[16 December 2009]
Graft the Faust plot onto a traditional film noir, set it in 1955, then cast Mickey Rourke as a hard-boiled detective, Lisa Bonet as a voodoo priestess, and Robert De Niro as the devil, and you get Angel Heart, Alan Parker’s masterful 1987 supernatural thriller.
Lou Cyphre (De Niro) hires Harry Angel (Rourke) to find crooner Johnny Favorite, who owes a debt to Cyphre. In the tradition of the noir detective who gets in over his head Angel, who works mostly on divorce cases, agrees to take the missing person job only when Cyphre offers him a fee he can’t refuse. The search for Favorite takes the disheveled gumshoe from Harlem to New Orleans, and out of his familiar world of infidelity investigations into the sphere of murder and occult ritual. Corpses begin accumulating almost immediately, since Angel’s informants exhibit the disturbing tendency to turn up dead shortly after he interviews them.
A lead takes Angel out of the city into rural Louisiana, where he finds Epiphany Proudfoot (Bonet), daughter of one of Favorite’s lovers, and, like her mother, an adept in voodoo rites. Angel discovers that the debt Favorite owes Cyphre is no less than his immortal soul, which he traded for fame, and plot strands are neatly tied up in a revelation scene presided over by Cyphre.
Rourke, in one of his best performances, plays Angel’s combination of world-weariness and naiveté perfectly. He’s blowing a bubble and smoking a cigarette when we first see him, he mispronounces his client’s name, he never misses the opportunity to help a stranger (early in the film he chases down a woman’s hat, after a gust of wind blows it off her head), and in general he seems to be just on the edge of simple. Yet he knows how to cajole or threaten information out of people, and can hold his own in a fight. Rourke makes it all believable, and in the film’s climax reduces Angel to a vulnerable, frightened naïf, largely through modulating his voice.
Bonet’s performance is the weakest turned in by the film’s principal actors. Whatever presence Proudfoot possesses comes from the voodoo paraphernalia and her rural Louisiana sack dresses, not from elements brought to the character by Bonet, who plays Proudfoot as strangely affectless, with none of the command you’d expect from someone able to channel occult powers. The film’s notorious ritual dance, in which a barely clothed Proudfoot frolics with a sacrificial chicken, while not exactly an anthropologically correct depiction of voodoo rites, nevertheless succeeded in putting fans of the Cosby Show on notice that Bonet had graduated to adult roles, as did a rainwater- and blood-soaked sex scene with Rourke.
De Niro makes the most of limited screen time, rendering his Cyphre all the more horrific by portraying him as a creepily fastidious financier, whose precise diction, slicked back hair, well-groomed beard, long fingernails, and walking stick seem the affectations of an eccentric bean counter, not the Harvester of Souls. In one of the best scenes in the film, Angel and Favorite’s amour Margaret Krusemark (Charlotte Rampling) match wits in Krusemark’s New Orleans apartment. Angel’s initially clumsy attempts at duping Krusemark give way to a craftiness that make us suspect that he may be more than a bumbling divorce detective.
The ‘50s setting, a subdued color palette (Parker reveals in an interview among the Blu-ray extras that he, the DP, and the production designer “wanted to make a black-and-white film in color”), and an understated score by Trevor Jones that avoids ‘80s pop signature synthesizers and drum machines—give Angel Heart a timeless quality that has helped the film age well. In a way, Angel Heart seems less retro than it did in 1987. Dark, procedural thrillers that share Parker’s mise en scene, such as Seven, have abounded since then, often with a supernatural element.
Parker isn’t the first director to update the noir formula and set his film in the era of the genre’s heyday; Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) is perhaps the best example. But where Polanski built his noir around incest, a topic hinted at but never openly broached in the ‘40s or ‘50s, Parker supercharges his homage with the gore and body count of the slasher genre. Not since Dressed to Kill (1980) had a film deployed the straight razor with such abandon. (Full disclosure: incest figures in Angel Heart, too.)
The celebrated introduction of a grown-up Bonet notwithstanding, the presence of African Americans in mainstream film was limited a generation ago, and Angel Heart flirts with racial stereotypes. It avoids the cringe-inducing lampoon of black culture that mars Roger Moore’s 1973 debut as James Bond, Live and Let Die, another film that takes viewers from New York to New Orleans and suggests that voodoo lurks behind traditional elements of African American life like jazz and Christianity. But Angel Heart nevertheless relies heavily on black exoticism for suspense and atmosphere. The misrepresentation of voodoo in the film, as in other supernatural thrillers from the same time such as The Believers (1987) and The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), is a whole other subject.
The Blu-Ray disc extras include audio commentary by Parker, and recent interviews with Parker and Rourke. Parker’s interview is brief but informative. He talks about adapting
William Hjortsberg’s novel Falling Angel for the screen, and about filming in Harlem. Rourke’s interview is longer, and he speaks generally about his acting career, and his forays into boxing before and after his rise to stardom in the ‘80s.
There is also commentary from Rourke on select scenes from Angel Heart that is painful to watch. Rourke has no interest in discussing the film, or his approach to acting in it. He stresses over and over that he did the film because he wanted to work with Parker, that he did no special preparation or research for the role—that, in fact, he simply “showed up”. Perhaps Lionsgate was contractually bound to include the interview. I can’t think of any other reason why it’s among the disc extras.