We’re No Angels (1955)

Angels With Dirty Faces

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

We’re No Angels was Michael Curtiz’ second Christmas film in a row (despite its release date of July 1955), although unlike White Christmas, We’re No Angels is a less secular affair with its use of biblical references in the tale of three, perhaps not so wise men who bestow gifts on a distressed family at Christmas. We’re No Angels is both sentimental and darkly comic as the Ducotel family in a French colonial town on Devil’s Island (despite none of the cast appearing remotely French) are not massively bothered by having three escaped convicts stay at their adjoining home/business. The three disreputable men go to the Ducotel household intending to rob them but end up getting caught up in the spirit of the season after having a voyeuristic insight to the troubles bestowing the family and their failing general store. We’re No Angels is a bright and colourful affair with the scenes in the bustling port town in particular showing off Curtiz’ directorial skills. The picture even calls to mind Larceny Inc (1942), another film in which a group of criminals inadvertently turn around a failing business.

A large portion of the film’s dark humour comes from Aldo Ray alone in the role of Albert, a sexual offender type convict of whom we don’t know the extent of his activities but the movie hints that it ain’t pretty. Much of the film involves him having an attraction and interacting with the family’s daughter Isabelle (Gloria Talbott), including pinching her derrière and carrying her fainted form into her room with the door closed – once again, the family takes no objection to this. Likewise Isabelle appears to have a serious medical disorder in that she faints multiple times in a short period and even has an unrequited love for her second cousin. Contrasting the more lowly and thuggish Albert is Peter Ustinov as the eloquent and well-spoken Jules. His technique of cracking locks and opening safes involves him lightly touching the outside of a device and then bumping the side of his hand lightly against said device, resulting in the hatch opening – is it this simple in real life or is the movie playing loose with safe and lock-cracking techniques? 

We’re No Angels was Humphrey Bogart’s big career opportunity to show off his eccentric comedic side as the con artist Joseph. Bogart was able to display his comic chops in All Through The Night, however, We’re No Angels is more in the vein of The Marx Brothers – just look at the scene in which Joseph successfully cons a customer into buying a suit which is clearly several sizes too small for him. Bogart’s facial expressions and body movements accentuate the performance and even the sight of the tough guy cooking in a kitchen wearing a pink apron somehow doesn’t degrade his machismo. Likewise, Bogie also delivers one of the funniest lines among the pantheon of great Bogart quotes:

“We came here to rob them and that’s what we’re gonna do – beat their heads in, gouge their eyes out, slash their throats. Soon as we wash the dishes.”

Basil Rathbone on the other hand, the Hollywood embodiment of villainy portrays an Ebenezer Scrooge type role as Andre Trochard, the business owner who sees no objection to doing labour on Christmas Day nor having no concern for people’s humanity, just business. We’re No Angels bounces back and forth from zany jokes to more deadpan humour such as the trio’s very slow, drawn-out debate on who should tell Andre not to open the box with their pet snake named Adolf in it. The humorous ending in which the three decide to return to prison was likely brought about by the production code forbidding criminals to be portrayed as sympathetic characters thus their redemptive conclusion – an example of finding a clever solution within the confines of censorship.

Topkapi (1964)

Mission Unpossible

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Topkapi is one of those movies in which it is fun to look in the background at the colourful array of gadgets and gizmos. The film’s sets are a thing of beauty, full of beautiful, understated colours. This is the kind of movie to watch to watch on a hot summer’s day or to escape the winter blues. The movie was filmed on location and acts as a time capsules for 1960’s Turkey and Greece, and capturing in a documentary like for the nitty, gritty street corners of Istanbul.

The production code was all but gone in 1964, thus the movie is able to explain and able to show in detail how they are able to commit their crime with explanations of the security system in place and how to bypass them, as well as their undercover scheme and the heist plan; I just delight in that kind of exposition. There were the days before security cameras, therefore they aren’t an obstacle to get around. I also imagine they probably could have chosen to have the criminals get away scot-free if they had desired.

Peter Ustinov steals the show, in one of those performances which bring me levels of respect towards an actor playing a loveable sucker and the most unconvincing conman who can’t fool anyone to save his life. Oh, the other hand I’ve heard reviewers criticise the casting of a 44-year-old Melina Mercouri as a flirt who is not very attractive, I disagree. I find it’s an interesting character dynamic to have a somewhat maniacal nymphomaniac who isn’t particularly attractive yet has a lover who appears to legitimately sees something in her.

Topkapi may have the best heist sequence I’ve seen in a film. By this point in the film I’ve already attached a strong emotional interest in these characters, but during the heist itself, the characters played by Ustinov and Maximillian Schell develop an unexpected emotional bond which raises the stakes higher than they are. With a clumsy fool who is afraid of heights, a lighthouse being controlled from afar by other operatives and precise rope movements to moving an entire glass enclosure, I’m left with that glorious feeling of clenching your hands when something almost goes wrong.