Hell Hath No Fury Like the Devil Scorned
Today, March 6th, Sir Alan Parker‘s Angel Heart turns thirty, thus creating a golden opportunity for yet another appreciation of what was considered by many an over-stylized satanic shock-fest back in the 80s but has since revealed itself to be, in this writer’s humble opinion, one of the best psychological horrors in the history of American cinema.
A disclaimer should be made for those who have yet to watch Parker’s mercilessly dark and sinister masterpiece: as the film depends to some extent on the gradual reveal of the mystery central to its narrative – the many elements of which shall be discussed in the following piece – the best way to experience it is with as little insight as possible, and only then compare your view with mine. This is due to the fact that ‘Angel Heart’ boasts one of the great twists of 1980s, ranked aside the family-oriented revelation of ‘The Empire Strikes Back,’ but also because following its narrative is such a damn fun. Consider yourself warned.
So, who the hell is Johnny Favorite and why should you care about this has-been crooner’s fate?
The obvious answer is: because the film begins with a renewed interest in Favorite, the once-famous big-band frontman who has been considered long dead, which results in hiring private dick Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) to find him. What ensues is a succession of brutal murders with satanic traces written all over them that prompt the protagonist to dig deeper and discover a conspiracy of diabolical proportions to which realization he is indispensable. The more complicated answer would be this: when Angel, an earnest PI working low-profile cases in 1955’s New York, is hired by the perversely named Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) to uncover the whereabouts of some old debtor who happened to be a rising star in the beginning of 40s, his life goes on a downward spiral. The detective embarks on a path that will lead him to the voodoo-filled Louisiana bayous only to become the main suspect in what appears to be as series of ritualistic murders, and possibly lose his mind in the process.
But this is basically only scratching the surface of what Angel Heart really has to offer.
For Alan Parker, a British director and screenwriter with an imagination to be envied and a knack for using the cinematic language to externalize his characters’ minds and souls, Angel Heart‘s main enticement was the way the plot and the narrative circled around the popular conventions of the Chandler-esque detective story and the Faustian tale of losing one’s humanity, only to reveal itself to be something else entirely. Harry Angel’s odyssey through the worlds of voodoo and black magic (not the same, mind you), his journey of experiencing New York’s many faces and immersing in New Orleans’ spiritual atmosphere, gave Parker an ideal blueprint for a layered tale of the duality of human nature. And scaring the living daylights out of the viewers.
For Angel Heart is a horror in the truest sense of the definition; not some schlocky slasher but a film of real terror creeping slowly into your mind and refusing to leave. Heart ripped from a person’s chest, genitalia cut off and stuck into their owner’s mouth, brain splashed on a pillow after shooting someone in the eye – oh yes, there are quite a few graphic scenes to be endured. But the film’s true menace, and brilliance of Parker’s direction, lies not in the use of flashy props and makeup but in how ordinary evil looks on screen. Fans, elevators, staircases, fingernails, eggs – things of everyday use, things to which we are accustomed – enable the filmmaker to reveal before our eyes the existence of a world of malevolence and wickedness atop what we know. And bedevil the audience with how Angel is gradually stepping into a trap.
You know, some religions think that the egg is the symbol of the soul, did you know that? – Louis Cyphre
In other words, what permeates through the film is the feeling of perpetual uneasiness. It comes from the images which stem from each and every viewer’s imagination, encouraged by Parker and his crew to interpret every suspicious object or oddly looking person as something potentially nefarious; to look beyond shabby churches, extravagant housings, refined restaurants and see the infernal forces working from underneath. This atmosphere of permanent sense of dread is established in the very beginning of Angel Heart, in the film’s first images, when a mysterious figure, possibly Louis Cyphre itself, exits some New York back alley leaving a dead body grotesquely lit by the pale moonlight. We will never know who the poor soul was, but the intensity of such a prologue never wears off. There’s death everywhere, as Cyphre points out later in the film.
Parker plays his audience’s ability to imagine what could never be depicted on a screen against themselves. He uses fans – normal, ordinary fans, contraptions pushing air into a space before them – as a kind of inanimate version of the Greek choir foretelling the impending doom; a portent of death, as the director calls them on a commentary he recorded for Angel Heart’s home video release. Hell, even the motionless Ferris wheel in Coney Island’s deserted amusement park resembles a gigantic fan. Then, the numerous staircases we see in the film, some twisted more than others, start to mirror the state of Angel’s frail mind, and his growing sense of entrapment. It is enough to see the poor gumshoe walking on stairs, looking at some kid or lost in his thoughts, to see clearly what is only later becoming visible on his face.
Parker’s genius also stems from not shooting Angel Heart as a supernatural horror film, but as a hard-boiled detective story. A genuine, true-to-life lost person tale with a few religious themes. We follow Angel to the subsequent locations, hear him question different people and get valuable information, and watch him do his usual PI routine, while the details planted carefully by Parker earn the ordinariness its ‘extra’ part. Even when the detective sets off for New Orleans – depicted as normally as it was possible considering the predetermined conceptions of the city existing in the viewers’ minds – everything seems a part of the mundane reality. Even after things start to go horribly wrong, we cannot shake the feeling this diabolical trickery is an aberration rather than an integral part of this normal world.
Now, this shows the importance of shooting a film like Angel Heart outside of sterile studio soundstages, even though this decision added to the problems experienced by the film’s cast and crew. But they really shot basically everything on location, 78 different locations to be precise, dressed by the skilled craftsmen for the period look and the desired feel. The atmosphere and the imagery were already there, just needed a little push. The job was performed with the usual panache by the masterful cinematographer Michael Seresin whose desaturated, monochromatic, stylish cinematography (they were shooting a black and white film in color, as Parker once described it) fills your heart with wonder and dread at the same time.
What is extremely important is not only to watch Angel Heart, but also to hear it. Trevor Jones‘ score is full of saxophone laments, piano cries, bluesy vibes, jazz tunes, as well as intense heartbeats woven into lyrical themes, thus filling the screen with a strange mix of adventure and anxiety. But the most haunting guide through the broken world of Johnny Favorite is Angel Heart’s sound mix. Watch the film at night, with the speakers’ volume increased to hear some voices whispering both Favorite’s and Angel’s names, listen to the cacophony of various religious ceremonies and rituals, roars of a vicious pit bull, metal sounds of gun shots, whizzing noise of fans, and only then you will experience Angel Heart in its full glory.
That this is yet another piece of the giant satanic puzzle Parker is putting together is quite obvious, but it makes the revealing Favorite’s identity and Angel’s descent in an ominous elevator into the depths of hell, far more disturbing. Why, even personal, as the film’s soundscape underlines the feeling of betrayal you feel at the end. The emotions you invested as a viewer in Harry are used against you; it’s as if Frank Capra made you empathize with George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life only to show in what-would-happen-if-you-had-not-been-born sequence that the world would be a better place without the guy.
They say there’s enough religion in the world to make men hate each other, but not enough to make them love. – Louis Cyphre
There is one more element to take into consideration. William Hjortsberg‘s book, Falling Angel, which is neither better nor worse than the film, simply different. But watching Angel Heart knowing how Parker, also the film’s screenwriter, modified the source novel makes it an even richer experience.
The most crucial change is in the way the story is told. Hjortsberg used first-person narrative, an obvious choice for a detective story, making the reader understand Angel’s way of reasoning and thus revealing, bit by bit, the true identity of both Johnny Favorite and Louis Cyphre. Parker has Angel in basically every scene of the film but finds myriad of ways to deceive the viewer, to manipulate the perception in order to hold the final revelation until the final moments (hence fans, staircases etc.). It is of course entirely possible to guess the twist earlier, especially nowadays when so many lesser films have copied from Angel Heart, but it does not decrease the film’s power.
Parker’s take on the story also warranted quite different characters. Harry Angel is a pragmatist and cynic in the novel, he despises the elites and the rich and is a mean, physically strong, tough detective who is able to kill with his bare hands. When he falls for a black girl Epiphany Proudfoot, which is important for the subsequent revelation of who Johnny Favorite really is, it makes him softer and weaker but still not very approachable. This is not a nice guy. You pity him at the end and yet you despise him. Parker’s Angel, played by Mickey Rourke using his everyman’s charm to the fullest, is definitely more earnest and relatable. Here is a PI with whom you can connect, if only because you get to know before him that this will not end well. Rourke makes Angel’s flaws his strengths and when you see him in the final scene, with a look of utter despair on his pale, ghostly face, you feel sorry for him because he didn’t know and tried his best to solve the mystery.
And Louis Cyphre is… well, there could be a separate article written about the differences between Hjortsberg’s and Parker’s Cyphres. You see, in the novel Cyphre, though he undeniably is the Lucifer itself, is more of a trickster than a menacing presence. He has black hair, white beard, blue eyes and a tan, and he amuses himself with playing the part of a magician who delights in giving Angel weird clues to his true identity. De Niro’s Cyphre is an elegant gentleman, with gleaming dark eyes and coal-black hair tied back into a ponytail, with perfectly manicured, pointy, beast-like fingernails that grow longer every time he meets Harry, with perversely soft voice that gives you goose bumps. He is the evil incarnated. His Cyphre is also more devilish in the final act, when it turns out that it was Angel who murdered all these people – ripped out a woman’s heart, cut off a man’s genitalia – even if guided by the hand of the Devil. Whereas in Hjortsberg’s novel it is suggested that Cyphre personally committed the murders to frame Angel and thus get his soul. Meaning the novel’s Lucifer is larger-than-life but at the same time, paradoxically, more human.
And then there’s the setting. The entirety of the novel is set in New York, with Hjortsberg going to great lengths to inform the reader at which part of the city the quest for Johnny Favorite’s soul currently takes place. Parker on the other hand, knowing there exists a plethora of films set in the Big Apple and documenting its numerous faces, moved the second part of the story to New Orleans, thus giving his film a distinct visual identity that further emphasized the duality of everything depicted on the screen. He also played with symbols that hint at who Harry Angel really is: a man who sold his soul for the wealth and fame, got scared of what he had done, ripped out another man’s heart and ate it to possess his soul and thus cheat the devil.
Take the chickens for example. Angel repeats a couple of times that he has a thing with chickens. It seems an idea added to make the film a little bit lighter but when you consider the fact that Johnny Favorite was into dark magic and voodoo (again, not the same thing), it starts to make sense. One of the more disturbing scenes in Angel Heart involves a ritual during which Epiphany slits a chicken’s throat and spills its blood all over herself and other participants. It is only logical that Johnny had to perform similar things, and take pleasure from it, but now, with an amnesia clouding his sense of former self, chickens became a living thing to be feared, a subconscious flicker of something dark and troubling he had done in life he does not remember. The scene in which Cyphre meticulously crushes egg’s shell before informing Angel that an egg is a symbol of the soul, and then eats it with an ominous look on his face, is an extension of that. It was not included in the book, but it was shot by Parker and Seresin to resemble Favorite crushing and eating the heart of the real Harold Angel.
One of Angel Heart’s greatest strengths is precisely the number of intellectual and emotional paths it lays before the viewer. There is no one answer to the presented tale, apart from the obvious one: you cannot cheat the Devil.
The flesh is weak, Johnny. Only the soul is immortal. – Louis Cyphre
There is also another one: we all die at the end, though it is partly up to us how we choose to live before this happens. You see, Angel Heart is not only a horror, or a psychological horror. It is also a fable, very violent and surreal one, about the human condition being governed by vanity and the desire to have it all and pay nothing. We will never learn how to peacefully coexist with each other because there is some part of us – and it exists in all of us, even though in many people it stays passive for the whole of their lifetimes – that simply wants to control people and watch their worlds burn. That this is one of the many aspects of Angel Heart being more timely than ever, with the rise of nationalist sentiments, with the social media’s preoccupation with post-truth, with the ever-growing feeling of confusion about the future, is poignantly obvious with each viewing of Sir Alan Parker’s unsettling masterpiece.
However, this was mostly lost on viewers and critics after Angel Heart’s official release. The film barely equaled its budget in the American box office, making it something of a commercial flop. But ultimately, year after year, home video release after home video release, it gathered a growing fan base. Now it is widely considered one of the best in its genre, oft-compared to Roman Polański’s Rosemary’s Baby and Richard Donner’s The Omen. Its once-shocking final revelation does not have the same value as it did thirty years ago, but Angel Heart remains an imaginative, powerful and original film that still holds a spell over viewers. And creeps the hell out of them.
So, who the hell was Johnny Favorite and why some has-been crooner’s fate should make you care? The real answer to that lies in each and every viewer, in the imagination, the mind and the heart of who is watching it, and how he or she is watching it. Some films defy categorization and Angel Heart is one of them. You should forget about the outside world and go for a ride.
Thus, on the film’s 30th anniversary, rent it, buy it, stream it, do whatever you need to watch it, sit back and relax, and take this journey with Harry Angel. Just don’t become another Johnny Favorite.