Classics Revisited: “Angel Heart”

Angel Heart is a movie that seems to be well remembered, and yet falls under the radar when it comes to 80s pop culture nostalgia. Perhaps it’s because of what it’s most remembered for–a graphic, bloody sex scene between the movie’s star, Mickey Rourke (back when his face didn’t look like it had been reshaped in clay by a distracted four year-old) and a teenage Lisa Bonet, previously known to audiences only as the wholesome second oldest daughter on America’s most popular sitcom, The Cosby Show. Several seconds of the scene had to be cut to get the movie an R rating, and, reportedly, Bill Cosby’s displeasure at Bonet’s appearance in it, followed by an unrelated nude photo shoot, led to her eventual firing from the show. A whole separate thinkpiece could be written about the irony of that, but let’s move on, shall we?

ANYWAY, Angel Heart. Mickey Rourke stars as Harry Angel, a lowlife Brooklyn private eye hired by the mysterious Louis Cyphre (Robert DeNiro) to track down Johnny Favorite, a singer who disappeared more than a decade earlier, after World War II left him badly scarred and suffering from shell shock. It seems that Favorite has ducked out of a contract with Cyphre, and Cyphre is willing to pay Angel a considerable amount of money to find him. What should be a relatively easy job, considering Favorite is supposed to be incapacitated, turns out to be rather a bit more complicated, as illustrated when every person Angel talks to about him winds up murdered in a variety of gruesome manners, including getting shot in the eye, having their heart cut out, being drowned in a vat of boiling gumbo, and, just for the hell of it, choking on their own severed penis.

The case takes Angel from New York City to New Orleans, where he meets Epiphany Proudfoot (Lisa Bonet), a 17 year-old voodoo priestess who all but turns Angel into a wolf from a Tex Avery cartoon. He also meets Margaret Krusemark (Charlotte Rampling), a socialite turned occultist who is a former flame of Johnny Favorite, and her wealthy father, who has a vested interest in Angel getting out of town as soon as possible. Already troubled by dreams in which he rides down an endless freight elevator, as well as what seem like flashbacks of blood splattered rooms and events he can’t recall, Angel finds looking for Favorite to be an increasingly unsettling experience, especially once he realizes just how close he might really be…

Since it’s ridiculous to avoid spoilers in a review of a nearly 30 year-old movie, I’ll go ahead and say that eventually we learn that Harry himself is Johnny Favorite, the man he’s been hired to find, and that the contract he had with “Louis Cyphre” (get it, get it?), is, of course, one that involved him selling his soul. How this is explained doesn’t really make a lot of sense, involving a lot of black magic mumbo jumbo about eating hearts and conveniently timed amnesia, but it isn’t quite as incomprehensible as I remember from the last time I watched it.

That being said, it is a pretty silly twist, and one that doesn’t hold up well under scrutiny, particularly in terms of how certain secondary characters play into it. Also, Cyphre’s motivations remain a bit unclear, except perhaps that the Devil doesn’t like getting his own hands dirty (a possibility when one takes his sharply manicured fingernails under consideration). The women in Angel Heart, what few of them there are, serve little purpose other than to act as sexual partners, murder victims, or both, in Epiphany’s case. Her character is particularly, if you’ll forgive the Tumblr-friendly term, problematic, serving as barely legal, often topless eye candy, and the climactic reveal of who she actually is in relation to Angel just adds a little extra, wholly unnecessary grime to a movie that’s already well stocked in griminess.

Speaking of climaxes, I suppose I should talk about that infamous sex scene. I will say that, in its defense, a lot of 80s and 90s movies, particularly thrillers, had scenes where the male protagonist made violent love to his leading lady, as a cheap, easy way to illustrate that he was battling some personal demons. The requisite moment in Angel Heart involving gallons and gallons of blood is the only thing that really makes it stand out. Like all of these kinds of scenes, it’s long, not at all erotic, and mostly unnecessary. It’s quite apparent already that Harry Angel is, at best, a troubled antihero, there’s no need to show him lovelessly hammering away at someone in a scene that resembles what women fear period sex looks like.

Criticisms aside, Angel Heart, while not being particularly scary, maintains great, unnerving atmosphere from beginning to end. There’s a sense of decay and corruption (in the Biblical sense) everywhere Angel goes, and the deeper he finds himself involved in the mystery of Johnny Favorite, the more he looks like he might be rotting from the inside out as well. Particularly gripping is the sense of inevitable doom: whoever Johnny Favorite turned out to be, Angel was not likely to ever be able to return to his mundane, deadbeat detective world.

Mickey Rourke gives his usual 80s Method actor performance (rumor has it he sold his actual soul to Satan in preparation for the role), but the movie is completely owned by Robert DeNiro. All icy, smirking calm to Rourke’s sweaty, jittery tenseness, he manages to be menacing even while just peeling and eating a hard boiled egg. To compare this performance to what DeNiro’s done in recent years, with your various incarnations of Fockers and dirty grandpas, is to wonder if perhaps it’s payback for his own deal with the Devil.

Angel Heart is currently available on Netflix


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