Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Watch For This Little-Known Christmas Movie

"I'll say one thing about prison. You meet a better class of people."

Joseph (Humphrey Bogart)

In only the most tenuous of ways, "We're No Angels" — I refer to the movie that made its debut 60 years ago today, not the one that was in the theaters in the late 1980s — was a Christmas movie.

But only just barely.

Nevertheless, it was probably my mother's favorite Christmas movie. She loved to quote her favorite lines from it (well, actually, that's the way she was about all the movies that she liked; she had her favorite lines and she kept them in reserve for use at the appropriate moments). There were many lines — and many scenes — in "We're No Angels" that my mother loved.

My earliest memories of her quoting that movie were long before I saw it — and only she and my father were in on the joke. I guess I was in college before I finally saw it, and, over the years, I have observed that it isn't a popular choice for TV schedulers. I think it should be, although I realize it will never be the holiday favorite that, say, "It's a Wonderful Life" has become.

As Christmas movies go, it is probably an acquired taste, like "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation."

And I'll grant you it's a little difficult to warm up to a Christmas movie set on Devil's Island. But give it a try sometime. It's one of Humphrey Bogart's rare comedies — and it is a reminder of just how good he really was.

"We're No Angels" also reunited Bogart with the director of "Casablanca," Michael Curtiz.

Or you could watch it in the summer, as the original viewers did in 1955. Either way, it is very entertaining.

Besides, laughter seems to be in keeping with the joyous spirit of the Christmas season — unlike so many of the traditional seasonal songs and movies, which tend to be somber. Well, that's my take on it. If you haven't had the experience of seeing it yet, let me tell you a little bit about it.

I guess the first thing is to explain about Devil's Island. It was a notorious penal colony in French Guiana from the mid–19th to the mid–20th centuries. There were legitimate prisoners there, I suppose, but Devil's Island was primarily known as the place where political prisoners were kept.

The three stars of the movie — Bogart, Peter Ustinov, Aldo Ray — played traditional prisoners. I don't remember if their crimes were ever mentioned directly or if I just put two and two together, but it seems to me that Bogart was doing time for forgery, Ustinov was a safecracker who had murdered his wife and Ray had committed a sexual assault. The lessons each had learned from those experiences — both good and bad — were on display in the movie.

Just before Christmas, the three escaped from prison and made their way to a nearby town, where they found themselves at a store managed by a small family — the only shopkeepers willing to sell things on credit. The escapees offered to fix a hole in the roof and decided to stay until nightfall, when they would steal clothes and supplies and go on to a ship in the harbor, which would take them away from Devil's Island.

Well, that was the plan.

But the longer they observed things from their perch on the roof, the more they came to realize that the family was in dire financial straits. The family — Leo G. Carroll, Joan Bennett and their daughter, Gloria Talbott — actually ran the store for its owner, their cousin Andre (Basil Rathbone), who measured everything in terms of cash value — and, as it turned out, cousin Andre showed up on Christmas Eve to evaluate things at the store. He had his nephew Paul (John Baer) with him, and they suspected the store's generous credit policy had caused considerable problems.

Isabel (Talbott) and Paul had had a summer fling, and Isabel was still infatuated with Paul. Paul, on the other hand, appeared to have moved on, having become engaged to another woman. Isabel was crushed when she learned the truth, and the escapees, having become quite fond of Isabel and her parents, decided to do something about the situation, but they weren't sure how to accomplish it.

The answer was, literally, in a box that Ray carried with him at all times. Inside the box was a poisonous viper named Adolphe — who was never seen but was mentioned frequently. In hilarious fashion, first Andre and then Paul took the box away, unable to see what was inside until it was too late. Apparently, Adolphe's poison acted quickly.

The humor of "We're No Angels" was often subtle. It wasn't a slapstick kind of movie. The viewer frequently had to think about what had just been said by one of the characters on the screen and look for the deeper meaning. It was a very clever script.

Most people have to watch it two or three times because they miss some jokes when they're laughing at others.

It's worth it, though, especially at the end when the convicts decide to turn themselves in rather than face life in the real world, and, as they were walking away from the camera at the very end, halos appeared above each of their heads — and above Adolphe's cage, too.