FILM REVIEW: Angel Heart (1987)

Angel Heart (USA, 1987)
Directed by Alan Parker

Starring Mickey Rourke, Robert De Niro, Lisa Bonet, Charlotte Rampling

Alan Parker is that most contradictory of characters, the journeyman auteur. In a career spanning four decades he has made a film in almost every conceivable genre, from musicals (Bugsy Malone) to prison dramas (Midnight Express), and from war films (Birdy) to offbeat comedies (The Road to Wellville). While the results have not always been cohesive or agreeable, when he is on form he achieves that rare balance of distinctive directorial vision and respectful treatment of a given story.After working with Peter Gabriel on Birdy, the film which launched the career of Matthew Modine, Parker turned his hand to film noir in the form of Angel Heart. Based loosely on the novel Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg, it combines the hardboiled pulp fiction of Raymond Chandler with the supernatural threat of The Wicker Man, held together by Parker's sumptuous visuals and a powerful central performance by Mickey Rourke. While not a complete masterpiece, it remains a highly compelling work of 1980s cinema which is more than worthy of its cult status.On a basic level, Angel Heart is a throwback to the classic noirs of the 1930s and 1940s, with a plot straight out of a classic gumshoe detective story. In the film a private detective meets a mysterious client, who offers him a large sum of money to find a man who owes him some form of debt. As the detective snoops around, he finds himself pulled further and further into a dark new world, and eventually comes to realise that he is more closely connected to the client than he previously thought...When written out like this, Angel Heart can seem incredibly hackneyed, the sort of script which had been hanging around studios for years being constantly re-written. But the film is fully aware of its place in the genre, tipping its hat to other recent attempts to reinvigorate or redefine film noir. There is, for instance, a direct nod to Chinatown in the scene on the beach: Harry Angel is given a nose shield which he clips to his sunglasses, mirroring the image of J. J. Gittes with his bandaged nose.Both Chinatown and Angel Heart use the conventions of pulp and film noir to provide a firm grounding for their audience, giving some form of reassurance as they indulge in ideas or flights of fantasy which are uncommon for their genre. In the end Angel Heart is the weaker film, since its relationship to such conventions is so close that, on a narrative level at least, it never manages to rise above it. But there is still much pleasure to be had from watching all the pieces fit together, and much terror to be found in Parker's various stylish indulgences.Judged purely on its visuals, Angel Heart is as memorably full-on and sumptuous as Pink Floyd - The Wall five years earlier. As with that film, there is a contrast between the pale and faded colours of the 'normal' world (in this case New York City) and the richer, fuller tones which gradually emerge as both film and character tip over into madness. Parker's long-time cinematographer, Michael Seresin, floods these sequences with reds and blacks which wouldn't look out of place in the work of Dario Argento, and his capturing of shadows rivals anything on The Third Man.These visuals hint at one of the great successes of Angel Heart as a thriller, namely the level of atmosphere it creates. The three or four scenes involving Robert De Niro are uncharacteristically quiet; they occur in churches, offices and deserted cafés, places in which Parker can play on the pauses and grant De Niro's every word the emphasis it deserves. This, coupled with his threatening characterisation, creates the sense of some great evil hovering over everything that occurs between his meetings with Mickey Rourke. Like the dark shadows on a Francis Bacon painting, we feel threatened by this intangible, amorphous sense of doom, which feeds the paranoia of the audience until we are begging for relief.The plot of Angel Heart is rooted in the age-old story of Faustus, which involves a man selling his soul to the devil in return for success - he gains the world at the cost of the one thing that is truly and inalienably his. The character of Johnny Favourite, who never appears on screen, stands in for Faust as a man determined to have fame and fortune at any price. But where Faust seeks no harm to others in his quest for hedonistic fulfilment, Favourite is "as close to true evil as anyone wanted to come" and is driven to desperation in his bid to renege on the deal.The film is full of religious imagery relating to both Christianity and voodoo. Some of the Christian imagery is obvious: you don't call characters Harry Angel and Louis Cyphre without good reason. In one of their conversations, Cyphre describes how an egg can represent the human soul; he then proceeds to devour an egg he had peeled with his long fingernails, like the devil wearing down a victim and going in for the kill. Other images are more subtle and inventive, like the recurring shot of fans and elevators - ordinary, everyday objects which carry connotations of death and descent into darkness.

As with the paganism depicted in The Wicker Man, the voodoo elements in Angel Heart are not intended necessarily to be taken as chapter and verse. The intention is less to describe exactly what voodoo entails and how it is practised, and more about conveying a clash of cultures, in this case between atheism and the supernatural in general. Angel's contact with voodoo in New Orleans is the first time he entertains the idea that Johnny Favourite was anything more than an elaborate hoax. In a subversion of Christianity, it is faith in a life after death that leads him not to God but to the Devil.Being both a hardboiled thriller and a supernatural horror movie, Angel Heart contains a certain amount of graphic violence. Such scenes include a live chicken being cut open and its blood being poured over Lisa Bonet, Angel being beaten up by anonymous mobsters, and the numerous murders which occur. Though not an out-and-out shocker in the mould of Hellraiser, there is more than enough in Angel Heart to make you wince and shiver.Fortunately, precious little of this violence is salacious or gratuitous. The most terrifying moments in Angel Heart are those which use such imagery in an artier, more abstract way to unnerve the viewer psychologically. As the film goes on, Angel begins to suffer vivid nightmares involving an apartment window, red light and a man screaming - a simple image which becomes steadily more unsettling. There is a further link with Pink Floyd - The Wall in the scene where Angel and Epiphany make love in the leaky apartment. The image of water slowly turning to blood is a close cousin of 'The Thin Ice' sequence with Bob Geldof drowning in the swimming pool.The performances in Angel Heart are every bit as memorable as the imagery surrounding them. Although De Niro hovers menacingly over everything, it is Mickey Rourke who defines the film in what remains his finest performance. Harry Angel may be a dishevelled flatfoot, but Rourke brings so much more to the party, from his snarky facial expressions to a deep world-weariness: whether down-to-earth or downright hysterical, Angel feels so much more than just an archetype. The supporting performances by Lisa Bonet and Charlotte Rampling are also pretty convincing, especially from the former in a full-on big-screen debut.Angel Heart does for the pulp thriller what Black Swan did for the giallos of Dario Argento. It takes a number of familiar elements from a given genre and affectionately cranks them up to a point of near-hysteria, resulting in a film which is intensely atmospheric and deeply unnerving. Like Black Swan, there are moments which are ridiculous, and it's hardly the most consistent film ever made. But when it works, it works beautifully, resulting in a breath-taking balance of art, faith and fear.

Verdict: Sumptuous, stylish, strange and scary


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