Published on May 26th, 2014 | by Clint Davis
Angel Heart 
Summary: A reminder of how strong a leading man Mickey Rourke was in the '80s. 'Angel Heart' is a pitch dark occult thriller with a cheesy twist but some great acting up top.
R | 113 min.
Director & Screenplay: Sir Alan Parker (based on William Hjortsberg’s novel Falling Angel)
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Robert De Niro, Lisa Bonet
Distribution: TriStar Pictures | Box Office: $17,185,632 (#66 for 1987)
We all love to see a comeback story and in the history of Hollywood stardom, Mickey Rourke’s roller coaster career may only be rivaled by that of Robert Downey Jr. While Rourke never completely left acting, his departure from leading roles for a foray into professional boxing is the kind of decision that would make people question his sanity to this day. In the ring, Rourke’s 6-0-2 record didn’t draw him comparisons to “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler but on screen, he’s proven he can hold his own with the very best.
Director Alan Parker’s 1987 occult noir thriller Angel Heart pits the actor head-to-head with Robert De Niro–and my scorecard is still unfinished.
This film is heavy on style and mood if a bit light on realism but you end up with a hell of a unique ride. The plot sees Rourke as a likable loser, private detective Harry Angel whose New York City office is as shabby as the suit he wears throughout the entire movie. Angel’s job seems to consist of small-time shakedowns until one day in 1955 when an elegantly dressed man named Louis Cyphre (De Niro) hires him to track down a retired pop singer whom he made a deal with but was never repaid.
Parker, famous for directing musicals like 1980’s Fame, 1982’s Pink Floyd – The Wall and later, 1996’s Evita, seems to be making a commentary about the superficiality of mainstream religion. One of the most memorable lines comes as Cyphere philosophizes, “They say there’s just enough religion in this world to make men hate one another, not enough to make them love one another.”
In an early scene set inside a large Harlem church there isn’t much spirit present as a man is seen cleaning blood off of a bathroom wall where an unnamed guy blew his brains out the night before, meanwhile the preacher simply stands at the pulpit telling his congregation to “Open up your wallets and give it up.” Angel Heart is full of religious imagery, but seems to respect the rawness of the hoodoo rituals depicted as the movie’s setting later moves to New Orleans.
The exchanges between Rourke and De Niro are thrilling–and a joy to watch. Cyphere is meticulously put together, wearing immaculate suits with a matching cane while for Angel, it’s a good day if he combs his hair. De Niro gives his part an edge although the character is pretty much a stock villain, complete with long fingernails wrapped around a glass containing blood-red wine. This guy is simply scary from the first time we meet him.
Rourke’s performance as Harry Angel is the driving force behind Angel Heart though, as he delivers a turn you can’t help but have fun watching. Angel has a bit of Sam Spade-esque style–even paying an homage to Jake Gittes by wearing a nose shield at one point–but he’s different from a typical private eye archetype in that he’s never particularly intimidating. Honestly, Angel is mostly a boob.
He seems to lose time and get confused easily, wandering into another church at one point seemingly at random as the audience doesn’t see how Angel ended up there or why he stumbled inside only to split after seeing a group of nuns. The nose shield I mentioned earlier isn’t cool the way the bandage is that Jack Nicholson rocks in Chinatown, instead it looks more like a Groucho Marx disguise, making him appear more like a buffoon. Perhaps the most ridiculous aspect of Angel’s persona is that for some reason he’s frightened by chickens, telling his flame Epiphany Proudfoot (Lisa Bonet), “I’ve got a thing about chickens.”
In a film that’s loaded with Satanism, witchcraft, incest and graphic violence, it may be Bonet’s sexy turn that’s most eye-opening. The first time we see Epiphany she’s refined and gorgeous, washing her hair in golden sunlight but the next time she’s slicing off a chicken’s head and pouring the blood on herself as she dances around a fire…in other words, just another N’Orleans Thursday night. We eventually discover her character is a 17-year-old “mambo priestess” who was impregnated by “the Gods” in what she describes as “the best fuck I ever had.” Not exactly dinner conversation around the Huxtable table.
Parker’s screenplay, based on the 1978 hardboiled detective novel Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg, moves the action along briskly as Angel narrates while recapping his investigation’s progress into a Dictaphone. Angel Heart clocks in at just under two hours and I felt like it flew by with almost no wasted time. The movie does resort to some clichés once the plot moves down south though. For once, I’d like to see a film set in New Orleans that didn’t involve witchcraft rituals and the occult for once.
What I can’t get out of my head about Angel Heart are its exaggerated gothic visuals. For the New York scenes, the city is seen as cold and unfeeling, gray skies and dingy streets fill each outdoor frame. New Orleans is seen in warmer colors but as the search moves there, the occult themes begin getting heavy, especially as a fortune teller Angel meets dons a pentagram necklace proudly around her neck. Sex and violence are also striking in the picture as each slaying is met with bright red blood and the bedroom scene between Rourke and Bonet is downright scary–one of the most unforgettable sex scenes I’ve ever seen.
In the end, we get an obvious twist but it fits the film’s melodramatic style and gives us an instant classic scene between Rourke and De Niro as our hero loses his grip on reality. The closing shots are dispersed into the end credits showing an elevator travelling down a dark shaft accompanied by a haunting saxophone theme. Oh, and that final shot is one of the creepiest ever, good luck getting that out of your head.