Greetings, readers. It always amazes me the films that are left on the dustbin of history; films that should (and, given a viewer in the right mindset, do) blow minds and soil pants. Some are brilliantly written, others ground-breaking in some way or another, but ultimately they prove a flash in the cinematic pan, or are duds upon release and only find their following years later.
Today, I’ll be looking at one such film – 1987’s ANGEL HEART. Directed by Alan Parker and starring Mickey Rourke (when he was still a pretty-boy), Robert De Niro, and Lisa Bonet, a sinister combination of hardboiled film noir detective story and supernatural horror based on the 1978 novel Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg.
Rourke stars as Harry Angel, an average schlub Private Detective in New York City, 1955. He’s not particularly lucky or great at what he does, he just manages to scrape by like the rest of us. Into Angel’s life waltzes the austere, cynical, business-minded Mr. Louise Cyphere (De Niro), who is seeking a missing man; big band crooner Johnny Favorite, who disappeared during WWII.
Not particularly caring for Favorite personally, Cyphere’s interests are purely business – if Favorite is dead, “certain collateral” falls into Cyphere’s possession. Angel’s job, then, is to determine if Favorite is alive or dead.
The trail of clues leads Angel to New Orleans, but every witness he talks to, every lead he follows up on, ends up horribly murdered. It seems Favorite doesn’t want to be found…
I chose this film for my inaugural review here at the Dreamin’ Demon because I was asked to write as spoiler-free as possible, and if there was ever a film that deserves to be seen without spoilers, ANGEL HEART is it. A deftly-handled and thoughtfully written story, ANGEL HEART is detective fiction in the vein of Hammett or Chandler, and indeed, save for the supernatural element, feels as if it could have flowed from their typewriters, while the violence of the murder sequences could have been the work of Spillane. That’s a hell of a hardboiled pedigree.
As with any quality detective tale, the audience is given all the same clues as the protagonist, and invited to follow along and conduct their own investigation; nevertheless, ANGEL HEART is appropriately rife with enough twists and turns to keep even the veteran armchair detective guessing.
While savage violence and simmering, exotic sensuality (embodied in Lisa Bonet’s voodooist) can only take a film so far; the rest is upon the shoulders of the actors.
ANGEL HEART really hinges upon the interplay between Mickey Rourke and Robert De Niro, which works out wonderfully. I’ve always considered De Niro to be one of the finest actors to ever live (though some of his recent performances, including MACHETE and LITTLE FOCKERS, have begun to suggest that it may be time to retire), and the performance he gives here is elegant, understated, and carrying a quiet, sinister charm without losing gravitas – and should be ranked alongside his performances in RAGING BULL, TAXI DRIVER, and THE UNTOUCHABLES. The man gives eating a hardboiled egg an air of menace, for God’s sake.
Mickey Rourke, meanwhile, is instantly likeable, a light-hearted, somewhat-bumbling American Everyman. The audience identifies with Harry Angel early on in the film, which gives that much more power and shock to Harry’s character arc over the course of the film. Suffice to say, Greek Tragedy ain’t got nothin’ on Harry Angel.
All in all, ANGEL HEART is a damned rare treat of a film; intelligent, and never talking down to its audience, without sacrificing sex and violence in favor of said intelligence. A very strong cast does wonders with the material given to them, and there’s an overall constant wink and tip of the hat to the conventions of the noir genre, utilizing them while also keeping things fresh and new. I’d call it a must-see, and give it five hardboiled eggs out of a possible five.