Monday, July 05, 2010

PERSONAL FAVES: Angel Heart

Crime has long been the go-to genre for hybrid narratives. Look at ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘Dark City’: both firmly bracketed as sci-fi but infused with noir stylisations. Or ‘Minority Report’ and ‘I, Robot’ with their hi-tech whodunnit plots.

Crime and horror have also enjoyed a cross-pollination over the years, perhaps most notably in the gialli of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Most mainstream horrors have an element of the detective story about them, as rational explanations are initially sought for the paranormal phenomena on display. These are undertaken either by amateur sleuths (David Warner’s photographer in ‘The Omen’) or professionals (Lee J. Cobb as Detective Kinderman in ‘The Exorcist’).

In most cases, the crime element is secondary to the horror or sci-fi aesthetic. ‘Angel Heart’ is a rare and magnificent exception to the rule, where the dominant aspect is shabby private eye Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke)’s investigation into the disappearance of lounge singer Johnny Favourite; where the incursion into outright horror only occurs once Angel’s case takes him to New Orleans and the backdrop of voodoo and superstition suddenly and frighteningly comes to the forefront.

So pervasive is this shift in tone – not to mention the psychological and metaphysical implications of the denouement – that ‘Angel Heart’ reveals itself as a symphony of horrors. I use the phrase and acknowledge its source – ’Nosferatu: eine Symphonie des Grauens’ (F.W. Murnau, 1922) – advisedly. Murnau gives us Max Schrek, his shadow creeping across the wall, through the celluloid of the film and irreversibly into the popular consciousness. Alan Parker gives us Robert de Niro as Louis Cyphre (I’ll hold off on plot spoilers, but eagle-eyed linguists will have nailed it), casting a shadow of quiet threat and sinister manipulation across the film and, indeed, Harry Angel’s past and present.

If Cyphre is the personification of the deepest and most repressed horrors of Angel’s life (the quest for Johnny Favourite’s whereabouts is also an internal journey, into the depths of Angel’s soul), there are plenty of other – more literal – horrors strewn throughout the film. Eyeballs and hearts turn up where they have no business being; chickens find themselves on the receiving end of far worse than battery farming during a voodoo ritual whose aberrant eroticism is the precursor to an intense and sensual sex scene that, like the movie itself, lurches brutally into very different territory; becomes something disturbing and blood soaked. ‘Angel Heart’, particularly in its final third, is awash with blood.

Other images are disconcerting, their meaning often oblique (at least until the final frames): nuns looking up from studious contemplation of the Bibles (a Bible in a parallel scene contains more than just the word of the Lord); footsteps ringing out on cold marble floors; a hand reaching for someone in the crush of a New Year’s Eve celebration; a spray of blood on white tiles; an apartment window bathed in garish red; fans slowly turning; an elevator plummeting down a shadowy lift shaft. The film is as suffused with images of descent as it is with blood.





But for all the grand guignol excesses, Alan Parker achieves a sense of realism in the first half, allowing the more macabre and grotesque nuances of the story to bleed gradually into the film’s aesthetic. The period recreation is grimy and naturalistic. The performances are spot on. De Niro projects menace calmly and efficiently. Rourke wears the mantle of Angel’s rumpled and increasingly desperate persona so completely that it’s one of those remarkable instances in cinema where the actor disappears entirely into the character. In a filmography studded with more great performances than he’s probably given credit for, Harry Angel is arguably his finest moment. That agonising ending, that tearful insistence that “I know who I am” – Rourke brings home the inescapable finality of it.

8 comments:

Hans A. said...

Very nice review. I'm particularly fond of this one as well. When it premiered here in the States it was by far not appreciated. I supposed Rourke at the time was associated with his sex scenes and his scene with Bonet (who gives a great performance and amazingly beautiful) garnered much of the hype. I was so surprised that De Niro took this role at the time, but today, I'm not surprised. It's such an affecting performance and so soft-spoken yet menacing. Seeing Charlotte Rampling is always a plus. Rourke is a perfect 50s private eye. Once again, great review, Neil, and I'm looking forward to more Shots on the Blog. Hope all is well.

Dave said...

Yes! Glad to see someone else show so much love for this film, which I too am a huge fan of. Everything about I appreciate, but this passage in particular strikes the exact reason why I think it works so well:

"But for all the grand guignol excesses, Alan Parker achieves a sense of realism in the first half, allowing the more macabre and grotesque nuances of the story to bleed gradually into the film’s aesthetic."

The realistic and the surreal blend together perfectly, which you rarely see happen outside of a David Lynch film (and even then, it doesn't happen in each movie).

J.D. said...

"The period recreation is grimy and naturalistic."

I think that this is what I love most about the film. There is a real authentic atmosphere that feels taken from the 1950s that gets me every time I watch this film. The production design in conjunction with the cinematography is something else.

The book that this film is based on is quite good too and goes into much more detail about the protagonist and the mystery itself. I was impressed by how faithful the film actually is to the book.

Neil Fulwood said...

Hans - you're right: the performances are spot on. Rourke plays rumpled and morally compromised as well as anyone. His acting - particularly in that wrenching last scene - is fearless.

Dave - I think it's the way the realistic and the fantastical meld so well that makes 'Angel Heart' such a fresh and enduring film. Good call on the Lynch comparison, though with Lynch the aesthetic usually becomes so deliriously off-kilter that you realise how much the seemingly ordinarily has been upended. In 'Angel Heart', you never feel that the everyday has suddenly become weird; rather, that you've finally reached the truth of things.

J.D. - I've never read the source novel, but I'll certainly make the effort on your recommendation.

Thanks for your comments, guys.

Bryce Wilson said...

Excellent write up, Neil. Alan Parker spent the last decade making so many spotty films, and Angel Heart is often unfairly lumped in with them.

Love the scene in the Harlem church. And of course, the Egg bit.

The Film Connoisseur said...

Agree with you on this one Neil, Angel Heart is an awesome supernatural film. What I like about it is how subtle it is with its supernatural elements.

The scene where he is going down on the elevetor, it felt as if he was going down to hell...

The only scene I didnt like was the scene with the babies demonic eyes..they looked cheesy, but everything else in the film, perfect!

Neil Fulwood said...

Bryce - the egg scene is awesome. Even though Harry says "I've got a thing about chickens" apropos of Cyphre offering him the egg, you just know Cyphre's aware of his phobia already is simply toying with him.

Francisco - agreed: the baby with the glowing eyes is an odd touch and thematically doesn't make much sense. Evangeline is Harry/Johnny's daughter, therefore the baby is his grandson, so why do his eyes glow like Cyphre's? I have two theories: (i) the balance of Harry's mind is disturbed at this point and he hallucinates the baby having eyes like Cyphre's; (ii) it may have been something the producers foisted on the film to emphasise the supernatural element and deliver one final twist.

Jerry Kryptoman said...

And the music, remember the themes.