The strange story of Eddie Kagle… the man they couldn’t keep down!
By 1946 Paul Muni was trying desperately to revive his career. So earnest were his wishes that he even decided to revisit the gangster roles which he had sworn off over a decade before over fears (likely justified) in becoming typecast. The result was 1946’s Angel on My Shoulder, written by Harry Segall. Segall had previously written 1941’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan. Angel on My Shoulder as a result bears more than a passing similarity to the earlier film. Here however, instead of focusing on a trip up towards heaven the focus is on a trip down towards hell. Claude Rains also flips roles, shifting from angel to Mephistopheles himself in the latter film.
The plot is fairly routine. Muni is Eddie Kagle, a gangster doing time. He’s released after a few years, only to be murdered by his partner in crime Smiley Williams on the drive home from prison (Hardie Albright). Eddie’s soul heads to hell and, after a few moments of disorientation, realizes his fate. Rather than become an eternal coal-shoveler keeping the fires of hell going, he befriends Nick (Claude Rains), no knowing that he’s really the devil himself.
Nick, sensing an easy score, quickly befriends Eddie and takes advantage of his desire for revenge on Smiley. With Nick’s help Eddie assumes the body of a judge, Frederick Parker. Evidently the ‘real’ Judge Parker wasn’t being strict enough with his sentences for Nick. After meeting the Judge’s fiance Barbara (Anne Baxter), Eddie begins to soften from his evil ways and see the better side of life. Without giving too much away, this eventually leads to a need for Eddie to renegotiate his agreement with Nick.
Angel on My Shoulder wasn’t the catapult needed to revive Muni’s flagging career, though it isn’t a bad movie. Muni’s transformation from a gangster to a man of high morals comes off as less than believable, as does Barbara’s seeming reluctant acceptance of her fiance’s switch from teetotaler to heavy smoker and drinker. Yet again, this is a fantasy film of sorts and some things must fall by the wayside to make it work. Muni is effective and has some fun parodying his longtime gangster image. It’s hard to call Angel on My Shoulder a comedy, though many do. Rather, it has moments of humor, though not enough to generate a laugh.
Anne Baxter is a good foil for Eddie/Judge Parker, though it’s hard to imagine why she sticks around. She’s effective at showing Eddie the life he’s missed by leading his life the way he has. No one would characterize it as a signature performance, but it’s effective at what it aims to do.
That leave us with Claude Rains, who seems to be the glue holding the picture together. Though some feel his portrayal is a bit too smug or smarmy to be an effective devil, the opposite is true. Rather than be full of fire and brimstone, Rains’ devil is cleverly sinister and conniving, and purely diabolical. He plays along with the humor, letting us know through his quirky facial expressions and rolled eyes his concerns over losing his potential new protege. All of these contortions are much clearer the deeper into the film you get, with their climax being when Nick waits outside the church. And of course, he’s Claude Rains the entire time- replete with style and sophistication. It’s hard not to like the devil here. Then again, more than one viewer’s termed Rains as a bit ‘prissy’ in Angel on My Shoulder.
The score, by Dmitri Tiomkin, is almost nonexistent outside of a nondescript opening. It’s pretty clear that angel on My Shoulder wasn’t a top tier release. Sets are relatively plain and staid, with the notable exception of the depiction of hell early in the picture. Though hell too is notably cheap looking, it somehow works and is the best scene in the picture. Sadly the balance of the film is pedestrian in appearance.
Archie Mayo keeps the pace relatively quick in his last directorial effort. He even succeeds in parlaying the romantic subplot into something nearly believable. It’s still the cast which elevates Angel on My Shoulder into something entertaining.