Harry Belafonte in The Angel Levine (1970)

‘The Angel Levine’: Harry Belafonte’s Czech collaboration is worth rediscovering

Actor and musician Harry Belafonte passed away this week at the age of 96, and left behind an incredible body of work that includes 30 studio albums and numerous appearances on TV and in film over a span of seven decades.

One of those films has a strong Czech connection: 1970’s The Angel Levine, which was about an elderly Jewish tailor (played by Zero Mostel) full of despair and the unlikely Black angel (Belafonte) given the thankless task of attempting to turn his faith before he can be accepted into heaven.

The Angel Levine was based on a story by Bernard Malamud (The Natural) and directed by Ján Kadár, who earned Czechoslovakia its first Oscar for his 1964 film The Shop on Main Street, which he co-directed with Elmar Klos.

The Angel Levine [was] my first film since Odds Against Tomorrow in 1959. Once again, I’d been drawn to a story of race relations,” Belafonte recalled in his 2012 autobiography, My Song: A Memoir.

Harry Belafonte and Zero Mostel in The Angel Levine (1970)
Harry Belafonte and Zero Mostel in The Angel Levine (1970)

“Along with the mixed cast – Zero Mostel as the tailor, me as the Black angel – we had a Black screenwriter, Bill Gunn, and an Academy Award-winning Czech director named Ján Kadár, making his first film in English after winning a Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar for The Shop on Main Street.”

Kadár was more accurately from Slovak Jewish heritage, but spent much of his professional career in Prague. He and filmmaking partner Klos were professors at Prague’s film academy FAMU, and taught many of the young filmmakers who would go on to spark the Czech New Wave in the 1960s.

During the filming of Adrift, Klos and Kadár’s follow-up to The Shop on the Main Street, filming was disbanded due to the 1968 Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia. Klos remained in the country, and was banned from both filmmaking and teaching for the next two decades. Kadár fled Czechoslovakia for Israel, and later settled in New York.

Belafonte was a producer on The Angel Levine, his first feature film in more than a decade, and would secure fresh émigré Kadár on the New York production purely by chance after the director ended up on the east coast before later settling down in Los Angeles. For Belafonte, a prominent civil rights activist, the director was part of a multicultural filmmaking process.

Harry Belafonte, Milo O'Shea, and Zero Mostel in The Angel Levine (1970)
Harry Belafonte, Milo O’Shea, and Zero Mostel in The Angel Levine (1970)

“I’d decided the making of The Angel Levine would be, in itself, an exercise in race relations (and since HarBel Productions was financing it, I could make that decision),” Belafonte notes in My Song.

“I got the unions to agree to let young people of color serve as interns to the various union workers on set. The whole production process was a model for an enlightened, race-sensitized Hollywood.”

The Angel Levine also starred Ida Kamińska, Kadár’s star from The Shop on Main Street who earned an Oscar nomination for her heartbreaking performance in the Czechoslovak film. In The Angel Levine, she plays Mostel’s character’s terminally ill wife, confined to a bed for most of the movie.

Kamińska was born in Ukraine of Polish Jewish heritage, and would become a major player on the Warsaw theater scene before also fleeing her home after the events of 1968. The Shop on Main Street and The Angel Levine were two of her only starring roles in feature films.

Ida Kamińska and Zero Mostel in The Angel Levine (1970)
Ida Kamińska and Zero Mostel in The Angel Levine (1970)

The Angel Levine‘s Mostel, Kamińska, co-star Eli Wallach, and director Kadár were all Jewish; perhaps surprisingly, Belafonte also had Jewish heritage. His paternal grandfather, who he never met, was a (white) Dutch Jew who sailed through the Caribbean. Belafonte was also drawn to the story because of the Jewish tailor played by Mostel.

“I was reminded of that Jewish tailor who’d let my mother buy those sun-bleached suits in his store window at a generous discount, then taught her how to dye them blue,” he recounted in My Song.

There’s one more prominent Czech connection to The Angel Levine: the quirky, off-key, and ultimately haunting score by celebrated Czech composer Zdeněk Liška, who scored numerous classic Czech films throughout the 1960s and 70s including Marketa Lazarová, The Cremator, and films by Czech directors such as Karel Zeman and Jan Švankmajer.

Liška remained in Czechoslovakia after 1968, and continued his career in the local industry; The Angel Levine is his only American credit. He was able to briefly travel to New York to work on the score with Belafonte and Kadár before finalizing it back in Prague.

“Liška personally told me about his work on the film The Angel Levine, which was shot by director Ján Kadár after emigrating to the USA,” The Cremator director Juraj Herz told Czech magazine Muzikus about Liška’s work on the film in 2013.

“The film was financed by and starred the very popular singer Harry Belafonte, who was to sing a song at the beginning of the film. Liška wrote the song and traveled to America, handed Belafonte the sheet music […] But the producer and star of the film told him that the song was completely out of his vocal range.”

“Kadár, who was very open and naive about this, said that they could instead use a version by another young Black man, who was able to sing the song wonderfully. However, Belafonte resolutely insisted that since he was paying for the film, he had to sing the song himself. Kadár, gritting his teeth, sent Liška back to Prague and he rewrote the piece so that it fit [Belafonte’s] vocal range. For both Kadár and Liška, it was a new experience where money played the main role.” (It should be noted that this song does not appear to exist in the final cut of the film.)

The Angel Levine was largely dismissed by critics at the time of its release, and is all but forgotten today; the boilerplate outline, reminiscent of It’s a Wonderful Life, has long been antiquated. But Kadár and Belafonte bring their own unique perspectives to the movie, and the result is a film where an ever-present bleakness is balanced and ultimately overturned by dark comedy and deep pathos.

Kadár had survived a Nazi labor camp (his parents and sister were killed at Auschwitz) and just fled his homeland after the Soviet invasion. Belafonte was mourning the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy as The Angel Levine went into production. There’s gritty self-awareness to what might have otherwise been Capraesque schmaltz.

Later critics were kinder to The Angel Levine when it hit television and home video. “Touching, humorous, and sad,” reads the popular Leonard Maltin Movie Guide in a 3.5 (out of 4) star review for the movie. “A tale often told—seldom this well.”

The Angel Levine hasn’t received an official release since a standard-definition DVD more than two decades ago, but the entire film is currently available in excellent quality on YouTube. More than 50 years later, it not only holds up, but perhaps even resonates more greatly now than when it was first released.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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