Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Bogie Beguiles in Light Hearted Dark Comedy

We’re No Angels
Paramount // 1955 // 105 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

“Bogie beguiles in a rare comedic performance.” ~ sez Cinematic Cteve.

Opening Shot
Paramount Pictures presents a whimsical and occasionally dark comedy of three escaped felons: Humphrey Bogart (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), Peter Ustinov (Spartacus), and gravel-voiced Aldo Ray (God's Little Acre). The actors run on cruise control, but they are so smooth and fun to watch that the film's thin plot is easily forgiven.

A Bit of Plot…
Joseph, Jules, and Albert (Bogart, Ustinov and Ray) escape the notorious Devil’s Island prison. Joseph is a master forger. Breaking out of prison enables the multi-talented Jules to avoid a life sentence as a wife-murdering safecracker. Albert was likewise pulling a life stretch for knocking his uncle over the head — fatally. Albert is inseparable from his pet, a poisonous viper named Adolph that the convict carries with him everywhere in a little basket.

Hiding around a French port, they wait for a ship to stow aboard and affect their escape. But it’s hard to maintain a low profile when their stomachs are grumbling. Needing money, they plot to steal from kindly merchant Felix (Leo G. Carroll, North by Northwest). When they learn of his accounting troubles, the escaped convicts have an inexplicable change of heart and decide to help Felix, instead. They talk Felix into hiring them as roofers in exchange for room and board. Peering through the skylight, the troublemaking trio eavesdrops on Felix and his family. Felix frets the arrival of his cousin André [Basil Rathbone (The Son of Frankenstein, Sherlock Holmes)], who owns the shop and intends to fire Felix if his books don't show a profit. Daughter Isabelle, 18, pines for her old flame Paul, who has just returned to France. All of this is going down right before Christmas.

When Paul and André arrive unexpectedly, they turn out to be arrogant asses. André threatens to ruin Felix ands turn his family out in the street. But the nasty businessman doesn't reckon on the schemes of three wily criminals who have taken quite a liking to their adoptive family.

Historical Context and Significance
Director Michael Curtiz (who had worked with Bogart on Casablanca, and Rathbone on The Adventures of Robin Hood) and his all-star cast are clearly having a blast with this roguishly charming comedy, even though they never shift higher than second gear. Too dark for a farce and not wild enough to classify as screwball comedy, the film teeters along an odd middle ground, searching for an elusive tone that never comes.

The main fascination comes from seeing tough-guy Bogart in one of his very few comedies. His wry sense of humor practically drips with sarcasm. (At right: Ustinov and Bogart don't seem too concerned about the menacing Rathbone.)

Ustinov excels at effete snobbery and gets off some of the best lines, stealing the show with his droll manner and condescending commentary. Ustinov made a career out of playing oily charmers, charlatans, and crooks, as well as occasional heroes such as Agatha Christie’s elegant detective Hercule Poirot (see Death on the Nile for Ustinov in action).

The gravel-voiced Ray is by turns menacing and charming, and sometimes both at once. Contemporary viewers watching Ray in this picture will immediately think: Hey! That's where Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs) got his shtick.

The supporting performers are adequate, if uninspired. Leo G. Carroll is serviceable in his trademark role as a benign and lovable fuddy-duddy, while Rathbone isn't given much of a stretch playing the bad guy.

And we know that any time a deadly snake is introduced early in a film, that serpent is going to pop up sooner or later as a key plot point.

On the upside, this is a gorgeous Technicolor film, glowing in rich, vibrant hues, even though most of it was obviously shot on the Paramount backlot and nowhere near France. The digital transfer is beautiful. Audio is presented in the original mono and sounds fine.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
Not much, I’ll tell ya. Paramount deserves a ding for delivering a disc with no extras, not even a trailer.

As an aside, it's worth noting that the 1989 film of the same title is only distantly related to We’re No Angels. The more recent version with Sean Penn and Robert De Niro is a remake in name only.

The Contrarian View
We’re No Angels is a curious little comedy, flirting with the macabre, then pulling back to play nice. It’s not dark enough to qualify as black comedy, à la Psycho or Dr. Strangelove, nor is it light fare. But it’s a seriously good-looking film with an exceptional cast of tough guys enjoying a rare cinematic romp. Imagine Fred C. Dobbs with a little more savvy and a sense of humor. For Bogie fans, this is a must-have.

Since this is technically a Christmas movie, We’re No Angels could serve as amusing counter-programming to all the holiday schmaltz that plagues the airwaves from the day after Thanksgiving through December 25. That's reason enough to spin this disc.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved, except images from the motion picture “We’re No Angels” copyright © 1955 by Paramount Pictures.

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