Horror and noir are two genres that feel like a natural fit – traditional film noir has it’s roots in German expressionism after all, which produced early horror films like Nosferatu and The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari. It’s a wonder more directors haven’t mined the potential that lies in combining these genres; or maybe they are deterred by Alan Parker’s 1987 cult classic Angel Heart, which fuses the two together seamlessly. Blade Runner did it five years earlier, combining science fiction and noir, but even that doesn’t bring the noir elements to life in the same way as Parker does here.

A proper genre film, Angel Heart remains a singular film in his career, and while undoubtedly flawed, it retains the ability to unnerve audiences even today. This lovingly restored Blu Ray release from StudioCanal is long overdue, and is a great way of viewing what could be Parker’s best film.

Mickey Rourke is Harry Angel, a seedy private eye, who is hired by the enigmatic Louis Cyphre (Robert DeNiro) to track down an old time crooner who has reneged on a business arrangement. As Angel delves deeper into the man’s associates, and gets closer to the truth, a trail of dead bodies lie in his wake.

Parker has a great eye for detail, and  the film looks absolutely stunning. It never has that affected feel you get with some films that try to emulate noir in a more self conscious way. Angel Heart has a real lived in quality; the sets all feel real, and the scenes set in New Orleans feel really authentic. It helps that the whole thing is so sumptuously shot.On Blu Ray, the lighting and cinematography is even more striking, with stretching shadows, smoky streets, and exactly the same type of lighting and set design as the classic film noirs.

Mickey Rourke is the best (read: most hapless) gumshoe since Jack Nicholson in Chinatown. Sleazy, scruffy but resourceful, his performance as the crumpled private eye is brilliant, and sadly not as acclaimed as it should be. It’s his best lead role by quite a way, and is the perfect showcase for the engaging, convincing leading man he could have been, if boxing hadn’t got in the way. He is disarmingly natural, giving a performance that is all too relatable.

Lisa Bonet and Charlotte Rampling are also great in supporting roles. Bonet especially gives a performance well beyond her years, which subsequently got kicked off the more family oriented Cosby show. Elsewhere, Robert DeNiro is a bit much as the sinister (and knowingly monikered) Louis Cyphre. Supposedly emulating Martin Scorsese, his Cyphre is a bit of a cartoon villain, complete with twirly beard, long nails and an off-putting way of eating eggs. It’s not a bad performance, but out of place, and especially compared to Rourke’s natural style, he’s a little jarring.

This leads to my main problem with the film. It’s not subtle at all, and DeNiro’s pantomime villain is the tip of the iceberg. It’s clear that Parker is a lot more at home with the visuals and mystery elements of the story. The horror elements are at their most effective when they’re just alluded to – a bloody wall here, or a whispered word there. Once it gets into the heavy symbolism and overtly horrific material it gets a bit overwrought and melodramatic, and some elements (such as the thankfully brief effect of demonically glowing eyes) leave a lot to be desired.

The plot itself also gets a little obvious, but watching again after all this time, this feels less important. Indeed part of the fun of repeat viewings is seeing how oblivious Angel is to the inevitable way the events unfold. Refreshingly, Parker doesn’t seemed concerned with this, and puts more effort into making sense of the twisty story than playing tricks on the audience. The attention to detail is incredible throughout, and every step of the film makes sense, with some expertly laid out foreshadowing leading to a relentlessly bleak ending.

Angel Heart is a genuine oddity. A film that by rights should be a bona fide classic, with lush cinematography, two actors at the peak of their stardom and a director who was on a roll of great films. Instead it’s something of an outlier, and I would say it’s been unjustly neglected. Yes it’s melodramatic and hammy in placed, but it also gets under your skin in a very palpable way, and Rourke has never been better.

Special Features

Aside from the beautiful, painstakingly constructed restoration of the film, which really highlights the neo noir elements, the Blu Ray contains a lot of the usual extras. Of these, Alan Parker’s commentary is a bit of a treat. He’s refreshingly unassuming and matter of fact about the production, and incredibly insightful. The rest of the extras include a featurette on Voodoo, behind the scenes footage, an interview with Parker and an introduction to the film, as well as trailers, stills and interviews with the actors.


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4 Responses

  1. Andy

    You don’t mention anything about the source material. You avoid discussing genre motifs, pulp iconography or even William Hjortsberg. Wow. Inept review or what…

    • Nicolas Bartlett

      I’ll grant you not mentioning Hjortsberg might have been an error, but this is a review of the film, not the book after all. I do talk about film noir tropes though – the shadows, the set design, the private eye etc, even a bit of film history chucked in, so inept seems a bit harsh. But hey, trolls guna troll.

  2. Simon Kennedy

    Gotta agree with Nic here. He speaks of the film because he is reviewing the film, then chooses the elements from that (very well may I add). As another reviewer on the site, who is exposed to these sort of comments, Nic does his job very well and does not deserves these ill headed comments…


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