Angel Heart October 18, 2018
Robert De Niro
1 Hr., 53 Mins.
onathan Liebling is missing. Has been, for years: He vanished in the mid-1940s, around the time World War II ended. Now, it’s 1955, and the world has mostly forgotten about him. Still looking for him, however, is a creepy man named Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro). Always donning a dapper suit, with his hair in a tight bun and his fingernails cut to the Streisand sort of perfection, he claims that, years ago, he was instrumental in helping kick off Liebling’s career. Back then, the guy was
a crooner who called himself Johnny Favorite — a moniker catchier than Sinatra’s, sexier than a film noir hero’s. Louis is positive that Johnny’s long dead; he was last seen in a private hospital on the outskirts of the city, where his war injuries were being tended to and from where he was never officially released. Because he stands to collect mysterious collateral if Johnny were to officially be declared dead, though, Louis finds himself no longer in the mood to sit around and hope for the best.
Louis, the kind of person who’s made a habit out of keeping his private affairs on the down low — he’s affiliated, it seems, with an occultist organization — hires Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke), a pretty-faced, hard-bodied private dick based in New York City, to track Johnny’s whereabouts. Since Louis thinks the aforementioned hospital is issuing falsified reports, Harry will have to start there. Seems like a simple-enough case; Harry, the type who generally avoids inquiries Sam Spade would have the audacity to see through, figures the investigation will wrap up in a month or two, just to his liking.
When that month or two — a period during which Harry will try to quit the case and be lured back by Louis’s excessive offering of $5,000 to keep cracking away — wraps, our lead finds that his escapades will not only live up to the “everything is not what it seems” adage, but also come to resemble something you’d maybe read in a pulp magazine with a skull and maybe a pentagram on the cover.
In Angel Heart (1987), a disconcerting movie in which he’s the main player, Harry will have to both do his best Philip Marlowe impression and try to make sense of a world that conjoins the thrilling slickeries of Raymond Chandler-penned fare and the chimeras of classic H.P. Lovecraft. Whether the piecing-together brings on a soothing catharsis is another story. Think about Angel Heart days after you’ve watched it for the first time and you’ll come to realize that all its apparent arcaneness isn’t as exactly knotty as you might have originally thought. As the movie oscillates between locales (from New York to a sweltering New Orleans) and shady leads (from Charlotte Rampling’s minxy faux oracle to Lisa Bonet’s coquettish love interest-cum-victim), we’re inclined, as is usually the case when in the throes of any other tonally similar detective feature, that this is all hullabaloo that’ll dissipate when it reaches a satisfying climax. (But maybe still doesn’t make all that much sense when we sit and really think about it.)
This is true of Angel Heart, I suppose. But total sense was never intended to be a preeminent asset, anyway. The pleasure, and grand subversion of it all, lies in the fact that the big reveal’s dipped in Rosemary’s Baby (1968)-style horror. We spend most of Angel Heart's 113 minutes thinking the movie’s adjacent to the greatest of detective lore. But in actuality, the film’s occultist-chic — stuff the LaVeys would like. How often do you come across a detective thriller that not only features a rug-pulling twist but additionally imbues that twist with a necromantic tang?
Angel Heart, written and directed by Alan Parker, is an adaptation of Falling Angel, a 1978 novel from writer William Hjortsberg. Defined by hardboiled prose, the book, unread by me, though matching the movie’s film-noir-parroting style, minimally matches the movie’s eventually overwhelming supernatural evils. Parker’s liberal changes — which include actualizing the novel’s extramundane allusions, major setting shifts, and an unsparing resculpting of the finale — in my eyes benefit the movie. Finally, it makes for a deliriously blood-curdling sticking-together of noir sensibilities and diabolical, inconceivable horror.
The feature wasn’t a commercial success upon release. It was better known to most mainstream audiences for being resident Cosby girl Bonet’s first “adult” foray. (An animalistic — albeit pivotal — sex scene co-starring Rourke stoked the flames of controversy, considering the actress had just turned 18.) But the progression of time has turned it into a cult favorite — sometimes even a best-of listicle mainstay apropos to the horror genre. Since Angel Heart’s finale makes it impossible for it to be among the most continuously effective of rewatchables, I’d say the increasing usage of the “greatest” tag is perhaps generous. But the movie, stylish and scary, is excellent genre high all the same. A-