Film noir has had some radical variations over the years; from Ridley Scott’s moody, future shock, extravaganza, Blade Runner, to Rian Johnson’s Raymond Chandler inspired high school shenanigans, Brick, it seems that this genre of world weary do gooders rabbit hole-ing their way through impossible contrived conspiracies seems to be as malleable as play-doh.
A further and noticable example of this is that of Alan Parker’s Angel Heart, a movie that blends the usual sights of a rumbled anti-hero hitting the filth-streaked streets of a concrete jungle with no utterly conception of the sordid, tangled hell they’re about to unravel and decides to make it eerily literal. Weaving in a metaphysical taste of the south (New Orleans, to be precise – but whatever you do, stay the hell away from the gumbo) and setting it in a 1955 where everything looks on the verge of teetering into decay, Angel Heart remains a criminally underappreciated classic with a devilish sting in its tale.
A magnificently disheveled, New York based, private investigator called Harry Angel is hired by pointy-nailed businessman, Louis Cyphre, to sniff out the whereabouts of a John Liebling, a crooner who went by the stage name of Johnny Famous with the reason being that Cyphre has some long standing contract with him he wants tied up. However, Liebling’s past is hardly one that’s left any easy to follow breadcrumbs as Angel’s quarry returned from the second world war with severe facial disfigurements and some monumental neurological disorders including apparent amnesia. Still, driven by his own curiosity and a substantial payday from the unsettling Cyphre, Angel manages by various means – some legal, some not – to get himself lead that eventually leads from the frigid backstreets of Brooklyn to the steamy bars of New Orleans.
However, things take an even more disturbing turn when Angel starts to learn more about the kind of man Famous was from his questioning of ex-band mates, fortune telling acquaintances, track covering doctors and even Johnny’s daughter and the tales of the singer’s apparent ties to prominent voodoo practitioners makes matters lurch into the surreal. But the fact that Harry’s been having more and more strange dreams the longer the case drags on are nothing compared to the fact that a lot of the people he’s questioned turn up dead not long after he’s been with them and the local police are starting to get mighty suspicious.
As matters get evermore serious and Angel gets progressively more paranoid and sweaty, he finally starts to circle the truth to what connects everything together, but the awful revelation may be too much for even his battered soul to take.
Dripping with insidious flair and spirting a deliberately fractured story telling technique to desperately hide it’s big twist (which I’m going to ruin later anyway), there’s an overwhelming feeling when watching Angel Heart now that is was ridiculously ahead of it’s time. Eccentric editing and plotting keep you deliberately off balance as Mickey Rourke’s immaculately bonestructured schlub wanders ever deeper into a conspiracy that’s heavily laced with supernatural undertones and it’s somewhat unsurprising that 80’s audiences weren’t ready for such a violent rug pull. These days, however, it’s clear to see the influence Alan Parker’s grotesquely fascinating noir has had on a lot of modern filmmakers from the opressiveness of the bubbling wallpaper and damp swollen sets (hello Se7en), to the seemingly unfocused plotting that refuses to explain absolutely anything until literally the last 10 minutes (tip of the hat to Momento) and to watch it now is a genuinely rewarding trip.
The performances are as fascinating as the direction and its lead by a typically tic laden spot of acting by Mickey Rourke who skillfully matches that he has the appearance of a man who has clearly never owned an iron with the fact that he has a keen enough mind to pick up details like a ballpoint pen being impossibly used to doctor records claiming Favorite was transferred in 1943. Of course, this being Rourke, Angel turns out to be quite the anti-social shit-heel (callously striking a match off a dead man’s shoe), not to mention predictably horny and it may be weird for those used to the actors current, weathered visage to accept the actor as a leading man, but his edgy, off-beat work speaks for itself.
Elsewhere, Robert De Niro portrays the well spoken Louis Cyphre in a way that slightly gives the game away as he goes all out for quietly unsettling as he eats a hard boiled egg with creepily long fingernails that walks a tightrope of malevolent pantomime and former member of the Cosby Family, Lisa Bonet helps stir up a fair bit of controversy. You see, back in the day, censors were concerned about some noticably strong sexual imagery during a brutal love scene between her and star Mickey Rourke (whose thrusting buttocks where something of a regular sight back in the 80’s) and Bonet, but it all adds the the mounting dread as we finally approach the endgame.
Ah yes, the denouement. Maybe Angel Heart’s greatest triumph and its main weakness all at the same time, the earth shattering revelations gradually take the film from grungy noir to understated horror as all the plot threads involving voodoo, the dusturbing matter-of-fact nature about the viciousness of the murders and all the religious iconography come together in a way that makes the twist painfully obvious, yet still utterly out from left field.
With spoiler alerts on full, the freaky “Louis Cyphre” turns out to be Lucifer himself (the devil loves his word games, naturally) and not only dies it turn out the very man Angel is looking for is him, but he’s been unknowingly committing the unspeakable acts of murder that’s been following him around since he took the case. Thanks to the rather unsubtle character names, there’s a fair to good chance of you cracking the case long before Harry does and those who love a good murder mystery may find the convenient use of the supernatural and amnesia technically cheating, but its final impact (especially considering that it turns out Bonet’s character is his daughter) gives it the kind of punch seldomly seen outside such other mercilessly brain-frying masterpieces as Oldboy or Chinatown. The film leaves us with the bleak, unforgettable image of Harry Angel, utterly broken by the truth he’s been forced to face, as he rides a clanking elevator on a never ending decent to what we assume is hell while the credits roll and it’s a fitting metaphor for a film that flirts with horror and let’s its more nastier instincts support the noir instead of overwhelming it.