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'The Assistant' Earns New Life on Video


New York audiences had their first opportunity to see the 1997 Daniel Petrie movie "The Assistant," based on Bernard Malamud's 1957 novel, on November 13 at the new Center for Jewish History as part of a YIVO film series. First shown in 1998 at the Boston Jewish Film Festival and then for one week last spring in Toronto theaters, "it sort of fell between the cracks," in the words of series curator Eric Goldman of Ergo Media in Teaneck, N.J., which has released the work on video. A British company involved in the production apparently went bankrupt after a lawsuit was brought against another if its projects.

A beautiful film on a timeless story, it is, however, more of a 1930s period piece than the novel was. Gil Bellows, looking like a young Frank Sinatra, plays the title role of the Italian-American orphan Frank Alpine. Kate Greenhouse plays the love interest, his employer's daughter, Helen Bober; Jaimz Woolvet is his nemesis, the hoodlum Ward Minogue. Joan Plowright is especially strong as Helen's mother. What a shame that her late husband, Laurence Olivier, did not live long enough to have played the Russian-Jewish Morris Bober, perhaps the greatest character Malamud ever created, and the closest to his own father. Instead, Armin Mueller-Stahl plays him with touching soulfulness, but with a German accent that may put off some viewers.

The production seems to have lacked for a Jewish consultant: Cantor Louis Danto beautifully chants the prayer for the return of the Torah to the ark, but on camera the congregation is sitting and davening instead of standing. Nonetheless, the film is a heartfelt contribution (which Mr. Petrie re-edited with $100,000 of his own money) to the lengthening legacy of works based on Malamud's writings: the films "Angel Levine," "The Fixer" and "The Natural"; the teleplay "The First Seven Years," and the operas "Angel Levine," "The Lady of the Lak," "The Jewbird" and "Karla" (based on the story "Notes from a Lady at a Dinner Party").

Excerpts from Marc Blitzstein's opera based on Malamud's "Idiots First" will be presented at The Workmen's Circle in New York — sponsored by the People's Voice Cafe — on December 16.

Mr. Lehrman is the editor of Opera Today.

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