Viewer Guide: Angel on My Shoulder and This Must Be the Place

December 13, 2019 | Richard Peña


Angel on My Shoulder (1946)

The classic this week is the fantasy drama Angel on My Shoulder from 1946 starring Paul Muni as a gangster who is killed and whose spirit in then placed by the devil, played by Claude Rains, in the body of a lookalike – a decent and honest judge who has been undermining the devil’s evil plans. Anne Baxter co-stars as the judge’s girlfriend.

Angel on My Shoulder was written by Harry Segall, who had had a big success with another supernatural afterlife drama, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, in which Claude Rains played an angel – the other side of the fence from this movie. Producer Charles Rogers had the script of Angel sent to Muni. Known for starring in a number of big-budget bio-pics, playing figures such as Louis Pasteur and Benito Juarez, at the time Muni was intent on making a film of the life of Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite. He had no interest in a fantasy film because he thought these kinds of movies were less important than those based on the lives of important historical figures. But Rogers kept sending him new drafts and he finally wore Muni down.

If you haven’t seen Paul Muni – and sadly he’s not particularly well-known now – he was one of the greatest actors of his generation.  Born in Eastern Europe, he had graduated from stardom in the New York Yiddish theater to Broadway and finally to Hollywood when Fox screen tested him and hoped he could be the new Lon Chaney because of the way Muni could almost physically transform himself for every role.  He was already 33 years old when he made his screen debut in The Valiant getting an Oscar nomination for it.

By the time he made Angel on My Shoulder, he was one of the most highly decorated actors in America and had won an Oscar for The Story of Louis Pasteur before having a falling out with his studio, Warner Bros. In Angel on My Shoulder, he was directed by a Hollywood veteran named Archie Mayo whom Muni’s co-star, Anne Baxter, once described as a “canner” – a guy who just wanted to get the film in the can. Muni disliked him because Mayo wanted the film to be broader and funnier while Muni preferred subtlety. Baxter later said, “It was like a Big Boy hamburger directing a fine gourmet Wienerschnitzel.”

Baxter also observed that Muni seemed desperately lonely – like a “soul under glass,” she said. His only comfort was in performance and his own identity was so blurred by his roles that he would sometimes answer his door in costume and in make-up. Hollywood thought him odd, and he preferred the stage to film anyway. He would only make two more movies after this one.

Paul Muni was a great craftsman, and you might have noticed his  gestures when he says goodbye to Anne Baxter. They speak volumes. This wasn’t an especially happy production. Muni and director Archie Mayo constantly bickered, Muni came down with the flu and then Baxter got sick, shutting down production. An assistant director died during the shoot. And then, on the day the filming finished, Muni hosted a party on the set to celebrate the completion. Three hours later a studio electrician was found dead. An inquest determined that he had gotten drunk and fallen down the Stairway to Hell. Even though he was totally innocent of any wrongdoing, Muni felt appalled that he might have had a part in the man’s death. He swore that he would never even attend another party.


This Must Be the Place (2011)

This week’s indie is This Must Be the Place, a quirky comedy-drama from 2011 written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino.

Adding yet another remarkable addition to his cinematic gallery of astonishing eccentrics, Sean Penn stars as Cheyenne, a former 80s rock icon now living as a semi-recluse in Dublin, Ireland.  Looking like a daffy, middle-aged Edward Scissorhands with his star power dimmed to freak show wattage, Cheyenne began his retreat from peak fame following the death of two teen-aged fans who committed suicide listening to his music, a tragic incident that has had a devastating impact on his self-confidence as an artist—and as a human being.  Despite the devoted support of his down to earth wife Jane, played by Francis McDormand, Cheyenne is clearly mired in a seemingly impenetrable mid-life crisis.  Yet, he’s actually much less “out of it” than people might suspect; he’s still capable of sizing up pretty quickly, and accurately, both people and situations surrounding him, and his steadfast moral compass will in the end prove to be his saving grace. One day, he receives news that his father, an orthodox Jew from whom he’s been long estranged, is soon to die; suddenly, Cheyenne’s surprising origins begin to come into focus.  Unwittingly embarking on a quest to achieve final vindication for his father’s decades-old Holocaust humiliation, Cheyenne finds himself tracking his family history to far flung corners of the world, a journey that becomes more about self-discovery than about uncovering long-buried family history.

Judd Hirsch is featured as a veteran Nazi hunter; there are also cameo appearances by Harry Dean Stanton and Talking Heads superstar David Byrne, portraying himself as an old friend from Cheyenne’s glory days.

An Italian, French and Irish co-production, This Must Be the Place marks the first English language film by Italian director Paolo Sorrentino.  Serving as jury president at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, Sean Penn approached Sorrentino about working together after screening IL DIVO, Sorrentino’s acclaimed film about Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, which took the Cannes Jury Prize that year.  Finding inspiration for Cheyenne’s character with Robert Smith of The Cure, Sorrentino had long been intrigued with the stories of Nazi war criminals hiding in plain sight, later arriving at the idea of a faded rock & roll star as the most unlikely of Nazi hunters to give a familiar genre an incongruous new spin.  The plot point concerning Cheyenne’s traumatization from the suicide deaths of two young fans stems from an actual 1985 incident involving a duo of young men who were allegedly motivated to take their own lives after listening to a Judas Priest song.  Returning to the Cannes Film Festival with This Must Be the Place in 2011, Sorrentino’s film competed for the Palme d’Or, and later screened in the Spotlight section of the Sundance Film Festival in 2012.  Among Sorrentino’s recent projects is The Young Pope, the 10-part HBO series starring Jude Law, along with The New Pope which continues the Vatican-based saga.

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