Angel Heart (DVD)

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Angel Heart (DVD)

In Alan Parker's ANGEL HEART, based on the novel FALLING ANGEL by William Hjortsberg, a New York City gumshoe is hired to find an aging blues singer. ...

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Review of "Angel Heart (DVD)"

published 14/08/2013 | GenerallyInterested
Member since : 15/07/2013
Reviews : 223
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About me :
Still snoozing.
Pro Atmospheric mystery with a great performance from pre-punchy Mickey Rourke
Cons Some may dislike some of the content: read to find out
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"Better the devil you know..."

Angel Heart (Blu-ray)

Angel Heart (Blu-ray)

Early admittance

I’ve got to admit I’ve always felt that you’re not supposed to like Angel Heart. It’s like a cinematic pariah that you’re meant to treat with disdain. Maybe this is because it can feel like it’s a little bit grubby round the edges at times though it’s really not; maybe it’s because it’s slightly notorious for the fact that Lisa Bonet segued from the good natured The Cosby Show into a role that affords her opportunity for getting her kit off and generally speaking is pretty morally grey. (Like a prototypical Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls.)

I’ve suspected really it’s because before his Hollywood comeback where he seems much loved, Mickey Rourke was considered (I have to use the term but I will anyway in lieu of a better one) a bad boy and certainly he held acting in disdain himself, thinking it not macho enough thus leaving it behind to become a boxer.

Either way I’ve always thought Angel Heart a superb film.

Unlike a punchy boxer can you please be cogent in giving us the plot (sorry that was terrible, wasn’t it)

Yes. But anyway: America, 1950s…

Private Detective, Harry Angel (Rourke) is hired by the enigmatic Mr Cyphre (Robert deNiro) to find Johnny Favourite, an amnesiac pre-World War II crooner. His search takes him from New York to New Orleans on the trail of voodoo as we find Favourite’s life was filled with more than just music…

OK that’s pretty concise but I suspect with reason

Yes, Angel Heart is a tough film to review without tossing spoilers out left, right and centre so I’m likely going to leave some considerable gaps and there may even be a few major characters that we barely tough upon.

That’s fair. So let’s start with Rourke as most private eye movies are told solely from the detective’s point of view

Angel Heart is no exception. If anything in Angel Heart it’s essential that the movie is told from Angel’s perspective because the mystery that sits behind his search for Johnny Favourite is often so close to him that if seen from a more objective perspective the truth behind it would be immediately obvious and the film would be meaningless for more reasons than I could state here without, again, making too much utterly clear. This also means that Rourke must provide a compelling performance or else the film would fall to pieces. For those de Niro fans out there (of which I am resolutely not one) his role is more cameo than anything else, so it’s not as if he could prop up the film. So does Rourke deliver? In my opinion: absolutely. Like Bogart, Rourke tends to play himself but I don’t see this as a problem as he is charismatic and has genuine screen presence. His shoulders are broad enough to carry a film and Angel Heart in particular. Plus he’s utterly believable as Harry Angel, Angel being smooth, masculine but with an edge of violence about him. Again, this is important as the violence in the movie generally appears in two forms, some of which has come in for criticism. The first kind is the actual physical violence that’s seen on screen, such as in New York where Angel is attacked in a church. It feels brutal but natural. It’s not nice cosmetic throwing punches and people going: oomph that hurt. As Rourke is thrown across the floor, smashing into chairs it looks like it hurts and the violence exuded by his attackers feels genuinely dangerous. You understand how Angel, though not likely to be outright murdered, is at risk of the kind of attack that would leave you hospitalised. The rawness of the violence fits the film because director Alan Parker pitches the film – in New York certainly – at a murky level. (In New Orleans the weather tends towards clouds, rain and even when sunny it’s definitely morally murky.) The inside of shops, hotel rooms and Angel’s office all feel used, aged and this is something Parker was intentionally looking to do. Unlike watching a film like LA Confidential, where everyone drives shiny new cars and tends to live in freshly painted and built houses, Parker recognised that most people live in older houses so it makes sense that they need painting and dust and grime have built up. Most people drive cars that are out of date by years. The objects and locations within the narrative of the film should not be contemporaneous to the actual year in which the film is set. So again, it provides a level of authenticity and a genuine sense that where Angel is living and travelling too exists in and of itself, not as a nice shiny film set. Further authenticity is provided by the casting of musicians such as Brownie McGee, as an ex-band-mate of Johnny Favourite, so that when Angel goes to pump him for information, he finds McGee playing on stage and of course this feels real to New Orleans and real to the ear looking to hear good music. The second level of violence is where Angel finds certain victims after death. Numerous characters are killed – even if we don’t see it happen – in rather gruesome ways and it was for this that the film got some stick but actually, it’s meaningful in the sense of the narrative and when the mystery of Johnny Favourite becomes apparent you understand why it’s quite so gruesome and so necessary to the film.

One of Angel Heart’s real victories is in the atmosphere that Parker is able to generate. It can feel an almost oppressive movie. In part this is due to the relative darkness of the images, the often muted colours that we’re presented with. Sometimes this is due to how Parker can tend to shoot scenes so that the camera is quite close to the characters and action; we sometimes have wider long shots such as Angel’s car travelling a lone highway to the hospital where Johnny Favourite was hospitalised after the war or as we see Charlotte Rampling alight the tram in New Orleans as Angel follows her. But often we’re presented to close up images, frequently of Rourke. There’s good use of sound and cutting frequently too. In New Orleans Parker shows us children tap dancing on the street and after the initial set-up he shoots close to their feet, which fill the screen, their rapid tapping intercut with Angel’s investigation. As it cuts between the two, quicker and quicker, the rapid drum beat of the toe tapping and Angel’s horror at what he’s witnessing (I’ll not say what!) have both the effect of drawing you into the horror and a sense that the city and what Angel is beginning to discover in New Orleans voodoo-wise is all interconnected at some deeper level, whether this is on a harmless buy some High John the Conqueror root and maybe it’ll do something for or sacrificing chickens. (There’s a running joke about Angel having a thing about chickens.) It also reinforces the fact that sitting under everything there is something far more threatening in the world of Harry Angel. Charlotte Rampling’s Marageret Krusemark, former flame of Johnny Favourite is both a part time mystic – she had a palmistry tent at Coney Island – but also dabbles in things far less pleasant. This is true for almost everything. The church in New York where we see a Pastor screaming his faith he hides his greed in plain sight by openly accepting criticism and saying if the congregation truly love god then they should give him more. Johnny Favourite’s aging ex-doctor is a morphine addict. It’s as if no one Angel approaches has managed to escape either the harsher realities of life or succumbed to some form of moral inversion. Angel is similar in that he’s reasonably amoral and quite willing to manipulate those around him even if there’s less malice behind him.

OK, so you’ve said you feel Rourke gives an excellent performance as Harry Angel, what about Rampling and the notorious Ms Bonet

Charlotte Rampling has a small but important role, of which I shall not go deeper into but even though her scenes are few, she brings true authority to her role. Her Margaret Krusemark being of the more old world New Orleans – her maid speaks French – Rampling’s fluency in French adds authenticity and provides a glimpse of the richer end of New Orleans society. It’s hard to say exactly what Rampling brings to the movie but there is something there. Perhaps it’s because outside Rourke and de Niro in his cameo there’s few recognisable faces and in Rampling taking the role of Margaret she provides familiarity for the audience but it’s more than that. Margaret is a key character and one we hear about numerous times long before we ever meet her in the film and so the audience’s expectation of her importance is emphasised by having Rampling’s screen gravitas before us when we do meet her.

Bonet on the other hand comes with different baggage to Rampling’s star quality: the need to shrug off the innocence of The Cosby Show. Her performance to my mind is neither good nor bad. She brings an earthiness to her performance that is in keeping with her character. Pregnant at a young age: she’s still practically a kid in the film, involved in questionable religious activities, and living in a poor area of mainly shacks. It’s noticeable that she doesn’t live in New Orleans proper, where even if there is clearly racial segregation, the level of poverty is less apparent and there is at least some colour to the world. Bonet’s Epiphany Proudfoot lives amongst dust and communal washing and drab greys. This is another world and one in which what in New York would be normal values do not apply. She’s sexually knowing and Bonet projects this well. Whether or not it’s comfortable for the audience is another matter. You get a sense – a little bit like Gillian Anderson in the awful Straightheads – that Bonet is trying a bit too hard to shed the skin of a character with which she is all too clearly identified. But then subtlety is arguably not a vice that Angel Heart possesses. Between the atmosphere, the performances, the visual style, it’s not meant to be a philosophical movie, it’s more visceral. Angel Heart is a film that you should feel in your gut, though this is not to suggest that it is stupid film. Not a bit of it. It’s very cleverly made and is often superbly performed but it is one that it pitched at emotional reaction and response, whether this is to the rawness of some of the violence or the earthiness (and sometimes sensitivity) of Angel’s relationship with Epiphany.

OK, so any final thoughts on the film?

I’d suggest Angel Heart is a film that should be watched either at night or on a distinctly dark and overcast day. It’s a pure mood piece and though sometimes that mood might contain a little grubbiness (and life does contain some grubbiness, let’s face it – even if that is perpetrated by others) it’s mostly one that’s compulsive. People I’ve expected to like Angel Heart haven’t and I tend to find it’s a bit of a love / hate thing, few sitting on the fence in terms of whether they like it or not. I think that’s a good thing as there’s nothing quite as bad as something that’s not so bad. In many ways I’d rather turn a film off in boredom or disgust than come away from it thinking: that was OK.

I do think there’s an awful lot to recommend Angel Heart. Parker’s care in constructing the film and how he populates each frame. Parker felt that Rourke and de Niro played off one another in such a way that Rourke forced himself to put in the best possible performance he could and I think he succeeds. But then Harry Angel seems a perfect fit for Rourke and you have to think that it’s far and away his best performance. Despite my dislike of de Niro I do feel the scenes which he shares with Rourke are excellent, de Niro avoiding his usual self-important performance for something more restrained. The story may on one level be pure pulp but the world into which Parker drops you is always believable and, as I’ve said, feels real.

So should you watch it? It depends on taste. The violence has something of a rawness to it even if it’s not always overly bloody. There’s a certain amount of sexual content including a rather notorious scene towards the end that’s perhaps the most sexually melodramatic scene I’ve ever seen (I really don’t know how else to describe it!), which may put some people off but at its raw and beating heart Angel Heart is a mystery and a thriller and really a very good one. Might you guess the what and the why and the how? Yes you may but even if you do the style and atmosphere of the film is more than enough to keep you watching, just as it does if and when you re-watch it.

Thankfully Angel Heart is one of those Blu-rays that you seem to be able to pick up reasonably frequently quite cheaply – I think I got it for 4 quid in Fopp. It’s got a decent transfer, which is good as the old DVD transfer though hardly atrocious was a bit iffy at times. There’s no extras on the disk so total no-frills. But like I always say: I’m there for the film, everything else is window dressing.

(Apologies for the naff images, bizarre how difficult it is to find good ones!)

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Comments on this review

  • wazza115 published 04/04/2015
  • CelticSoulSister published 15/01/2014
    I definitely like the sound of this.
  • SoadFan published 14/08/2013
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Product Information : Angel Heart (DVD)

Manufacturer's product description

In Alan Parker's ANGEL HEART, based on the novel FALLING ANGEL by William Hjortsberg, a New York City gumshoe is hired to find an aging blues singer. Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) follows clues from the ominous ghettos of Harlem to the witchy backwoods of Louisiana, where he takes up with Epiphany Proudfoot (Lisa Bonet), the beautiful young daughter of a voodoo priestess, whom he believes will be able to shed light on the growing mystery surrounding the missing musician. As Angel closes in on the truth of the case, his contacts start turning up dead. He begins to suspect he might be next.<BR>Parker (MISSISSIPPI BURNING) threads a commentary on the limitations of modern Western society into his sensual, suspenseful thriller. As the story unfolds, Angel relies less and less on his failing, overwhelmed rational mind (and handgun) and more on Epiphany's ancient mojo. Rourke captures the unraveling protagonist perfectly, and Bonet adds an erotic and mysterious edge with her performance. Robert De Niro is both funny and malevolent as Angel's mysterious client, Louis Cyphre. Shimmering with a beguiling mist of the macabre, ANGEL HEART provides an unexpectedly haunting dose of gothic noir.


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