Wednesday, 3 February 2010

The Angel Levine (1970)

Although I knew that I'd seen this movie some many years ago, I didn't remember it and thought that it was probably well-worth another view. It seemed to have a lot going for it: the always-watchable and larger than life Zero Mostel as a cantankerous religious Jew with a dying wife (Oscar nominee Ida Kaminska) playing against Harry Belafonte as a black, Jewish would-be angel. The story seemed to echo the James Stewart-Clarence action from "It's a Wonderful Life" and promised a warming latter-day fantasy. Unfortunately it did nothing of the sort and only proved a rather muddled and somewhat unsatisfactory exercise leaving one's heart-cockles well and truly unwarmed.

Directed by Hungarian Jan Kadar who also directed Kaminska in the award-winning Czech film "The Shop on Main Street (1965), it was the first English-speaking movie for both of them and did not echo their former successes in Europe. The daughter of well-known Yiddish actors, she had been on stage since childhood and only made a handful of films. In this one she was given little scope, spending much of the time in bed arguing with her husband. Mostel has lost his faith in God and has been to the Welfare looking for help since nothing has been going right for him with his tailor shop burning down, his back packing in, his daughter marrying outside the faith, and his bedridden wife. Into his life comes Belafonte's would-be angel, a former thief, recently deceased. Mostel takes him to be someone from the welfare office and can not credit that this jive-talking black person was sent by God to help him, especially since he has no wings and is incapable of performing any miracles.

That apart he plays one of the few screen angels I have ever seen who acts more alive than deceased, visible to everyone, eating and drinking, talking on the telephone, attempting to make out with his girlfriend, and showing little patience with Mostel's skepticism and aggressive nature. Even when things seem to improve between them as they share a meal and Kaminska seems to rally, it is clear that she would not welcome the miraculous recovery which seems to be Belafonte's mission here. Despite being a very pleasant movie presence, Belafonte was really never much of an actor and his would-be jazzy dialogue dates the movie badly. He eventually storms off, leaving his hat which Mostel returns to a Harlem synagogue. At the movie's end Mostel encounters a fall of black feathers which he tries vainly to catch -- presumably meaning that Belafonte has gained his wings. However since Mostel is in no way better off and since his wife is quite probably now at final rest, one wonders what the angel has done to earn these.

The rest of the small cast add very little. Irish character actor Milo O'Shea plays the couple's caring doctor and husband-and-wife team Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson appear in the opening scene in parts too small to register. By and large it's the Zero Mostel Show, but there's little here to warm to his character and the film does not join the ranks of "feel-good" movie experiences.
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