Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Messiah of Mott Street

Edward G. Robinson was a popular character actor who played a number of memorable roles. He was a Jewish emigre from Romania. Years ago I read his autobiography. It was a bit of a let-down. Oftentimes, an actor's real life is less interesting than his fictional onscreen lives. 

During the Prohibition era, Robinson became famous playing gangsters. Most notably Little Caesar. He later had a role in the film noire classic Double Indemnity. He had great role in the Bogie and Becall classic, Key Largo, and another great role as the wily gambler in The Cincinnate Kid, which had a wonderful ensemble cast, including Karl Malden, Steve McQueen, and Joan Blondell. Sci-fi buffs remember him from his swan song performance in Soylent Green.  

As a kid, I remember watching him in the little remembered made-for-TV film The Old Man Who Cried Wolf, in which he played an aging shop-keeper who witnessed the murder of his best friend. He reports it to the police, but they dismiss him as a crazy old man. His son has the same reaction. Everyone assumes it's the paranoid delusions of a old man who's losing his mind. 

Unfortunately, many of the elderly are treated like patients in a mental ward. No one takes them seriously. He conducts his own investigation, which makes himself a target. When he, too, is murdered, his son belatedly realizes that his dad was not imagining things. 

I also remember him from a classic episode of Night Gallery: "The Messiah of Mott Street". He plays a dying Jew (Abraham Goldman). He's not ready to die because he's caring for his 9-year-old grandson. He's behind on the rent and a social worker is threatening to take his grandson away.

But he's an observant Jew, and he's pinning his hopes on the Messiah coming to his aid. Of course, the adults dismiss this as wishful thinking. Possibly delirium, due to his deteriorating condition. But his grandson believes him. It's Christmas Eve, and his grandson goes outside, searching for the Messiah on the snowy streets and sidewalks. Inside, a spectral figure overshadows Goldman. Is it the angel of death? 

Goldman is miraculously healed, and a check arrives in the mail. The Messiah did come after all, but the adults didn't recognize him, except for Goldman and his grandson. 

This presumably plays on the traditional motif that only the faithful, or children, have eyes to perceive the ways of God. 

The story combines Christian themes (Christmas) with Jewish themes (the Messiah). It's a touching drama, in a sentimental way. And it's anchored by Robinson's performance. 

Rod Serling wrote the teleplay. Like Robinson, Serling was nominally Jewish. 

This is how we'd like stories to end, but in real life they rarely end that way. Some Jews have given up waiting for the Messiah. They lost hope. Ironically, they are waiting for a Messiah who never comes because he already came. They are too late for his first advent, but too early for his second advent. Like missing connections at the airport because you expect your passenger to arrive on the wrong flight. He came and went before you arrived. 

This Easter, and every Easter, we celebrate the Messiah who did come, and who is coming again. Coming for his people. And he can come again because he's a living Messiah. The Risen Son of God Incarnate. 

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