Humphrey Bogart had done everything possible to be a true Hollywood legend. What do you think of when you hear his name though? I typically think of heavy roles, dramatic, intimidating tough guys. Sure, they're not all like that, The African Queen comes to mind, but a majority were. Well, we can add another film to that small list, 1955's We're No Angels.
It's Christmas Eve on Devil's Island in 1895, and three convicts, Joseph (Bogart), Albert (Aldo Ray) and Jules (Peter Ustinov), have managed to escape. The only problem? They've got no money, no papers, and no way of getting off the island. Instead, they meet Felix Ducotel (Leo G. Carroll), a quiet, worrisome and soft-spoken shopkeeper who offers them a job fixing his roof. The trio sees a chance for some easy money, pretending to work on the roof and waiting for nightfall for a chance to rob the shopkeeper blind, giving them everything they need to pull off the successful escape. Pretty simple, right? From their rooftop perch, the convicts start to listen to the goings on in Felix's worrisome life. Uh-oh, now the convicts are interested and even going to help. That escape plan is on hold....for now.
This was a movie on my Netflix queue as a 'Save' option for months after I accidentally read about it at IMDB. I couldn't find it anywhere, and it didn't seem to be on TV...ever. So when TCM aired it in early December, I jumped at the chance. It was well worth the wait. That plot description doesn't exactly scream out buddy comedy, does it? That's what it is though at its most basic. It just happens to be a buddy comedy on steroids that blends a great script, perfect casting and a unique setting that takes advantage of the early stages of widescreen format in films. Long story short, I liked this movie from director Michael Curtiz a whole lot.
The casting works so well because it plays against convention and typecasting. My first thought at hearing Bogie, Aldo Ray and Peter Ustinov in a movie about convicts escaping Devil's Island? Not going to be a comedy. While all three actually are criminals, their crimes are played for laughs (Bogie is a forger, Ray and Ustinov murderers) and end up producing some of the biggest laughs in the movie. I probably use this too much, but the chemistry among these three actors -- all very talented in their own right -- is spot-on. It's effortless. They do it with ease. And because it's a comedy, it's that much better. Dramatic actors doing comedy can be hit or miss, but when handled correctly as it is here, it can carry a movie.
So as is usually the case, this movie goes both ways. Is it the cast lifting up a script or a solid script giving the cast something to do for a change? Oh, no, the Chicken or Egg: Movie Edition! It's both here. Bogie, Ray and Ustinov doing comedy is a welcome change. As good as they are dramatically, they're even better doing comedy. Read some of the more memorable quotes from 'Angels' over at IMDB HERE. It's never obvious humor, most of it underplayed to the point some lines are probably too subtle to even register. That is the beauty though of smart humor though. And throw into the shenanigans, Adolph, a very little, very poisonous snake as the fourth member of the troop with a knack for "solving problems," and we've got some laughs.
Playing the straight man to the convicts' subtle shenanigans, Carroll does a fine job as constantly worried Felix whether it be his family or his business. Joan Bennett and Gloria Talbott round out Felix's family, his loving wife, Amelie, and his daughter, Isabel, madly in love. Basil Rathbone and John Baer play visiting family members, both with their own secrets and looking to take advantage of Felix, his family and his general store. Rathbone is particularly nasty, rounding out a supporting cast that does a solid job without taking away the spotlight from the three main stars.
On top of the acting though the little things come through in 'Angels.' It was one of the first films to use Vistavision, a unique, very colorful widescreen format. The main setting -- Felix's shop, house and roof -- plays like an on-stage play, but the screen is constantly full of bright colors and vivid backgrounds. It hits the ground running in an opening scene that shows the trio of angels escaping from quite a distance. The story itself is pretty interesting and never dull, but it never hurts when a movie is fun to watch in a visual-sense alone. As I seem to do so often, I feel like I'm not explaining why I liked this movie real well (damn comedies!), but I did. A lot, I liked this movie a ton. If you can find a copy or stumble across it on TV, sit down, plant it somewhere comfy and enjoy it.
We're No Angels (1955): *** 1/2 /****