Revisiting Alan Parker’s Angel Heart

Has Mickey Rourke ever had as good a role as he got in Angel Heart? We take a look back...

Once considered a successor to Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro, Mickey Rourke unlike those other mumbling screen titans made few stone-cold classics in his prime. In fact, prior to his late-career ‘comeback’ with The Wrestler in 2009, hardly any of this once-vaunted actor’s pictures felt like true all-timers. Where Brando had A Streetcar Named Desire and On The Waterfront, and De Niro had Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, Rourke had Rumble Fish, a teen angst curiosity from Francis Ford Coppola; he had The Pope Of Greenwich Village, an overblown rehash of De Niro’s own Mean Streets, and erotic thriller 9 1/2 weeks, which now looks like a dated precursor to Fifty Shades of Grey. Even Diner – Rourke’s celebrated 1982 breakout – today feels slight and forgettable.

Angel Heart, Alan Parker’s seventh feature as director and his boldest cinematic experiment after tween gangster musical Bugsy Malone, is not so easy to forget.

The closest thing we got to a movie that matched Rourke’s talent in his pretty boy 80s heyday, Parker’s supernatural noir gumbo is a movie that shouldn’t work. Many critics at the time didn’t actually think it did. While Roger Ebert approved of the film, his At the Movies colleague Gene Siskel thought that following the story of Harry Angel (Rourke), a 50s New York gumshoe caught up in a series of murders whilst in pursuit of missing crooner Johnny Favorite, felt “like riding on a slow conveyor belt”.

Elsewhere, Pauline Kael lamented that Rourke forebear De Niro, making a ‘special appearance’ in Angel Heart as Louis Cyphre, the mystery man who hires Angel to track Favorite, had lowered himself to making “lazy” cameos; while Vincent Canby thought the lead himself “intense”, but to “such little effect”.

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Rourke entered 1987 off the back of a surprise $100 million hit in 9 1/2 Weeks, but with reviews already mixed, Angel Heart – weird, adult, decidedly feelbad – was released in the era of the family-friendly blockbuster and somewhat predictably flopped. It failed even to recoup its $18 million budget at the box office. 30 years on, however, and where many of Rourke’s old hits have faded, Angel Heart endures, thanks in no small part to the boldness of its concept. 

Parker’s fusion of two contrasting types of movie – a blasé private eye flick and a frenzied satanic horror – continues to set his film apart. Angel Heart is of both those genres, and yet belongs comfortably to neither, much sadder and more idea-rich than a typical schlock-horror, more brutal and bloody than a standard film noir. From the word go, it’s an uncanny sort of beast: the film is lensed in thick shadow like an homage to classic 50s crime flicks, but punctuated by a shrieking electronic score and the kind of inventive splatter usually reserved for slashers.

A contemporary review from the Washington Post criticised the film as “over-stylised”, but over-stylisation is almost the point. Angel Heart is deliberately hysterical, from its set design on down to its performances: Parker’s grungy New York is a hopeless gothica of spluttering steam vents and over-development, an almost parodic approximation of the film noir look, but once the movie relocates to sunny New Orleans in its second half, Angel Heart gradually trades out its initial noir cool for a hot, anxious horror that asks Rourke do some of the most wrenching acting of his career.

Our hero’s journey is unexpected, and almost cruel in its unsentimental unravelling. No one likes to see the wise-cracking PI lose his cool; this whodunit ends with the JJ Gittes-like Angel screaming into a mirror in terror, as the clawed, hardboiled egg-scoffing Cyphre finally, gleefully explains just how and where he fits into the plot. The story is wrapped up neatly, but not satisfyingly. Instead, the finale is upsetting, frightening and so bleak it’s almost nauseating, Parker drawing from William Hjortsberg’s source novel to take the noir pic from cynicism into full-on existential nihilism. 

Now, three decades removed from its original release, many of the contemporary criticisms of Angel Heart ring hollower. Those that thought the film sluggish and serious apparently missed the dollops of absurd black humour. (The film’s twist is so heavily signposted that Angel’s obliviousness in itself becomes a kind of gag, while the very title is ultimately revealed to be a savage joke.) The key controversy that overshadowed the film back in ‘87 – that Lisa Bonet, then the young star of family sitcom The Cosby Show, shows up in Angel Heart’s second hour as a voodoo priestess who beds Angel in a blood-drenched, censor-baiting sex scene – is long faded. Now all we see is how convincingly vulnerable and alluring Bonet is in a role that asks less of her.

Moreover, after a regrettable two decades spent showing us what his ‘lazy’ acting really looks like, De Niro’s lavish turn as Cyphre now appears positively masterful. (Does De Niro enjoy playing Angel Heart’s villain a little too much, as some critics suggested, or is he, rather, merely portraying a character who relishes his own villainy?)

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As for Rourke, today Angel Heart looks like his pinnacle as a proper movie star, a film home to a classic antihero turn delivered before the actor’s overpowering self-destructive tendencies would cast him into the wilderness for much of the 90s and 00s. He would never be cooler, never more doggedly charming and, by the end of the film, never more hauntingly anguished. Rourke made some serious, ‘respectable’ dramas while at his brief 80s zenith, but Angel Heart, Alan Parker’s daffy bit of pastiche pulp, is somehow more powerful and affecting than any of them. It might not quite be Rourke’s On The Waterfront or Raging Bull, but then neither Brando nor De Niro arguably ever made anything as memorably wild as this, either.