The Angel Levine

Mishkin (Zero Mostel) and the Angel Levine (Harry Belafonte)

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The Angel Levine

Copyright © April 12, 2012 Douglas W. Jerving.
All Rights Reserved.

It is a strange fact of life that some things, events, or persons can be both great and less at the same time, or at least in a relatively short period of time. Some of the greatest actors on stage become mere parodies of themselves on screen. Some of the greatest dramatic stage actors never find a place outside of their own comedic misrepresentation on screen. Others are only known or remembered for their comedy, to the neglect of their tragedy. Zero Mostel best fits this last category.

Tonight I watched The Angel Levine starring Zero Mostel and Harry Belafonte. I am not used to seeing Mostel in a dramatic roll, since he was probably one of the greatest “lesser known” Jewish comedians of our time, and barely recognized for his powerful dramatic ability. I first remember Mostel from the 1960's movie A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (hereafter Forum). His comedy is mostly revealed in his face! He had the ability to speak by his facial expressions both the tragedy and the comedy of a situation at the same time. Forum is the proof of his genius. (If you have not seen it, you owe it to yourself to rent it now. But that is just an aside.)

The Angel Levine reveals far deeper and lasting genius on Mostel’s part. I assumed I would witness the great comedian lampooning the dark side of human existence. By the end, I realized this was not an Alfred Hitchcock tail-wagger; it was more an Edgar Allen Poe-esque drama of the first rate.

The Angel Levine is a captivating film about faith in “god”, if ‘god” really exists. Zero’s real life off the stage was probably related to the subject matter very intimately, at least from an intellectual point of view. Mostel was a Jew who had forsaken his faith for agnosticism and was politically sympathetic with communism. (He was blacklisted by Hollywood during the McCarthy era.) But he was also a rebel against all forms of categorization; his Jewish ness, and faith in the god he rejects are categorical imperatives that challenge his emotional presuppositions and create the terrible angst around which this film resolves.

Zero Mostel plays the part of Morris Mishkin, a very religious Jewish tailor. His dear wife is dying, and prays for death. He has lost the ability to work due to his own health, and is near economic collapse. His health is gone. His business has all but failed. His beloved wife is all he has left, and she is soon to be lost. Like her, he also has been praying for death, although he cannot admit this to his wife, realizing that it will rob her of her determination to live. His faith in God is shaken to the core. Should god (or God) not honor the fact that he has worked hard all his life to at least provide for her, if not for himself as a god-fearing member of the community he lives in? Still, all the circumstances in his life indicate that God is against him and is out to destroy him. Can such a god be trusted?

The self-proclaimed angel Levine (played by Harry Belafonte) suddenly appears in Mishkin's kitchen to answer his, or possibly, his wife's prayers. But Levine seems to have crawled in through the open window near the fire escape, and may be just a burglar. He is a black man, but he is intimately acquainted with Judaism. He is well versed in the ritual Hebrew of the synagogues, although later, it is apparent that he is not necessarily fluent in Yiddish (there are some extended Yiddish passages in the film but their understanding is not necessary to the film).

Racial prejudices are dealt with strongly. Why would God answer a Jew's prayers by sending a black angel? But both the Jew Mishkin and the Black man/angel are suffering similar fates, having been forced by Christian and White society to a lower economic status of mere subsistence living. Marxist doctrines of class warfare are an evident theme played out in the first half of the film. It is soon overshadowed by a far more universal question of why the righteous suffer in a world that is ruled by an all powerful God. Does He, or does He not love righteousness, and defend His chosen ones?

Both Mostel and Belafonte have been exponents in the liberal cause against traditional answers to these eternal questions. Mostel we have already considered. Belafonte has been a long-standing critic of supposed White-racism. Both use this film in a sort of propagandist attempt to push their philosophical agendas upon the viewer. Still, both are honest enough to realize their political agendas are less than the whole picture of humanity; that there is more to reality than what their politics may offer.

The centerpiece of The Angel Levine is a terrific argument between the Jewish Mishkin and the black con-man/angel Levine. Mishkin, in direct contradistinction to Job in the Old Testament, curses god and declares his hatred for him. This passage is very hard to watch as a Christian, and I am sure it is just as difficult to watch by any faithful Jew. In essence, it turns Job's "Though He slay me, yet I will trust Him" on its head. The only offering of hope remaining after that point comes when we realize Mishkin was dreaming. He wakes up relieved that his curses against God had not really taken place.

Upon awakening, Mishkin finds that his angel Levine is gone. Levine had already threatened that the dawning of the new day would mean the end of his own existence and his ability to help Mishkin. Mishkin’s wife is now moments from death. Her doctor is there, knowing that she is about to die. She has shared all her life with Mishkin, but she will not allow him to be there for her death. Her doctor locks him out. Mishkin frantically goes into the streets looking for Levine, hoping for a miracle that will save his wife, but cannot find him. She finds her miracle in dying; the same miracle he hoped against. Searching for Levine, he enters a synagogue and discovers black children studying Torah, challenging his religious preconceptions about who can be saved. But he does not find his angel.

His wife, though now having given up the ghost, is saved and apparently in heaven. But Mishkin has lost his angel, even though he still lives. Mishkin is at last wandering the streets still searching for Levine, who has apparently left this life with the dawning of the new day. Mishkin finds the black feather from a crow caught in the wind. He grasps at it repeatedly to no avail. The wind carries it continually out of his reach. He has lost his life, his wife, his faith, and even now his angel.

Despite Zero Mostel's leanings toward agnosticism and his rejection of both Jewish and Christian answers to the meaning of life, he leaves us with an interpretation of Job's great questions about how men ought to live. Though in his dream Mishkin utterly rejects the god (God) of the Bible, he ultimately acknowledges Him, despite his distrust. In the end he still seeks to grasp hold of that eternally elusive feather falling from heaven, no matter how black it appears. Prejudices, fears and failures do not stand in the way of his determination to get the one thing that matters: a change of heart that will allow him the same gracious acceptance of death that he observed in his beloved wife.

At last, all of the politics and religious asseverations mean nothing for Mishkin. Now only getting a hold on that which is eternal makes the difference. Maybe this is all that finally made the difference for Zero Mostel as well. I disagree with his politics, but his ability to examine life was profound. This film is an amazing challenge on the part of an unbelieving Jew to both his own heritage, and to the rampant atheistic attitudes of the post-modern world of which he was a representative. I hope that he was finally able to meet his better Angel.


Doug Jerving is the publisher of the You may contact him at


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