REVIEW: Angel Heart (1987)

angelheart_posterThere are plot revelations during Angel Heart (1997) that bear some discussion, but of course will reveal things best experienced the first time by watching the actual film. If you have never seen the film before, note that next two paragraphs are essentially spoiler-free. Beyond that, caveat emptor.

1955. Private detective Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) is hired to track down Johnny Favourite, a popular 1940s singer who suffered a breakdown during World War II before vanishing from a mental institution. His investigation leads him from New York’s Harlem to New Orleans, and a unsettling trail of dead witnesses.

Angel Heart, written and directed by Alan Parker from a William Hjørtsberg novel, is a deliberately paced and wonderfully atmospheric detective thriller. It captures star Mickey Rourke in his early career prime, oozing charisma and playing Harry Angel with a remarkably light and casual touch. Co-star Robert De Niro stands out as Angel’s mysterious client Mr Cyphre, who only appears in the film for a few brief conversations but has an enormous presence when on-screen. The production values are excellent, with Parker delivering a nostalgic but subtly insidious depiction of mid-20th century America, including both the ongoing after-effects of the Second World War as well as the festering racism that overshadows its society. For viewers seeking a strong period thriller that dances with the traditions of an old-school film noir, Angel Heart – recently remastered by current owner StudioCanal – remains a worthy and entertaining watch.

For those who have already seen it, the strongest element remains its clever and careful shift from detective noir to straight-up horror. Parker takes his time with the transition: an occult reference here, a creepy death there. By the time the genre change is noticeable, the audience is already hooked into the mystery and absorbed in Angel’s story. There is a beautiful use of voodoo at the film’s midpoint, centred around female lead Lisa Bonet. Her presence seemed jarring at the time, given her prominent role in popular sitcom The Cosby Show. With the benefit of time her performances works much better;  she can be more easily separated from her television character.

In all honesty it is not simply Bonet’s performance that has aged well. The entire film feels better positioned today. The sublime genre change has been repeated elsewhere in other films, making it feel easier to digest. Parker’s occasionally abrupt changes of scene, cutting in and out sooner than seemed normal, now feels par for the course for an accelerated screen culture. The period setting and pronounced style feel more comparable to a 21st century landscape of prestige and event television than the environment in which it originally released (1987’s highest-grossing films including Three Men and a Baby, Fatal Attraction, and Beverly Hills Cop II).

Angel Heart is a stylish, arresting, and beautifully sculpted thriller. It juggles an impressive range of interlocked ideas – the occult, voodoo, jazz music, war, racism – and uses them to construct a thoroughly impressive and original feature. At the time it received middling box office and mixed reviews. More than 30 years later, it is owed a re-evaluation.

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