Religion & Liberty Online

Sinners, Saints, and Grace in We’re No Angels

(image credit: Paramount Pictures)

In its two film versions, a story about escaped convicts fleeing justice shows that whether you’re naughty or nice, there’s always hope for redemption. Although, at a price.

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Michael Curtiz, famed director of Casablanca, made a Christmas movie in 1955, starring Humphrey Bogart, called We’re No Angels, about the power of innocence and moral decency to transform even hardened criminals—of whom Bogart is one, the other two played by the famous British actor-director Peter Ustinov and the American son of Italian immigrants Aldo Ray.

The story is set on Christmas Eve 1895 in the tropical clime of French Guyana. The three criminals are escapees from the infamous French prison on Devil Island. While waiting for a ship to take them to Paris and back to a life of crime, they become involved in the affairs of a middle-class family, the Ducotels, who turn out also to be exiles from Paris, in some disgrace after a business bankruptcy. As a cover, they offer to work on their leaky roof and plan to rob the place. From that roof, they watch the family members with the cynicism of professional crooks but gradually grow fond of them.

The father of the family, distracted Felix (Leo G. Carroll), is in trouble—he’s running a general store, business is not good, and his generosity offering credit is not helping. Nor does he own the store: It’s his cousin Andre’s (played by famous Sherlock Holmes actor Basil Rathbone), a man to worry about. Andre visits them with his nephew Paul, on whom Felix’s daughter Isabelle is sweet. Add the mother, Amelie (played by Joan Bennett), worrying over their affairs, and you have an entire family scene.

As is expected in comedies—and this one is practically a fairy tale, from the exotic location onward—all these troubles will be solved by the time the curtain falls. The criminals, with their morbid humor, provide a necessary correction to the innocent Ducotels, who are unaware of the true character of the hardships they are under, nor able to defend themselves from the wicked cousin Andre. It’s almost a commedia del’arte, with the wicked rich Pantaloon set against the pair of young lovers, and the clever servants solving their problems and mocking unjust authority figures. It reminded me of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown short story of just such a comedy, The Flying Stars.

In We’re No Angels, the watchful eye and sly stratagems of Bogart and his sidekicks turn out to save Christmas, one sleight of hand at a time. They do everything from cooking dinner to cooking the books, from helping a budding romance by moonlight to preempting a miscarriage of justice in broad daylight. The charms of the actors and the humor of the dialogue help the movie considerably, and Curtiz shows his gift for directing comedy in the ease with which everything is pulled off. Watching it again, I applauded the competence and faultlessness of the acting; one almost wants to say that these are professionals free of pretense, charming the family audience in Technicolor.

Without spoiling the surprises, which are all about how the happy ends are brought about for each of the characters, I encourage you to watch this discrete gem. It’s a movie about bringing gifts, if comic gifts, and therefore about generosity. The put-upon family is indeed in need of angelic assistance and the humor of conjuring convicts to supply it depends on their great realism, if one wrought of dark deeds. On the one hand, it is funny to think that criminals could be a source of good things, which is a very Christian sentiment. On the other, one is reminded of the old adage: It takes a thief to catch a thief.

We’re No Angels was remade in 1989 by Neil Jordan (who later won the Oscar for The Crying Game), with a script by the remarkable David Mamet (the most important playwright in America and a conservative), starring Robert De Niro and Sean Penn as the escaped criminals and Demi Moore as the single mother they help. This is a harsher movie, lacking the light touch of the Curtiz fairy tale—reflecting changes in Hollywood and America since the ’50s—but it is still a comedy that attempts to reach up to, or at least get close to, faith and grace and redemptive sacrifice.

This time, two thieves impersonate priests at a convent in a small town on the Canadian border in 1935. They’re looking for an opportunity to cross the town bridge and escape the sadistic prison warden and his search parties. De Niro plays the very clever and rather eager-to-sin boss; Penn the somewhat dimwitted sidekick. Yet instead of playing the straight man, Penn shows real innocence and a reluctance to engage in any wickedness.

Much of the comedy depends on their bumbling attempts to act dignified—relative to comedic standards—and the credulity of the monks, who are portrayed as mild and otherworldly. For who would want to trick them or abuse their trust? They cannot imagine anything like these escaped convicts, who fear for their lives and contemplate evil deeds in order to escape recapture. Yet over time, as the small town prepares for a religious procession, the two scheming criminals become affected by the power of religion.

As with the Bogart movie, the De Niro version tries to offer a comedic equivalent of a miraculous transformation, something like a conversion, something like angelic help, within the limits of the art. This version starts at a much lower level—it even has vulgar moments that are supposed to remind us of human weakness and vice—but it is precisely for that reason that the plot must be richer in religious symbolism that the characters interpret as chance or grace according to their conscience.

The constant presence of Christianity is in a way a judgment on the failings of the different characters. They bow before its authority but go on with their lives careless of any command of love, mercy, or forgiveness, nor does anyone care for the widow (played by Demi Moore) and her orphan. There is quite some social criticism in this version of the story, too, but it’s much more democratic and looks at the needy rather than the respectable.

The criminals are also more self-involved rather than the confident yet selfless figures of the older story. What they contribute has everything to do with how urgently they feel their mortality, no doubt deservedly. The story thus has a very Christian touch in allowing them to atone. The miracle scene, for example, also suggests a baptism and selfless sacrifice.

The major difference between the films is that unrepentant evil is a lot more important to the opening and closing of this version of the story. De Niro and Penn, being escaped convicts, are tested in what first seems like a coincidence. A killer facing the death penalty forced them to go on the lam in the first place; now he has returned to doom them. But this forces them to ask themselves whether they want to follow down his path or whether they have learned anything by impersonating priests. Ultimately, the joke is on them—whereas they started out thinking they could cynically exploit faith, they find themselves bound to live up to its demands.

Last year, I wrote in this space on four other old Christmas movies that were remade in the ’90s: The Bishop’s Wife, The Shop Around the Corner, Christmas in Connecticut, and, of course, Miracle on 34th Street. Watch these movies (again)—they’re a joy and a cause to remember and think about that older America.

Titus Techera

Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation.