Angel Heart (1987): A masterwork of horror

I’ve always thought that Mickey Rourke was terribly underrated in terms of acting ability. Yes, I know he was a bankable star in the 1980s due to his charisma and absurd handsomeness, but I’ve rarely heard him lauded as one of the greatest screen performers of his generation, something he most certainly is. First grabbing significant attention with a commanding bit part in the 1981 erotic neo-noir Body Heat, Rourke went on to deliver amazing turns in Diner, Rumble Fish, The Pope of Greenwich Village, Year of the Dragon and Barfly. Although he peppered his career with some major duds amid a professional venture in boxing and turned down roles that proved highly beneficial to other actors, Rourke struck some gold in more recent years with Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, a rightfully acclaimed work that reinvigorated his career and proved to be poignantly meta in its depiction of a faded star making a comeback. All in all, Rourke’s incumbency in film is demarcated by a singular gift for authentically authoritative and magnetic performances gleaming with pathos.

My personal favourite Rourke performance is found in a film that I consider to reside at the very apex of the horror and mystery genres, Alan Parker’s 1987 supernatural thriller Angel Heart. Based upon the novel Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg, the film opened to mixed reviews upon release but has gone on to achieve cult status as a striking and influential work with unforgettable ruminations on identity, destiny and the superstition and extreme darkness that has always laid in the heart of man.

The year is 1955. Harold ‘Harry’ Angel (Rourke) is a private detective living and working in New York City, eking out a livelihood on cases involving small-fry fraud and infidelity etc. Having little personal attachment save for sort-of girlfriend Connie (Elizabeth Whitcraft), Harry is content to lead the life of an archetypal inquiry agent from the greatest noirs, squirrelling away in his office on a diet of booze and cigarettes and exhibiting a glad eye for the ladies.

Angel is contacted at work one morning by Herman Winesap (Dann Florek), the representative of a mysterious and wealthy client who is prepared to offer Harry a handsome sum if he takes on a most unusual case. The client, an urbane yet subtly sinister gentleman by the name of Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro), would like Harry to track down a Jonathan Liebling, most commonly referred to as ‘Johnny Favourite’. A pre-war crooner with a modicum of celebrity, Favourite had an obscurely detailed contract with Cyphre before being drafted into the Second World War and coming home with severe, life-altering injuries.

Disappearing from a private hospital, Favourite’s obligations to Cyphre were never fulfilled. Tempted by big bucks and the novelty of the assignment, Harry sets about locating his missing golden-tonsilled quarry, starting at the aforementioned hospital and working his way through people of significance in Favourite’s life. What Mr Angel doesn’t know is that this case will take him to the very limits of depravity, a world mired in ancient religions, dark corrupting forces and violent death from which he may never make it back.

Rourke has simply never been better, and I say that as a passionate fan of his skill. With a preternatural aptitude for Angel’s slightly sleazy but ultimately tough and likeable persona, his performance immerses the viewer in the oppressively foreboding atmosphere of Harry’s world. Rourke’s note-perfect delivery of the character’s wariness, necessary ferocity and the charm he exercises during forgivably manipulative strategies drips with authenticity, placing you right there in the hot seat of Harry’s intrigue and unease as he goes further into this monstrous rabbit hole. Warts and all, he seems like a pretty decent guy and his obliviousness to how truly precarious this situation is can only inspire the kind of mortal fear that arises when you’re confronted with mind-shattering menace. There are no jump scares or other cheap tricks here, the terror isn’t that easy and Rourke’s nuances fortify that sensation tenfold.

Every player in Angel Heart is an essentially perfect puzzle-fit for the unfolding mystery, the likes of Charlotte Rampling, Lisa Bonet, Stocker Fontelieu, Brownie McGhee and Michael Higgins Jr all deftly contributing to the comprehensively melancholic aura as respective pitstops on Harry’s investigative road. A mutual sense of dread permeates his interactions with all of these individuals, inducing an elusive layer of ever-present discomfort as we wonder who or, indeed, what Johnny Favourite is and what the hell happened to him. Everyone in Favourite’s life appears to be sombre, skittish or outright mad, an unspoken pleading for Harry to cut his losses and jump ship always hanging in the foggy air.

The cinematography of frequent Parker collaborator Michael Seresin is seamless, the wintry bleakness of NYC and intolerable heat of Harry’s sojourn in New Orleans both captured with a measure of desolation that makes Angel Heart as much a mood piece as a confounding and horrific mystery. Every frame is imbued with the notion that Harry is being observed and/or manipulated by some grand and terrible force, and I’ve only fully felt this effect precisely one other time from Jeffrey L. Kimball’s work on Jacob’s Ladder, a film that serves as a perfect companion piece to Angel Heart for the atmosphere alone.

Every room, every alleyway, every dilapidated building feels as though it’s missing an ‘Abandon Hope’ sign, the anxiety given a particularly fine coating via Trevor Jones’ remarkable soundtrack. In what is easily my favourite horror film score (and one of my favourite cinematic compositions in general), Jones’ soundscape is a superbly looming arrangement that is equal parts elegiac, threateningly visceral and devastating, seizing you with the unmistakable sensation that you, for one reason or another, are beyond salvation. The tandem efficacy of sight and sound went some distance into burning the film into my brain forevermore.

Alan Parker easily created one of the most engaging and intelligently disturbing films of all time with this one, and I find no small measure of absurdity in the fact that it continues to operate at a level of underrated cult reverence when it deserves so much more. If you want an all-consuming experience with flawless execution and you don’t mind it compelling you to spend the next few days curled up in bed in a shocked haze, it doesn’t get much better than this.

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