Saturday, March 28, 2009

In Memory of Peter Ustinov

My mother always enjoyed Peter Ustinov's performances, and one of her favorite Christmas movies was "We're No Angels," a somewhat obscure film from the 1950s (please note, I'm not referring to the Sean Penn-Robert De Niro film of the same name that was released in 1989).

This film starred Ustinov, Humphrey Bogart and Aldo Ray as convicts on Devil's Island who conspire to escape aboard a ship that is docked in the harbor during the Christmas season. The men are "lifers" — Bogart is a convicted forger, Ustinov is doing time for murdering his wife and Ray is a rapist. They are accompanied by a never seen but often mentioned poisonous pet snake named Adolphe who resides in a small box/cage that is always carried by Ray.

The convicts manage to escape the prison and hide out at a small shop owned by the Ducotel family. They need new clothes and money for their escape and plan to wait for the right moment to take what they need from the store — but they develop a fondness for the family, especially their daughter Isabelle (played by Gloria Talbott, who later became the mother of Megan Mullally of "Will & Grace"), and that complicates matters for them.

As the convicts and the audience soon learn, the Ducotels are about to be visited by cousin Andre (played by Basil Rathbone) who owns the store and is coming to audit the books. Isabelle thinks she is in love with Andre's nephew, who happens to be coming with him, and the convicts decide to help her woo the young man, but the nephew rejects her in order to stay in his wealthy uncle's good graces.

The convicts decide that Andre must be put on trial — a subject with which they have personal experience. In a hilarious scene, the convicts hold a mock trial for Andre in which Bogart plays the judge, Ustinov plays the defense attorney and Ray plays the prosecuting attorney. The defendant, notably, is absent throughout, and his conviction is a foregone conclusion.

They conclude that Andre must be executed, but they can't decide how to accomplish it — until Ray suggests that Adolphe should be the instrument for achieving the goal. That leads to the clip I have attached to this post.

Ustinov died of heart failure five years ago today, less than three weeks before his 83rd birthday.

He had a wonderful sense of humor. A few years before he made "We're No Angels," Ustinov won a Golden Globe award for his portrayal of Nero in "Quo Vadis." Half a century later, shortly before the invasion of Iraq, he told an interviewer, "I don't know whether I played Nero or whether I played George W. Bush."

And once, during an interview, he was asked what he would like to have written on his tombstone. He replied, "Please keep off the grass."