In many ways Angel Heart is two different movies. On the one hand it is homage to the 1940’s noir detective genre. In this one Mickey Rourke, at the top of his game, plays the “Sam Spade” role to great effect. On the other hand, it is a supernatural thriller that brings occult, voodoo and the devil himself (in the very coiffed person of Robert De Niro) into play. Angel Heart skirts these two worlds, satisfying the needs of both.
The year is 1955, and World War II is more than just a memory. It still is the event that that splits the century. Things happened before, during or after the war, and Rourke’s Harry Angel is haunted by his time there. We don’t know what happened, but something happened to Angel right as he returned from the war. Now he is back in New York running his low-rent detective agency fairly unsuccessfully when he is visited by a strange lawyer who represents an even stranger man (De Niro) named Louis Cyphre (Lucifer - get it?) who has a special job for Angel that will take him from the streets of Harlem to the swamps and back alleys of New Orleans searching for a singer named Johnny Favourite, who “owes” Mr. Cyphre something and now can’t be found. Harry Angel is given money and the task of finding out what happened to the wayward singer.
The movie moves forward with Angel searching for clues while the world around him gets stranger and stranger. As the facts unfold, it is clear Mr. Favourite’s story was not typical. He returned from the war a shell of a man and was placed in an institution. Removed from the institution by a doctor for mysterious reasons, the trail leads to New Orleans where it runs into a supernatural brick wall. Angel becomes embroiled in a subculture of voodoo and arcane religious practices involving ritual and ultimately sacrifice. He also comes into contact with Lisa Bonet in her first post-Cosby role. Bonet’s character is pivotal and memorable as the stunning 19 year old essentially never appears fully clothed. She is unbelievably sexy and at the same time frightening. She appears like a wild animal: untamed, erotic and dangerous.
Like everyone Harry Angel comes in contact with, Bonet’s character (Epiphany Proudfoot) ends up horribly and undeniably dead. It seems as though this job is more than just a search for a missing person, it is Harry Angel’s personal trip to hell. The twists, turns and shocks come fast and furious in the last part of the movie, and to give any of it away would ruin the fun, but rest assured, the getting there is the real fun of Angel Heart. Director Alan Parker has created a feast for the senses. The movie looks and feels unlike anything I have ever seen. Without explicitly showing details, Parker creates a mysterious sense of dread that is hard to describe. The city of New Orleans becomes a character itself, wet, steaming and fertile with danger. The few scenes with De Niro are unforgettable as he exudes a quiet, powerful evil that is very unlike any role he has played. He memorably uses his long fingernails to peel a hardboiled egg and then eats it with such an air of menace, that one must applaud the director’s sense of restraint and pacing. Throughout the movie, Parker takes commonplace items - fans, elevators, chickens, phones etc. - and imbues them with an indefinable quality of the macabre: the audience looking over its shoulder, stomach in knots and unsure of anything it is seeing. Ultimately, this is the great accomplishment of Angel Heart: to rip away the veil that separates the natural world from the unexplained leaving its characters shivering in the glare of confusion and doubt along with the audience.
- Paul Epstein