Reflections on “We’re No Angels” (1955)
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Screenplay by Ranald MacDougall,
based on the play “My Three Angels” by Samuel and Bella Spewack,
which was based on “La Cuisine des Anges” by Albert Hussan,
starring Humphrey Bogart, Aldo Ray and Peter Ustinov
A video presentation of this material is available here.
Just as I enjoy “traditional” angel films, I also appreciate those in which men act in much the same way as angels, perhaps having been “sent” by some omnipotent string-puller who can organise the crossing of paths of people in need and those who can help them.
This is a comedy Christmas film like no other as three “wise men” arrive at a family home in the French penal colony on Devil’s Island on Christmas Eve 1895 and set about helping the family to resolve a variety of issues.
However, this is no morally secure, reassuring and treacly Christmas fare, for our three “angels” are, in fact, escaped prisoners (a thief and two murderers) obliged to spend Christmas taking refuge with a kindly family of shopkeepers (the Ducotels) as they await the opportunity to board a ship bound for freedom. Not only are our three angels escaped convicts, but they are unrepentant, steeped in (largely criminal) wisdom and experience, good-hearted and utterly charming to boot.
In terms of plot and character development, there is no question of rehabilitation – our three heroes do good by plying their criminal skills. The villains of the piece (businessman André Trochard and his nephew Paul) deserve their comeuppance though their deaths may be considered a trifle extreme, but that issue is deftly avoided as the whole is treated with dark humour and a lightness of touch shared with the audience from the very start. Our angels are defiantly humorous and single-minded in their desire to see the villains disposed of and the family benefit from their nefarious actions, but very cleverly they do not actually cause the deaths, though they do nothing to prevent them and are very happy to see the Ducotels profit from them.
They make moral judgments but are willing to take direct and potentially amoral action to enforce these judgments. The whole is a consciously playful and amusing (as opposed to broadly comic) mix of genres as our three angels maintain a moral distance from the family (skewed in this case toward criminal simplicity and inferiority rather than principled and complex superiority) and they act to resolve financial, familial and romantic issues using amoral methods more in keeping with those seen in a film noir.
Comedy stems from their unremorseful acceptance of their own criminal natures which they put to good purpose while protecting the “good” who remain blameless, their almost gleeful inflicting of punishment on the villains, and then there is their complicity with the audience. There are numerous asides, the full import of which only the audience will understand while other characters cannot, thus creating collusion while developing empathy and sympathy.
It could be suggested that the three combine to form the perfect angelic unit of assistance (spirit, heart and action) sent from Heaven to help this good-natured family in their time of need. Indeed, this is vaguely implied at one stage as our trio literally look down from above (while repairing the roof) as they assess the situation and decide on the appropriate action, but their unconventional methods rather deliciously call in to question the whole nature of morality and justice.
In the end, our three heroes are so disappointed and traumatised by this encounter with “civilisation” with its underhand ways and complexities that they decide to return to prison where they will feel more secure! Our angels are open, genuine and sincere – they are what they are, accept it and act on their instincts, while some of the “honest” folk they have met are duplicitous and downright cold-hearted, characteristics they find unpalatable and unacceptable.
Humphrey Bogart (whose film noir credentials are essential to both the amoral and comic elements of the film), Aldo Ray and Peter Ustinov play off one another beautifully and in determined good humour as the well-intentioned criminals willing to put their dark natures to good use, especially opposite Basil Rathbone who plays the law-abiding but black-hearted villain with dismissive and superior gusto.
The script is sharp and fast-paced and plays in an almost farce-like style which contributes to the lightness of the atmosphere and makes good use of audience complicity and understanding to achieve its unique effect.
The whole is carried off with such verve and knowing playfulness that the rather confined staging and sets which betray the theatrical origins of the piece go virtually unnoticed.
There are frequent references to the angelic nature and worthiness of our heroes and there is even a clear suggestion from Jules at the end of the film that they may, indeed, have been Heaven-sent (confirmed by the appearance of halos above their heads as they saunter off to prison), so what we have is a comical angelic Christmas-themed film noir which reinforces the old adage that God works in mysterious ways – who would have thought it possible?
My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.
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