Angel Heart (1987) Angel Heart (1987) ***

     Like film noir in general, the neo-noir movement of the 70’s and 80’s falls mostly outside the purview of this website, but every so often it managed to spawn a mutant strange enough to attract my attention. Neo-noir mutations don’t come a whole lot stranger than Angel Heart, a hardboiled private eye flick in which the gumshoe’s client is Satan, and the job is to track down someone who tried to skip out on his end of a Faustian soul-selling pact. What makes this movie truly bizarre, though, is that those twists on the premise aren’t held in reserve for a twist ending, although Angel Heart does have one of those. To be sure, it doesn’t become explicit until then that the enigmatic Louis Cyphre is really the Devil, but come on. Who the hell else could somebody with that name, who carries that cane, wears that ring, and affects that beard, possibly be, especially when he’s sitting on a goddamned throne, in a room next door to one where a man just committed suicide, the first time we see him?

     The year is 1955, and lowlife Manhattan private detective Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) receives a phone call from Herman Winesap (Dann Florek), one of the partners at Winesap & Mackintosh, Attorneys at Law. Winesap represents a businessman by the name of Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro, from Cape Fear and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), who seeks to engage Angel’s services as well. Cyphre would like to meet with the detective as soon as possible to discuss the assignment face to face, to which end Winesap gives Harry an address in Harlem. Like I said, a lot of movies would make some kind of effort this early on to disguise the fact that Lou Cyphre is literally Lucifer, but not Angel Heart. If you’ve ever seen photos of a youngish Martin Scorsese, picture an older, shadier version of that, crossed with Walter Huston in All that Money Can Buy, sporting an ostentatiously huge pentagram signet ring and a full set of immaculately manicured claws. Even the name of the law firm is a clue that diabolism is afoot; Winesap and Mackintosh are both cultivars of apple. When Cyphre explains that he wants Angel to track down someone who may or may not be trying to weasel out of a deal with him, the detective himself will be absolutely the only person who doesn’t catch on immediately what the approximate terms of that deal must have been. Also, it’s surely significant that the venue for Angel’s meeting with Cyphre is a room, empty apart from the aforementioned throne, above the church of a transparently crooked preacher called Pastor John (Sudden Death’s Gerald Orange)— who, interestingly enough, is crooked in ways that look at lot more like 1987 than 1955. One assumes that Pastor John has a contract of his own with Cyphre.

     As for the job, the man Cyphre wants found is a former pop crooner by the name of Johnny Favorite— or John Liebling, if you want to go by what it says on his birth certificate. Angel needn’t concern himself with what specifically Favorite owes to Cyphre; what matters is that consideration was to be paid upon Favorite’s death, and that the singer seems to have taken steps to prevent Cyphre from ascertaining whether or not he’s still alive. You see, on a certain appointed date each year since 1943, Winesap has received a communiqué from Dr. Albert Fowler (Michael Higgins, of The Cradle Will Fall and The Stepford Wives), attesting that Favorite remained in a persistent vegetative state at a hospital in Poughkeepsie. This year, however, that message never arrived. Furthermore, Fowler was evasive when Winesap contacted him for clarification, and thus it is that Cyphre is offering Angel what the latter considers an enormous amount of money to determine where Favorite is, and whether he’s still breathing.

     It doesn’t take Harry long to establish that, whatever else might have become of Johnny Favorite, he sure isn’t vegetating in any hospital in Poughkeepsie. Indeed, the detective comes away from a visit with Dr. Fowler pretty well satisfied that the singer never set foot in that sickhouse at all. To discover what he did instead, Angel enlists the help of Connie (Elizabeth Whitcraft), a girlfriend of his who works in some vaguely defined capacity for one of the New York City newspapers. Connie’s investigations in her paper’s backfiles reveal that when Fowler fraudulently checked Favorite into the hospital, he was accompanied by a man calling himself Edward Kelley (who’ll be played by Stocker Fontlieu, from Mandingo and The Night of the Strangler, when at last we meet him) and “a girl.” Neither of those leads is terribly helpful on its own, because Favorite had no known associate by that name, while “a girl” could be almost anybody. Fortunately, Connie was also able to dig up the whereabouts of two of Johnny Favorite’s old bandmates. Drummer Spider Simpson (Charles Gordon) is in a retirement home in Harlem, while guitarist Toots Sweet (Brownie McGhee) is still active down in New Orleans. (Excuse the interruption, but don’t you think a jazz cat called “Toots Sweet” really ought to play the trumpet?) The latter detail becomes especially interesting once Angel interviews Spider, and gains thereby some idea of Johnny’s love life. Simpson never met either woman, but he distinctly remembers the singer being involved with both a society dame named Margaret Kruzemark and a Coney Island fortune-teller who went by the stage name, Madam Zora. What does that have to do with Toots Sweet or New Orleans? Just that some further snooping reveals not only that Margaret Kruzemark and Madam Zora were the same person, but also that she now lives in New Orleans, too, where she had ties of some kind to a Voodoo priestess known as Evangeline Proudfoot. Obviously Harry has a field trip in his immediate future.

     As is usually the case in detective stories (the noirish ones especially), none of the clues that Angel follows down to New Orleans yield anything like the fruition he wanted or expected. Margaret Kruzemark (Charlotte Rampling, from Immortal and Dune, Part One) and Toots Sweet are uncooperative. Evangeline Proudfoot has been dead for years, and her teenaged daughter, Epiphany (Lisa Bonet), claims to know no more about Johnny Favorite than what she heard on the radio when she was little. And initially at least, there remains no sign at all of the mysterious Edward Kelley. But since we, unlike the detective himself, understand whom Harry is really working for, we won’t be able to help noticing, in a way that Angel never fully appreciates, how Voodoo keeps cropping up wherever he turns. Toots is a practitioner, for example. So are the menacing goons who so obviously don’t want him talking to Harry. Epiphany turns out to be a priestess, just like her mom. And if Margaret and Evangeline were pals, then maybe that means Madam Zora was into that scene— or some parallel, more honkified tradition of witchcraft— as well.

     In any case, it rapidly becomes apparent that Angel has a great deal more at stake in this case than the prospect of an unsatisfied customer. For one thing, those Voodoo goons trying to keep Toots from answering Harry’s questions aren’t too happy about the detective asking them in the first place. Then there’s a second set of goons— this one a pair of rednecks with a small but vicious dog— who take to following Angel around the city. Since those guys are white, it’s a safe bet they’re working for different people than the ones who keep leaving chicken feet in places where Toots is sure to find them. Most alarmingly, Angel’s informants, cooperative or not, develop a habit of dying gruesomely. Dr. Fowler gets his brains blown out in a way that’s supposed to look like suicide, but obviously isn’t once you consider details like the position of the body, the placement of the entrance wound, and so on. Margaret Kruzemark has her heart cut completely out of her chest like a sacrifice to Quetzalcoatl. And Toots Sweet gags to death on his own severed dick! Because the first of those murders happens in New York, they seem unlikely to be the work of any of the enemies that Angel already knows about— and as if that weren’t bad enough, the other two win Harry the enmity of the New Orleans police. Detectives Sterne (Eliott Keener, from Hard Target and The Savage Bees) and Deimos (Pruitt Taylor Vince, of Jacob’s Ladder and The Cell) don’t like private eyes or New Yorkers, and they’re the kind of cops who prefer to pin a crime on someone they can see, rather than go to all the bother of hunting for suspects behind the scenes. They’re inclined to bust Angel for the killings and be done with it, nevermind that it makes no sense for an investigator to be bumping off his sources one after another. Then Angel starts fucking Epiphany (hey, it’s a noir— you knew Harry’s prick had to get him even deeper into trouble sooner or later), and if there’s one thing Sterne and Deimos hate more than PIs from New York, it’s race-mixing. All that would seem to leave Harry with approximately one chance of solving the mystery of Johnny Favorite and getting back home alive. Angel’s going to have to find Edward Kelley, the one player in the singer’s disappearance whom he still hasn’t run to ground. Maybe the detective will get lucky for once, and Kelley will turn out to have relocated to New Orleans too?

     Angel Heart partakes of a fault that I find with a lot of mysteries: by pinning practically the whole solution on the testimony of the final witness, it renders everything the detective does prior to finding that witness largely superfluous. We spend most of the movie watching Harry get pretty much nowhere until suddenly he has just the right conversation with just the right person, and everything falls into place. Granted, from Angel’s own point of view, the exercise of following all the other leads serves to establish that Johnny Favorite’s disappearance has a supernatural dimension, but we’ve known that from the moment a guy named Lucifer explained that he was looking for someone who’d contracted to hand over something after his death. The bulk of the film is thus a matter of the protagonist catching up to the audience, rather than revealing anything actually new. Angel Heart’s approach to clue-planting also yields a badly lopsided pace, as the movie lurches through several cycles of a pattern in which way too much information comes at the viewer way too fast, only for the next several scenes to demonstrate slowly and methodically that most of that information was merely irrelevant squid ink. Finally, this picture faces a serious handicap in my case specifically, albeit one that shouldn’t really count as a general demerit. I just intensely dislike Mickey Rourke, for reasons that I’ve never been able to pin down even to my own satisfaction. The guy simply bugs me, and I have a hard time getting into any film that expects the audience to regard him favorably.

     Fortunately, Angel Heart has plenty of countervailing upsides. Most importantly, the mystery that Harry is charged with solving ends up dovetailing in a really satisfying way with a second mystery which neither he nor any of the other characters realize is even in play: what the fuck does Satan need with a private eye? The earlier in the film you start asking that question, the more fun you’ll probably have watching Angel Heart, and the solution to the meta-mystery belongs to the commendable breed that enhances a movie’s rewatch value rather than diminishing it. Meanwhile, those who enjoy 80’s neo-noir for its twisted eroticism will find much to appreciate here. Angel Heart got threatened with an X-rating when it went before the MPAA ratings board, which for once wasn’t an egregious overreaction. Most notably, the sex-scene-cum-nightmare-vision that marks the turning point of Harry’s relationship with Epiphany is both hotter and darker than anything in Rourke’s undeservedly notorious Kink for Yuppies snoozer, 9½ Weeks. I shall have to take his fans’ word for it that Harry Angel is among Rourke’s top-tier performances, ill-equipped as I am to recognize one of those when I see it, but Lisa Bonet is just phenomenal— especially considering that she was only eighteen years old when this movie was made! And more predictably, Robert De Niro steals the remainder of the show with one of the all-time great renditions of the Business Satan archetype.

     But for viewers who come to Angel Heart as fans of occult horror rather than film noir, what makes this movie truly special is its unusual treatment of the meaning of devil-worship, starting with the age-old Hollywood presumption that Voodoo and diabolism are synonymous. To be sure, writer/director Alan Parker never goes so far as to refute that assumption, implying as usual that the Loa (not that he ever mentions them by name) are but masks for the ultimate supernatural evil which Christians know as Satan, and Harry Angel knows as Louis Cyphre. But at the same time, Parker is careful to portray Voodoo as a religion (however unconcerned he may be with the specifics of its rites or doctrines), rather than a mere system of witchcraft. While none of the Vodouisant characters ever get much chance to articulate what their faith means to them, they are at least allowed to make perfectly clear that they do consider it meaningful. Epiphany especially shows no patience for Harry’s uninformed anti-Voodoo prejudices. Nor is there any apparent correlation in Angel Heart between practicing Voodoo and personal evil. Whatever wrongs we see the Vodouisants commit are unmistakably motivated by the perceived need to keep their activities secret from interloping whites, while by far the scummiest characters have no involvement in Voodoo whatsoever. For that matter, none of the forthright Satanists except for Johnny Favorite himself turn out to be evil in the way that movies in general, and horror movies in particular, usually mean. They’re mostly just selfish, grasping schmucks looking for the ultimate leg up on the competition. And finally, we’re shown throughout the film that the Devil has his manicured talons inserted into pretty much every pie in Angel Heart’s world. Lucifer is a behind-the-scenes player on Coney Island, in pop music, in psychiatry, in the legal profession, and even in Christianity itself. Angel Heart literalizes, in a way I’ve never seen posited anywhere else, the old film noir trope of a damned protagonist operating within a damned world.



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