Netflix Update No. 51: “The Angel Levine”

September 21, 2011

The Angel Levine is one of the oddest movies we’ve watched, and from what I’ve read on the Internet it strikes people in many different ways. Some abhor and ridicule it and some like it and watch it repeatedly. A cast that includes Harry Belafonte, who produced this 1970 film, Zero Mostel, Ida Kaminska, and Milo O’Shea seems a promise of success, but the reality is more complicated.
 The Angel Levine,which is based on a story by Bernard Malamud, concerns a down-and-out tailor named Morris Mishkin (Mostel, of course) who sees a man steal a woman’s fur coat in a New York shop and calls attention to it. As the thief is chased into the street, he is hit by a car and killed. The thief — now dead — turns up later in the apartment where Mishkin lives with his bedridden wife, Fanny (Kaminska). The thief — played by Belafonte — introduces himself as Alexander Levine, a Jew, and, without saying how he died, explains that he has been sent from God to perform a miracle on Mishkin’s behalf, but can do so only if Mishkin believes that Levine is an angel. Mishkin is afraid that Levine’s real motive is robbery or some other mischief, but Levine is persistent.
In a parallel plot, Levine tries to use his brief return to earth to reconcile with his former lover, Sally, played by Gloria Foster. This enterprise is complicated by the fact that Levine cannot tell Sally that he is dead and isn’t going to be around for the long haul.  


Although the pessimistic Mishkin is not easily convinced of Levine’s purported state of existence, the pair slowly develop a relationship in which Mishkin becomes as interested in Levine’s welfare as Levine is interested in his.

The acting in this film — including that of Milo O’Shea in the unlikely role of the irascable Jewish doctor who attends to Fanny — is what one would expect of such reputable performers. The film is a showcase for Belafonte’s magnetism and Mostel’s mastery of the wobegone persona. Some scenes, however, are ponderous, including a long inaudible passage — which we witness from outside a drug store — in which Levine carries out a plot to get Fanny’s prescription without paying for it  and a scene in which the Mishkins carry on a conversation in Yiddish, without subtitles.

The film is far from perfect, and yet it is provocative — especially in the way it portrays the dilemma of the Mishkins, who at life’s end are without the means to live in comfort and security.


4 Responses to “Netflix Update No. 51: “The Angel Levine””

  1. Miss Mocha Says:

    I began watching this movie many years ago, and just could not get into it. I do have it in my DVD collection so maybe it’s time to look at it again.

  2. shoreacres Says:

    By the time I finished reading your review, I couldn’t help thinking of “Harvey”. There are differences between an invisible rabbit and a dead thief, of course, but I’d imagine the difficulties involved in bringing about the audience’s “suspension of disbelief” are similar.

    On the other hand, we could use a few more films that address the realities of life for the elderly and insecure with a little more tenderness and a little less bombast. This one sounds like it could do it, despite the flaws you mentioned.

  3. shoreacres Says:

    I meant to reference a blog post I think you’d enjoy: Roger Ebert in Toronto. He was there in conjunction with the film festival, and a blogging friend took notes. Her transcription of the Q&A is really quite interesting.

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