Written and directed by British maverick Alan Parker (‘Midnight Express’, ‘Pink Floyd The Wall’, ‘Mississippi Burning’) and adapted from the novel ‘Falling Angel’ by William Hjortsberg, ‘Angel Heart’ is a mystery pastiche of hardboiled detective film noir and psychological supernatural occult horror.
Very stylish the movie is dripping in atmosphere with shocking imagery, wonderful cinematography and an excellent blues/jazz soundtrack. It is chock full of great highly memorable scenes thanks to a tight script and innovative direction and a career best turn from Mickey Rourke in a breath-taking performance playing the character of a seedy, unpleasant and shabby looking private detective. The ever-brilliant Robert De Niro supports Rourke greatly and when the two are on screen together, it is an awe-inspiring display of method acting competition.
The film starts in Brooklyn, New York, 1955. Private investigator Harry Angel (Rourke) is hired by the eccentric and mysterious aristocrat Louis Cyphre (De Niro) for a missing persons case to locate a once popular singer - big band crooner Johnny Favourite. Favourite owes a great debt to Cyphre who does not explicitly disclose the details of this to Angel. He goes on to tell him that badly injured in World War II and hospitalized Johnny Favourite had a severe neurological trauma. He tells him that the hospital may have falsified Favourite’s records and asks him to find out what happened.
The ensuing investigation leads the detective to New Orleans, Louisiana and through a nightmarish journey to discover the truth. Harry Angel finds that heavily mixed up in voodoo and Satanism Johnny Favourite was far from a savoury character and he encounters the horrifically murdered bodies of everybody he questions leaving him as chief suspect. Could it be that Favourite is cutting off all the loose ends? Angel is also beat up many times along the way and experiences deeply disturbing flashbacks to horrific events he cannot piece together. He is suspicious of his client Louis Cyphre whom he suspects knows more than he is letting on. In addition to all this, he gets into a passionate fling with the daughter of one of Johnny Favourite’s old girlfriends Epiphany played by Lisa Bonet who oozes steamy sex appeal. This leads to one of the tensest and most disturbing sex scenes ever committed to celluloid with the imagery representing the act of an amoral sin.
Director Parker’s attention to detail of the period setting of the 50s is concrete accurate and we really get the feel of a classic gumshoe detective story from that era. Although faithful to the original source material of the book it is based upon, Alan Parker takes the story out of the sole setting of New York like it is in the novel and takes the majority of the movie to Louisiana. He portrays this part of Cajun southern America as dark, gritty and dangerous. However, also contradictive to that with the lush cinematography Parker captures the natural beauty of this American state. His approach to the material is with the emphasis on realism with the inclusion of all things evilly fantastical as its theme purely incidental. It is a mystery for our detective protagonist to solve that just so happens to involve witchcraft. All things supernaturally satanic here is treated seriously with no campy hocus pocus shenanigans in sight. It is all surreally unnerving. Done so with careful precision the director sprinkles clues of the mystery all throughout planted with startling vivid visions with haunting sounds and also more subtly through dialogue, music and props.
The scenes between Mickey Rourke and Robert De Niro are electrifying. A particular one amongst three other great scenes including their chilling final confrontation really stands out. After the murder of the doctor in charge of Favourite’s transfer from the hospital he resided in Angel goes to meet with his client Cyphre in a New York restaurant. A bowl of hard-boiled eggs is on the table they are sitting at and Cyphre picks one up and slowly starts to break its shell with De Niro doing so with such carefulness on the beat of every line of dialogue. When he is done before he takes his first bite, he tells Angel “You know some religions think that the egg is the symbol of the soul, did you know that?” Angel replies, “No, I didn't know that.” Cyphre then sprinkles some salt on top of the egg, gives it a blow, and then asks him “Would you like an egg?” Angel says, “No thank you, I got a thing about chickens.” Cyphre then takes a big bite out of it and slowly chews with an unpleasant facial expression as if he is devouring the soul and his precise taking apart of the egg’s shell beforehand is the breaking of it. This is very creepy stuff indeed.
This was a difficult review for me to write. I wanted to talk more extensively about the many pivotal scenes and the imagery but I felt held back because doing so would cause spoilers for anybody who has yet to see this underrated gem of a classic. I was tempted to do a feature review picking apart everything scene by scene and frame by frame. However, that would give away all the defining clues to the mystery and would ruin the shock twist ending. I thought it was best to touch upon certain key elements that make this film so great so it will get you to watch this astonishing piece of filmmaking.
‘Angel Heart’ is in my opinion one of the greatest works of 80’s cinema and a movie I truly love. I hope my enthusiasm in this review will get you to love it too. A hybrid of Chandleresque detective story and Faustian tale this is an irresistible cinematic treat that is mesmerizing and haunting with so much depth in its writing and visual aspects. A truly stunning piece of work and yet is so criminally overlooked it is an understated masterpiece.
**** out of ****
Dave J. Wilson
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