Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
VistaVision and Technicolor don't do any favors to We're No Angels, a potential classic with a fatal lack of charm and comedy pacing. The source is a farcical play, a fairly silly story with plenty of opportunities for clever direction and black humor -- it's about three murderers who become benevolent 'angels' while retaining their criminal habits. Unfortunately, the fun moments are few and far between.
A trio of cutthroat Devil's Island escapees, Jopseph, Albert and Jules (Humphrey Bogart, Aldo Ray and Peter Ustinov) make it to the port and blend in with the many convicts given trustee work. Spotting a ship on which to escape, they move in on Ducotel's Store to steal what they need, intending to kill anyone who gets in the way. But the adorable Ducotels change their outlook. Amelie Ducotel (Joan Bennett) is a fine lady, her daughter Isabelle (Gloria Talbott) an insecure girl hoping her boyfriend will choose her over a business career, and Felix Ducotel (Leo G. Carroll) is a meek fellow trying to make a living under the thumb of a cruel brother-in-law, Andre Trochard (Basil Rathbone). Amelie invites the three fugitives to stay over Christmas, and they soon set about helping Felix and Isabelle with problems personal and mercantile. Of great help in this effort is Albert's pet viper, a tiny poisonous snake that looks like a colorful bracelet.
We're No Angels has a promising cast. Humphrey Bogart is back as a criminal, but a much nicer one than he played in The Desperate Hours the year before. Aldo Ray was considered a hot item at the time, and Peter Ustinov tended to brighten any role he was given. Favorites Joan Bennett and Leo G. Carroll are on board along with favorite villain Basil Rathbone. And from the Paramount contract list came Gloria Talbott, a promising fresh face. We're No Angels would seem the kind of foolproof comedy that anybody could make into a great picture. So why is it such a middling performer, with only a couple of laughs?
The answer is the direction, which is too slow and too lazy. Michael Curtiz was once the kind of director who could make any drama exciting, and is the undisputed master of intrigue, romance and action in films as different as
The Sea Hawk,
Mystery of the Wax Museum,
Mildred Pierce. He also did his share of funny comedies, but We're No Angels just has problems. The leisurely pace lets us think too much about the stagebound sets, while the 'stand back and watch' camerawork seems to be following good actors around during a dress rehearsal.
We're far ahead of the story and realize almost immediately that the three supposed killers are really soft-hearted creampuffs, there to help the Ducotel family have a nice Christmas and get rid of their tyrannical relative. There's never any doubt that this will happen, so no suspense or comic tension develops. As the play is clearly written to be a pleasant trifle that's fine, but the criminals are so harmless that an engaging conflict never gets started.
So the movie tries to get by on charm, and ultimately fails even though all the actors have our total approval. There is no real French atmosphere, no period atmosphere and no sense of the Ducotel family's situation being any more poignant than a setup in a W.C. Fields movie. The idea of the 'Angels' learning the family's problem from above while tarring the roof doesn't come off as whimsical or particularly clever. The Christmas Eve charm is labored, with the possible exception of Gloria Talbott's scenes hoping for her big romance to arrive. Albert is clearly supposed to be attracted to her, but the script and direction set that issue aside. Angels and crooks don't have the luxury of getting personally involved.
Perhaps Humphrey Bogart set the tone, wanting to make his forger and book-cooker into a genteel softie. Without sharp direction or sharper wit in the many jokes and asides about dangerous criminals being such gentlemen, the comedy tension just sits there. To work as a black comedy like
The Ladykillers, there needs to be at least a hint that Joseph, Albert and Jules might actually turn and cut someone's throat.
Frankly, considering the flatness of most of the comedy, one can almost see the Three Stooges doing a better job. At least it would make comedy sense (slapstick burlesque sense) when nobody seems to notice their moronic antics. There's a comedy disconnect in We're No Angels -- we keep waiting for the Big Joke or some crazy twist, or perhaps for the movie to break out into musical numbers.
A few cute moments in We're No Angels will amuse fans of the stars, mostly Peter Ustinov. Most of the time he's off to one side trying not to mug and take attention away from Bogie, but he has several bits -- opening lockboxes and safes, chuckling to himself -- that inspire genuine mirth. The glorious Joan Bennett is mostly wasted; she and Basil Rathbone were on a steady downward career slide due to the influx of flashier, newer 50s talent. The unkillable Leo G. Carroll would soon begin a second life as a television actor, helped by his showy role in Hitchcock's
North by NorthWest. Poor Gloria Talbott's career timing was off. She'd soon disappear into the depths of Allied Artists Z-pix like
The Daughter of Dr Jekyll and The Cyclops. Her biggest claim to fame is as the heroic pre-feminist lead in the Science Fiction film
I Married a Monster from Outer Space. Those kinds of titles on a resumé weren't considered a good sign in the late 1950s.
(spoilers next paragraph)
The movie ends fairly flatly, never fully coming to terms with our Angels' use of a deadly snake to 'help out' the Ducotels. The lack of a satisfying conclusion makes us wonder if the Ducotels will be charged with murder, simply because the two accidental snakebite victims were so convenient for them. And we just aren't prepared for the thoughtless way the Angels decide not to escape back to France after all. The movie just doesn't operate on that whimsical level. We're No Angels remains a cute, curious diversion and not much else.
Paramount's DVD of We're No Angels is a fine enhanced transfer with great color and a sharp image. The widescreen formatting really helps focus the action, although with so many wide shots it's recommended the movie be seen on the largest monitor possible. In keeping with Paramount policy for budget-priced discs, there are no extras.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
We're No Angels rates:
Movie: Good or better, or worse depending on one's tolerance for tepid comedy
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 21, 2005
A welcome note from veteran Savant correspondent "B": "Dear Glenn: Appropos of nothing, thinking a little about this Michael Curtiz-directed picture after reading your review reminded me of the little-understood importance of the producer -- and, certainly, production head -- in the studio system.
Even keeping in mind the little distinctions of its French theatrical origins, if a movie like We're No Angels had been produced at Warners during Hal Wallis' reign, or at Fox when Zanuck was calling the shots, it would never have been allowed to be so slowly paced as to become moribund. The problem in making this picture should have been in
spotting the parts where the story would _require_ a gentle, thoughtful hand; the scenes that really needed time to develop character and flavor. The rest of it should have moved with style and great speed -- this is a piece of cake, after all.
It must certainly have been different for film audiences from the more slapdash tv fare of the time -- which was part of the point of this thing being shot in VistaVision and running an amazing 106 minutes. But many filmgoers must have recalled top Hollywood comedies of the 'thirties and 'forties (fortunately for the filmmakers, these weren't yet playing on television) and wondered what had happened in the interim. It had to have looked particularly weak in contrast to the
smart comedies then arriving from England.
That having been said, I have an odd fondness for this movie. It is a black comedy, it does feature Bogart, Ustinov, Rathbone, Leo G., Joan Bennett, Gloria Talbott (high marks to Savant, as usual, for acknowledging her) and Mr. Ray, whose brief stardom still fascinates me.
In my youth, during the now distant pre-cable era, an area tv station would run late, late movies on Friday and Saturday nights; these aired with absurdly few commercials, and all the films were from a Paramount syndication package. Almost all of them -- comedy or drama -- felt as though they were designed to be seen at three o'clock in the morning.
Some, like Seconds, Once Upon A Time in the West and Ace in the Hole / the Big Carnival, were awfully powerful at that time of day. Others became a little darker than they probably were meant to be: Were the Bogart and Hepburn of Sabrina actually going to be happy together? Could Anthony Perkins' Jimmy Piersall really calm his inner battle? Will the King Vidor War and Peace ever end?
We're No Angels was one of these pictures. At three o'clock in the morning, you knew these convicts would never leave the little town. They'd wind up going back to Devil's Island; the outer world was now too rotten and confusing. But, before heading back, why not commit an act of kindness or two for these nice people? [It's a shame the Production Code probably interfered with their doing a little more for them, but there you are.]
Appropos of nothing. Best, Always. -- B."
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson