December 2, 2012

Movie Monday: We’re No Angels

Who’s ready for a Christmas movie? It’s officially December now, so I won’t hear any complaints!

An embezzler (Humphrey Bogart), a safe cracker (Peter Ustinov) and a rapist (Aldo Ray) break out of prison on Christmas Eve. It sounds like the set-up to a joke, but it’s the beginning of this somewhat dark comedy from 1955. Joseph, Jules and Albert (respectively) are convicts on Devil’s Island for murder (among other things) who escape jail with their pet poisonous snake, Adolf. While trying to *ahem* collect resources to facilitate transport to France, they get themselves hired by the local general store to do odds and ends. Of course, the real plan is that once the family who owns the store goes to bed, the convicts will help themselves to whatever they want and make a break for it.

The store is run by a pretty pathetic family. Felix Ducotel (Leo G. Carroll) and Amelie Ducotel (Joan Bennett) are hopeless when it comes to business, and the store is belly-up in debt. They also have a pretty young daughter (Gloria Talbott) who faints a lot. To the three convicts, this makes the Ducotels easy marks. Who would notice another few jackets and socks going missing in a store that the town is practically robbing blind already?

The Ducotels are pathetic, but to the convicts’ chagrin, they are also pathetically endearing. In next to no time, the family has decided to “adopt” the convicts and invite them to stay for Christmas Eve dinner. Initially the convicts see this as their excuse to stay until the family goes to bed, so they can pull off the heist. But through a series of personal encounters, they begin to grow fond of the Ducotels – too fond to steal from them.

Enter Cousin Andre (Basil Rathbone). Cousin Andre is the actual owner of the store, and he hangs his ownership like the sword of Damocles over the Ducotels’ heads. He’s insatiably greedy and sees no merit where there is no profit. Unfortunately, he’s also instilled these qualities in his nephew, Paul (John Baer), with whom the daughter is infatuated. Andre’s sudden arrival threatens to put the Ducotels out onto the street, once he discovers how much money they are losing in the store. The convicts are suddenly very protective of this sweet little family that has treated them so well, and devise a plan to help the Ducotels keep their home, help the daughter figure out her teenage heart, and still get themselves the necessities to make their way to Paris. They have the skills to pull such a scheme off, but can they do it before the police find them? And when the Ducotels, genuinely decent, honest folk, discover the convicts’ plan, will they go along with it?

I call this a somewhat dark comedy because the story does revolve around a trio of violent criminals as the heroes. An older Bogey leads the crew, but Ustinov and Ray are equally entertaining. Peter Ustinov is fabulous no matter what he does, and his wonderfully polished British delivery is a treat. Aldo Ray plays a very charming murderer, which only becomes creepy when you are occasionally reminded he is also a rapist. They don’t say that outright, of course. This was 1955. Amelie asks Joseph what Alfred went to prison for. “For chasing a girl.” Is that illegal? “Well, no, but he caught her.” Oy. And yet, Alfred is so charming and chivalrous around the ladies, you almost want to forgive him for his unrepentant past. The magic of movies and a sexy voice (Aldo Ray’s trademark, kind of a Jack Bauer thing going on).

And we can’t leave without mentioning Basil Rathbone, who is fabulously horrible in every role he plays. His aloof villain is very welcome to spice up the third act and throw a wrench into everybody’s well-laid plans. By the end of the movie, we all agree he thoroughly deserves what’s coming to him. A wonderful straight man to Bogart, Ustinov and Ray’s wisecracking convicts, Rathbone is absolutely perfect. And the humor here is my kind of humor – understated, cerebral, almost no physical comedy, lots of irony and sarcasm. One of those where you don’t really want to laugh out loud because you’re afraid you’ll miss the next zinger.

“We’re No Angels” is going to be on TCM on Sunday, December 9, at 7:00 pm CST. Or, if you have the option, it is also available on Amazon.com streaming. (Which is free if you have Amazon Prime already). Just FYI.

Honorable Mentions:
Madame Curie (1944) – Monday, December 3, 2:30 pm CST
It’s a Date (1940) – Tuesday, December 4, 12:15 pm CST
The Shop Around the Corner (1940) – Friday, December 7, 11:00 pm CST
Cat Ballou (1965) – Saturday, December 8, 12:15 pm CST
Anatomy of a Murder (1959) – Sunday, December 9, 4:15 pm CST

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