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: Alan Parker (based on William Hjortsberg’s novel Falling Angel)
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Robert De Niro, Lisa Bonet
Distribution: TriStar Pictures
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 private detective Harry Angel, a likable loser 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 with whom he made a deal but was never repaid.
Parker, famous for directing musicals like 1980’s Fame, 1982’s Pink Floyd – The Wall and 1996’s Evita, seems to be making a commentary about the superficiality of mainstream religion in Angel Heart. 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 spirituality present, as a man is seen cleaning blood off a bathroom wall where a guy blew his brains out the night before. Meanwhile, the preacher stands at the pulpit telling his congregation, “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. For Angel, on the other hand, 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 sinister flourishes like long fingernails that he wraps around a glass filled with blood-red wine. This guy is simply scary from the first time we meet him.
Rourke’s performance as 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 style and Parker even pays an homage to Chinatown’s Jake Gittes by having him wear a nose shield at one point. But Angel is different from the typical private eye archetype in that he’s never particularly intimidating or adept.
Honestly, he’s mostly a boob.
He seems to lose time and get confused easily, wandering into another church at one point, seemingly at random. 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 Jack Nicholson’s is, instead it looks more like a Groucho Marx disguise, making Angel appear even more like a buffoon. Perhaps the most ridiculous aspect of Angel’s persona is that for some reason he’s frightened by chickens. In one memorable scene, he tells his his flame, Epiphany Proudfoot (Lisa Bonet), “I’ve got a thing about chickens.”
A wordsmith he is not.
In a film that’s loaded with dark stuff like 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. We eventually discover she’s 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 2 hours and I feel it flies by with almost no wasted time.
The movie does resort to some clichés once the plot moves down south, though. Just once, I’d like to see a film set in New Orleans that didn’t involve witchcraft rituals and the occult.
What I can’t get out of my head about Angel Heart is its exaggerated gothic visuals. In the New York scenes, the city is seen as cold and unfeeling with gray skies and dingy streets filling each 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 an eye-catching pentagram necklace. Sex and violence are also striking in this 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 watched.
In the end, we get an obvious plot twist, but it frankly 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 traveling down a dark shaft accompanied by a haunting saxophone theme.
Oh, and that final shot is one of the creepiest ever. Good luck getting it out of your head.