Monday, November 23, 2015

Off Script: Angel Heart

Film: Angel Heart
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on various players.

By the time it wraps up, Angel Heart has gone through almost a half dozen gruesome and grisly murders and has moved from New York to New Orleans. But the film could have essentially been a short feature. We as the audience jump through a lot of hoops and have to keep a lot of plates spinning to get to the final sequence that finally reveals what many of us will deduce from previous scenes. Ultimately, we realize that a great deal of the film could have been handled by extending an early scene instead. Because of this, Angel Heart is about the journey rather than the destination.

Downtrodden private investigator Harold Angel (Mickey Rourke, back when he still had his own face) is contacted by a lawyer named Winesap (Dann Florek) to meet with a client. This client, Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) is an imposing gentleman with a full beard, immaculate black suit, and long, pointed fingernails that intentionally look like claws. Cyphre tells Harry Angel that a singer who was starting to make a name for himself a dozen years previous during World War II has backed out on his contract. He wants Angel to track the man down.

The story is that the missing man, Johnny Favorite, suffered severe neurological damage during the war and has been holed up in a hospital for years. Angel goes to investigate and finds that the man was transferred out of the hospital almost as soon as he arrived. Despite the story of neurological damage, Johnny Favorite walked out with some extensive facial reconstruction surgery and vanished. Angel tracks down the doctor responsible (Michael Higgins) to get the full story. Since the doctor is a morphine addict, Angel leaves him to dry out a little, but when he returns, the doctor is dead in an apparent suicide.

Following a few more leads, Angel discovers that some people who played with Johnny Favorite are still around in New Orleans. Additionally, a woman who used to read tarot cards and tell fortunes in the city has gone down to New Orleans as well. Angel tracks down these people as well, and after talking to the fortune teller, Margaret Krusemark (Charlotte Rampling) and the blues man Toots Sweet (Brownie McGhee), both of them turn up dead and horribly mutilated.

Eventually, Harry Angel turns up Epiphany Proudfoot (Lisa Bonet), who claims to be the daughter of Johnny Favorite. Epiphany is connected to the late Toots Sweet by being a part of his Voodoo sect. And things simply get weirder from here. It turns out that Johnny Favorite made a pact with the devil (hence the name “Louis Cyphre”), who is searching for the man to finally claim his soul. And Harry Angel has been thrust into the middle of what increasingly appears to be a battle not just on Earth, but in the supernatural realm as well.

The single best thing about Angel Heart is that it doesn’t hold back even a little. There’s a little bit of gore here, but there’s a lot more implied. Toots Sweet’s death in particular is described a couple of times, and it’s the sort of thing that will make any man slip into the fetal position for a few minutes. While the gore is generally tame, there’s blood a-plenty throughout the film. There’s also a blood-drenched sex scene that manages to be partly erotic and partly disturbing at the same time.

It’s nice to remember that once upon a time Mickey Rourke actually had a pretty good career, even in films like this one where it feels like he’s trying to channel Bruce Willis. Rourke has always had some acting chops when he was given the chance to use them, and he’s pretty good here. It’s De Niro who steals the film in every scene he’s in, though. He plays an interesting version of the devil. Aside from a single moment of glowing yellow eyes, he’s actually kind of effete. This doesn’t prevent him from bringing a particular menace to the screen, but he’s almost genteel in the way he does it.

When Angel Heart was released, I remember it being thought of as Lisa Bonet graduating from her Cosby Show role into more adult roles. It certainly has that feel to it. She’s not in a lot of scenes, but she makes the most of the scenes she’s in.

While there’s a moment of realization that come at the end—the realization that all of this could have been handled without the messy deaths and investigation—there is also the realization that doing it that way would make this entirely unsatisfying. We need to follow the journey to understand exactly what we’re going to. It’s the only way to invest us emotionally in the story being told.

Angel Heart turns out to be a pretty interesting film. It has the added bonus of reminding the world that once upon a time, Mickey Rourke was considered one of the best-looking men in Hollywood for a reason.

Why to watch Angel Heart: De Niro’s fingernails.
Why not to watch: Goes a long way for what turns out to be a short journey.


  1. I watched Angel Heart in October, think I enjoyed it a little more than you did, I didn't foresee the destination. Interesting to watch a mix of film noir and horror, you don't see that every day. A film I could easily rewatch because of the twists and turns of the plot, the characters. I also liked the visual style and cinematography.

    1. I did like it, actually. I think it's a giant spiral, but it does what it does for a purpose. I do like the genre mash-up as well.

    2. I can see you rated it 7/10 on letterboxd. For me, it was an 8, maybe even a 9

    3. In truth, I probably would have rated it higher in 1987.

  2. I saw this a very, very long time ago, long enough that all I remember is a general sense of liking the movie.

    What I do remember is the controversy surrounding the film. If memory serves me right, this was one of those films that was nearly rated X and helped further the cause to create NC-17. So now, nearly 30 years later, was it worth all the fuss?


    1. Well, it's nothing that would turn heads today (remember, Midnight Cowboy was orginally rated X), but the sex scene is pretty steamy and blood-coated. I can imagine a lot of people taking issue with it for that.

  3. I saw this way back when it came to cable or video because of the controversy that it elicited. If memory serves it was the specific sex scene with the blood running down the walls that originally got it an X rating. This was back when violence disturbed the MPAA more than sex (as it should IMO) - it was the blood that pushed them over the top.

    I also hadn't seen many movies then, so the reveal about DeNiro's character was a complete surprise to me. I love your Why to Watch. I still remember the scene with him peeling the egg.

    1. Those fingernails are fantastic.

      Yeah, I'd like to see the MPAA return to a time when extreme violence was a bigger problem than sex. That particular sex scene is pretty disturbing in a lot of ways.