Monday, July 28, 2014


Tailor Morris Mishkin (Zero Mostel) is at the end of his rope. An observant Jew, he thinks God has abandoned him: he's applied for welfare because of a fire at his store, his sickly wife Fanny (Ida Kaminska) has been practically on her deathbed for ages and shows no signs of getting better—or worse—and one afternoon, he witnesses a black man who has just snitched a woman's fur coat run into traffic, get hit by a car, and die. After his wife has another one of her attacks and Morris has called the doctor, he discovers the dead thief, Alexander Levine (Harry Belefonte), in his kitchen (Harry Belefonte) claiming to be an angel who is on probation and has until the next morning to help Morris regain his faith. As Levine and Morris engage in philosophical and theological debates (it turns out that Levine is a Jew), Levine also tries to re-connect with his girlfriend Sally (Gloria Foster) to show that there will be something good he's left behind before he has to leave Earth for the last time.

Though not as whimsical as THE BISHOP'S WIFE or IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, this is still in the tradition of fantasy movies about angels and faith, though ultimately it has a much more ambiguous ending and a cutting edge to its philosophizing. If we see Morris as a George Bailey figure, he doesn’t get much satisfaction in the end: his wife, who rallies in the presence of Levine, has a setback after Levine leaves; his money and faith situations are not resolved, and Levine himself can't get Sally to believe that he's got a new outlook on life. The big question for most viewers will be, is Levine an angel or a con man? Many critics are unhappy about the ending, in which [spoiler] Morris looks for Levine the next morning and is startled by a single black feather which dances about in the air just above his head. My initial interpretation: Morris had earlier commented that Levine didn't have wings, and in this moment, one could assume that he did indeed earn them. But I'll admit that the logic, if you will, behind accepting that ending is unclear. Unless I missed something, Levine never transcends his thuggish earthly outlook and never really brings Morris back to his faith, though it can be argued that Morris has never completely lost it, as he wears a yarmulke and kisses the mezuzah when entering his apartment. But of course, he could be simply going through the surface motions of his religion. I embrace the ambiguity even as I share the frustration that the film violates the conventions of its genre.

This is a very stagy film, based not on a play but a short story by Bernard Malamud; most of it is set in Morris' apartment with an occasional detour outside. The direction and cinematography don't let things get too closed-in; in fact, it's in the exterior sequences where things go awry—especially in a strange scene in which Morris watches from outside a drugstore window while Levine creates a scene so he can swipe a prescription drug for Fanny that Morris can't afford. It's an important scene, showing that Levine can't seem to come up with a miracle outside of his earthly criminal ways, but it's irritating, played out in silence except for an overblown musical score. The acting, however, makes this worth seeing. Mostel downplays for perhaps the only time he ever did on screen and he creates a character we care about. Belafonte, who I don't think I’ve ever seen as an actor, does even better with the angel, a flawed, human and rather sexy angel—or an idealistic, unhappy and sexy con man. Kaminksa, so good in the Holocaust drama THE SHOP ON MAIN STREET (directed by Jan Kadar who directed this as well), is fine, as is Milo O'Shea—who usually plays Irishmen—as a Jewish doctor. Certainly not for all tastes, but a nice change of pace in the fantasy/religion realm. [TCM]

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