At the start of Alan Parker’s horror noir Angel Heart, Mickey Rourke’s scruffy gumshoe Harry Angel is seen walking and chewing gum at the same time. It’s a visual joke that hints at what’s to come; the movie is loaded with them. This is a more playful and witty film than it’s often gotten credit for, though maybe, like Psycho, it’s only funny on repeat viewings.
The source material is pretty amusing, too — William Hjortsberg’s 1978 novel Falling Angel, which Parker’s script follows fairly closely. Hjortsberg told a standard first-person detective story with hidden kinks and twists, and heavily symbolic names. Take Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro), a mysterious gent who hires Harry to find a second-rate crooner turned war vegetable named Johnny Favorite (real name: Jonathan Liebling, liebling being German for “darling”). Cyphre has attorneys named after apples working for him: Winesap, MacIntosh. Then there’s Harry (Harold) Angel himself — gee, where have we heard that before? You’d have to be oblivious, I think, not to pick up on at least some of the eventual reveals before they happen.
Fortunately, Angel Heart isn’t completely about its surprises. Alan Parker, who seems incapable of making a technically sloppy film, creates a thick mood of menace; the period details (January 1955, New York and then New Orleans) are precisely judged. Everything seems a little off, though. The movie kicks off with a corpse, its throat slit, that’s never referenced again; it’s there, I think, to establish a free-floating tone of unease. Other cadavers will follow, in various stages of disrepair. Harry is a Brooklyn boy, and moves smoothly through New York; once he goes down to New Orleans, he’s just as polite and charming as he was before, only he’s met with hostility, even violence. The weather itself seems to conspire against him. He wears a dorky-looking nose guard from time to time, to protect himself from the sun, but New Orleans heat isn’t sun-beating-down heat — it’s dense, muggy heat, and Harry is drenched with sweat as soon as he gets off the train. When the sky isn’t overcast, it’s pouring rain, which drips profusely into Harry’s rat-eaten hotel room.
To go back and watch Mickey Rourke in these ’80s movies that made his name, before he destroyed his face, is to experience a sad dislocation. Rourke is still a fine actor, but for a while he was a sex symbol, and for good reason. As Harry, Rourke speaks in a seductive purr to every woman he meets. There was no one better at being a sweet and tender hooligan back in the ’80s than Rourke in his prime. Here, though, there’s a queasy subtext to what Rourke does, obvious only at the end. There are intimations of darkness throughout; Harry “has a thing about chickens” — he detests and fears them — and we may remember old tales like “The Devil in the Dancehall,” in which a mysterious dancer is recognized as Satan by his telltale chicken feet (or hooves, depending on the telling — and a horse almost gets Harry killed, too).
Harry is drawn to a seventeen-year-old “mulatto” girl he meets down south — Epiphany Proudfoot, played, in the movie’s weak link, by the self-involved Lisa Bonet, trying too hard to escape the benign shadow of Bill Cosby. Bonet, like Kristen Stewart decades later, always looks as though she’d rather be back in her trailer getting stoned. Rourke manages to sell Harry’s attraction to Epiphany (another signpost name), but she doesn’t seem terribly interested in him. Bonet isn’t around much, though, and the movie inevitably picks up some electricity whenever Robert De Niro drops in for his handful of scenes. There’s one regrettable cheesy lighting effect on him near the end, but for the most part De Niro, whose idea of playing sophisticated mystique is apparently to over-enunciate, seems to be in on the morbid joke.
Angel Heart sets itself up as the ultimate noir, and not only because of its denouement. With one major exception, everyone in it is weak, driven by fear or need. When Harry visits a morphine-addicted retired doctor to get some info on Johnny Favorite, he puts his head right up against the suffering old man’s head; it’s a weirdly intimate moment. Harry says he tries to take boring cases and steer clear of the more dangerous ones, but he certainly seems to have an understanding of the dark side. Or maybe that’s just Rourke, who towards the end shows his rare gift for bawling messy tears while appearing no less manly. Rourke reportedly didn’t care for the script and took the role to work with Alan Parker, but his commitment to Harry’s emotional throughline can’t be questioned.
It’s a darkly funny entertainment that, after the first viewing, takes on the qualities of a fable. It feels archetypal. Alan Parker and his usual crew of slick professionals deliver a workable homage to all the great old movies in which darkness is itself a character; if a Robert Siodmak film and a Val Lewton production had mated, the baby might be Angel Heart.