When people think New Orleans movies, a few titles spring instantly to mind like the classic thriller The Big Easy. However, to me, New Orleans is a place full of thrills, but not always of the natural variety. There always feels there could be the threat of the supernatural lurking around every corner (even though it’s probably just a guy who wants to bet you he knows where you got your shoes.). On the other hand going au natural might be what got today’s B.L.O.G in trouble with her boss, but really Mr. Cosby you didn’t see something like this coming when you had your daughter being played by…
Lisa Bonet, yeah we all know her. If you grew up in the ‘80’s then you must have watched The Cosby Show. I’m pretty sure for a while it was required in some states. So unless you grew up under a rock you knew Bonet’s headstrong Denise as well as you did the rest of the Huxtable clan. Ultimately, her departure from the show is assumed to have stemmed from the controversy surrounding her role in tonight’s film, but, of course, the reason for her leaving was chalked up to the ever popular “creative differences”. Bonet would go to famously wed and divorce rocker Lenny Kravitz, but she also kept acting with roles in High Fidelity, Enemy of the State, and most recently the TV show Life on Mars. Her best role may well have been the one that cast her into the fires of controversy, and that’s what we’re here to talk about tonight. Ladies and gents, I give you….
Angel Heart (1987) starring Mickey Rourke, Robert Di Niro, and Lisa Bonet. Directed by Alan Parker.
Small time detective Harry Angel gets a call to meet a new client, a Mr. Louis Cyphre. Years ago before World War II, Cyphre had made a deal with a young crooner by the name of Johnny Favorite, but Johnny suffered a trauma in the war that left him a vegetable and never made good on his end of the bargain. Now Johnny has gone missing entirely and Angel is tasked with tracking him down. The clues lead him to New Orleans, and after his arrival, he begins to uncover a world filled with mystery and the supernatural. Angel begins to uncover some disturbing facts, not only about Johnny Favorite, but also about the true nature of Louis Cyphre.
The Bugg Speaks
When you look at a catalog of a director’s work, you generally see one or two kinds of films that are repeated in one form or another for their entire career. (I’m not counting Italian directors here since their diversity is hardly the average.) With Alan Parker, you get a director who has only made 17 films since 1974, and it’s a hell of a list of heavy hitting and diverse films this guy brings. For one director to have given the world Midnight Express(1978), Fame (1980), Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1982), Mississippi Burning (1988), The Commitments (1991), The Road to Wellville (1994), Angela’s Ashes (1999), and Angel Heart is quite an accomplishment. I count a couple of those flicks among my favorites, but I’ll leave it to you folks to ponder which ones.
Tonight we’re here to talk specifically about Parker’s Angel Heart
, and there’s plenty here to talk about. Some say that this film is Parker’s crowning achievement, and I’m not sure I can totally disagree with that statement. It is a film that is both incredibly simple and infinitely rich, and while some may say it loses it’s mystique after a first viewing, I think it only grows stronger each time. The film retains its strength through the little intricacies of the plot, the subtle and not so subtle clues, and the way evil is treated as something very real and very dangerous. This is a film born out of film noir as much as the art house.
Much of the credit for the deftness of Angel Heart must be attributed to Mickey
Rourke as the detective, Harry Angel. Recently Rourke has undergone something of a renaissance in the last year due to his performance in The Wrestler
, but 1987 was before he needed a comeback and Rourke was riding high on a string of successful films. His previous flick, 9 ½ Weeks
, made something of a stir with it‘s intense eroticism, and I count his next film, Barfly
, as a personal favorite. Angel Heart
is something of a combination of the two extremes. Rourke combined the sexuality of his former role with the swaggering bravado that he would tap into for his next. It’s an epic performance, and while every bead of sweat, facial tick, and verbal nuance comes across as spontaneous, I can’t imagine that Rourke, at the height of his powers, was not in complete control of his every move.
While Rourke is the main attraction, every performer brings their A game to this one. As today we’re here to talk about Lisa Bonet, let’s start there. Not only does she exude a raw sexuality when called upon, she also pulls off the mysterious innocent. It’s a shame that between Angel Heart and The Cosby Show
, Bonet did not get more quality roles. Then you’ve got a legendary actor like Robert Di Niro in a very minor role. At first glance, it’s puzzling to see why Di Niro might have taken such a role, but it turns out to be the pivotal character in the film. His screen time is limited, but each time he shows up, it’s a joy to see him portray such restrained evil as compared to some of his larger than life roles.
There is one other actor I would like to mention, and that’s Elliot Keener. We’ll be seeing more of Keener this week, but in tonight’s film he plays the cop investigating the murders that seem to be cropping up around Harry Angel. Keener is something of a fixture in New Orleans movies, and has turned up inTightrope (1984), French Quarter Undercover (1986),Down by Law (1986), The Big Easy (1987),Undercover Blues (1993), and many, many others. I bring Keener up not only because he is a great character actor, but because he was also a founder of the New Orleans School for the Performing Arts, a magnet school where he taught acting from 1974 to his death in 1999. Keener rarely appeared in films beyond his Louisiana home, and I’m sure he could have landed minor roles in many productions. Yet he devoted his career to two worthy causes, the teaching of art to the youth and a series of solid minor performances that were always enjoyable though never lauded. For what it’s worth, I wanted to put my two cents in for Keener.
Angel Heart is at its core a mysterious film, and at the core of the mystery is whether it derives from the workings of men or of something beyond the mortal plane. The cinematography by frequent Parker collaborator Michael Seresin is perfectly matched to the ethereal quality of the story, and somehow it did not surprise me that he went on to shoot Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
, arguably the best looking and darkest of the Potter series. Scene after scene is perfectly meshed with the action, and Angel Heart
would be stunning to look at even if the story wasn’t as good as it is. Trevor Jones’ score also does a wonderful job of evoking both the period and the setting of the film. While it relies mostly on jazz, as the film moves from New York to New Orleans, there are subtle changes from big city bop to the more blues inspired jazz of Bourbon street. The only misstep comes when a Dr. John track is inserted into one scene. While I am a big fan of the Dr., having this apocryphal song in the middle of a beautifully scored film struck me as very odd. Especially as it precedes the voodoo ritual scene and feels a bit on the nose for the moment.
What really makes Angel Heart a classic is the debate that the last third of the film can spark. I wish I could say more, but I hesitate to spoil even a single moment of this film for anyone. Suffice it to say that there is some room for interpretation in the final scenes. However, there is no room for interpretation in my final sentences. Angel Heart is a near masterpiece, and should be a must see for anyone who loves thrillers or horror. Rarely do I find a film that not only does everything right, but does it even more right with repeated viewings. So if you haven’t checked this flick out, then please do, and if you have, do yourself a favor and watch it again.