ANGEL HEART, Alan Parker (1987)

It’s been too long since my last update. What can I say? I’ve been watching movies all the time but wasn’t too inspired, perhaps because my behavior is usually more erratic in Summer. We’ll see what happens this new season.

Few days ago I saw a couple of amazing tattoos related to Alan Parker’s film Angel Heart, and immediately I felt the urge to watch it again, as it had been years since the last viewing.

Memories came to mind. On one hand Robert De Niro and his terrible nails, peeling and eating a poach egg, that sight used to make me feel really uneasy. On the other hand all the scandal related to Lisa Bonet, who used to play the role of Denise Huxtable, one of the daughters of Bill Cosby, in his show. Due to a couple of very intense scenes, to label them in some way, the powerful and and fatherly man, threw stones against her, because she didn’t fit in the projection of the good side of black people he aimed to spread through his series. She wasn’t the good daughter anymore, she was hot, sexy, and played with black magic. Definitely she was the black sheep escaped from the cattle and on the road to sin.

Alan Parker, the English director, had been able to deliver a controversial film such as Midnight Express, and then work on music oriented stories such as Fame or a project of the classic Pink Floyd’s The Wall. His versatility pushed him to adapt the novel Falling Angel, by William Hjortsberg, writing and directing what was to become this mixture of a detective film-noir with a touch of horror: Angel Heart.

The cast of characters was impressive: Robert De Niro, Charlotte Rampling, Lisa Bonet and Mickey Rourke at the peak of his career, as Harry Angel.

The starting point is New York City in the mid 1950’s. Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) is one of these not so lucky private detectives, who usually receive non relevant assignments related to infidelity in marriages, insurance cheats and so on. His presence is requested by a new client, in a church in Harlem. Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro),  is an elegant and proud gentleman, yet mysterious, who asks him to find Johnny Favorite, a famous crooner who vanished after being wounded in WWII, suffering brain damage which drifted away from his contractual  obligations with the gentleman, who thinks he’s still in debt and wants to sort this unfinished business with him. First step is to visit the mental hospital where Favorite, or better said Johnny Liebling, was checked-in for a while. While having a look at the records, he notices that the date of transferring appearing was manipulated later, and goes straight to the doctor who handled the case, named Fowler, a current morphine addict. Right after the man confesses he got paid by a wealthy man to alter he records, he shoots himself, putting  Angel at risk of being charged of murder. Scared, the detective tries to quit but Mr. Cyphre offers him a large sum of money to go on with the case, and Angel, a poor rat seduced by the  offer accepts. It is his lover, an attractive journalist who’d provide information about Favorite’s background, highlighting the name of a black woman he used to be in love with, Evangeline Proudfoot, and a fortune teller who used to live in Coney Island, named Madame Zora (Charlotte Rampling). These two women will make him drive to New Orleans searching for the singer, but the truth waiting for him, will be too hard and overwhelming.

I remember long time ago someone asked in a forum about films closely related to cities. You know, Taxi Driver would be Manhattan, 28 Days Later an apocalyptical London, and Bullit would mean Frisco. I’ve never been to New Orleans, but always have related Angel Heart to Nola. It’s been always said that city is bewitched, due to the tradition of voodoo and black magic rituals which took place during the times of slavery. This Creole city, hosting a multilingual and cross-cultural mixture, has always kept a magical mysterious halo around, allowing uncommon debauchery and frivolity.

In the film, New Orleans atmosphere is suffocating, heat followed by torrential rain, thus the unstable weather condition enhances this feeling of tension and uneasiness. Its role reminds me of Apocalypse Now. The more Angel digs into the mystery finding all the clues which will eventually lead him to the truth, the more unbearable the atmospheric conditions are, and the harder is to distinguish what is hallucination from reality.

Symbolism is the key of the story. To start with, think of the name of Louis Cyphre, mispronounced by Angel all the time, and you’ll get a clue. It’s totally ironic.

Chickens’ presence is constant and reminded all the time, and the detective suffers from an unexplainable phobia, justified when you discover what’s going on. Chicken legs, voodoo rituals conducted by Epiphany Proudfoot (Lisa Bonet), covering herself in chicken blood after cutting one’s neck, the poached eggs I was telling you about Cyphre peels and eats…

There are visual elements which make you wonder what happens: the slow  screeching fans, Angel in an elevator going downwards, the black faceless nun, the marine kissing the nurse in Time Square on New Year’s Eve, the red room with a fan and the agonizing screams of a man… and the piano sounds whenever someone is about to die. I particularly love that moment Angel gets into Madame Krusemark’s wealthy house and finds her dead, and there’s this kind on the street dancing claque very intensely, till the detective discovers all the horrible mess, and the sequence ends when the kid stops making noise. Brilliant!

The treatment of blood is worth mentioning. In general terms, thefilm is quite dark and contrast of colours quite poor and neuter, however, when there are scenes involving blood, this balance is saturated and red color is extremely intense. Not only that, but the blood is widely splattered, and it’s thick and heavy. There’s a moment when Angel stands with the razor, after fighting with the local musician Toots Sweet, covered in lots of blood. He’s just been cut in the hand, when defending himself, however he’s soaked in blood, super exaggerated.

I had never paid the attention deserved to Rourke’s interpretative style till yesterday, and I must admit I was surprised in a very positive way. He has to play a detective who is a complete loser, but has to look tough, like in film noir main titles. He’s far away from master Bogey, who represented the iconic detective, tough, elegant, attractive, and silent type. Angel is a loser, messy and dirty, he sweats and probably smells, and he’s injured, punched, bitten, and he’s afraid. The deeper he’s into the mud of the case, the darker he becomes. His desperation in the last scenes is unforgettable, the way he cries and yells, how he looks at his own reflection trying to put himself together and failing, he’s awesome.

Of course DeNiro is something different, all the details about him, the nails resembling claws, the stick, the way he eats, his hairdo, the majestic way of sitting on a chair and Cyphre positioned at some kind of raised dais at an upper level than Angel as to show some kind of superiority, everything is there to fit a purpose.

Angel Heart is definitely a film which is perfect to review from time to time, because it’s so full of subtle references and details created to add meaning to the story, with every viewing you discover something new.

Harry Angel was doomed to a spiral of murder and insanity for succumbing to the temptation of money. Greed is one of the most profitable sins in terms of film stories. When the main character accepts a deal or a sum of money, is also opening the doors to the Devil, and even though Catholic religion has been always trying to convince us that the goodness and faith defeated the evil, the presence of the devil is always around, threatening, and waiting for the right moment to recover its power regardless, thus in case of business, the evil powers always take what is of their own, with interests.

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