroll’s stuttering mild-mannered Félix to Basil Rathbone’s brief but deliciously villainous turn as Cousin André.
Paramount’s Region 1 release of We’re No Angels is presented as a barebones budget release on a single-layer disc in NTSC format.
Filmed in VistaVision, the film has beautiful Technicolor tones and they are well transferred to DVD here, with good detail in tones and outlines, in a print that is pretty much flawless in terms of marks or scratches. The film is transferred anamorphically at 1.78:1, which I suspect is not the film’s original ratio, but the difference would be minimal. The image does however have a generally soft feel, though that could be well inherent in the aging of the materials. Some edge enhancement is visible, applied rather harshly in places. The only persistently annoying issue is the amount of macro-blocking flicker. This is particularly irritating as it could surely have been easily remedied putting the film onto a dual-layer disc with a higher bit-rate. If you are not overly concerned with technical issues like that, the film is very acceptable, free of marks and beautifully coloured.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track, presenting the mono soundtrack channelled through two speakers is not too bad. It’s a little dull and there is a faint trace of background noise, but dialogue is reasonably clear. Considering the age of the material, this is really quite good. A Dolby Digital 2.0 mono French dubbed track is also included.
English hard of hearing subtitles are included in yellow font.
There are no extra features on this DVD.
Featuring three hardened criminals in the tropical heats of French Guyana, there’s not a cute kid or snowflake in sight, but We’re No Angels, like It’s A Wonderful Life, still manages to capture the essential humanistic message of the best Christmas themed films, with a delightful underlying irreverence and sense of fun. Paramount’s barebones DVD release is at once wonderful and disappointing. With an anamorphic transfer, a clean print, it satisfies the minimum requirements, but when we’ve seen how Warner Bros. are treating classic films like Casablanca, The Warner Brothers Gangster Collection and The Adventures of Robin Hood, then surely a classic film like We’re No Angels is deserving of equally fine treatment.