With characters named Lewis Cyphre, Harry Angel, and Epiphany Proudfoot, portentous allegory can’t be far behind. Or not. In this mystery about a smalltime detective hired to find a shadowy man who failed to satisfy the terms of a contract, atmosphere is everything. Set first in Brooklyn and then in New Orleans, Angel Heart (1987; dir. Alan Parker) portrays through African Americans voodoo, mystery, the supernatural, superstitious, and dark religions. None African American has a primary role—primary roles are for white actors, except for Lisa Bonet as Proudfoot, who has a modest but significant part. I first saw this film in 1987. I remember feeling disappointment with the final scene, which involved an elevator descending to, you guessed it, the pits of hell. Much of the rest of the film had faded from memory by the time I watched it again this morning. But I did remember the descending elevator, and it influenced how I saw the film. Angel Heart telegraphs its storyline from almost the earliest scene, and astute viewers (I wasn’t one in 1987, and may not be one now) might guess at the twist that the movie hints at with growing insistence as it moves along.
An alternative title could be “I See Black People.” Black people are everywhere in Angel Heart, and are essentially faceless. They connote evil, the supernatural, voodoo, Santeria, devil worship, wild sexuality, and mystery. They also, through their impoverished lives, represent Louisiana and the South. The film really never stops to question whether they might be anything else. It isn’t especially forthcoming about how voodoo works, especially the version Harry encounters. Chickens are involved, blood sacrifices, frenetic dancing, drums—practices beyond the understanding of Harry. (He’s afraid of chickens--despite its darkness, the film has comic moments). He interviews a series of people who might know about the man he’s been hired to investigate, yet after he interviews them, they turn up dead, in circumstances that make him seem the likely villain. He’s certain he’s being framed and becomes convinced that the person he’s been hired to find, someone who disappeared twelve years ago, is the murderer and framer.
Angel Heart builds suspense through the fairly effective performance of Mickey Rourke as Harry Angel, a private detective wary of getting too close to serious criminal activity. Yet he finds himself increasingly drawn into a web of murder and dark mysteries.
Clashing cultures are at issue here—North vs. South, but more specifically the rationalism of Brooklyn vs. the irrationalism of voodoo and African American culture in Louisiana (as the film conceives of it). I’m not an expert on voodoo or Santeria, and although the writer of this screenplay obviously bothered to do some research, I don’t think he’s that informed either. African Americans and their culture in this film are looming dark Others, used merely to inflate the suspense and uncertainty of a storyline that is fairly linear and banal. There’s not much understanding involved in the portrayal of voodoo and other practices—it’s just all blasted at us as strange and mysterious. Harry declares himself an atheist, and to the very end resists the truth: “I know who I am,” he insists, but of course he does not.
Aspects of this film reminded me of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), especially the pacing, mood, and the use of flashbacks and glimpses of mysterious imagery that hint at revelations to come. As the final scenes approach, we have probably figured out the story before Harry does. One nice bit of irony involves the film’s title, Angel Heart, which seems to suggest that Harry serves virtue in this battle with dark forces, but in the end it means something different. Epiphany Proudfoot’s first name is neatly accounted for as well.
From Harry’s slow-witted persistence to Louis Cyphre’s greased down hair to Lisa Bonet’s inviting glance to a baby’s lizard eyes, this film is heavy handed. So is this review, carefully written to be 666 words in length.