Articles written for AUFBAU by Leonard J. Lehrman

AUFBAU 66:23 November 16, 2000 p.14

New Film of The Assistant Premieres at
Center for Jewish History

Canadian Directs Malamud's Best-Known Novel
[original title: The Legacy of Bernard Malamud Continues to Grow]
By Leonard Lehrman

Twenty-two years ago, Bernard Malamud (1914-1986) told me he preferred the operatic treatments of his stories over the cinematic. His reasoning was that screenplays based on his works ("Angel Levine," The Fixer, The Natural) tended to augment his dialogue with words he did not recognize as his; while opera libretti (Idiots First, Karla--based on "Notes from a Lady at a Dinner Party"-- and later Angel Levine, The Lady of the Lake, The Jewbird, and Suppose A Wedding), which need to be compressed anyway, could rely more closely on what he actually wrote.

Among his novels and short stories, The Assistant, the shortest of his novels (or the longest of his short stories), is widely considered to be his masterpiece. It was published in 1957, and [more than] 40 years later became a Canadian film, which had its first New York screening as part of the YIVO film series Monday, November 13 at the new Center for Jewish History on West 16th Street in Manhattan.
[(The reasons for its delayed release had to do with one of the producing companies', a British outfit, going bankrupt after being sued about some other project.)]

The main character of the poor grocer Morris Bober was about as close as Malamud ever came to an intimate portrait of his own father. And the romance between Bober's daughter Helen and the Italian-American assistant Frank Alpine mirrored the conflicts under the surface in his own happy marriage to a Catholic of Italian descent.

Adaptor/producer/director Daniel Petrie showed his initial treatment to Malamud, who, in contrast to what he had told this writer, encouraged him to "make it different. The screenplay shouldn't be the same as the novel."

Joan Plowright plays Morris's wife

Having optioned the work early on, Petrie then lost the rights to another producer, reacquiring them not long before Malamud's death. [Meanwhile, Petrie made such films as The Betsy in 1978, starring Laurence Olivier as an auto company patriarch (and featuring a memorable nude scene with Kathleen Beller), which the critics called "moderately enjoyable trash," and the director recalls as "a film I'm not too ashamed of."]

The pity is that Petrie did not make The Assistant in time for the late Laurence Olivier to have starred in it. He did get the great actor's widow, Joan Plowright, a fine actress in her own right (especially in last year's Tea with Mussolini), to play Morris's wife and Helen's mother, Ida Bober, who becomes an even stronger character in the film than in the novel.

For the title role, he found Gil Bellows, who looks like a young [Frank] Sinatra, and embodies the St. Francis-obsessed orphan seeking and finding a role model in Morris Bober. When he begs Ida to keep him on as an employee--"Give me a chance"--and she finally responds-- "You should take $15 a week"--the moment is deeply affecting.

Frank's nemesis, the hoodlum Ward Minogue, is rapaciously embodied by Jaimz Woolvet [(the Schofield Kid in the recent film Unforgiven)]. In the novel, fire plays a role in Bober's self-contemplated destruction, in response to the overwhelming competition from a new neighboring supermarket. In the film, it is the young punk who immolates himself, smoking while robbing a liquor store. [(Smoking also plays a larger role in damaging Bober's health in the film than in the novel.)]

Helen Bober is convincingly played by Kate Greenhouse. Her topfree [changed by editor to "topless"] bath scenes (which Frank voyeuristically witnesses twice, stopping himself the third time around) [reminiscent of The Betsy] were cut from the theatrical release, first shown at the Boston Jewish Film Festival in 1998, and for a week in Toronto theaters this past spring. In the director's cut, re-edited at Petrie's own expense [(of over $100,000), [and] available on video from Ergo Media, POB 2037, Teaneck NY 07666, tel. 201-692-0404 email:, the scenes have been restored.

Somewhat regrettably, though, some of the scenes emphasizing the connection of Frank Alpine with St. Francis have been excised. In particular, a wonderful scene at the end showing a wooden rose he has whittled turn into a real flower, which Helen finally accepts, was apparently deemed by focus groups to be just over the top. The allusion to the papal staff miraculously blooming leaves in Wagner's Tannhäuser (based on Heine) seems not to have registered.

Film lacks Jewish consultant

The production also seems to have lacked for a Jewish consultant: Cantor Louis Danto chants beautifully the prayer for the return of the Torah to the Ark; but on camera, the congregation is seen sitting and davening, instead of standing.

Nonetheless, this is a beautiful film, based on one of the great novels of all time. Its weakest element is the portrayal of the main character. Armin Mueller- Stahl, who successfully played an obsessed Jewish patriarch in Shine [and, opposite Ms. Plowright, in Avalon], is a first-class actor, who in fact turned down a much more lucrative film to make this one. But he is not the Russian-Jewish Bober of Malamud. His German accent may have been the inspiration for the director to include an American Nazi march, in order to evoke the sense of suffering and persecution Malamud's Jewish characters feel. The film is thus firmly rooted in the 1930s, whereas the novel leaves the exact date deliberately vague--the Depression being virtually any time in history, in the life of a Jew.

Shot in Toronto, the set is meant to look like Brooklyn or the Lower East Side, and it does. But unlike other films of Malamud works, this one does not meander into dialogue the author would not have recognized as his. Rather, if anything it errs on the side of incompleteness.

Remembered episodes not included

Any attempt at adapting "The Assistant," whether film or opera [(as this writer recently discussed with Malamud's widow)], would be daunting. There are so many episodes that a reader is likely to remember, and then miss, if they are not included--like Helen's screaming at Frank "You uncircumcised dog!" right after the first time they have sex, which leads, logically, to the work's famous conclusion: Frank becomes a Jew, and has himself circumcised. The film includes none of this, instead showing him in attendance at a bar mitzvah class, and gradually becoming physically more and more like Morris Bober, using his chair, and reading his Bible through the deceased's glasses.

At the old man's funeral, in the novel (though not in the film), Frank even, accidentally, falls into the grave. "Put that in your opera, if you dare!" challenged Dr. Michael Popkin of Touro Film Studies afterwards, in a discussion led by film series curator, Dr. Eric Goldman.

The free screening was officially sold out, over 350 people having phoned requesting reservations for the 248 seats. [All who showed up were seated, however, when an expected Jewish Theological Seminary class failed to appear.] For future programs at the Center[, which houses not only YIVO but the American Jewish Historical Society, the American Sephardi Foundation, the Leo Baeck Institute, and the Yeshivah University Museum,] call 212-294-8301 or the box office at 917-606-8200.

The year before The Assistant appeared, Bernard and Anna Malamud lived in Rome with their children Janna and Paul for one year [at 88 Michelo Di Lando, in a gray apartment building that still stands] in a lower-middle class area not far from the university, just a few blocks from the Piazza di Bologna. There, Malamud would assimilate and develop many of the Italianisms that permeate his work, especially the stories about the schlemihl Fidelman ([which was] his mother's maiden name). His understanding, and misunderstanding, of Italian culture and expressions is treated exhaustively and fascinatingly by a young woman in Florence named Elisabetta Magnani (photo above)[(whom we visited this summer)], in her 1995 Torino University masters thesis, "Usi e funzioni dello yiddish nella narrativa di Bernard Malamud," the most valuable portion of which is an 87-page index, with commentary, of Italian terms used in Malamud's works.

At a Cherubini Conservatory concert in Florence this past August, set up by Magnani [and her Argentine-Israeli boy-friend Motti Levi], she provided the [delightfully] illuminative narrative for excerpts from three of the six Malamud works that have, to date, been turned into operas.

© 1998 Back to List of Articles | last updated on: 11/15/01