Mister Cinecal

Mister Cinecal

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Alternate Christmas Classics: We're No Angels

Tired of the same Christmas movies every year? Mister Cinecal has you covered with a selection of Yuletide movies that you may not have seen before.

Here's a decent rule of thumb that I'm sure you'll agree with: Christmas movies that are too happy are not worth watching. It's funny that Christmas movies generally have a rep for being too saccharine, when in fact many of the most well-known ones aren't set in a winter wonderland of constant smiles and rainbows. It's A Wonderful Life the feel good Christmas film, is a pretty consistent trail of misfortune for ol' George Bailey almost all of the way through. Simply acknowledging the rougher edges of life goes a long way, especially when you look at the Christmas movies out this year where the greatest danger is of getting some reindeer shit in the face. The 1955 film We're No Angels is a long way from the misanthropy of the likes of Bad Santa, but watching three escaped criminals get into the Christmas spirit in a farce that involves theft, fraud and a poisonous snake on the loose falls on the right side of the Christmas movie divide. 

If you watch We're No Angels with a movie buff, be prepared for a few nudges and interruptions as the names pop up during the opening credits. Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov and Aldo Ray (the inspiration for Inglorious Basterd Lt. Aldo Raine) are the eponymous non-angels. Also featuring are Basil Rathbone ("he was Sherlock Holmes!" movie buff might say), Leo G. Carroll ("that's that one guy from all those Hitchcock movies!") and Joan Bennett ("one of the femme fatales of early film noir!") and was directed by Michael Curtiz (movie buff might start rattling of his films at this point, Casablanca, Angels With Dirty Faces, White Christmas...please don't hit movie buff at this point). There are a few Casablanca-like sets and backdrops in the setting, a French colonial town near the famous Devil's Island prison, but with this film being based on a play (itself based on another, more French play) the film is mostly confined to the home/shop of the down-on-their luck Ducotel family, who Bogart, Ustinov and Ray keep trying to convince themselves are going to be their victims.

The trio have recently escaped from Devil's Island just before Christmas and are planning to quickly steal from the beleagured shopkeeper Felix Ducotel, whip up some fake passports and escape via a boat that is docked in the nearby harbour. The escaped convicts are of a pleasant disposition but they're...well...no angels, Bogart only cooked books in his day. Ustinov murdered his wife. Ray murdered his uncle and has been known to "chase girls". When a snake killed a guard they didn't like back at the prison they adopted it as a pet. And named it Adolf. It might take a Christmas miracle to turn them around, but instead being treated with basic decency by the family seems to do the trick, so they try to make sure the Ducotels have the best Christmas possible, by getting Felix out from under the thumb of his ruthless businessman cousin, who owns the shop, and helping to set his daughter Isabelle up with her beloved Paul, or at least to get her to see what a fop he really is. They try to resolve these issues the best way they know how: illegally, with a spot of murder if necessary. 

Chemistry is key in a farce like this, and Bogart, Ustinov and Ray are kind of an unlikely combination; Bogart being the big movie star, Ustinov the Renaissance man and Aldo Ray as some sort of actor out of time, like if Michael Madsen built a time machine in between direct to DVD movies. While things never get quite as madcap and out of control as you might want from a farce there are plenty of funny lines and the leads play well off of each other. A rough lot they might be but where other films might have had the bickering Stoogily here they get along at all times. Bogart does have to have Ustinov make follow Ray around to make sure he doesn't do anything inappropriate on the frequent occasions that the innocent Isabelle faints though. Yeesh. The humour is old-school obviously, but there's an entertaining contrast in watching them try to make people happy at Christmas through immoral measures. Feel-good but not saccharine, which makes We're No Angels handy Christmas viewing if you can dig it up.

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