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We're No Angels (1955)

The problem with criminals is that they're dishonest, while at the same time far more inventive than legitimate folks. Case in point — Joseph (Humphrey Bogart), Albert (Aldo Ray), and Jules (Peter Ustinov), three convicts who bust out of France's infamous Devils Island prison on Christmas Eve and hole up in the island's port city, hoping to steal steamship tickets back to Paris. They're an odd trio: The canny Joseph was sent up for corporate swindling, philosophical Jules murdered his wife, and the skirt-chasing Albert has always gotten into scrapes over girls. But they stick together — especially when there's an opportunity just around the corner. Able to blend in with the town's parolees, they turn up at the home of dry-goods merchant Felix Ducotel (Leo G. Carroll), who lives behind his shop with his wife Amelie (Joan Bennett) and 18-year-old daughter Isabelle (Gloria Talbott). Posing as roofers, they plan to steal everything they can, but before long they're drawn into a family drama: Isabelle's parents have long expected that she'll marry Paul Trochard (John Baer), the son of Felix's wealthy cousin Andre Trochard (Basil Rathbone). But Andre — who owns the good store and is soon arriving for a visit — indicates in a letter that nothing of the sort will happen, causing Isabelle to faint. Within moments, the convicts come to Isabelle's aid, and in short order they take over the shop itself, eventually planning the family's Christmas dinner. It's all very pleasant, until the dour Andre and Paul arrive — an event that causes the Ducotel family some distress but provides their guardian angels an excuse to have even more fun.

Michael Curtiz's We're No Angels (1955) is a smooth, low-key Hollywood classic that's held up over the years, so bulletproof that even Neil Jordan's 1989 remake (starring Robert De Niro and Sean Penn, with a screenplay by David Mamet) pales in comparison. And it's supported by more than a great script. Albert Husson's popular stage-play (adapted here by Ranald MacDougall) is a comedy of manners that toys with Wilde-esque understatement and murderous black humor, but what brings it to life on the screen is the marvelous against-type casting. Cary Grant was Hollywood's first leading man to play against his matinee-idol looks with legendary turns in screwball; Humphrey Bogart's wit can be heard in many of his films, but We're No Angels was his lone stab at a straight comedy, containing echoes of Grant's inimitable charm as he sweet-talks the shop's customers (illustrating that retail is simply a sanitized form of swindling) and even wears a pink apron with a straight face. Aldo Ray's career was typified by dogface roles in war films, but his lovable, light-hearted ass-pincher plays well against Bogart's savvy con-artist. Rounding out the trio is Peter Ustinov, experienced at comic and dramatic roles, and this time coming up with the occasionally maudlin, always pithy Jules the charming wife-killer (and it's Ustinov who gets the script's best lines). Director Curtiz (who also directed Bogart in Casablanca) stays true to the script's theatrical roots, keeping the story confined to the Ducotel home and allowing generous pauses in the dialogue to accommodate laughter. One of the studio system's most renowned journeymen, he's a good fit for the material, never letting his camerawork intrude into a movie that's essentially a dialogue piece. Making its debut on DVD, We're No Angels is bound to join a lot of folks' collections as a Christmas favorite, made even more attractive by its south-of-the-equator locale. It's perhaps the only Christmas classic soaked in tropical sunshine. Paramount's DVD release features a clean anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) from a colorful source-print that is remarkably sharp and free of collateral damage, while the monaural DD 2.0 audio is crisp and clear. No extras, keep-case.

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