ANGEL HEART -Alan Parker's Heart of Darkness
Forgotten Gems from Great Directors
To put it simply, Alan Parker’s 1987 neo-noir Angel Heart is the coolest movie you’ve never
heard of. It’s a bizarre fact that in our modern society’s obsession with genre hybrids and
Angel Heart remains looked over. Yet, it seems its fingerprints are all over the defining narrative works of today (more on that later). The film follows New York private
detective Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) who descends into a Faustian labyrinth of murders and mystery when hired by the enigmatic Louis Cyper (Robert De Niro) to find a missing man. For lovers of film-noir and mystery, I cannot overstate the cinematic catnip Parker provides us with.
When William Hjortsberg’s novel Falling Angel came out in 1978, it was optioned by Paramount with the great John Frankenheimer initially attached to direct.
Early names kicked around for the titular role included Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford yet, even with such stars in the mix, the project had trouble getting off the ground. The persistent complaint from producers was that it needed to have a happy ending; Hjortsberg refused. In 1985, the film received financing independently. It was then that Alan Parker was brought on board and given creative control.
Parker constructs an enrapturing world, one which simultaneously harkens back to the visual language of film-noir and also reinvents it. The long shadows, desolate alleys and flophouses are all present but without cliched modern black-and-white to communicate its genre. Parker
immerses the audience in noir through feeling. 1950s New York City, a grimy and worn
detective, the poverty-sickened swamps of Louisiana.
The difference between a good neo-noir and a bad one is the story — it sounds obvious but it really isn’t. Some directors think if they slap a black-and-white filter on and throw in a femme-fatale, they’ve made a noir. The thing is though, film noir is defined by the psychological. Paranoia, fear, uncertainty. Parker understands this and builds Angel Heart as a noir out from the internal, not just the superficial.
It also helps that the story is a unique approach to the genre. “"The original attraction was the
fusion of two genres—the detective film and the supernatural,” Parker states. While it’s difficult to disclose too much about how these genres intertwine without giving the magic away, on a stylistic level (and it’s a thrilling style to watch), cinematographer Michael Seresin uses naturalappearing light to drive this hybrid home. Through slanted blinds, beams of white daylight burst through and give the world an almost ethereal quality to it. The editing by Gerry Hambling is disorienting but never confusing; the viewer is aware of what is happening but is being lead down a labyrinth where they don’t entirely understand why it’s happening.
Parker returns omnipotently to repeating flashes of the same images. What is he telling us, we wonder? We’re always grounded in Angel’s perspective and, as we come to discover, that’s not always the best place to be. Rourke is certainly unrecognizable from his appearance today. It’s almost surreal to see him as a (relatively) well-dressed, youthful P.I. His character of Angel, like any good noir protagonist, is tortured and Rourke turns a performance that demonstrates this. As he travels deeper into the labyrinth, his psychological descent is one you can’t look away from. Apart from Hoffman and
Redford, Parker also considered De Niro and Jack Nicholson for the main role. Both declined
but De Niro was attracted to the cameo role of Louis Cyphre. In just a few scenes and a couple of lines of dialogue, De Niro asserts himself as a slimy, sinister figure in ways only an actor of his caliber could. If there was a femme-fatale, it could possibly be Epiphany Proudfoot, played by The Cosby Show’s then-star Lisa Bonet. After the film came out, Cosby (ironically) was outraged by the explicitness of her role despite encouraging her to take the part initially.
When the film finally was released in 1987 it did lackluster business, grossing only 17 million on an 18 million budget. Nonetheless, the ripple effects of its style and disconcerting narrative can
be seen today. Coincidentally, my two writing heroes both cite Angel Heart as influential on their work. Christopher Nolan states the film’s narrative structure and editing techniques were instrumental in his making of Memento. Creative director and writer Ken Levine notes it as being an inspirational source for his critically acclaimed game, BioShock Infinite.
I’ve only recently discovered Angel Heart but what I found funny is that, through osmosis, I felt I’d known it forever. In high school, I wrote a play highly inspired by (and ripping off) the two aforementioned writers: A pair of detectives hunting for a missing person only to find
themselves caught in something bordering on the supernatural. I couldn’t help but imagine if
I’d caught Angel Heart in high school, Parker’s seminally underrated and entertaining work just might’ve been my favorite movie.