Angel Heart is one of those films that people tend to regard as either overrated or underrated rather than good or bad. On one hand, many viewers praise the film’s extraordinary cinematography, the strong performances given by the leading actors, its atmospheric direction and the way the convoluted narrative keeps the audience guessing until it reaches its shattering climax. On the other, the film has been criticised for its lack of depth, its stylistic and visual excesses and most pertinently, the way in which that visual extravagance masquerades a story which may not be that strong in the first place. Indeed, it has been claimed by many that the film’s so-called ‘unguessable’ final revelation can actually be seen coming a mile off. Having seen Angel Heart a number of times, I will admit that there is a lot to be said for both sides of the argument, however, I believe the film ultimately deserves a recommendation for those seeking a moody and engagingly ominous chiller that undeniably wears its style on its sleeve.
A Chandleresque detective story that descends into a decidedly more supernatural affair, the story begins in New York, 1955, with dishevelled gumshoe Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) being hired by enigmatic foreign gent, Monsieur Cyphre (Robert De Niro), to locate the whereabouts of a once popular big band singer, Johnny Favorite, for reasons unclear. Angel quickly learns that Favorite, now a shell-shocked war veteran, has disappeared from a hospital in Poughkeepsie and someone is going out of their way to ensure that he stays hidden. He also discovers that Favorite is known to be a deeply unsavoury character with links to the world of voodoo and black magic. However, the first witness that Angel confronts about Favorite ends up ritualistically murdered and our central character begins to have doubts about whether he should remain on the case at all. Somewhat rejuvenated by a substantial increase in his fee from Cyphre, Angel’s investigation takes him to sultry New Orleans where he tracks down Favorite’s ex-fiancée, Margaret Krusemark (Charlotte Rampling), an affluent society woman, and a fellow band performer, Toots Sweet (Brownie McGhee), both of whom, he learns, are involved in the occult. His questions to them concerning Favorite yield nothing but nervous dismissals and open hostility, and Angel suddenly finds his own life threatened by forces both seen and unseen. Indeed, the more he uncovers about his quarry, the more dark and surreal (not to mention bloody) the story becomes.
Writer/director Alan Parker has never been the kind of filmmaker to confine himself to any one particular type of movie, having made a diverse range of films in many different genres, including prison melodrama (Midnight Express), musical pastiche (Bugsy Malone), racial drama (Mississippi Burning), musical comedy (The Commitments), even scatological satire (The Road To Wellville), although some succeed more than others. Angel Heart, adapted from William Hjortsberg’s novel “Falling Angel” by Parker himself, essentially combines two genres, the film noir detective mystery and the supernatural horror film. Although the film opens as a straightforward detective story in the Chinatown mould – we, the audience, share the perspective of the central character as he follows various leads and learns the truth of the case for himself – it gradually transforms itself into a darker and altogether more nightmarish tale. Parker displays great visual panache and a wonderful attention to detail throughout the picture, making expert use of the shadowy, noirish lighting, the monochromatic colour schemes – the director has said that he wanted to make a black and white film in colour - and the dingy, squalid locations in Harlem and New Orleans to convey the macabre tone and seedy milieu of the story. Indeed, this stylistic flair might be the reason why many critics of Angel Heart continue to regard the film as meretricious and insubstantial. Although the cinematography (by Michael Seresin) and production design (by Brian Morris) are richly evocative and beautiful to look at, Parker’s reliance on over-stylisation has probably led many viewers to read more into the film, with its religious imagery and overt symbolism, than is warranted - in the end, the film is simply a mystery story with supernatural overtones. Additionally, film audiences now are far more sophisticated and knowledgeable about narrative and cinematic trickery than ever before, thanks to super-thrillers like Se7en, The Usual Suspects and Memento, so while the film’s killer finale may have come as a surprise to audiences when it was first released in 1987, it is far more difficult to trick audiences in such a way today. Indeed, the many clues offered by Parker’s approach to the narrative threaten to expose the film’s big secret long before it is finally revealed. I should say, though, that the ending still manages to be chilling and emotionally devastating whether you see it coming or not, and the film succeeds most admirably in establishing a creepy atmosphere of foreboding and impending violence right from the opening sequence that is effectively maintained for the duration of the film. Place and time are nicely evoked too, from the wintry, seedy streets of ‘50s New York to the hot and humid bayous of Louisiana, where the tradition of jazz, blues and gospel music there is particularly well served by Parker’s musical background.
Performances are uniformly good, with Lisa Bonet very effective in the part of voodoo priestess Epiphany Proudfoot, her character coming across as both innocent and knowing, and Charlotte Rampling, although given little to do in the film, managing to convey the right balance of refinement and eccentricity. Real-life musician Brownie McGhee also does very well in his supporting role, even performing one of his own songs in the film. Although little more than an extended cameo, Robert De Niro appears to relish his role as the debonair stranger, imbuing his character with just the right amount of mystery and menace, particularly in the scene where he suggestively peels off the shell of an egg with his long fingernails. But the star of the show is definitely Mickey Rourke, who gives one of his best ever performances, portraying the grubby detective with an appropriate blend of sleazy charm and dark unpredictability, and his final scenes are both moving and a sad reminder of what an exceptional actor he once was before his career went off the rails. Gerry Hambling’s clever editing gets the pace of the movie just right, and Trevor Jones’s excellent score (with sax solos by Courtney Pine) perfectly captures both the period setting and the spine-chilling ambience of the story. For all its flaws then, director Alan Parker is to be congratulated for trying to make something different - a cleverly directed, intricate and stylish film noir horror with a sly sense of humour and some gripping performances that should keep you entertained for a couple of hours.
Let me get the good news out of the way first. Presented in an anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer, the image itself is very clear, with excellent colour reproduction, spot-on black levels and reasonable shadow detail. The print used appears to be in excellent shape with almost no white specks, dirt or print damage apparent. Grain is also minimal, however, there is an encoding problem that causes some scenes to exhibit a shimmering effect, creating colour shifting and jittering within the frame. This is particularly evident in the opening credits and near the end of the film. Some viewers complain that the film is made unwatchable because of this error while others don’t even notice the problem unless forewarned. I must say that I personally fall into the latter category and my enjoyment of the film was not spoiled in any way but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Presented in Dolby 2.0 surround (in four different languages), the soundtrack is very well balanced, the dialogue coming through crystal clear, while the music and sound effects (screeches, heartbeats, whispers, etc.), so important to the overall feel of the movie, are punchy and effective, providing a reasonably enveloping aural experience.
First of all, let me begin by saying that the animated menus on the disc are absolutely terrific, employing appropriately moody (black & white) images and sounds from the film. This is one of Momentum’s ‘Director’s Chair’ releases and they have come up with some good extras to accompany the DVD. Let’s start with the lesser stuff first. Aside from the theatrical trailer (presented in fullscreen), the disc contains a couple of Making Of- featurettes (entitled “The reality of voodoo”, “Creating the look” and “Choreographing a voodoo ritual”), an interview with Alan Parker, ‘star info’ on Rourke, Bonet and Parker, and a laughably brief ‘Behind the scenes’ featurette – all of which are basically EPK-based fluff, not bad but, with none of them exceeding a running time of 5 minutes, ridiculously short. There is also a photo gallery consisting of 22 photos.
Much better is the audio commentary provide by Alan Parker who proves to be very informative about the entire production, offering anecdotes about the actors (for example, his difficulty in getting De Niro to commit to the project as well as the star’s legendary meticulousness), the problems the director experienced during shooting, his use of symbolism in the film (the image of the fan, for example, is used in much the same way oranges are used in the Godfather trilogy, i.e. as a bad omen, or, in Parker’s words, as a “portent of death”), the changes he made in adapting the novel for the screen, the censorship trouble he had in America over the notorious sex scene (incidentally, shown in its uncut form on this disc) and so on. Although there are frequent pauses in the commentary, it is still a good feature that holds the interest.
Best of all though is the fantastic limited edition 64 page production diary ‘Angel Heart – Beat by Beat’ (written by Parker) which details the day-to-day filming of the movie and offers an excellent insight into the hard work involved in bringing such a project to fruition. A fascinating read.
Angel Heart is a good film on a good disc and, although some might be put off by the encoding flaw in the transfer, I would still recommend the DVD to anyone with a taste for spooky detective stories with a nasty sting in their tail.