Friday, March 10, 2017

Angel Heart (1987) Neo Noir Masterpiece

"There's just enough religion in the world to make them hate one another but not enough to make them love." 

It's been a good half dozen years since I last screened Angel Heart and I was amazed at how incredibly rich the cinematography was and sumptuous the set decoration. The film is striking in how well it recreates in a Classic Film Noir like milieu both Manhattan and New Orleans circa 1955.

Directed brilliantly by Alan Parker (Midnight Express (1978), Mississippi Burning (1988)), the screenplay was written by Alan Parker and was based on William Hjortsberg's novel of the same name. The striking cinematography was by Michael Seresin (Come See the Paradise (1990)). The Production Design was by
Brian Morris (Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982)). The Art Direction was by Armin Ganz and Kristi Zea Goodfellas (1990), The Silence of the Lambs (1991)). The set  decoration was by Robert J. Franco (Night and the City (1992)) and Leslie A. Pope (After Hours (1985), Matewan (1987), Ironweed (1987), Catch Me If You Can (2002)). The excellent film score for Angel Heart was produced and composed by South African composer Trevor Jones (Sea of Love (1989), Dark City (1998)), with saxophone solos by British jazz musician Courtney Pine. The soundtrack also features several great blues and R&B performances, including "Honeyman Blues" by Bessie Smith, and "Soul on Fire" by LaVern Baker. Brownie McGhee performed the songs "The Right Key, but the Wrong Keyhole" and "Rainy Rainy Day". Also featured is Dr. John's Zu Zu Mamou' The sound editing was by Eddy Joseph.

The film stars Mickey Rourke (Body Heat (1981), Diner (1982), Barfly (1987), White Sands (1992), Sin City (2005), Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)) as Harry Angel, Robert De Niro (The Godfather: Part II (1974), Taxi Driver (1976), Once Upon a Time in America (1984), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), Cop Land (1997), Jackie Brown (1997), ) as Louis Cyphre,
Lisa Bonet as Epiphany Proudfoot, Charlotte Rampling (The Night Porter (1974), Farewell, My Lovely (1975), The Verdict (1982)) as Margaret Krusemark, Stocker Fontelieu (Obsession (1976), Pretty Baby (1978), ) as Ethan Krusemark, Brownie McGhee (A Face in the Crowd (1957)) as Toots Sweet, Michael Higgins (Terror in the City (1964), Wanda (1970)) as Dr. Albert Fowler, Elizabeth Whitcraft (Goodfellas (1990)) as Connie, Charles Gordone as Spider Simpson and Dann Florek as Herman Winesap.

Harold Angel,(Rourke) PI

Angel Heart is essentially a PI flick, but this PI has one foot in reality and one foot in the supernatural. It's all right there up front for the audience. An attorney, Herman Winesap (Florek) calls a Second Avenue based private detective Harold R. Angel (Rourke) on a missing persons case. Winesap's client is Louis Cypher (De Niro), otherwise known as Lucifer, Mephistopheles, Beelzebub, Satan, Old Scratch,The Devil. Angel goes to the address of a Black pentecostal church up in Harlem to meet them and hear the details of the case.

Angel and Winesap (Florek)

Louis Cypher (DeNiro)
John Liebling was a crooner at the beginning of his career. Liebling was deep into VooDoo witchcraft with his fortune teller gal pal Margaret Krusemark. It was Liebling and Krusemark who summoned up Cypher. Cypher offered a contract, it's the usual "deal with the Devil", I give you fame and fortune you, quid pro quo, give me your soul. Liebling agrees, changes his name to Johnny Favorite, cuts a few grooves, and breaks into the big time with a few hit records.

Pearl Harbor gets bombed, Johnny gets drafted, gets sent on a USO tour and gets wounded. He's shell shocked, has amnesia, and he's facially wounded enough to have to have had reconstructive surgery. He's supposed to be living in a sanitarium up in Poughkeepsie. However, when Cypher and Winesap are in the vicinity they go to check on Liebling and find out that he's not there. Cypher offers Angel $5,000 dollars to find Liebling/Favorite.

Even though we all know about Cypher (during their meeting though, all of the above is represented as a straight business contract nothing is mentioned about Liebling's soul), Angel, who keeps announcing that he's "from Brooklyn" has got to be one of the dumbest Brooklyn PI's to ever walk the planet. It's either that or like your typical New Yorker he's just gonna think that Cypher is just one eccentric nut job in a city full of them, and he's not gonna believe what all his intuitions are telling him.

Poughkeepsie bound

Angel drives up to Poughkeepsie and does some sleuthing. Chatting up a nurse who shows some attraction to him, he gets her to show him Liebling's file. He was released in 1943, a backdated transfer record has recently been added by a physician named Albert Fowler, (eagle eye Angel notices the discrepancy because it was signed with a ballpoint pen).

Health Service agent

Fowler's House


Fowler (Higgins) looking for a fix

The Stash
Angel looks up Fowler in the phone book, drives to his house, breaks in, and does a toss. In the refrigerator he sees a shelf stocked with morphine, the doc is a junkie. When Fowler returns Angel braces him about Liebling. Fowler tells him Liebling was released to a man and his daughter with the last name of Kelly and that they were going to take him back home down South. He tells him that he can go cold turkey for a while until his memory gets better. We see Angel drag Fowler up to a bedroom and lock him in.

"The sooner you come out with it the sooner you can shoot yourself to Palookaville."

At the click of the key lock the screen goes dark, then we see the shadow of a slowly turning fan, the fan slowly stops and then begins to turn in the opposite direction. This visual "fan" trope is repeated again and again in various forms during the course of the film. Another visual trope is various dark shadowy corridors where gates slide open or shafts with descending elevators that cascade light upon dark walls. Still another is of a woman shrouded all in black.

Angel is hanging out in a diner, an ashtray at his side is filled with butts he's been there a few hours. When Angel goes back to Fowler's he grabs a ampule of morphine and runs upstairs to the bedroom. Upon unlocking the door Angel finds Fowler with his brains blown out.

Angel reports back to Cypher, he tells him what Fowler confessed to and that later Fowler killed himself. Angel indicates to Cypher that he wants no part of death and is done with the investigation. Cypher counters that he will pay someone else five G's to find him.  Angel is from Brooklyn and five G's is five G's, he accepts the case.

From Angel's journalist gal pal Connie, he gets the lead that Johnny Liebling/Favorite's old bandleader Spider Simpson ( Gordone) is up in an old folks home in Harlem.

Connie ( Whitcraft ) and Angel

From Spider he gets two names Toots Sweet (McGhee) a blues guitar player who went back to New Orleans, and a fortune teller in Coney Island named Madam Zora who was Johnny's girlfriend. A trip to Coney Island discovers that Madam Zora was in reality Margaret Krusemark (Rampling) a wealthy Louisiana socialite.

Coney Island

"I bite the heads off rats."

After again reporting to Cypher Angel heads South on the Southern Crescent arriving in New Orleans and Noirsville.


The Southern Crescent 


corridors and passageways

Margaret Krusemark (Rampling)

Epiphany Proudfoot,(Bonet) 

Toots Sweet (McGhee)

"I'm an atheist, I'm from Brooklyn."

At every new meeting with Cypher, Angel fails to notice that his nails are growing longer and more pointed

Harold Angel plays it throughout like your classic wise cracking hard boiled detective, but unexplained flashbacks and dreams continually haunt him, he's a bit at times on the bewildered side. He's also feeling that a noose is tightening around his neck as he suspects that Johnny Liebling is following him around, murdering his contacts, and leaving clues framing him to the police authorities.

*If you've never seen this film it's best to stop reading here, spoilers ahead.*

It's not revealed until the end that Cypher, deviously, has all along been having Angel search for himself. Glen Gray's 1937 song "Girl of My Dreams" is a recurring song performed by the unseen character Johnny Favorite and it becomes a haunting leitmotif for Harold/Johnny.

The trope of the shadowy corridors are passages to the memories of his past before the possession of his identity and soul by Johnny Liebling. These hallways and mazes are revealed as slowly reopening.

When Angel finally confronts Kelly/Krusemark in a bayou gumbo hut he admits that he and Margaret were the ones who helped Favorite leave the hospital. He also explains that before all this happened Liebling/Favorite was a high priest, a VooDoo magician who sold his soul to Satan in exchange for stardom. Liebling, though, thought he could beat the Devil. He had discovered an ancient rite where he could hide his identity from Satan. In 1943 Liebling and the Krusemarks kidnapped a young soldier and performed the satanic ritual in a Times Square Hotel, slicing him open and devouring his still beating heart. Liebling/Favorite was next supposed to drop out of sight and the resurface as Harold Angel the soldier he murdered. Liebling though was then himself drafted, gets a head injury, and sent home and eventually up to Poughkeepsie as a head case.  Hoping to jump start Liebling's memory the Krusemarks hijacked Johnny back to Times Square where they loose him in the New Years Eve crowd. Instead of resurfacing as Johnny in possession of Harold Angel's body and soul, it's Harold who emerges in somewhat control Johnny's body but with a new face.

The other two visual tropes, the shrouded woman that Harold/Johnny tries to approach is probably meant to symbolize FATE. The shots of revolving fans that slowly stop and then revolve in the opposite direction symbolizes Satan rewinding Harold/Johnny's actions. Where Harold thought he was just interrogated his leads, Johnny under the influence of Satan's guiding hand was murdering them, covering his tracks and indeed framing Harold. This rewinding is echoed by Harold, when he is making his tape recorder report to Cypher, he rewinds and records over his statements to change/withhold some information.

Supernatural and fantasy based Noir have been around since the beginning. During the Classic Film Noir Era films like Alias Nick Beal (1949), Repeat Performance (1947), The Amazing Mr. X (1948), Fear in the Night (1947), The Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948), Nightmare (1956), covered roughly the same territory, there are probably a few more. You can possibly even include It's a Wonderful Life (1946) for the Noir-ish sequence and Val Lewton's The Seventh Victim (1943). David Lynch's Lost Highway (1997) practically covers the same type of territory but without the Judeo-Christian iconography.

Mickey Rourke's performance is both intense and mesmerizing. It's Mickey's movie all the way, he won a Jupiter Award for Best International Actor for this performance and for A Prayer for the Dying (1987). Robert DeNiro's Cypher is both humorously playful and seriously foreboding. Lisa Bonet torches the screen and her child star roots with her sensual portrayal as Epiphany Proudfoot. Charlotte Rampling, and the rest of the talented cast are all excellent.

Kudo's to production designer Brian Morris and the set decorating team who did an exemplary job recreating both New York and New Orleans dressing and cladding every single storefront and draining all primary colors within sight of the camera to get the films distinctive monochromatic look. It's a Noir visual treat. Screencaps are from the Artisan DVD. 10/10

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