Holiday Classics: “We’re No Angels” (1955)

We’re No Angels” was a bit of a departure for director and star Michael Curtiz and Humphrey Bogart. The light holiday comedy was their fourth collaboration, their previous projects including the gritty 1938 gangster drama “Angels with Dirty Faces” and the soon to be iconic drama “Casablanca.” But just because “We’re No Angels” was outside their wheelhouse, doesn’t make it any less effective. If anything, Curtiz’s familiarity with his stars brings out the best in their humorous, occasionally wacky, performances.

The story concerns three convicts who escape from Devil’s Island on Christmas Eve: Albert (Aldo Ray), Jules (Peter Ustinov), and their leader, Joseph (Bogart). They arrive at a nearby town and plan to rob a shopkeeper and his family, then escape to a waiting ship. But the trio become increasingly involved in the family’s affairs, as they discover that their shop is in financial trouble and end up helping them, especially after shop owner Andre (Basil Rathbone) suddenly arrives with plans to take over the store from them.

Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov, and Aldo Ray in “We’re No Angels”

“We’re No Angels” is filmed in bright Technicolor that emphasizes the setting’s lush tropical holiday mood, and it’s very funny, veering from screwball to dark comedy. A lot of the humor derives from the dynamic between the three convicts, who are likable despite their sketchy past, especially when their guilt over their plan to ruin the family whose home they’ve invaded begins to overwhelm them, leading to remarks like this one from Joseph:

“We came here to rob them and that’s what we’re gonna do — beat their heads in, gouge their eyes out, slash their throats. Soon as we wash the dishes.”

The well-rounded supporting cast is also great. It’s great to see Rathbone exercising his villain muscles again, and the wonderful and prolific character actor Leo G. Carroll gets to take a more central role playing the shopkeeper Felix. His wife Amelie is played by Joan Bennett, who found success as a leading lady in screwball comedies and noir films before her life and career were rocked by scandal in 1951. Bennett’s husband, producer Walter Wanger, shot her agent and lover, Jennings Lang. Both Lang and Wanger got off with barely a scratch on their reputations, but Bennett found it harder to maintain her career in a society where women in such matters are often vilified. Bogart, a friend of Bennett’s, recommended her for the part in “We’re No Angels” to help her out, and while Bennett later found success on stage and on the long-running television series “Dark Shadows,” “We’re No Angels” was one of her last movies. It was loosely remade in 1989 under the same title, starring Robert De Niro and Sean Penn.

“We’re No Angels” is available to rent on most digital platforms. Runtime: 106 minutes.

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