How terrible is wisdom when it brings no profit to the wise
By Edward Copeland
When contemplating possible headlines for my 25th anniversary tribute to Alan Parker's thriller Angel Heart, I almost considered using the words SPOILER ALERT. The 1987 movie is one of the first films released in my moviegoing lifetime in which an essential part of its appeal comes from the plot twist revealed near the end, though I had guessed it earlier in the film and the gimmick doesn't distract from the solid atmospherics, the great lead performance by Mickey Rourke and several supporting performances including one credited as "Special Appearance by Robert De Niro." If by chance you have not seen Angel Heart, move along now because it's difficult to discuss without giving away its secrets, even 25 years later. Some other titles containing twists might come up as well. It reminds me of a very early post on this blog about twists in films. You have been warned. It also makes me recall my dream that when any friends become new parents I beg them to keep all knowledge about Psycho away from the child until they see it since by the time I saw it, I knew what was coming. Then again, in the original 1960 trailer, Alfred Hitchcock points out the shower and the top of the steps, shows Janet Leigh screaming and suggests something's wrong with Anthony Perkins' character, so Hitch didn't try to hide it much himself.
Though Alan Parker's filmography always glowed eclectically, 1987's Angel Heart marked yet another turn in the British director's career as he helmed his first unabashed mystery thriller — and one with supernatural and voodoo undercurrents at that. In an introduction recorded for the 2004 special edition DVD, Parker discussed watching Angel Heart for the first time in many years. "It's strange seeing it at a distance because you kinda see it for the first time," Parker said. "Actually, seeing it again, I'm very proud of it. I think it holds up."
I found myself much in the same position as Parker when I revisited Angel Heart for this anniversary tribute, though the film left such an impression on me when I originally saw it in 1987 and a few more times in years soon after that it surprised me how well its specifics had stayed with me, thanks to the craftsmanship, the screenplay (which Parker also wrote, adapting it from the novel Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg) and the acting. Parker admits changing the novel quite a bit. While the novel took its setting exclusively certain parts of New York, primarily Brooklyn, Parker expanded it to Harlem and added the New Orleans element entirely. Parker also created characters, dialogue and shifted the time period backward from 1959 to 1955 because he wished to keep it further away from the 1960s and closer to the 1940s as a period piece. What, perhaps, startled me the most — seeing how young Mickey Rourke looked back when he was at the peak of his powers, though from a 2004 interview with Rourke on the DVD, you wouldn't get that. Rourke says he was close to losing his house when Angel Heart came his way and had been weighing quitting acting. The chance to work with Alan Parker attracted Rourke to Angel Heart more than the film itself. Thankfully, Rourke made his comeback after his flirtation with boxing, first in Sin City and then in The Wrestler (don't know if I should count Iron Man 2 or not), but I wonder how many great roles we lost while he was lost.
Of course, Angel Heart also includes that great supporting performance by Robert De Niro that reminds you of the days when he seemed to take parts for more than just a paycheck. In an interview on the DVD, Parker says he originally sought De Niro to play Harry Angel (Rourke's role), but De Niro expressed more interest in the Louis Cyphre role. Parker had been chasing Jack Nicholson for Cyphre, but Jack got to be devilish in a different 1987 film, as Darryl Van Horne in the in-title only adaptation of John Updike's The Witches of Eastwick. The process of nabbing De Niro, according to Parker, was an arduous game of back-and-forth until one day De Niro finally phoned and told Parker, "I'm of a mind to do the film." I gave you the spoiler warning up top, so, as the song goes, I hope you guessed De Niro's character's name and since he's a punny devil — Louis Cyphre…Lou-Cyphre…Lucifer. As Cyphre explains, "Mephistopheles is such a mouthful in Manhattan." Also like the lyrics of The Rolling Stones' classic, De Niro portrays Cyphre as a man of wealth and taste, well-dressed with frighteningly long fingernails, always playing with his cane. Many sources claim that De Niro's performance actually is a wicked impersonation of Martin Scorsese. Physically, he might resemble how Scorsese looks at times but that certainly isn't Marty's vocal style. De Niro's Angel Heart character speaks too deliberately without a shred of accent and never sounds as if he's on fast-forward as Scorsese does. I've said this many times about great actors and probably about De Niro, but his excellence extends to masterful manipulation of props. In Angel Heart, De Niro displays it with the cane and, later, with an egg. Like Rourke, 1987 gave moviegoers two memorable De Niro turns. He also preached "teamwork" as Al Capone in Brian De Palma's The Untouchables.
Angel Heart opens by getting the audience in a properly creepy mood opening on a dark street where a dog barks wildly on the pavement while way above the canine a cat hisses on a fire escape. At the bottom of the fire escape, where the pooch continues to make noise lays the violently slain body of a woman. Honestly, the movie never gets back around to telling us who she was or how she relates to rest of the story but the tableau combines with Trevor Jones' slightly sinister score and the proper look provided by d.p. Michael Seresin, who served as cinematographer on many Parker films including Midnight Express, Fame and Birdy. Seresin's work goes far in creating Angel Heart's atmosphere and accomplishing Parker's stated goal of making "a black-and-white film in color." After that opening, we appear to be on the same street, knowing now that it's Brooklyn 1955 as Mickey Rourke pops a bubble and then lights a cigarette as a faceless voice greets him as "Harry." Soon, he's sitting behind his desk in his disheveled office when he gets a phone call. "Harold Angel. Middle initial R. Just like in the phone book," he answers. "Of course I know what an attorney is. It's like a lawyer only their bills are higher," he tells the person on the phone. He scrounges for pen and paper, passing a gun in his desk drawer, and scrawls Winesap and McIntosh. Harry then adds Louis Cyphre and sets up a meeting, a bit out of his usual stomping grounds in Harlem, but Angel pledges to be there.
The best running gag in Angel Heart, since the film never tries too hard to conceal Louis Cyphre's true identity, has half of his meetings with Harry Angel taking place in churches — and Cyphre gets on the private detective when he uses unsavory language. Their first meeting takes place at a Harlem church. Harry climbs to the church's second level where he meets Herman Winesap (Dann Florek, who we now know best as Captain Kragen on the original Law & Order and Law & Order: SVU but always will be L.A. Law 's Dave Meyer to me). As Winesap prepares to take Harry to meet Cyphre, Angel notices a shrouded woman furiously scrubbing blood off the wall of a room. "An unfortunate husband of one of Pastor John's flock took a gun to his head," Winesap explains. "Most unpleasant." When Winesap opens the door to another room, we see that hand and those long fingernails playing with the handle of his cane before we see Louis Cyphre himself. Though De Niro makes no attempt at any sort of accent, he's introduced as "Monsieur Louis Cyphre." Without getting up, he shakes Harry's hand. In fact, Cyphre never stands in the entire film. He asks to see Angel's identification. "Nothing personal. I'm a little overcautious," Cyphre admits. De Niro's performance displays such control that it really makes me nostalgic for that De Niro. Harry asks how they came up with his name, assuming it was the phone book since most of his clients pick him since his last name starts with an A and they are lazy. As Harry spins his theory, Cyphre silently and definitely shakes his head no. That's a gesture most humans could make, but the De Niro of that time conveys so much with that small motion. He and Winesap then explain the case they want Angel to take. "Do you by chance remember the name Johnny Favorite?" Cyphre inquires.
The name Johnny Favorite doesn't ring a bell with Harry Angel, but Cyphre explains that Favorite was a crooner prior to the war. "Quite famous in his way," Louis adds. "I usually don't get involved in anything very heavy. I usually handle insurance jobs, divorces, things of that nature. If I'm lucky sometimes I handle people, but I don't know no crooners or anybody famous," Harry tells the mysterious Cyphre and his attorney. They inform the detective that Favorite’s real last name was Liebling, but Harry doesn’t know that name either. He asks the pair if this Johnny owes them money and that’s why they’re looking for him. “Not quite. I helped Johnny at the beginning of his career,” Cyphre says, leading Angel to ask if he was the singer’s agent. “No! Nothing so…,” the bearded man semi-smiles, not bothering to complete his thought. “Monsieur Cyphre has a contract. Certain collateral was to be forfeited in the event of his death,” Winesap steps in to explain. That takes Harry back a bit. “You're talking about a guy that's dead?” he asks. Cyphre and Winesap go on to tell Angel the story of how they lost track of Johnny Favorite. In 1943, the entertainer was drafted to aid the U.S. war effort in North Africa as part of the special entertainment services. Soon after his arrival, an attack severely disfigured Favorite, both physically and mentally. “Amnesia. I think you call it,” Cyphre tells Harry, who tosses out, “Shell shock.” Cyphre concurs with Angel’s description and his interest gets piqued when the private eye admits to knowing how that condition feels. He asks Harry if he was in the military. ‘I was in for a short time, but I got a little fucked up, excuse my language. They shipped me home, and I missed the whole shebang — the war, the medals, everything. I guess you could say I was lucky,” Harry declares. Louis continues Johnny Favorite’s story, telling Harry that Johnny wasn’t lucky. “He returned home a zombie. His friends had him transferred to a private hospital upstate. There was some sort of radical psychiatric treatment involved. His lawyers had the power of attorney to pay the bills, things like that, but you know how it is. He remained a vegetable, and my contract was never honored…I don't want to sound mercenary. My only interest in Johnny is in finding out if he's alive or dead,” Cyphre insists. “Each year, my office receives a signed affidavit confirming that Johnny Liebling is indeed among the living, but last weekend Monsieur Cyphre and I, just by chance, were near the clinic in Poughkeepsie. We decided to check for ourselves, but we got misleading information,” Winesap informs Harry. “I didn't want to cause a scene, I hate any sort of fuss. I thought, perhaps you could subtly and in a quiet manner…,” Cyphre doesn't have to finish his sentence. “You want me to check it out,” Angel surmises as he accepts the case. He rises and shakes Cyphre’s hand. ”I have a feeling I've met you before,” Cyphre tells Harry, but Harry doesn’t think so. Admittedly, the first time I saw Angel Heart, I figured out the twist before its reveal, but not this early though it’s so obvious in retrospect that I don’t see how I missed it. With two more recent films with twists, Fight Club and The Sixth Sense, I knew their secrets before I saw them. In the case of David Fincher’s satiric masterpiece, I don’t think I would have figured out its twist on my own, but knowing that going in allowed me to watch more closely as I watched the film and admire it all the more. As for The Sixth Sense, I honestly don’t get why it wasn’t obvious to everyone who saw it that Bruce Willis’ character was dead all along. I also could watch that film more closely for the signs, but it didn't prevent dissatisfaction with the whole. Lots of movies stick pivotal scenes at the very start, be it another 1987 release such as No Way Out with Kevin Costner or Evil Under the Sun, the second Agatha Christie adaptation that had Peter Ustinov play Hercule Poirot, hoping that the scene slips the audience’s mind so when the film finally comes back to it, they are surprised. That’s the curse of my good memory. I remembered that odd scene of Costner in the room yelling at a two-way mirror, asking when they were going to come out, and guessed early that he indeed worked as a Russian mole. The entire time I watched the overrated Sixth Sense, I kept coming back to the first scene and wondering, “What happened to that deal with the patient that shot Willis in his bedroom?” Angel Heart lacks any scene like that, but the clues get placed before the moviegoer early and often and it’s a tribute to the skills of all involved that it engaged me to the point that I didn’t catch the hints until much later than I should have otherwise.
So Harry Angel embarks on his investigation to find out what happened to Johnny Liebling nee Favorite after the war. He starts his search where Cyphre and Winesap got the "run-around" — The Sarah Dodds Harvest Memorial Clinic in Poughkeepsie. Pretending to be from the National Institute [sic] of Health, Harry inquires if they have Jonathan Liebling. The nurse (Kathleen Wilhoite) at the reception window tells Harry that he can't see a patient without an appointment, but Angel explains he just needs to know if he's "on the right track." Checking the files, the nurse informs Harry that Liebling once was a patient there but was transferred to another hospital. Spinning the file around so that Harry can see, the transfer date, written in pen, reads 12/31/43 and an Albert Fowler signed the form. Harry points out to the nurse that whoever wrote the transfer note did it with a ballpoint pen — and ballpoints weren't around in the U.S. in 1943. He asks her if this Dr. Fowler still works at the clinic, but she says he only does part-time now. Harry finds Fowler's house, but the old doctor isn't there, so he breaks in and waits. Snooping in the meantime, he discovers a huge stash of morphine in Fowler's refrigerator. When Fowler (Michael Higgins) returns home, he threatens to call the police but Harry doubts he'll do that with his "opium den" and grills him about Johnny Favorite. The doctor lies and says he transferred him to a VA hospital in Albany, but Angel shoots that theory down. Fowler obviously needs a fix, but Harry won't let him have one until he gives him something he can use, like where Johnny is now. "Some people came one night years ago. He got in the car with them and left," Fowler confesses. Harry inquires how a man who reportedly was in a vegetative state managed to get into a car. "At first, he was in a coma, but he quickly recovered," Fowler tells him, adding that Valentine still had amnesia. Harry pumps him for details about the friends. The doctor says the man was named Edward Kelley, but he didn't know about the woman because she stayed in the car. He believes they went Down South. They paid Fowler off to keep up the charade that Valentine remained in the clinic. Harry decides he could use some food and Fowler could clear his head so he helps the doctor to his bedroom, promising a fix when he returns, locking the doc in his room in the meantime. After a cheeseburger in a diner, Harry returns to Fowler's, grabs a bottle of morphine from the fridge and heads upstairs. He unlocks the bedroom door and finds Fowler dead, apparently a suicide, clutching a photograph and a Bible. Harry strikes a match off Fowler's shoe and wipes his prints off everything. When he wipes off the Bible, it opens and turns out to be hollowed out with bullets inside. Fowler will be just the first of many stiffs that cross Harry's path on what one could call the ultimate journey to find yourself.
As Harry told Cyphre and Winesap, his cases usually involved divorces and insurance, nothing heavy — and nothing weighs heavier than a corpse such as Dr. Fowler's. Harry's prepared to tell Cyphre what he knows when he meets him at a tiny Brooklyn eatery and then wash his hands of this case. He informs Cyphre, who plays with a dish of hard-boiled eggs, about what he learned concerning this Edward Kelley taking Johnny Favorite away while paying Fowler all these years to make it appear as if he still resided in the Poughkeepsie clinic. It's that great scene I alluded to earlier involving De Niro's manipulation of the egg. YouTube has the clip but, alas, embedding isn't allowed so click here and watch, then return. Of course, Cyphre convinces Harry to stay on the case. Besides — what would happen with the rest of the movie if he quit? I've never read Falling Angel but despite the changes that Parker acknowledges, I imagine the essential plot remains the same. Harry Angel hunts for Johnny Valentine and in a standard thriller, you could say that Valentine really serves as the MacGuffin, but Angel Heart pulls off something that not even Hitchcock tried. Sure, Norman assume his mother's identity in Psycho and Judy pretended to be Madeleine in Vertigo, but both are a far cry from Angel Heart where the MacGuffin actually is the main character, Harry Angel. He's hunting down himself and he's not aware of it. De Niro's Devil knows the whole time, but the people who aided Jonathan Liebling must pay a price and who better to deliver the bill than Johnny himself, unaware of what he's doing. Of course, selling your soul to the devil is an old story, but an innocent whose life becomes possessed by someone malevolent, even though Johnny Valentine appears just to be a rotten human being, foreshadows the inhabiting spirits, specifically BOB, of Twin Peaks who would commit heinous acts while in control of poor Leland Palmer, but Leland would have no memory until BOB exits and Leland's dying. When Harry gets together for a sexualromp with Epiphany Proudfoot (Lisa Bonet), the offspring of Johnny Valentine and a voodoo-practicing woman, he doesn't realize until it's after the fact — just like Leland — that he raped and murdered his own daughter. In a lot of ways, looking at Angel Heart now, it seems to portend some of the Lynchian trademarks that wouldn't really come to fruition until Twin Peaks and Wild at Heart. Blue Velvet debuted almost six months before Angel Heart, but for me it looks like a rough draft for the David Lynch template that he'd start perfecting in the '90s, especially with the large menagerice of eccentric characters.
Those characters start coming to the forefront as Harry makes his way to New Orleans. Even before that, we encounter the blatant "give me" preaching of Pastor John (Gerald L. John) who opens tells his parishioners that if they love God, he shouldn't be driving a Cadillac, he should be driving a Rolls-Royce. Harry's investigative trail takes him to old musician Spider Simpson (Charles Gordons), whose band Johnny used to play with, in a resting home (providing some of those doddering old folks that Lynch would revel in) who sends him to Coney Island chasing a gypsy fortune teller named Madame Zora. Despite Parker's insistence that he wanted to make a black and white film in color, Michael Seresin paints some bright and beautiful beach scenes when he meets with two more leads, Izzy (George Buck) and his wife (Judith Drake) who stands in the ocean in the belief it helps her varicose veins, even though Izzy says she hates the water. The Izzy conversation proves hysterical as he likes to give away nose shields from a box he found beneath the Boardwalk. Harry notes there isn't much sun. "Yeah, but it keeps the rain off too," Izzy tells him. He remembers Zora and his Baptist wife knew her well. Toward the end of their talk, Harry asks Izzy what he does in the summertime. "Bite the heads off of rats," he answers. "What do you do in the winter?" Harry inquires. "Same," Izzy replies, scratching his balls. His wife lets him know that Madame Zora is the same person as a Louisiana heiress named Margaret Krusemark. "She wasn't a gypsy, she was a debutante," the wife informs Angel. The wonderful but woefully underused Charlotte Rampling plays Margaret.
The cast of interesting characters stretches further than those. There's Stocker Fontelieu as Ethan Krusemark, Margaret's wealthy and connected daddy who ends up explaining the whole situation to Harry. We even get an early role by Pruitt Taylor Vince as one of the detectives aggravating Harry about the bodies that keep popping up connected to him. I made a reference earlier to Lisa Bonet's role. Harry first meets Epiphany with her infant son as she visits the grave of her mother, Evangeline Proudfoot, Johnny's secret lover. "Your mom left you with a very pretty name, Epiphany," Harry tells her. "And not much else," she replies. It seems so funny now how controversial it was at the time that she made this movie and ended up getting her booted off The Cosby Show because of her heavy duty sex scene with Mickey Rourke, soiling Denise Huxtable's innocent image. Apparently, the elaborate voodoo dance number where she appears to sacrifice a chicken and bathe her breasts in its blood was OK. (Interestingly enough, the same person staged the elaborate voodoo dance ritual as did the dance numbers in Fame — the late Louis Falco.) I wonder what would have happened if the story of Bill Cosby paying for the child of his former mistress had been revealed while the show had been on the air. Would he have kicked himself off the show? On the DVD, Parker admits that coming from England, he knew nothing of The Cosby Show or who Bonet was when he cast her. He said they all took great care to protect Bonet, then 19, when time came to film the explicit scene, but she exhibited fewer nerves than anyone else. Bonet, like most of the cast, got some good dialogue. Parker didn't write many of his films (and other than Bugsy Malone, the ones he did tended to be his lesser ones such as Come See the Paradise, The Road to Welville and Evita), but if he's telling the truth and he didn't take that much dialogue from the novel, he came up with a lot of keepers here. Before Harry and Epiphany couple, he asks her what her mother said about Valentine. "She once said that Johnny Valentine was as close to true evil as she ever wanted to be," Epiphany answers, adding that Evangeline called Johnny the best lover she ever had to which Harry shrugs as if to say, "That figures." Epiphany recognizes his reaction and tells him, "It's always the badass that makes a girl's heart beat faster."
As I mentioned early on, Parker said that rewatching the film for him was like seeing it for the first time. Parts of it did play like that for me with the exception of one character and the person who played him, who wasn't even an actor by trade. I forget who spoke the words but I remember a critic once saying that the mark of a memorable character was when the character's name stayed with you long after you'd finished watching the movie. It's 25 years, give or take, since I don't recall how soon I saw Angel Heart after its opening, and Toots Sweet remains vivid in my mind. It's a small role, a musician who played with Johnny Valentine and takes part in the voodoo rituals, portrayed by a real blues legend, Brownie McGhee. In real life, McGhee was known both for his solo work and his longtime musical partnership with blind harmonica player Sonny Terry. Harry offers to buy Toots a drink when he takes a break from his set, but Toots gets his drinks comped and takes a very special order. "Two Sisters cocktails. I don't know what's in it but gives a bigger kick than six stingers," Toots tells him. When Harry reminds him of Spider Simpson, Toots recalls, "I remember Spider. He used to play his drums like jack rabbits fuckin'." He then excuses himself for the rest room before has to play again. "A piss and a spit and back to work," the musician says, but Harry follows him and pushes for information and Toots finds the warning of a chicken foot in the toilet. He'll eventually become one of the string of bodies, dying in a particularly graphic way, but in his brief time in the movie, McGhee's Toots Sweet has stayed with me for a long time. There's another supporting player that I've neglected to honor with the plaudits he deserves for his essential role in Angel Heart. His work shows up in every scene of the movie despite the fact that his corporeal form doesn't appear. I'm referring to Gerry Hambling, whose superb film editing controls every aspect of Angel Heart, especially once Harry's memories mixed with Johnny's begin to come back to him with recurring images of fans that stop and switch directions, the shadows of those fans, soldiers in 1943 Times Square, a building with a single lit window, gazing down upon a long spiral staircase with various figures and steel elevators descending to somewhere you probably don't wish to go. Hambling and Parker's collaboration began with two short films in 1974 and has continued through 14 feature films, earning Hambling Oscar nominations for Parker's Midnight Express, Fame, Mississippi Burning, The Commitments and Evita. Hambling earned another nominated for editing Jim Sheridan's In the Name of the Father and his additional credits include Absolute Beginners and the infamous Bill Cosby bomb Leonard Part 6.
When boiled down, it's merely four great scenes by De Niro and a helluva performance by Rourke that gives Angel Heart its power a quarter-century after its release. The actors' third scene together, in the pews of a church, may be my favorite. Look for yourself. De Niro's Cyphre gets great lines (as usual) such as "The future isn't what it used to be, Mr. Angel" and "They say there's just enough religion in the world to make men hate one another but not enough to make them love." Cyphre via De Niro also gets to do a great wink and smile of the "Tsk, tsk" sort when Harry curses, reminding him they're in a church to which Angel indicates he doesn't care. "Are you an atheist?" Cyphre asks him. "Yeah, I'm from Brooklyn," Harry replies. What prompted his profanity was Cyphre's continued politician-like way to skirt straight answers to direct questions. "I'm a little fed up with fuckin' 'vaguely.' 'Vaguely' is starting to put a noose around my neck and it's starting to choke," Harry barks at him. Rourke performs superbly as a hardened private eye who slowly unravels as he realizes that everything he thought he knew wasn't true and he'd just traveled across the country obliviously chasing his own tail. Once Harry learns the truth about himself and Cyphre, he returns to his New Orleans hotel room, shocking the detectives that he'd come back to the scene of Epiphany's murder. The lead detective tells him that he's going to burn and he calmly responds, "I know — in hell." Alan Parker has a funny line in his interview on the DVD when he insists that he considers the story in Angel Heart doesn't get enough credit for its realism. "I think people sell their souls to the devil every day of the week. In Hollywood, even more regularly," Parker says.
Perhaps what turns out to be most shocking about Angel Heart concerns the course of Mickey Rourke's career. That it took until The Wrestler for Rourke to be recognized with an Oscar nomination. Snubbed in 1987 for both Angel Heart and Barfly when the weak actor field consisted of two essentially supporting roles (Michael Douglas in Wall Street and William Hurt in Broadcast News); a performance in an Italian film few people have seen even now, 25 years later (Marcello Mastroianni in Dark Eyes); an Oscar favorite in a deadly dull prestige picture (Nicholson in Ironweed); and a manic comic doing his shtick in the form of a war biopic (Robin Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam). Rourke also was overlooked in previous years for The Pope of Greenwich Village and, especially, Diner. On the other hand, they did get around to nominating Rourke sooner than they did Gary Oldman.
As for Angel Heart, the movie certainly has detractors — as most films that hinge on major twists do. In my mind, what raises it above other films with surprising turns — or for that matter makes any "twist" film that works such as The Crying Game or Fight Club — stems from the fact that Angel Heart provides solid filmmaking prior to the twist. I don't know if a great Angel Heart could have been made without that story turn, but the film Alan Parker made prior to the revelation was a damn good one and the secret kicked it to an even higher level of success.