The Angel Levine
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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
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
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 NewEdisonGazette.com. You may contact him at
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