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The story begins with a book called Fallen Angel by William Hjortsberg about an injured World War II veteran who, after a traumatic event end us up a private detective ensnared in an occult-ish mystery. Published in 1978, Hjortsberg prepared a screenplay almost immediately after but was turned away by the studios, none of whom wanted to produce such a dark and potentially controversial story. Skip ahead seven years and enter Elliott Kastner, an independent film producer who had been working in the business since the early 60s and had found some success, most notably with the Richard Burton war film, Where Eagles Dare. He liked Hjortsberg’s script and put in the hands of screenwriter and director Alan Parker, who had made a name for himself with a number of movies, working in a variety of genres.
He had just had come off the highly-acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful Birdy, with Matthew Modine and Nicholas Cage. His early work, including the tense Midnight Express and the musical Fame, had brought him considerable clout and he decided adapting Hjortsberg’s book would be his next project. He set about making a number of significant changes and shopped it around until independent studio Carolco Pictures offered to produce it. They gave Parker $18 million to make it. So he did.
With a new title, Angel Heart tells the story of a man named Harry Angel (played by Mickey Rourke) who, in 1955, is working in New York City as a private investigator. He is contacted by a mysterious figure who introduces himself as Louis Cyphre (played by Robert De Niro). He is looking for a man named John Liebling, a former lounge singer who went by the stage named “Johnny Favorite” and was helped significantly by Cyphre. He suspects that Favorite has passed away and the upstate private hospital–where he is supposedly recovering from shell shock after a traumatic experience in the big war–is issuing false reports that he still is receiving treatment. He tasks Angel with finding the truth as he stands to gain from his death.
Angel pokes around at the hospital and eventually learns that Cyphre is right. For twelve years, they’ve been lying about Favorite. A couple came to collect Favorite and bribed his physician to keep up appearances. But when Angel discovers the doctor has been murdered, he gets jumpy and returns to Cyphre, claiming he wants out. Five thousand dollars puts him back in the game. He follows a lead to New Orleans, to meet with Favorite’s wealthy fiancé, Margaret Krusemark (played by Charlotte Rampling) but also learns that he was having an affair with a woman named Evangeline Proudfoot. Krusemark tells him that Favorite is long dead, and then Angel learns that Proudfoot is also dead, but survived by her daughter, now a 17-year-old named Epiphany (played by Lisa Bonet), a girl conceived by Favorite’s affair.
The story grows darker and soon Angel finds himself embroiled in a bevy of murder and betrayal and mystery, his discoveries painting a harrowing tale of a man with a terrible secret and a debt long past due. Parker loads the film with lots of symbolism and drenches the seedy story with exquisite local flavor, bring the setting to life with a gritty, yet disturbing authenticity. The casting of De Niro, who originally read for Angel, is a good one, as he plays the delicious role against type, in a performance that is shamefully overlooked as it stands as one of his better parts. Rourke is his equal, rising to the challenge of portraying such a tortured character. He carries us along through this difficult and often morbid tale with wavering uncertainty, as his odyssey is one that never enlightens but rather shadows his path.
Then we come to Bonet. At the time, she was the rising star of the hit family television series, The Cosby Show and had just begun as the lead in a the spin-off, A Different World. She was known for her good-girl image and morally centered characters. Angel Heart changed that. Epiphany is a deeply erotic character, a young woman who, from her introduction, where she washes her hair from a outside water tank, soaking her blouse, to a scene where she is topless in a tub and of course, the now infamous scene where she and Rourke are fully nude and simulate violent sex. It caused an uproar before the movie was even released.
The sex, which has consequences in the story, is aggressive, but it also features lots of spewing blood, as Angel envisions the walls splattered and his partner gutted. None of this was a concern for the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) though, who were far more concerned with the naked gyrating bodies. They slapped an X-rating on the film when it was submitted for review, a death sentence for a director as that rating, by the 80s, had largely come to be associated with only pornographic films.
The board’s main issue was with the thrusting action of Rourke’s buttocks, which for them, was one step too close to actually presenting sex on screen. Naturally, the film’s distributor, Tri-Star Pictures, wasn’t going to sink money into a film that couldn’t be seen and refused to move forward unless Parker re-cut it. Parker, who had retained full creative license on the project, refused. A stand-off began, and another review gained some favor for Parker but was still less than the required two-thirds approval. At last, Parker went back to the editing room, and with what he knew from their concerns, shaved off 14 feet of the roughly 400,000 ft. of film. Ten seconds. It got the vote.
Angel Heart was released on March 6, 1987, earning back $17 million of its $18 million budget. It received high praise from many prominent critics, with many applauding Parker’s vision, De Niro and Rourke’s performances and Bonet’s fearlessness. Audiences were less than favorable, with many not willing to accept Bonet in such a dark and sexually explicit role. Bill Cosby himself, who had originally supported Bonet’s shift to the movies, denounced the film, raising issues of racial stereotyping and casting her only to use her for sex. But time proved to be Angel Heart’s friend. Director Christopher Nolan claims the film greatly influenced his one psychological thriller, Memento (2000), and video game developer Ken Levine used it for inspiration in creating the twisted first-person shooter, Bioshock Infinite.
Overall, the film is close to a masterpiece, well ahead of its time. As a long time fan of this movie, having seen it several times in the past few decades, there is a lot to admire here. Parker’s direction is some of the best he’s ever done, and the story is, while perhaps a little easy to guess, exceedingly well-written and performed. Rourke is a standout and delivers a brutal, devastating performance that lingers long after. De Niro is infinitely watchable. Bonet is exquisite, an exotic beauty that oozes sensuality and deserves praise for her work. The supporting cast is also well cast, including the late Eliott Keener as a persistent detective trying to keep up with Angel. This is a heavily-stylized movie that works on many levels and only gets better with every viewing. And to think, ten second too long and it might never have been seen.