Starring Mickey Rourke, Robert De Niro, and Lisa Bonet
Review by Wayne C. Rogers
Though Angel Heart isn’t what I would call a slasher/dasher film, it’s still one of the best horror films made before the turn of the century. It’s what I would refer to as a slow burn, edging its way carefully toward a mind-numbing climax that leaves you drained because you’ve learned to care for the lead character and what happens to him. You see, Harry Angel isn’t really a bad guy, plus he tries to do the right thing as a private investigator. True, he’s somewhat of a low life; but then again, it’s the perfect set up from beginning to end with each clue leaving the reader with a strong desire to find out more about this person and the missing guy he’s searching for.
As writer and director of the film that’s based on the bestselling novel, Falling Angel, by William Hjortsberg, Alan Parker made a number of changes in the storyline. I’ll discuss those after I briefly give you a rundown of the main theme of the story.
For the movie, the time period is 1955, instead of 1959 in the novel. Harry Angel is at the bottom of the barrel as far as private investigators go. When he’s hired by a law firm to help a somewhat bizarre gentleman, Louis Cyphre, to find a missing person from the forties, Harry makes the comment that he must have been picked out of the phone book because his last name is the first listed under detective agencies – Angel. The client wants Harry to find a missing crooner named Johnny Favorite, who was on his way to becoming a big success when he was suddenly drafted into the Army during World War II. Johnny went overseas as an entertainer, but was seriously injured during an air raid. He was later sent home and ended up in a clinic located in upper New York. Cyphre had a contract with Johnny and wants it honored. He knows Favorite is supposed to be in the clinic and hires Harry to check into it to see if a con is being pulled on him.
After some snooping around in upper New York, Harry quickly discovers that a man named Edward Kelly and a mysterious woman signed Johnny Favorite out of the clinic on the day World War II ended in Europe. The doctor who gives Harry the important information is then murdered right under the investigator’s nose. That makes Harry not only a suspect in the murder, but also weary of the entire situation. Cyphre talks him into continuing with the case by upping the fee. It isn’t long before the P.I. finds out that the crooner had two girlfriends in town. One was a fortune teller who operated out of Coney Island and the other owned an herbal store in Harlem. The case eventually leads Harry Angel to New Orleans where all hell breaks loose and the bodies start piling up like logs for a fireplace.
One of the good things about the movie is Mickey Rourke’s portrayal of Harry Angel and Robert De Niro’s performance as Louis Cyphre. Though Angel is definitely at the bottom of the economic ladder, you still come to like the man. When he takes a job, he gives it his all and doesn’t mess around. He’s the first one to tell Cyphre that Johnny Favorite is probably better left alone because this was not a nice guy and few people liked him. De Niro as Louis Cyphre gives you the creeps, especially when he’s eating a hard-boiled egg. The way his dark eyes stare into the camera sends shivers down your spine. The thing is De Niro is seldom in the movie. He only has four scenes, but he steals them every time with his brilliant, but underplayed performance. Rourke tries gamely to stay up with him, but it’s a challenge. You can tell at times that De Niro is also having fun with the role. Rourke does much better when out on his own, attempting to find Favorite.
Another aspect I enjoyed about Harry Angel that wasn’t in the novel was the fact he had a thing with chickens. He hated chickens, and they always seemed to come up throughout the film. It was funny at times, which helped to ease the growing tension.
I also liked the shift of location from New York City to New Orleans about halfway through the movie. It added more flavor to the film and made the Voodoo ritual that Angel sees out in the bayou more poignant and realistic. Voodoo is still practiced quite heavily in the Deep South, though mostly for good things and not bad.
I thought Lisa Bonet as Epiphany Proudfoot was an excellent choice. She’s not only beautiful, but smart with a kind of cunning intelligence that matches Harry Angel’s good sense. Also, Charlotte Rampling as Margaret Krusemark was another smart choice. I’ve been a fan of Ms. Rampling’s since 1974 when she did the movies, Caravan to Vaccares, Zardoz, and The Night Porter. She fit the role of Margaret Krusemark like a handcrafted glove. I just wish she’d had more time on camera.
I feel the movie is excellent is every way. Director Alan Parker captures New York City in the mid-fifties perfectly with locations, dress, vehicles, and the entire atmosphere of the place. The actors bring solid performances to the film that make you forget who they actually are and to focus on the characters they’re playing. In one scene, a lot of exposition (or information) has to be given to the audience about what’s going on. In the novel, Harry Angel meets with several reporters to gather the information. In the movie, however, Mr. Parker decided it would be more interesting if the necessary information was given by a female reporter while she and Harry were playing around in bed. It worked for me.
The Special Edition of the DVD of Angel Heart has new documentaries on the making of the film and why Alan Parker made changes in it, a film commentary with Mickey Rourke, interviews with Mickey Rourke, the problems Lisa Bonet faced at the time because of her role on the Bill Crosby comedy television show versus the nude scenes in the movie, and a look at Voodoo and how realistically the director tried to portray the rituals in the film.
For me this is a movie I never get tired of watching. It’s on my Top Ten List of best horror films ever made. Like the novel it’s based on, Falling Angel, the film is also a slow burn. The journey you take, however, is one that won’t be forgotten, and it has a powerful ending that will leave you breathless once everything is revealed. Highly recommended!