As a kid, though no one in my family really pushed religion on me, I’d somehow managed to suffer overwhelming dread over the threat of eternal damnation. Maybe this explains the special chill I got while watching Angel Heart, a chill I must have been fascinated by since over a few short years I’d managed to wear out my VHS copy of the movie.
Watching Angel Heart again for the first time in at least a dozen, maybe 15 years, I found that I remembered the movie remarkably well, every plume of steam, flight of stairs, and rattling fan, every goofy smile that crosses Mickey Rourke’s moist, pale face, so often implying Bogart’s internal shrug, his every utterance of “I’m from Brooklyn,” as though that explains everything about him. The chill the movie triggers in my older self isn’t quite the same, of course. But is it me, or does Angel Heart still work as few of those Alan Parker movies we loved as teenagers do, this neo-noir with an icy touch of old-fashioned horror, leading to a not-unpleasurable overwrought finale?
Rourke’s detective Harry Angel is hired by a wealthy, weirdly bearded client played by Robert De Niro who likes to punish his eggs a little before eating them and employs the same manicurist as Dracula. Harry goes down to New Orleans to locate the elusive crooner Johnny Favorite, a reported womanizer and all-round bastard. Harry will find him, eventually, but along the way there’s a guy in Coney Island with a box full of nose guards—which makes Harry look like one of those chickens he’s “got a thing about”—there’s a drug-addled doctor, a fortune teller elegantly played by Charlotte Rampling, a terrific chair fight in a church, a forbidding cauldron of gumbo, and of course that nubile sorceress, an unnervingly sexy Lisa Bonet all too fresh from The Cosby Show. The word Santería is never mentioned. It’s 1955, but there’s still talk of how a lot of guys got fucked up during the war, which casts a long shadow over Angel Heart and it’s mood-drunk mise en scène.
But as it descends toward its final destination, the movie, based on William Hjortsberg’s 1978 novel Falling Angel, gradually loosens itself from the dictates of historical, sociological or generic contexts, or even geographical, if we consider this to be a rather expressionist portrait of Louisiana. Metaphysical ambiguities aside, what fuels the story, what makes it chilling still, in its way, is this provocation: you don’t know who you are. Rourke’s repeated protests to the contrary constitute the only sequence where he could be said to push a little too hard, his voice strangled with despair and confusion and injustice. Yet, to be fair, how can he usher us toward the given conclusion otherwise?
1987 was a hell of a year for Rourke, who also made slobbery weirdly seductive in Barfly, and Johnny Handsome was still ahead of him. It would be another couple of years before some sort of madness, maybe related to celebrity, maybe not, took hold of Rourke and sent him reeling, punch-drunk, toward humiliations I won’t list here and a long string of uninspired, sometimes grotesque work. It seems to me now that Rourke’s subsequent story adds an extra layer of pathos to his hapless gasps of “I know who I am.” Perhaps The Wrestler was his own belated retort.