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Angel Heart Review

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by Chris McEneany Dec 8, 2009

    Angel Heart Review

    “How terrible is wisdom when it brings no profit to the wise?"

    Alan Parker's powerful adaptation of the great occult/detective noir from William Hjorstberg (bizarrely I've lost five separate copies of the 1978 book and, get this, each one suffered from a cover that was accidentally torn in half!) became something of a cult classic in its own right. Witty, literate and disturbing, its rug-pulling denouement has gone on to attain a status of some renown, its labyrinthine plot celebrated for Mickey Rourke's captivating performance and the unnerving cameo from Robert De Niro. Released in 1987, its title altered from the novel's Falling Angel to the less enthralling Angel Heart, and by now so well-known that its shock twist is akin to that of The Sixth Sense (and probably just as obvious even to those completely uninitiated and coming fresh to it in the first place), it would be pretty pointless to explore its dark mechanics in any detail without totally accepting the fact that most people reading this already know how it ends. Therefore, if you are new to this fascinating and diabolical thriller, I would suggest that you do not read past the next two paragraphs before heading for the technical sections of the release as there are MASSIVE spoilers ahead, folks.

    “Someone got to her and took their own valentine. Slit her open and cut her heart out.”

    Employed by the mysterious and enigmatic Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) to find a certain Johnny Favorite, a one-time crooner with dubious credentials who seems to have dropped off the map, down-at-heel private investigator, Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke), embarks upon a increasingly ominous quest that takes him from Harlem to New Orleans and sees him courting danger and darkness at almost every turn. The more he delves into the singer's past the more puzzles are thrown back up at him. Every contact he uncovers dishes more depravity and deceit. Johnny, ever elusive, becomes a symbol of amorality and corruption, a dark soul on the fringes of reality who may not even be alive any more. With Cyphre breathing down his neck all the while, and most menacingly of all, his contacts having a disturbing tendency for getting themselves killed, it seems that somebody is hell-bent on stopping Angel from finding Johnny Favorite. His path strewn with rumours of the occult, with threat ever-present and murder dogging his every step, Harry's only respite lies in a relationship that he strikes up with a sultry young Creole girl (Lisa Bonet) who writhes at the heart of a voodoo hotbed of lust and ritual. Unsure who he can trust and getting increasingly afraid that someone out there wants him dead too, Harry is forced to turn a little more proactive in his investigations. And as he gradually gets closer to the truth, it appears that Harry Angel may in for the biggest shock of them all.

    In translating Hjorstberg's book, Alan Parker, who wrote the screenplay and changed quite a lot of the material, not least relocating much of the action from New York to New Orleans keeps to the Chandleresque traditions of the typical period detective noir (brought back to 1955 from the book's 1959), yet combines those eminently cool and endlessly gripping tropes with the decidedly sinister and the macabre. Merging genres like this may seem like a match made in Heaven (or, more probably, Hell), but good examples are few and far between. David Fincher's Se7en had this angle in spades, brewing police procedural inside the grim pot of a horror story of fiendish complexity. Gary Sherman's Dead & Buried (see BD review) also attempts to entwine the unravelling of crimes with the distinctly supernatural, and Roman Polanski's The Ninth Gate (see BD review for this one, as well) is tonally very similar to Parker's film, though massively inferior in almost every conceivable way. And let's not forget Blade Runner, which may not blend the Devil in with Rick Deckard's replicant hunt, but manages to combine two outwardly antagonistic genres to sublime perfection. But it is probably the little-seen, though supremely entertaining Cast A Deadly Spell, with the greatly gruff Fred Ward as a pure Sam Spade-like PI caught up in a world were magic and necromancy are commonplace, that takes up the mantel of Angel Heart and runs with it to its logical conclusion. For Parker, however, the path seems a difficult one for him to traverse. In his film, the outright supernatural sits awkwardly alongside the mainstream detective business, and although this all comes together exceedingly well come the startling finale, the tone is one that can occasionally struggle to maintain the delicate balance between the two. The weird thing is that for a film that hinges upon the outright satanic, it actually works best when it captures the more conventional clue-gathering and interviewing of so many suspicious and colourful people. Yet Angel Heart manages to be incredibly foreboding and languid at the same time, and I doubt that any other director could have captured such a mood of desperate inevitability with quite as much style and attention to period detail as Parker does. Like those who have made the best film-noirs, he is able to transport us not only to another era but into the dark hinterland of human desires, emotional hang-ups and inordinately shady goings-on, making all manner of warped antics somehow attractive.

    “Johnny Favorite? That guy couldn't tell you the truth without lying.”

    Okay, so we've had a little look at the set-up. Now we can discuss what Parker does with it, mindful, perhaps, that his film is built up on a twisting, turning mound of plot intricacies, character beats and narrative deviations that ensure the experience isn't just a one-watch-only affair. Knowing what happens at the end does not dilute any of the tension that comes before, or destroy any of that immaculate visual mood that he conjures up with such redolence. With Michael Seresin as his DOP, Parker virtually shoots a black and white film in honour of the grit and shadowy squalor that noir inhabits. His palette toned down and his production design shorn of anything radiant, other than blood, Angel Heart purposely evokes a bleakness that taints more than just the screen. Visually and thematically, the film avoids anything other than the grey murk that swallows up the unwise and the jaded, even the more provocative enclave of New Orleans seems somehow diseased and palpitating.

    In Michael Cimino's Year Of The Dragon, a not-too-successfully aged Mickey Rourke, as valiant, principle-minded NYPD captain Stanley White, remarks with incomprehensible bewilderment “How can anybody care too much?” and his expression of utter fragility and pure human distress is also captured here in Angel Heart when Harry attempts to convince himself that the truth staring him in the face simply isn't right, and even when he suggests to Pruitt Taylor Vince's cross-eyed cop that Wednesday is “anything can happen day” with a sort of fearful resignation. In this way, he manages to convey both his seedy opportunistic side, a man who has seen the worst of (or so he thinks) and assumes himself to be some sort of authority on the underbelly of society, as well as the more vulnerable, occasionally heroic and vengeful side of someone who can, ostensibly, see right from wrong and is, to a large extent, our sympathetic guide through this kaleidoscopic wilderness. There is a twinkle in his eye, of course, and this may well be the throwback clue to his former, amoral and destructive incarnation as the very thing he seeks.

    "However cleverly you sneak up on a mirror... your reflection always looks you straight in the eye."

    Mephistopheles may a mouthful in Manhattan, but few could really have missed the crucial name-game that De Niro plays with his sly Louis Cyphre tag. Cracking the shells off hard boiled eggs and exhibiting an alarming lack of nail-care, his natty attire, polite and understated demeanour do not provide a good enough smokescreen for that devilish goatee-beard and the wicked glee that is manifest in his eyes every time he appraises the ticks and twitches that he induces in Harry Angel. And playing about with that egg and informing Harry that it is the symbol of the soul, before taking a rather distressing bite out of it before his very eyes is pretty self-evident, and it is here that you could argue that Angel actually knows exactly what is going on all along and is just trying in vain to string out his downfall in a rather useless game of cat and mouse. Of course, given that we know what the real point of the story is, it appears that Cyphre is all too keen to play such a game with him. A cypher is a puzzle with its solution staring you in the eye the whole time. The Devil is, after all, a trickster. But then so is everybody else, it seems. Unsurprisingly, Jack Nicholson was initially earmarked for the role of Louis Cyphre, but this would have been even more obvious to audiences than having De Niro playing the Devil. With The Shining's Jack Torrance still haunting the minds of cinemagoers and, more overtly, his flamboyant turn as the demonic Daryl Van Horne in The Witches Of Eastwick doing the rounds, this would have been flash-casting of the most obvious kind. De Niro, though, brings a darkly satirical slant to his refined and smart arch-fiend. Sitting in churches and reprimanding Harry Angel for swearing and being nothing but cordial all the while, he wrong-foots the audience with continual and considerable aplomb.

    “I saw you and Toots boogeying with the cock-a-doodle-do. I ain't up on all this voodoo stuff ... I'm from Brooklyn.”

    Rourke is excellent as the dishevelled and disillusioned gumshoe. The lack of pride in his appearance does not hide the mischievous gleam in his eye. You only have to look at the ease with which he skirts around the confidentiality of the secretary at the psychiatric home to get her to relinquish some private details. As the film wears on, peeling back layers of intrigue and mystery like the dusky sweat wiped from a Creole's back, it seems less and less unlikely that he would get to bed Bonet's chicken-slaying Epiphany Proudfoot. His slimy, unkempt ways and earthy pestering become less of a barrier and more of a charm-laced trap for her to fall into. That chicken-phobia of his is also a great little narrative aside for the character in that it actually doesn't actually mean anything at all when analysed. But it is the nice, though admittedly unsubtle way that we witness him casually playing a haunting little refrain on the piano in Margaret Krusemark's (Charlotte Rampling) apartment, the same tune that comes to signify his gradual descent into darkness that we hear in Trevor Jones' ominous score, and his periodic examinations of his own face in the mirror that give the game away far too early for those who would have liked the shock ending to have been more staggering. Likewise, we get the plentiful visions of a blood-splashed wall, the chilling presence of what could be a nun, face hidden from Harry, and the ever-spinning fan that is the portent of death. Parker handles these elements well, forever tantalising us with their fleeting enigmas, yet they do completely point to one fatalistic eventuality that you would have to be blind not to spot.

    “For twelve years you've been living on borrowed time and another man's memories ...”

    For all of its complexities, Angel Heart remains a dark, diseased incision into a scabrous and frightened world. Its power lies not so much in its obvious shocks and mighty climactic revelation, but in its unveiling of a powerful underworld of sorcery, the religion of blackened souls, and secret well of pacts that exists between man and demon. Parker's skill is in his partial uncovering of this world. We only get a taste of what corruption festers beneath. As regards this story's incessant dependence upon voodoo and black magic, it is not at all tempting to lay claim to New Orleans' terrible collapse in the wrath of Hurricane Katrina as being some form of divine retribution - as some irresponsible commentators have done. The city is certainly enigmatic, elusive, provocative and dangerous, but its mysteries are also devoutly alluring and no more debauched and self-destructive than those of Paris, London or New York. However, if there was ever a province in which to lose one's soul with such supreme ease, then New Orleans would probably be the place. Parker does not embellish his locale with Mardi Gras set-pieces or jazz-infused funeral processions (he leaves that behind in Harlem) as many other directors may have done with such a clichéd city. He moves off the beaten track and into heat-stifled shanties, smoke-filled gin dens and shabby, rain-lashed clap-boards. Having old blues singing legend Brownie McGhee play the duplicitous character of voodoo musician Toots Sweet was also an inspired move that effortlessly brought a distinct authenticity to his depiction of New Orleans and, for his part, McGhee proved to be excellently capable and surprisingly vivid in what is quite a pivotal, and physical role.

    And Johnny's other acquaintances are no angels, that's for sure.

    The film's notoriety derived as much from The Cosby Show's Lisa Bonet's liberated and highly sexual performance as Epiphany as it is the shock reveal finale, Angel Heart is distinctly adult fare. Parker reins-in the Satanism until the crunch, with only the anguished confession from Stocker Fontelieu's Ethan Krusemark's bleating on about dazzling demonic manifestations, horrific sacrifices and soul transferences to really bring home the witch-doctory with any genuine sense of the occult. Harry's dreams/visions/impressions of the parade-day victim selection, the spinning vent, and blood, lots of blood, have a lingering effect that perpetually unsettles, but, if mystery and shock were the prime incentives, these fleeting but recurring glimpses can't help but give too much away. Yet, as far as I am concerned, knowledge of the outcome does not, in any way, detract from the disturbing course upon which Harry is propelled. The clues are all there. Cyphre's knowing smile, the all-too convenient finding of the victims, the reaction of Epiphany's child to Harry, the supposed set-up that the gumshoe suspects is taking place and Harry's own increased anxiety as the net tightens around him - each facet of the outwardly complex scenario points towards one inescapably obvious conclusion. Part of the brilliance of all this comes with the nagging fact that we are still siding with Rourke's beleaguered Angel and somehow hoping that he can find some way to outwit the Devil, and part of it, perhaps even the major part, is to do with us examining his exquisite reactions to all that occurs around him. It is hard not to become convinced that there is some kind of voodoo taking place within the film, itself, and its seductive, scheming narrative that, upon subsequent viewings, has us realising that Harry may be a hell of a lot more aware of what is happening than we first assumed. His heavy-handed tactics with the shrink from the mental hospital (played by Michael Higgins) that Johnny once resided in and then with Toots, his barely hidden flirting with Rampling's noble witch Margaret Krusemark and his massively driven and embittered interrogation of her father, later on, in the gumbo-shack mark him out as already being possessed of some inner predilection for violence. And yet, even when we are fully aware of Angel's villainy and his severely evil tendencies, we still celebrate his revengeful head-butt and attack on the goons sent to rough him up. Thus, we have a film that works on many different levels, yet still clings tenaciously to one remorseless path of spiritual damnation.

    “You're gonna burn for this, Angel.”

    “I know. In Hell.”

    The film does collapse under the weight of its own suspicious nature. Basically, we aren't surprised by what transpires. It all seems to fit a pattern that we knew was being woven from the start, and the twists and turns along the way to the damning conclusion flow all too neatly and don't provoke quite the revelation that Parker probably hoped for. Seemingly in-tandem with this pre-ordained chain of events Courtney Pine's languid, mournful saxophone wails out a sexually-charged lament for the corruption of the soul throughout. That little tune that Harry plays on Margaret Krusemark's piano, besides being a rather obvious clue as to his eventual destination, as I mentioned earlier, also serves as a connection to his more lyrical past, Trevor Jones establishing the motif as a terrifically dark thematic signature for his lost identity and prowling mission of loose-end tying. The whole score is a wonderful slide into a musical incarnation of the abyss. Strangely enough, it was hearing Jones' synth-based score for Runaway Train that persuaded Parker to hire him for Angel Heart. Mistakenly assuming that the music had been orchestral, he nevertheless proceeded with Jones and selected various period tracks that could be woven into the score. Girl Of My Dreams, which was not too established with any one artist, became the main motif for Harry Angel and appears in several guises throughout the movie, smothering the character's slow descent into the Pit.

    “There's death everywhere these days, Johnny. But what gives human life its worth ... anyway? Because someone loves it? Hates it?”

    The film has always had one massive cut, whichever region or territory you saw it in - and this occurs with the “nasty accident” that Cyphre's lawyer, Winesap (Dan Florek) falls victim to. The decapitation-by-fan that he suffers was certainly filmed in part because I have seen some gloriously gory stills of his headless body propped-up against the wall beneath the grue-spattered blades. And the thing is, this scene could have worked as a supreme shocker had it been left in. We see the preliminary shots of the fan - oft-repeated as a symbol throughout, of course - and there is even the almost subliminal image of Winesap, himself, being shoved towards the whirling blades. In my opinion, the film would have been stronger again had we seen the grim aftermath ... I mean we get a look at all the rest of the bodies, don't we? Mind you, of course, Winesap's death was fully orchestrated and perpetrated totally by the Devil, so, technically speaking, it doesn't belong in the series of atrocities that punctuate the story Elsewhere, the film hints at tremendous carnage that, mercifully for once, we don't really get to see. Yet, even though these sequences are brief, there is a lingering pall of obscenity that hangs over the film. The demise of Toots, especially, and the oft-alluded-to sacrifice of the soldier, being particularly grisly hand-holds in Johnny's spiritual fall. But the final act of cruel depravity, Devil committed, is the one that most distresses, particularly as we finally get to hear Harry Angel admit something about his past, and what it has, inevitably, led to.

    “She was my daughter ...”

    As Faustian as they come, Angel Heart eschews that sense of comeuppance because we, at least in some degree, sympathise with both parties. Johnny Favorite just wants another chance. The Devil just wants what he is owed. Whatever their despicable souls may desire, we can understand both sides of the coin. And, despite the horrendous crimes he has committed, it is nigh on impossible not to feel a pang of remorse for Harry/Johnny as he makes that downward trip in the elevator. Whether he knew all along who and what he was, or not, becomes moot when faced with the consequences of actions for which he has only himself to blame.

    Parker obviously invested a lot in the project, even though he had been unable to get it filmed years before when it first landed on his desk as an opportunity. The film is timeless in its style and still feels modern and compelling in its visual and emotional narrative. The imagery is potent and long-lasting, and the resolution - Rourke's condemned Harry screaming in futility that he knows who he is, and De Niro's Satanically smug Cyphre (the puzzle now unlocked) collecting his dues with glowing eyes, flowing locks and a pointed talon of accusation - beautifully infernal.

    Angel Heart is troubling, contentious and downright addictive. Both a sultry examination of denial and a demented study in the flagrant abuse of power, it works better as the unravelling of a soul than it does as a mystery, yet its spell cannot help but linger.

    Highly recommended.