Released at a time when American films were making bold strides in the portrayal of race relations, The Angel Levine is odd insomuch as race relations only appear to be an important narrative element. Rather than being a probing study of the prejudices that tinge an elderly Jewish tailor’s unlikely friendship with a younger black man, The Angel Levine is an examination of religious faith. And yet it’s also about the dissipation of a marriage, about mortality, about a fractious romance between a ne’er-do-well and his grounded girlfriend, and about the line separating delusion from reality. The Angel Levine is concerned with all of these things—and less. Presented in a peculiar fashion that’s alternately cryptic, melodramatic, and pretentious, the film begins with a premise requiring considerable suspension of disbelief, then undercuts the premise at every turn, either by deviating into peripheral narrative concerns or by wobbling tonally between satire and seriousness. In the end, The Angel Levine is a mess, but it’s executed with such care and intelligence that one roots for the piece to come together. Moreover, the experience of watching the movie is frequently engaging, simply because the story involves so many provocative ideas.
Adapted from a short story by Bernard Malamud, whose work provided the basis for the fine drama The Fixer (1968) and the romantic baseball yarn The Natural (1984), The Angel Levine is set in a Jewish tenement in modern-day New York. Chubby tailor Morris Mishkin (Zero Mostel) can’t work because of health problems, and his wife, Fanny (Ida Kaminska), is bedridden with illness that might be terminal. One night, Morris enters his kitchen to discover a black man sitting there. The man introduces himself as Alexander Levine (Harry Belafonte), then explains he’s an angel sent from heaven to help Morris deal with his problems. An inordinate amount of time is then spent on conversations in which Morris and Alexander debate the veracity of Alexander’s divinity. Later, Alexander’s girlfriend, Sally (Gloria Foster), enters the scene for more debates about Alexander’s virtues. Eventually, the whole thing becomes a referendum on Morris’ and Alexander’s respective identities, with the female companions of both men finding them wanting.
Downbeat from start to finish, The Angel Levine was the first American movie directed by Hungarian filmmaker Ján Kadár. Hampered by a claustrophobic script that feels more like a one-act play than a proper movie, Kadár lets his leading actors slip into familiar rhythms—Mostel alternates between annoying brashness and mawkish pathos while Belafonte delivers most of his lines with all-purpose intensity. This has the effect of rendering both main characters monotonous and unlikeable. Even more problematically, the story’s quasi-supernatural element feels contrived and odd, although it’s likely much was lost in translation from Malamud’s story. Compounding all of these flaws, Zdenek Liska’s original score is more suitable for a horror movie than for a human drama, since Linska employs eerie chants and other disorienting noises. Yet unlike other very strange movies of the same vintage, The Angel Levine never ventures fully into the realm of the surreal; quite to the contrary, it feels like a sober attempt at existential inquiry gone wrong.
The Angel Levine: FUNKY