Angel Heart

US | 1987 | Directed by Alan Parker

Logline: A dishevelled private eye takes on a mysterious client and becomes caught up in a missing persons search that threatens his sanity and endangers his life. 

A supernatural thriller that looks and feels like a 50s noir, but is wrapped in the macabre, Southern fried funk of the occult. It’s New York City, 1955. Private Investigator Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) prefers to take the easy jobs, where his cream-coloured, crumpled linen suit won’t get torn. He gets hired for a what seems like a fairly straightforward seek-and-ye-shall-find job by a man who calls himself Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro): track down a popular young crooner called Johnny Favorite, who vanished around the time the boys came home from the war. 

Angel’s investigation takes an unexpected and sombre turn after he discovers the doctor who discharged Favorite from a hospital ended up with a bullet through the eye and his brains splattered over his morphine-stained pillow. Angel digs deeper, about six feet down, and finds himself becoming shrouded in the voodoo cloak of New Orleans, especially after he becomes entangled with the sultry, teenaged priestess Epiphany Proudfoot (Lisa Bonet), who just happens to be Favourite’s daughter.

Based on the novel Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg (who also penned the phantasmogorical fantasy Legend, filmed by Ridley Scott), Parker’s screenplay spins a dark whirlpool, with the narrative following Angel closely, so as to keep the audience at his level of bewilderment. I haven’t read the novel, but the movie makes for a powerful, seductive piece of nightmare cinema, as the diabolical revelations unfold, and the tendrils of temptation unfurl.

Parker has made numerous excellent movies. Like another talented Englishman, Michael Winterbottom, who approaches each movie with a different style and technique, and who moves effortlessly between genres. Angel Heart is among my favourite Parker movies, along with Midnight Express, Pink Floyd - The Wall, and Birdy. Mickey Rourke delivers a career performance, an actor at the top of his game, before the boxing robbed him of his looks, and his career fell on the ropes. 

Angel Heart has aged very well, considering it’s nearly thirty years old. The vintage-style cinematography by Parker’s long-serving cameraman Michael Serresin is superb; a colour palette that verges on monochrome, and combined with Parker’s brilliant compositions, the loaded imagery, the clever mise-en-scene, the movie is a darkly beautiful joy to behold. It helps when you’ve got a key cast as charismatic as Rourke and De Niro, and as sensual as Bonet and Charlotte Rampling, as tarot reader Margaret Krusemark.

With long hair, a full beard, and talons De Niro was apparently impersonating Martin Scorsese in his performance as “Lucifer”. He certainly commands every scene he is in, but Rourke matches him, beat for beat, and although Parker originally offered the role of Angel to Al Pacino, Jack Nicolson, and even De Niro, Rourke fits the character like a suede glove. It’s curious to note that Parker found De Niro so uncomfortably eerie in the role of Cyphre he allowed the actor to direct himself! 

Parker’s attention to detail (once described by a critic as an aesthetic fascist), especially with the rustic locations, art direction, use of music, and the editing, provides much authenticity within the scenes; the atmosphere is pervasive, especially in some of the movie’s more intense scenes, such as the provocative, now legendary “Soul on Fire” rain/sex/blood scene, the village voodoo ritual, the murder aftermaths, and the chase scenes (oh, to see the version before it was heavily trimmed for the MPAA). One of many images burned onto my retina is a frightened Harry Angel bolting out into a New Orleans’ street, into the torrential rain, his flailing trench coat making him seem like a ghostly apparition.

“I’m an athesist,” states Angel to Cyphre, while they sit together in a French Quarter church, the humidity thick, the tension palpable. “Are you?” Cyphre replies a little surprised. “Yes I am. I’m from Brooklyn,” Angel says emphatically. The humour drips like black molasses. Cyphre twirls his ebony cane, “The future isn’t always what is used to be Mr. Angel,” he muses, and soon Harry Angel will know the truth, and it will scare him to the very bottom of his very soul. When one dances with the devil in the pale moonlight, one doesn’t realise how terrible wisdom can be, when it brings no profit to the wise.