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Back to the Past : Angel Heart

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Each and every week film historian and veteran Movieholer Colin Moore revisits a classic from the VHS Video Library days. For past Back to the Past entries click here. You know you’re in trouble when the Devil personally takes the time to track you down. Don’t worry, not much being given away here. ”Angel Heart” happens to be one of those Oedipal movies. By the time you’ve taken your first sip of flat pop, you’ll know who the protagonist is, why he’s on Satan’s hit list and exactly what compass direction he’s destined for. The point is to see how it’s all unwrapped.

Brooklyn, 1955. Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) is a soft-boiled private detective with a lazy charm, more Jake Gittes than Sherlock Holmes, though the Chinatown character at least had his clothes pressed. We’re privileged enough to meet Angel on the first day of the rest of his life. It begins in one of a series of moody, half-lit rooms. A man of some wealth and a feline’s manicure, Louis Cyphre (Robert DeNiro), hires Angel to find a man who’s defaulted on a contract (already you can smell something burning). His name is Johnny Favorite, a once popular crooner institutionalized after returning home from the war “a virtual zombie,” as Cyphre puts it. The problem is that Favorite isn’t the bed-ridden vegetable he’s reputed to be. Angel’s job is simple – dig up the truth.

Which is not an easy task. The world is tight-lipped when it comes to Favorite, but Angel’s methods are conveniently unorthodox. He isn’t above breaking and entering, wiping his prints from a crime scene, or strong-arming people he can physically control – an opiate-addicted doctor or an aging blues guitarist for example – but he runs from anything with thicker arms and even has a phobia of chickens. The job hits its first bump when Angel discovers Favorite’s former physician on a blood-soaked pillow with a bullet hole where his right eye used to be. Angel is understandably put off, even more so given he’d personally locked the doctor in the murder room. He wants off the case, but when Cyphre increases his fee to $5,000 he decides to stay. A series of fresh interviews lead him to New Orleans, to witchcraft and a Voodoo priestess (Lisa Bonet) who claims to be Favorite’s daughter. Things do not go well.

Richard Donner’s ”Superman” once made the claim, “You’ll believe a man can fly,” and we did. At least I did, though I was 7 and believed too that Santa Claus was open to bribery. The point is, the incredible idea itself never stood in the way of our belief in it, as long as it was well executed. Angel Heart is as believable, at least at making us believe a man can make a deal with the Devil. But we’ve had help over the years. Whether by ”Faust” or ”The Devil and Daniel Mouse”, we’ve come to accept these dark contracts as plausible story drivers. The bigger challenge for these filmmakers is to convince us that Angel, a man who is shadowed in New Orleans by ever grislier murders, who figures as a prime suspect in each one, and whose dreams even ring alarm bells (say nothing of DeNiro’s boiled egg scene), would continue with this case, big money or not. Without unwrapping the entire package, I’ll just say they do manage to convince, but the more meaningful explanation as to how might be found in the viewers themselves. For anyone who’s known the right path all along and still walked into that darker place, Angel’s actions might be better understood. Closure. Fate. The Devil made me do it. Take your pick.

”Angel Heart” was directed by Sir Alan Parker, a one-time writer/director of TV commercials whose films regularly find either controversy or cult status, on occasion both. Recall his work ~ ”Pink Floyd The Wall”, ”Birdy”, ”Midnight Express” ~ and he seems the ideal choice for this story of one man’s steady, painful descent. Watching Angel unknowingly investigate himself is a form of slow torture that features elements of detective cinema, but also of a thriller and at times horror. Of course the film is probably best known for the sex scene between Rourke and Bonet, then acting in the comparatively sterile family sit-com ”The Cosby Show”, but there are better reasons to watch than this. Rourke’s performance is one. Once the evidence starts rolling in against his character, you can feel the growth of a horrific realization. Or at least see it through Angel. It’s probably the better way.

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