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Film / We're No Angels

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Isabelle: You don't look like a criminal to me.
Albert: If crime showed on a man's face, there wouldn't be any mirrors.

We're No Angels is a 1955 comedy film directed by Michael Curtiz, starring Humphrey Bogart, Aldo Ray, and Peter Ustinov.

Shortly before Christmas in 1895, unapologetic convicts Joseph (Bogart), Albert (Ray), and Jules (Ustinov) escape — along with Albert's pet viper, Adolfe — from the infamous Devil's Island prison in French Guiana. After dodging search parties, they seek refuge in the shop of Felix Ducotel (Leo G. Carroll), who is struggling to make ends meet under the overbearing supervision of his cousin Andre (Basil Rathbone). Given the spirit of the Christmas season, the trio decide to assist Ducotel, his wife Amelie (Joan Bennett), and their daughter Isabelle (Gloria Talbott) the only way they know how.

Adapted from the stage production My Three Angels by Sam and Bella Spewack, itself based the French play La Cuisine des Anges†  by Albert Husson. Loosely remade as a 1989 film directed by Neil Jordan, written by David Mamet, and starring Robert De Niro, Sean Penn, and Demi Moore. In this version, the setting is changed to upstate New York during The Great Depression, and the escaped convicts (now reduced to a duo) masquerade as priests. Despite earning moderate critical acclaim, the remake was a box-office flop.

The original 1955 film provides examples of:

  • Accidental Murder: After Paul sets his sights on his uncle's fortune, the convicts try to think of ways to kill him...only for Paul to walk in saying he'd been bitten by the snake hiding in his uncle's pocket. The convicts instantly congratulate themselves on a job well done, while the guy is still alive.
  • All-Natural Snake Oil: The "bottled air" plot that landed Joseph in prison.
  • Asshole Victim: Absolutely nobody is sad about Cousin Andre.
  • Bait-and-Switch: When Isabelle faints, Joseph asks Albert to go get some water, presumably to splash on her; when it arrives, they all take turns drinking from it, instead.
  • Black Comedy: Perhaps the driving force of the entire film.
  • Bread, Eggs, Breaded Eggs: Felix: "I wish I was a drunkard; I wish I was dead; I wish I was a dead drunkard!"
  • Brick Joke: Albert claims that you're supposed to loosen a girl's clothing when she faints. After he takes her into her bedroom, he's later forced out by Jules and says, "But you're supposed to when a girl faints!" Toward the end of the film, when she faints into Arnaud's arms...
    Albert: [To Arnaud] I read in a book once that when a girl faints...
    Joseph: He's a doctor; he'll think of something.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Medical Officer Arnaud makes a brief appearance in the first act as someone for the convicts to threaten and pickpocket, but shows up again in the final act for a Last Minute Hook Up with Isabelle.
  • Chubby Chaser: Jules swoons over an overweight woman who visits the shop.
    Joseph: There's plenty to dream about.
    Jules: Mine! All mine!
  • Comically Missing the Point: This exchange between Albert and Isabelle, regarding the murder of his uncle.
    Albert: At the trial it was established I hit him over the head fourteen times.
    Isabelle: How could you do it?!
    Albert: With a poker, mademoiselle.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Cousin Andre; while his business matters are entirely legal, he holds no qualms with stiffing a cab driver 5 francs. Paul embraces this title more fully after burning his uncle's will, even going so far as to search the corpse's pockets for valuables afterward.
  • Deadpan Snarker: All three criminals, though Amelie has a touch of this as well.
  • Death by Materialism: Paul's first act upon inheriting his uncle's fortune is to search through the deceased man's pockets...only to find Adolfe.
    Joseph: What were you doing in his pocket?
    Paul: I was just...just...
    Joseph: "Going through the books;" we know.
  • Driven to Suicide: Isabelle claims to wish to kill herself after hearing that Paul is engaged to another woman.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Played sarcastically for laughs throughout the film as the convicts use every trick in the book to lie, cheat, and steal their way to success, but later played straight when they learn what Andre intends to do to Ducotel's store.
  • Fainting: Isabelle faints four times over the course of the film: once when reading the letter announcing Paul's engagement to another woman; next when she sees Albert's face; again when she sees Adolfe the viper in his cage; and finally when she finds Paul dead in the summerhouse.
  • Five-Finger Discount: Leave three hardened criminals alone in a general store, or even out on the street, and this is bound to happen several times.
  • Forged Message: Joseph utilizes his talents to make a love letter to Isabelle from Paul and a will that leaves half of Andre's fortune to Ducotel.
  • Gentleman Thief: Jules, the most polite and sophisticated of the convicts, had a long career as a brilliant safecracker before committing a murder unrelated to his string of thefts.
  • Immediate Self-Contradiction: Joseph orders Albert and Jules to stop going soft over the Ducotels. They're here to rob them blind, ransack their store, bash in their heads if they get in the way, and escape... "as soon as we finish washing the dishes."
  • Implied Death Threat: Joseph tells Andre "I'd like to take care of you personally." Felix rushes to say that he means he'd like to see to Andre's luggage and amenities, but there's no doubting the tone he used.
  • Holy Halo: As the convicts return to prison, a halo appears over each of their heads.
  • Honor Before Reason: Felix doesn't enjoy the idea of scamming Andre, to the point where - even when it's his only option - he refuses to do so.
  • Heel–Face Turn: The three main characters do this when they realize how much of a mess Ducotel's store - and family - is in.
  • Last Words: Jules announces that Paul's last words were, "No credit."
  • Lost in a Crowd: The three escaped convicts make no effort to hide how they come from the prison and almost everyone just assumes they are among the hundreds of paroled convicts doing odd jobs around the island rather than the recent fugitives.
  • Lovable Rogue: If the three convicts were anything but, there wouldn't be much of a film.
  • Lovable Sex Maniac: Albert; while he's no doubt a pervert, he has everyone's best interests at heart when they need to be.
  • Morality Pet: One reason Jules likes the Ducotels is that Isabelle is the same age as his own daughter.
  • Motor Mouth: The chubby woman who visits the store constantly fills any silence with her own voice.
  • Murder by Inaction: Andre takes Adolfe's cage under the assumption that it's stolen merchandise from the store; the criminals actually tell him there's a viper inside, but he refuses to believe them before he enters his room. Cue the criminals buying as much time as they possibly can before "warning" him one last time.
    Jules: You didn't tell him?
  • Nice Guy: Ducotel's store is the only store on the island that gives credit, and he is so polite that he rarely insists that people pay it off; as such, the store is struggling financially to make ends meet and he is about to lose his job.
  • Nominal Hero: All three of the convicts apply to this Anti-Hero archetype; they start off as completely selfish and unapologetic, and even when they do good things they do them in an illegal way.
  • Old Maid: The lady on extended credit tells Amelie it's a shame that Isabelle isn't married yet—at age eighteen. Amelie takes this seriously, because she herself was already married and pregnant with Isabelle at that age.
  • Pet the Dog: Paul may be a slimy, greedy creep, but, unlike his uncle, he shows a willingness to keep Andre working at the store despite his poor sales as long as the inventory checks out (although he does smugly vow to fire his relative if it doesn’t check out).
  • Reptiles Are Abhorrent: Subverted; Adolfe the viper is considered the fourth member of the convicts, and is treated as such (even earning his own halo in the final scene.)
  • Safe Cracking: Jules is an expert cracker, gaining access with a well-placed karate chop.
  • Secret Diary: Amelie openly admits to reading Isabelle's diary, which is nothing but thoughts on how much she loves Paul.
    Felix: You read her private thoughts?!
    Amelie: Why do you think I gave her the diary?
  • Snake Oil Salesman: What Joseph was locked up for, and what he continues to do when in charge of the Ducotel's store.
    I don't sell a piece of goods; I sell an idea!
  • Sweet and Sour Grapes: The convicts are hoping to get off the island, yet at the very end of the film – when victory is within reach – they decide that their lives are better spent in the relative security of the prison. As they head back to turn themselves in, halos appear above each of their heads to signify an apparent holy forgiveness of each of the men (and their snake, too.)
  • Tastes Like Friendship: In an inversion of the usual. The trio decorate the house and cook a real Christmas dinner for the Ducotels (using entirely stolen items and foodstuffs). It's seeing the family experience genuine happiness for what is clearly the first time in a year that takes the convicts' heart out of robbing them.
  • They Have the Scent!: A group of search dogs appears in the beginning, but they lose the convicts' scents after rain suddenly falls.
  • The Peeping Tom: All three convicts take pleasure from watching Amelie try on her corset, and Joseph even tips his hat to her when she catches them in the act.
  • Til Murder Do Us Part: Jules was imprisoned after he killed his wife for sleeping with someone else.
    Jules: It was my fault entirely; I should have written and told her I was coming.
  • Time-Delayed Death: From the moment Paul asks if any of the convicts know about snakes, they know he's done for. Instantly, they begin congratulating themselves for a job well done.
    Paul: [Oblivious] It stung at first, I can't feel a thing!
    Joseph: [Knowingly] He doesn't feel a thing.
    Albert: [Grinning] What did he say?
    Joseph: He says he doesn't feel a thing.
    Jules: In other words, doesn't hurt a bit.
    Albert: Oh, good! Good!
  • Title Drop: Near the end of the film.
  • Wretched Hive: We never see this, but Jules claims this of Marseille.
    I remember Christmas 1892, in Marseille: terrible, wicked place; rotten to the core; and I enjoyed every minute of it.

Tropes in the remake:

  • Action Prologue: Within the first six or seven minutes, Bobby shoots his way out of the prison while dragging Ned and Jimmy along for the ride. The rest of the movie is noticeably less action-packed.
  • Becoming the Mask: One of the convicts impersonating a priest decides to become a real priest.
  • Big Bad Duumvirate: The ruthless warden who wants to keep Ned and Jim from crossing the border and their Ax-Crazy fellow escaped convict Bobby are both prominent antagonists, although neither of them has too much screen time.
  • Chained Heat: Jim and Ned are chained together with leg manacles prior to their escape from prison, although they quickly shoot through the chain under the cover of putting down an injured deer.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Jimmy picks up a brochure for a gun in Harry's store and ends up using the flowery ad as the opening of an impromptu sermon that he's forced to give in front of a crowd.
  • Confessional: The escaped convicts posing as priests hear confessions from the locals but are unprepared for this. When one man confesses to chewing on his wife, Ned tells him that it's no big deal as long as she doesn't know.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: The movie begins the night of the jailbreak and ends two mornings later.
  • French Jerk: French-Canadian, anyway. The French-speaking bishop is the most irritable and pompous clergyman in the movie.
  • Helping Granny Cross the Street: Escaped convicts Ned and Jimmy insist on helping Mrs. Blair carry some groceries from the Canadian side of the border to provide themselves with an excuse to cross it. This gets foiled when the sheriff and his chief deputy insist on sending one of their men with her to save the two supposed priests the trouble.
  • I'm a Man; I Can't Help It: Downplayed. The chief deputy cheats on his wife with Molly the local prostitute whenever his duties take him away from his wife and near Molly's house for prolonged periods of time. He blames this on the "constant state of temptation", but clearly agonizes over it due to his religious beliefs and blames himself for dragging Molly into sinful activities rather than blaming her for enticing him into them. Molly finds the whole thing annoying (he apparently calls himself "filthy" and "swine" while they're having sex) and wishes that he'd just stop visiting her or stop making such a big deal about it.
  • Impersonation-Exclusive Character: Renowned theologians Fr.'s Brown and Riley never arrive for the ceremony, for unexplained reasons, allowing Ned and Jimmy to impersonate them for the whole film.
  • Made of Iron: Bobby is shot in the stomach during his attempts to cross the border and the people on the scene are initially unsure whether he'll even survive long enough to be sent to the electric chair. Nonetheless, he recovers enough to break out of the jail cell he's placed in and try to cross the border a second time with little visible difficulty.
  • Men of Sherwood: The local sheriff's department and border guard corner and wound Bobby (who easily shot through a bunch of prison guards in an earlier scene) and finish him off with some help from the warden in a later scene after he escapes, and only one deputy is wounded in either fight.
  • Multiple Gunshot Death: The warden, the sheriff, and several deputies empty their guns into Bobby's chest during the climax.
  • Must Have Nicotine: Jimmy is very anxious for a cigarette after the escaped convicts reach a town.
  • Never Going Back to Prison: Jim repeatedly says that he's not going back to the harsh prison they came from and Ned seems to feel the same way.
  • Never Mess with Granny: The elderly local Mrs. Blair pulls a shotgun on Ned and Jimmy when they first approach her on the side of the road.
  • No Name Given: Twenty-two of the thirty-two characters in the credits are unnnamed, including half of the first ten credited characters (the warden, the bishop's translator, a young monk, the sheriff, and the chief deputy).
  • Off Stage Villainy: Ned and Jim are escaped convicts who presumably did something to end up in jail, but nothing about their past crimes is mentioned, and they only commit a few petty crimes over the course of the film.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: In contrast to the warden, the sheriff is a competent but compassionate lawman. He takes the hunt for the escaped convicts seriously, but he's reluctant to harass the townspeople during the search and allows a wounded Bobby to see a priest.
  • Right in Front of Me: Storekeeper Harry complains to Ned and Jimmy about how all of the priests in town aren't buying anything from his store, right before another local walks in and tells him that Ned and Jimmy are priests (actually, they're just impersonating priests), at which point Harry frantically apologizes.
  • Run for the Border: The escaped convicts break out of a New York prison and are trying to cross into Canada as cops patrol the border. Unusually for the trope, the main characters reach the border very early on, but it's heavily guarded and something keeps stopping them whenever they think they've found a way to safely cross it.
  • Sideboob: Ned gets a sideways view of the town's prostitute changing through a window and is pleased by the sight.
  • Single Mom Stripper: Molly works as a prostitute to take care of her deaf daughter (whose father is never mentioned).
  • Sure, Let's Go with That: When Jimmy introduces himself and Ned to Mrs. Blair with a biblical quote about being kind to strangers, she asks if they're priests in town for a major ceremony. Ned and Jimmy quickly say that they are.
  • Wardens Are Evil: The warden is a well-dressed, self-righteous man who whips two prisoners for talking during his speech. Although he does have some Jerkass Has a Point moments about how bad Bobby (who escapes with the two protagonists but travels separately from them) is.