Angel Heart (1987)

220px-angel_heartAngel Heart (1987): adapted by Alan Parker from the William Hjortsberg novel Falling Angel; directed by Alan Parker; starring Mickey Rourke (Harry Angel), Robert De Niro (Louis Cyphre), Lisa Bonet (Epiphany Proudfoot), Charlotte Rampling (Margaret Krusemark), and Dann Florek (Herman Winesap): A once-popular singer named Johnny Favorite (born John Liebling) disappeared from a rest home some time between 1944 and 1955, the latter being when Angel Heart is set. A mysterious fellow named Louis Cyphre hires New York private eye Harry Angel to track Favorite down. Cyphre says that Favorite owes him for helping jump-start his career back in the day, before a war injury left Favorite a catatonic, badly burned mess.

Angel Heart may be better if one hasn’t read the novel on which it is based. Or maybe not. Even the internal evidence of the film suggests that Mickey Rourke is really about ten years (or more) too young to play Harry Angel, and way too handsome. Johnny Handsome, one might say.

Adapter-director Alan Parker moves the second half of the story from New York to Louisiana because Voodoo! There’s voodoo in New York in the novel. But we all know voodoo only works in and around New Orleans. And shooting in Louisiana allows Parker to indulge his fetish for the American South. It also makes the second half a compendium of locational movie cliches as related to voodoo (or voduon), Southern rednecks, and African-Americans in the South dancing and writhing around voodoo campfires in the bayous. The movie may not intend to conflate Satanism and voodoo, but it pretty much does. Oh, well. Who’s keeping score?

The move to Louisiana also discards one of the book’s thematic points (that evil goes on anywhere, in any level of society) and its homage to hardboiled detective films and movies set in New York. So it goes. Alan Parker is not a subtle film-maker. A guy gets murdered by being drowned in a giant, boiling vat of gumbo, for God’s sake. And as soon as you first see that giant vat of gumbo, you know that Alan Parker is going to drown someone in it. It’s that simple. It’s Chekhov’s gumbo.

The plot works better — or at least more mysteriously — than that of the book because Angel Heart eliminates the book’s first-person narration by Harry Angel. This allows for certain things to remain hidden until the climax. That it also makes a major plot revelation seem ridiculous may not be noticed until one thinks about the film afterwards.

Make no mistake, though — Rourke is terrific as Harry Angel. He may be too pretty, but he’s still capable of conveying toughness, horror, and compassion in a convincing fashion. People forgot for about 20 years what a fine actor he was, and that was Rourke’s own doing. Then The Wrestler brought him back. Then Iron Man 2 sent him away again. All I’ll add is that he’d be a more faithful-to-the-book Harry Angel now rather than in 1987.

Robert De Niro is solid (though wildly overpraised at the time) playing the manipulative, sinister Mr. Cyphre. Really, the entire cast is fine with the exception of Lisa Bonet. Bonet, in her flat monotone, doesn’t exactly embody New Orleans. Or acting. But it’s her lengthy sex scene that caused controversy at the time.

Towards the end of the film, Parker goes with an image (twice!) that he shouldn’t have gone with. Two different characters manifest yellowy cat’s eyes for a moment, seemingly only seen by Harry Angel. Alas, the video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (and Weird Al’s “Eat It”) made this visual bit unusable in a serious horror movie in 1983. It inspires a laugh the first time, a groan the second time — and really kills the mood of horror.

While you’re watching Angel Heart, you may eventually ask yourself, ‘What is the deal with all these portentous, menacing shots of electric fans? Are the fans the real killers perhaps?’. There is a double pay-off to Parker’s visual motif, though it’s a bit of a damp squib when it comes. SPOILER ALERT! There was a window fan in a window during a key moment in Johnny Favorite’s past! And that pulley-wheel on the top of an old-timey elevator looks sort of like a spinning fan when the elevator is moving! Chekhov’s gumbo, indeed. Lightly recommended.

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