Angels We Have Seen on Screen
As rare as it was for Humphrey Bogart to take a comedic role, he doesn’t betray a hint of unease with the light-hearted We’re No Angels. That was Bogart’s great virtue, after all—he was comfortable in any milieu, whether the Old West, wartime Monaco or the Florida Keys. Here, as an escaped convict on Devil’s Island at the end of the 19th century, he displays his usual equanimity. It doesn’t matter if his antagonists are firing bullets or witty rejoinders; Bogie allows the world around him to keep spinning, his own private gravity intact. It’s a damn shame he didn’t do more comedies, because he had the imperturbable balance of a natural-born straight man.
Unfortunately, We’re No Angels doesn’t hang together with the grace of its leading man. Based on a play by Albert Husson, the film suffers from slightly stodgy staging and the lackluster pacing endemic to theatrical adaptations since the dawn of film. Bogart, Peter Ustinov, and Aldo Ray clearly relish the opportunity to play against type, but their interaction lacks the snap you would expect to see from a stage production. As such, the film is probably 15 or 20 minutes longer than it needs to be, and all that time is spent in unnecessary pauses between lines, as well as devoted to elaborate staging, the type of deliberate interaction that may work on screen but is death on stage.
A screenplay and a theatrical script are two different creatures, and any good adaptation is wise to be wary of these differences. We’re No Angels takes place, for the most part, on one set, with two rooms and a garden. There’s not a lot of kinetic cinema-friendly action or movement. The camera is removed from the action, remaining at a middle distance that gives the proceedings too much room. Any seasoned theatrical director—or a movie director familiar with theatrical conventions—could have trimmed the flab and produced a far less breezy picture simply by focusing on more tight shots of the performers and their interactions, as well as dropping the infernal pauses between the lines.
But Michael Curtiz is a film director (familiar to Bogart fans as the director of Angels with Dirty Faces and Casablanca). While the film is exquisitely shot, every composition taking full advantage of the sterling Technicolor. We’re No Angels is a well-mannered screwball comedy, concerning three hard-bitten convicts who fall in with an essentially decent and well-heeled family on the backwater of Devil’s Island. Felix Ducotel (Leo J. Carroll) is a well-meaning but inefficient merchant, exiled to the colonial outpost by his overbearing cousin Andre Tochard (precisely played by the great Basil Rathbone). On the eve of an untimely audit by the visiting Tochard, Ducotel’s family becomes unwitting hosts to the three escaped convicts. The treatment needs more screwball and less good behavior.
At times the film seems at odds with the grim implications of its own plot. The three convicts are supposedly dangerous felons—Ustinov’s Jules is a safecracker and a murderer, Ray’s Albert is an undefined sex fiend, and Bogart’s Joseph is a relatively sedate white-collar bookmaker (the first time we seem him, however, he’s complaining that he failed to kill a guard during the convict’s escape). But the implications of their fiendish crimes are glossed over during their stay with the Ducotels, during which the family seems thoroughly unconcerned by the thought of their wholesome daughter Isabelle (Gloria Talbott) being shadowed by a convicted rapist.
Considering that the plot, such as it is, involves a pair of murders committed by Albert’s poisonous viper, the jaunty tone doesn’t seem appropriate. Mostly unmemorable, it’s merely a footnote in the careers of those involved.