Wednesday, October 26, 2016

An Angelic Classic

Halloween is creeping closer, so naturally my thoughts have turned to Christmas.

The very moment that last miniature ghoul makes off with your final treat of the evening, grocery stores across the nation will hastily be swapping candy corn for candied yams. Horn-o-plenty decorations will hang for all of eleven seconds and Thanksgiving gravy will barely begin to congeal before the jolly fat man and his frost-bitten buddies take over every end-cap in the local megamart. The Christmas season will magically appear out of nowhere like reindeer poop on the rooftops.

Not that I'm complaining. Among the many things that get me jazzed for the holy days -- along with holiday shopping, homebaked cookies, pumpkin pies and rum-enhanced eggnog -- are the movies. And it won't be long before everything from the classic standards to the made-for-TV knockoffs are cluttering the airwaves.

Obvious favorites are "Elf" and "It's a Wonderful Life." Both excellent family films, although I suspect My Lovely Wife would rather ingest a handful of mistletoe berries than rewatch Jimmy Stewart's mild-mannered everyman be pushed to the brink of suicide in the name of peace on Earth. Surprisingly, some people aren't filled with Christmas spirit by depression-era movies that spend their first 90 minutes highlighting every sucky detail of a beaten down man's life. Without the magical twist ending it's about as cheery as "The Shawshank Redemption." She also doesn't care for "A Christmas Story," which might have been grounds for annulment if only I had learned this fact before Our Daughter was conceived.

Then you have movies that aren't really Christmas movies, but happen to take place during the holiday season. "While You Were Sleeping" and "The Ref" are two of my favorites here. The first is excellent for all ages, while the second is more appropriate to watch after you've put the kids to bed.

"Scrooge" the musical with Albert Finney, "Scrooged" the comedy with Bill Murray, and "Miracle on 34th Street" with Natalie Wood are strong standbys. Conversely, all "Home Alone" movies are intolerable rubbish, "The Santa Clause" series is meh, and "The Polar Express" makes my skin crawl. There's something unrepentantly eerie about the characters' faces. Watching "The Polar Express" gives me the same sensation I believe I would experience if I sat alone for two hours in a dark room filled with ventriloquist's dummies and, every now and then, one of them moved ever so slightly (or did it?).

Stacked up neatly in a row, with Charlie Brown's Christmas and the head-trippy Rankin & Bass specials included for good measure, my favorite is one with which you might not be familiar: "We're No Angels."

Admittedly, I am a Humphrey Bogart fanboy. His films with John Huston are classics and he set the example for Hollywood tough guys for years to come. At a time when the movie industry was young and most leading men were handsome stiffs with pretty hair and passable singing voices, Bogart was a bonafide stage actor who quickly learned how to play to the camera. At the end of his stunning career, he teamed with "Casablanca" director Michael Curtiz for a fourth and final time to bring a pet project to the screen.

"We're No Angels" is an adaptation of a play, and it very much feels like it. The sets are few, yet detailed. The cinematography simple, yet richly steeped in glorious Technicolor. The dialogue is timed for audience response, yet manages to remain light and breezy. The comedy might be a bit dark for some (it is about a Devil's Island prison break, after all), but the silly premise and simple characterizations should keep anyone from taking it too seriously.

Best of all are the three leading men -- Bogart, Aldo Ray and a young Peter Ustinov -- who strike up a warm camaraderie for the camera. In other hands, "We're No Angels" could have been little more than a stodgy period piece. These three manage not only to nail the humor of the situation, they're also having fun with each other and their supporting cast. Perhaps Bogie is a bit clunky delivering a comedic line here or there. Who cares? By the time it's all over, he seems to have settled comfortably into the rhythm.

Many diehard Bogart fans vociferously proclaim "We're No Angels" one of his worst films, primarily because it doesn't conform to his tough guy persona. I disagree. It is one of his greatest performances because it breaks with preconceived notions of what a Humphrey Bogart movie should be and showcases both the range of a Hollywood legend and how gracious he could be as part of an ensemble cast. Anyway, the tough guy is there. He's just tempered by the yuletide season, as evidenced by the scene in which he tells his fellow jailbirds not to get emotional about the family that has taken them in.

"We came here to rob them and that's exactly what we're going to do. We'll beat their heads in, gouge their eyes out, slash their throats... As soon as we wash the dishes."

See? Still a tough guy, but with manners.

2016 Mark Feggeler