The Angel Levine is an interesting art picture that wants to be a charming fable about faith. It is indeed charming, what with four or five very endearing performances, but the best that can be said about it is that it doesn't quite come together.
The Angel Levine is one of those quirky movies green-lit in the wake of Easy Rider, when studios could no longer trust their old formulas for what would make a good feature film. It looks like United Artists thought they were getting a screwball comedy like The Producers, only to end up with a deep-dish fantasy without a fantasy setting.
Writer Bernard Malamud's short story is clear enough in its intentions, making Alexander Levine a Christ-like ghost trying to atone for his sins, but in ways that can't possibly succeed. He can't produce a flashy miracle for the doubting Morris, and neither will his fed-up girlfriend respond to his pleas. She wants a commitment of marriage from him, and Alexander is convinced that he's dead.
We understand Levine's connection to Sally, but as much as The Angel Levine creates a warm connection between Jewish Morris and Black Alexander, the reason for it eludes us. It's a nice thing that the show stays reasonably ambiguous about the angel business. Fanny does seem to perk up in response to Alexander's presence, but there's nothing else we can nail down about Levine that's convincingly angelic.
Alexander's frantic mission is a hopeless one. He's an angel at the end of his wits, with no tricks up his sleeve. In his frustration, he manhandles Morris, and even slaps Sally. The two men connect for a meal in the dead of night, but soon resume their arguing.
(spoiler) The ending resolves little except for Morris' attitude. In the cold light of day, Levine is gone and Fanny once again worse for wear. Morris didn't believe in Alexander when he was there, but his absence reveals an emotional sense of loss. Morris goes to Harlem, searching for the man but finding nothing but a neighborhood synagogue with a black rabbi. The show ends on an interesting, but somewhat unsatisfactory note, with Morris literally grasping at a fluttering feather, that might be all that's left of the angel Levine. Malamud wrote The Fixer, a strong investigation of the nature of faith, but Morris's crisis of faith, if that's what this is about, doesn't make much sense to me. Perhaps a reader with more insight into the story & Malamud can enlighten us.
The Angel Levine is one of dozens of interesting movies in the United Artists library that seem to have been created for the purpose of being obscure. 1 The nature of the company, buying distribution interests in independent films, led to a lot of miraculous decisions, like A Hard Day's Night and the James Bond series, but also a great many small films that even when well reviewed, rarely found an audience. I doubt the film was released in more than a couple of theaters. Savant saw The Angel Levine on an Air Force base with a group of mostly black airmen who couldn't make any more sense of it than I could. I thought it was great, right down to Zdenek Liska's quirky music score. 3 A film student in 1970, Savant had already seen director Ján Kadár's The Shop on Main Street, and suffered from the common film school weakness to presume all incomprehensible art films to be masterpieces, until proven otherwise.
The tiny production is very handsomely put together, with rich photography and expressive sets. Kadár's visual sense and skill with actors is remarkable; this is easily Harry Belafonte's most sensitive performance. 2 1970 viewers hoping for a comedy funfest with Zero Mostel, the star of The Producers, would not have been amused by this film's consistent downbeat tone; it's a strange seriocomedy with a big 'Huh?' at the end.
Zero is delightful, but only for his faithful fans, and Belafonte's semi-whimsical character won't work for audiences expecting either a sweet Poitier clone, or a representative of the new Black Pride. Ida Kaminska looks much younger than the old lady in The Shop on Main Street, for which she won an Oscar nomination. Milo O'Shea's concerned doctor rounds out the Mishkin social circle, and a pouty, no-nonsense Gloria Foster is excellent as Sally, willing to give her man the benefit of the doubt, but too tired to do it without a real commitment from him. Husband and wife Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson contribute very brief parts; you have to look fast to see Wallach.
Screenwriter Bill Gunn proved his mettle as a film artist 3 years later by writing, directing, and acting in the unique black vampire film, Ganja and Hess, that's very highly thought-of in genre circles.
The package art of MGM's DVD of The Angel Levine shows big laughing faces of Belafonte and Mostel, and will probably disappoint a new generation of people expecting to see broad comedy. The disc is terrific-looking, with both an enhanced and a flat version of the film (why this one? ...???). The mono audio track is as clear as a bell; you can bet the elements for this one have rested undisturbed for 30 years.
The misleading cover art can be forgiven - it would be tough to figure a better way to sell this title. But the billing block on the package-back credits director Ján Kadár as 'Jank Adar'. A typo is a typo, but screwing up the name of a famous movie director ... come on. Both Ján Kadár and Kaminska go unmentioned in the liner notes.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Angel Levine rates:
1. I really like a lot of these pictures. The 1961 Something Wild
is a bizarre story of alienation with a great Aaron Copeland score, and Jack Garfein pretentiously
directing his wife Carroll Baker and Ralph Meeker. He kidnaps and imprisons her, she kicks his eye out.
Frank Perry's 1963 Ladybug, Ladybug is a screamin' liberal anti-nuke parable derived from an actual
mistake with the air raid warning system in a rural grade school that ended in real horror.
It's great to see actors like William Daniels, Estelle Parsons, Judith Lowry and Nancy Marchand
looking younger than we're used to seeing them. 1961's A Cold Wind in August has a terrific adult
story about an older woman (Lola Albright)'s affair with a troubled young man (Scott Marlowe). These
and many other interesting UA films have remained relatively obscure; Zero Mostel's
presence must account for The Angel Levine appearing on DVD.
2. Ambitious and smart and unhappy with his roles in soap operas like Island in
the Sun, Mr. Belafonte got involved in movie producing early on. Odds Against
Tomorrow and The World, The Flesh and the Devil had reasonable-to-good critical notices
but didn't make big money; after The Angel Levine, he tried his hand again with Buck and the
3. I was interested to discover that Czech composer Liska did the score to
the remarkable science fiction film Ikarie XB-1, known here as Voyage to the End of the Universe.