Looking Back at Angel Heart

There are only so many Satanic Detective Movies. But Angel Heart is a pretty special one in this cult-y genre about cults.

I saw Angel Heart three times on the big screen when it was released back in 1987. The pre-M. Night Shyamalan twist felt vaguely familiar. I knew those streets. I bought the book and recognized the ghost 18th Street subway station where masses turned black. Angel Heart made a major impact on the entertainment section of the papers when it first came out, because of its cinematic deflowering of Cosby kid Lisa Bonet in a scene that had to be shaved like a stripper’s bush to get the picture an R, rather than an X, rating. The movie shocked some sensibilities who thought its sex and violence went too far. The controversy overshadowed the film, a stylishly subtle study in satanic noir in the time of Freddy.

It grew dark outside by degrees as I fingered, in my head, the parties responsible for this diabolical detective working. Angel Heart was directed by Alan Parker, sorry, Sir Alan Parker, of Fame fame. He’d directed Midnight Express and the stylistically divergent musicals Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Bugsy Malone. He’d go on to direct Evita and The Commitments. In 1987, he was looking for a musical identity for a film that fused together the styles of detective novels and supernatural thrillers. Parker had expanded the movie to include New Orleans, even though the book never leaves New York and had to fuse the rhythms of the two cities. Parker copped more than a riff off Ken Russell by using Pink Floyd and had already used

Giorgio Moroder and Peter Gabriel as composers. Parker recruited Trevor Jones to do the music for Angel Heart because he liked his score for Andrei Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train in 1985. Jones wove the haunting melody from the old standard “Girl of My Dreams” into the theme music for the film. The bleak sepia tones were the work of cinematographer Michael Seresi. For Angel Heart, Parker kept it real. He kept special effects to a minimum and never resorted to the popular pop-up horror clichés of the time to clue us in to the supernatural realm we were passing through.

To play the shamus, Harry Angel, Parker picked ex-pugilist-turned-actor-turned-boxer Mickey Rourke (27 wins, 17 by knockout and 3 defeats) from a lineup. His mug shot was not yet marred by the botched plastic surgery he’d endure after he returned to the ring (undefeated in eight fights, with six wins, four by knockout and two draws) to atone for the acting departure that he felt had cost him more self-respect than Marquess of Queensberry rules allowed.

Robert De Niro needed more than a little persuasion to do his Martin Scorsese impression as the devilish Louis Cyphre. Charlotte Rampling, probably best known as Georgy Girl‘s best friend Meredith, inhabited Margaret Krusemark, alias Madame Zora, alias the Witch of Wellesley. Lisa Bonet, alias Lilakoi Moon, known to TV audiences as Denise Huxtable, conjured the young voodoo priestess, Epiphany Proudfoot. WWII Bronze Star Medal and Purple Heart recipient Michael Higgins creaked into the role of Dr. Fowler.

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Law and Order’s Dann Florek gave his deposition as the devil’s advocate Herman Winesap with a limp wrist. Blues singer and guitarist Brownie McGhee jammed as Toots Sweet, a satanic guitarist who bit off more than he could chew. Stocker Fontelieu, the New Orleans theater legend and executive director of Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre, played Ethan Krusemark, Margaret’s father. Kathleen Wilhoite, Luke’s sister on The Gilmore Girls, put on horn-rimmed glasses in a small role as a nurse at the home where a VIP MIA was treated. The New York of Rosemary’s Baby, New Orleans and Algiers also play significant roles.

The events in Angel Heart play out in 1955 New York City. The mysteriously Mephistophelian, but well-manicured Louis Cyphre hires Harry Angel, a second-rate private dick from Brooklyn, to find Jonathan Liebling, aka Johnny Favorite, aka Johnny Golden Tonsils, a crooner who skipped out on a contract after coming home from the war a shell-shocked amnesiac.

Angel’s first stop is the Poughkeepsie hospital where Favorite has been vegetating since World War II.  Angel gets the runaround from ball-point-pen-pushing administrators so he pays Dr. Fowler, who’s been signing Favorite’s charts, a house call. Angel finds Fowler’s stash in time to stall his evening fix and questions the junkie doctor until his offending eyes pop out.  But not before finding out that Favorite was shanghaied from the hospital on New Year’s Eve in 1943.  Back in Manhattan, Angel swings up to Harlem and down to Coney Island in the off-season to find out that Favorite was taken from the hospital by a diabolical debutante, Margaret Krusemark, and her rich daddy, Ethan. Cyphre eats an egg.

Angel jets to New Orleans where he gets Margaret to hold his hand long enough to fumble a pass. Her heart wasn’t in it. Posing as a reporter, Angel catches a late-night set by Toots Sweet, a Black blues guitarist who played in a band with Johnny back in the day and shakes maracas and chucks chickens behind the young Voodoo priestess Epiphany Proudfoot at night. Epiphany is the daughter of Evangeline Proudfoot, Favorite’s dark secret lover, who died waiting for him to come back.

A chicken foot telegram alerts Toots that he has a big mouth. Later on that mouth would choke on the part of his body “meant for pissing.” Angel is looking for Ethan Krusemark when he is told to leave New Orleans by some of Ethan’s hillbilly henchmen. Angel gives one of them a historic head-butt greeting. (It’s the first head-butt I remember seeing in film. I could be wrong, that’s why they put rubber on pencils.) After dallying with the delicious daughter of deviltry, Epiphany, in a cheap hotel room that leaks blood and memories, Angel tracks down Ethan Krusemark at the racetrack. Ethan spills that Favorite sold his soul for stardom and tried to skip out on the bill by chowing down on a random soldier’s heart during a dinner-theater ritual. The ghoulish gumshoe lets Ethan stew in his own gumbo while he goes and chases himself.

I am not unfamiliar with certain tenets of dark magick. I always thought Voodoo was a beautiful religion that performed rituals to appease evil spirits instead of encouraging them. Tinseltown tinted its religious racism in shadowy greys, like 1932’s White Zombie, with Bela Lugosi playing the voodoo master, The Ghoul, with Boris Karloff and I Walked With a Zombie. Angel Heart mixes black magic with white guilt and gets a red so deep it could have spurt out of the chicken’s throat that Epiphany cuts.

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The palpably evil Johnny Favorite only mixes races on stage and in bed. When Favorite goes slumming, he descends into the dark areas of dark mysteries like an Otis elevator ride to hell. Parker didn’t shoot the rituals with the sultry lasciviousness he’s been accused of, though. The Voodoo celebration in the woods is a simple expression of faith, no more exploitive than the frenzied Baptist service in Harlem Angel witnesses earlier in the movie and no less rhythmic. How could Voodoo be so evil when it had such great beats?

Villains are more fun than heroes because a badass makes the heart beat faster. The big screen’s biggest villain, the devil, has been played by some of the greatest actors. Walter Huston, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman and Harvey Keitel, have donned horns and cloven feet. Robert De Niro played Louis Cyphre (the name is a dime-store joke, but Mephistopheles is a mouthful in Manhattan) with a joker’s grin expanding with the malice of the Steeplechase face, playful with seductive menace.

He is amused by his prey. Like a cat playing with a mouse, Cyphre plays with Angel’s recollections, his religious beliefs and his imagination. Cyphre let Angel know he could eat his soul as easily as a six-minute egg. He is there to collect a bill, but he enjoys the diversion of the chase. Deviltry is intoxicating. Ethan Krusemark is positively giddy as he confesses the complicated details of the incense and incantations in the ritual that hid Favorite’s soul.

It was smart-ass Sophocles who said “How terrible is wisdom when it brings no profit to the man that’s wise.” The more Angel learns about Favorite, the more it costs him. Every revelation he has in the case comes like a noose tightening around his neck. Angel is beginning to choke. Angel sees everything Favorite held dear destroyed and each time it bites him harder on the ass. Every time Angel gets close to someone they becaome a statistic etched on crime blotter in gore. Angel’s inquiries leave collateral damage. Dr. Fowler shoots out the eye that saw too much.

Toots Sweet’s severed dick is shoved down the throat that said too much. Margaret Krusemark is slit up the middle so her heart can be left like a greeting card. New Orleans is famous for the race-flavored gumbo that Ethan Krusemark was boiled in. But the most damaging is his incestuous interrogation with Epiphany, who is found with Angel’s dog-tag dangling around her neck and his revolver up her snatch.  As evil as he is supposed to be, Angel has humanity and we see him desperately trying to keep hold of it.  

I identified with poor old Harry Angel, fed to the dogs like table scraps, probably not what Parker intended, but there it is. I’ve even used the “I’m from Brooklyn” excuse for my own transgressions. Angel could have been anyone. We all speculate on how we could get the best out of a deal with the devil. We’d all find ways to get out of it. Angel doesn’t throw everyone into the fire to avoid burning. He tries to protect Epiphany, as early as when he keeps the “secret love” Favorite had with her mother secret from his taped reports to Cyphre.

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Harry Angel was so down to earth we could smell the crabs and dog breath on him. He got so disheveled and dirty in the course of the pursuit we want to sympathetically shower for him. Rourke underplays throughout. When he finally lets go, he is already broken. He can’t even convince himself that he is who he is.

The Satanic Detective genre of film is especially satisfying for me because it mixes menace from two sources. There is no femme more fatale than Mr. Scratch. There is no noir darker than the promise of the pits of hell. Shady speakeasies of the criminal underworld are mere subway stops on the BMT to the eternal underworld. Every clause in a soul exchange contract is a loophole that will snag you. No matter how cleverly you sneak up on a mirror.