Rourke & De Niro – angel and the devil

Review of ‘Angel Heart’,  a film by Alan Parker (1987)

“I don’t like messy accounts” Louis Cyphre tells private detective Harry Angel, a man who knows all about messy.

Louis ( an extended cameo by Robert De Niro) is pristine and precise, Harry Angel is a walking health hazard. His suit is permanently crumpled, his shirts sweaty, he is constantly unshaven and his hair  is unkempt.

Angel is also played by Mickey Rourke back in his pre-boxing days so he manages to make all this look stylish and sexy.

Alan Parker is a filmmaker who likes a challenge and always says he wants to try something new with each movie. The book on which this movie is based – Falling Angel by Willian Hjortsberg – appealed to him through its combination of hard-boiled Chandleresque noir and  horror.

While the novel is set entirely in 1950s New York , the movie transfers most of the  action to New Orleans.

Parker is more at home with American actors since he feels their British counterparts are too stuck in the theatrical tradition. Rourke and De Niro are case studies in the art of using minimal gestures and subtle mannerisms that would be wasted on stage. They both epitomise method acting in the way they inhabit the characters .

De Niro is softly spoken and practically motionless letting an impressive mane of black hair, full beard and long manicured fingernails establish a sense of menace and cool detachment. Rourke looks like he’s literally burning up; at one point he receives a gift of a nose guard to protect him from the sun and his difficulty of coping in the heat is constantly referenced by the recurring images (and sounds) of wall and ceiling fans.

A running gag of the movie is the fact that Angel “has a thing about  chickens”. They become the bane of his life as he tries to track down a missing crooner by the name of Johnny Favorite.

All those he questions meet grisly ends and soon we catch on to the fact that he is literally doing the devil’s work.  Louis Cyphre turns out to be a crude pseudonym for Lucifer (“Mephistopheles  is such a mouthful in Manhattan“) and no amount of  ritual chicken slaughters are going to stop him from sending this Angel Johnny straight to hell (by escalator).

Parker lays on the gory details so thick that by the end there’s a strong element of farce amid the splatter. In one scene near the end Angel and Epiphany Proudfoot (Lisa Bonet) are bonking energetically oblivious to a leaking roof which becomes a veritable deluge as their passion intensifies and they get soaked not just in water but also in blood; a macabre variant on those movies where sex is suggested by crashing waves or gushing waterfalls.

It’s a tall, and frankly silly, tale – a kind of voodoo version of Chinatown – made eminently watchable by Mickey Rourke at his peak.