Sunday, October 24, 2010

31 days, 31 faves: Angel Heart

Confession time: I like movies about voodoo. In fact, I own several, including The Serpent and the Rainbow and The Skeleton Key -both of which I like quite a bit. But if pressed, I would always choose Angel Heart (1987) as my favorite voodoo film. I also enjoy movies about devils, demons & Satanism, not because I like Satan - but because I like how it messes people up. Angel Heart has a fair smattering of that as well, so it's just an all-out fun fest for me.
I first saw it many, many years ago, and it made an indelible impression on me. Mickey Rourke was so spot-on in his portrayal of the shabby private investigator digging into nasty secrets, he ruled the film. Then again he was in nearly every scene, how could he not?

I've been a fan of Mickey Rourke since his Diner days, and even though he's pretty much lost his looks and seems quite the shambles these days I still very much respect his acting talent. Angel Heart is my favorite of all of his films. (Yes, even more than 9 1/2 Weeks, ha!) It's a controversial flick, in particular because of the graphic sex scenes between Rourke and The Cosby Show's Lisa Bonet. She was trying to break out of her good girl stereotype, and wow - she accomplished that and then some.

Written and directed by Alan Parker from a screenplay based on the book 'Falling Angel' by William Hjortsberg, and brilliantly scored by Trevor Jones, Angel Heart tells the story of a man searching for a missing person that ends up being intricately involved in his own life.

New York, 1955. Private investigator Harry Angel is heading home down a dingy alley when he hears the phone in his office ring. Rushing to grab it, the man on the other line wants to set up a meeting with a Mr. Winesap in Harlem.
Meeting in a church hall of some kind, he listens in on a vibrant Harlem minister trying to get money out of his exuberant congregation. When Mr. Winesap (Dann Florek of Law & Order SVU!) finally retrieves him, they pass a room with a door open, and a woman is cleaning a major bloodstain off the wall. Apparently one of the preacher's congregation took a gun to his head.
Images such as these become commonplace in this film, with the dark and seedy underbelly of society rearing its ugly head.

Mr. Winesap's client, Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro), wants Angel to investigate the disappearance of a war-time crooner, Johnny Favorite. It's very obvious right from the beginning that Mr. Cyphre is one strange individual. He's dressed all in black, has a cane at his side and his fingernails are much too long (but very well manicured to be sure) for a man. Something just isn't right with this guy.
When Harry says he's no clue who Johnny Favorite is, Cyphre explains that he gave Johnny some help after the war, and he'd like to collect on the debt owed. But the man went missing. He was injured in the war, enough to have amnesia and be sent to a special hospital where they allegedly did some experimental procedures that rendered Johnny a virtual zombie. It's also mentioned that his wounds pretty much ruined his face and made him unrecognizable.

Cyphre states all he wants is to know if Johnny is alive or dead. Each year they receive notice that Johnny is still at said hospital, but within the last week he and Winesap had made the trip there themselves, and were given the runaround. What they wish is for Harry to go check into it.

Off Harry goes, with the information given, to the clinic where Johnny (whose given last name was Liebling) is supposedly housed. He finagles his way through the front desk nurse, charming her into giving him info on Liebling. He finds record of the patient being transferred out of the hospital way back in 1943, but knows something is fishy because the transfer info is written in ballpoint, which didn't exist back then. Finding the name of the physician who signed off on the file, he goes to the doc's house.

Picking the lock and entering the house, he finds a stash of narcotics and injectables in the fridge, and a gun in his sock drawer. He waits around to talk to Dr. Fowler (Michael Higgins), surprising the poor old man and threatening to turn him in to police if he doesn't give him some info.
Seems Dr. Fowler faked Liebling's transfer because a man named Edward Kelly and an unidentified woman came and picked him up years ago. Fowler was paid off to keep up the ruse of him still being at the hospital.
Fowler, in a cold sweat cause he needs his morphine, is helped into bed by Harry, who is heading out to get a bite to eat before heading back for more chat with Fowler.

But when Harry gets back, Dr. Fowler has shot his brains out, making it obvious that these people involved with Liebling meant business, and were definitely not someone to mess around with. Harry cleans his prints off everywhere in the house and leaves.

With a new lead to follow but utterly wigged out, he meets with Cyphre again, explaining that he's not sure he can continue the investigation because of the danger involved and the fact that the cops might think he's a suspect in Fowler's death.

As the two speak, Cyphre peels a hard boiled egg. Which might not seem important until we see him roll it around and notice that Cyphre is wearing a ring that has a pentagram on it. Hmm... He convinces Harry to keep plugging away by upping his cash flow to five grand, an unheard of amount in those days.

Harry goes back to the room where he and Cyphre originally met and after some snooping, he opens a closet which turns out to be a religious altar of some kind. But certainly not a Christian one, what with eyeballs, a dead monkey, black candles, upside down crosses and other bizarre artifacts. Heading back down into the heart of the church, he sees a lone woman sitting in a chair dressed all in black. As a strange feeling comes over him (made even more eerie from the heart-beat sounds that permeate from the movie score), he is just about to touch her when he is attacked and chased from the church by three thugs. They race after him, through the church and out onto the street, eventually losing him during a religious parade.

Harry meets up with his Girl-Friday, who works for the NY Times and has been doing some digging for him. The two retreat to the bedroom for some hanky panky in which Harry learns more about both Johnny Liebling and the Times reporter.

As the two go over the case, Harry has a strange moment of déjà vu, in which he envisions a soldier standing in Times Square, circa WWII, in a crowd of thousands. The incessant heart beat background amps up again and Harry seems a million miles away.

Harry follows up on a few leads, speaking first to Johnny's bandleader Spider, from who he finds out Johnny had a secret love named Evangeline Proudfoot who ran a voodoo shop in Harlem.
Also in the mix was a palm reader named Madame Zora - a fortune teller. Madame Zora ends up being Johnny's (other) girlfriend, Margaret Krusemark (Charlotte Rampling), who packed up and headed south to New Orleans several years ago.

Traveling to steamy New Orleans, Harry makes an appointment to see Margaret for a reading. He notices she has a heaping handful of pretty unusual decorations in her house, such as a mummified hand, further validating that she's involved in something other than what is considered normal in polite society. She asks him a series of questions in order to do his chart, and she is somewhat surprised to learn he was born on Valentine's Day - and tells him she knew a man born that exact same day. When the questions get a bit too uncomfortable and it's obvious Harry is prying, Margaret sends him packing - but not before we notice Margaret's necklace also has a pentagram on it. Ahh, the plot thickens.

Next up, he ventures to a voodoo shoppe trying to track down Evangeline Proudfoot. He ends up in an extremely poor section of the bayou, with shacks meant to be houses and an endless stream of children running barefoot all over the place. He meets up with Evangeline's daughter, Epiphany (Lisa Bonet), who tells him Ms. Proudfoot is dead.
(Now I'm sure every man watching this film no doubt got a raging hard-on after seeing Lisa Bonet doing her version of a wet t-shirt contest right here. Well boys, it's only just begun.)
He asks if she knows Johnny, but she replies no. She also doesn't admit to knowing Toots Sweet, an old band member of Johnny's that Harry wants to talk to. He leaves, but not before he writes his address on a piece of paper to give her. (Ah, what did we do before cell phones and email?)

He heads over to a small club where Toots is playing. After questioning him just a bit too much, Toots's buddies run him out of the club, tossing him into an alley. Harry waits for Toots though, and follows him home. Only he doesn't go home, he heads to an isolated place where a bloody voodoo ritual is going on, complete with wild dancing, moaning and crying, pounding drums, and chicken sacrifices. Complicating things further is the fact that Epiphany seems to be the star of the show, having herself a good old time with the dead chicken and its blood.

Supremely freaked out at this point, he still follows Toots home. But Toots is wise to his game and the old man tries to cut him with a straight razor. But Harry turns the tables and accosts Toots, trying to garner all the information he can. He gives Toots his address as well, and leaves, dropping the straight razor on the floor.
Following that, he has another of his illogical and surreal daydreams in which he is covered with blood and approaching a woman in black again. He drops a razor from his bloody hands and just as he touches the woman he comes back to reality and realizes he's not alone.

The cops are in his room, and begin to question him about Toots. Seems the man was murdered (by choking him with his own genitalia!) and they found Harry's address in his hand. They warn him not to leave town until they talk to Mr. Winesap about the true nature of Harry's business in New Orleans.

Harry has yet another strange episode, which is becoming more and more like a flashback, he realizes it's New Year's Eve in Times Square, and just as he again approaches the man in uniform, he's back to the present. He's understandably confused as to the reason he's remembering these things; is he losing it or is he channeling something evil?

As he heads back to Margaret's, he finds her lying dead on her floor, her heart removed. He searches her place, looking for any clue he can find, opening every jewelry box, every notebook...until he finds her heart lying on a desk. That my friends, is not a good day.
Everywhere he goes, it's obvious someone is following him. At this point, he gets attacked by a dog, followed by a couple of guys warning him to leave town. Seems everyone is in on the secret except him.

He heads back to Epiphany's, where he lets her know that he's aware she's a mambo priestess and that she lied about knowing Toots. Nonchalantly, she shocks him by admitting that Johnny Favorite is her daddy. Johnny left her mom when he got drafted and was never heard from again.

Summoned to a church, he finds Louis Cyphre is in town and waiting for an update. He explains about his many brushes with death and they discuss all the particulars. Can I just say it's fucking amazing that Harry hasn't figured out the enigmatic Mr. Cyphre is the devil incarnate. Big duh there.
But Cyphre convinces Harry to continue the case.

At his hotel, he finds Epiphany waiting for him at his door in the rain.
Inside, they have a little discussion about Johnny and then some entirely inappropriate words about sex in general.
She has already mentioned the fact that she is only seventeen, but the way they look at each other is self-explanatory. She describes her relationship with spirits that got her pregnant, and the fact that her mother said Johnny was a terrific lover.
As Lavern Baker's Soul on Fire plays in the background, we finally get to some seriously provocative sex. I'm actually talking quite graphic, without a doubt. (While edited to get an R-rating in theaters, the special edition DVD is most certainly unrated, and if the sex was merely simulated I'll eat my hat - and yours as well.)
With a roof that is leaking in several places, the rain gets louder and louder as drops plop into pans placed around the room, and the sex becomes nearly violent as images of orgies and scarlet death flash into the scenes. The rainwater turns to blood, and soon the walls are just running red.
It's an amazing scene, so raw and untamed - yet surprisingly disturbing.

Cops turn up again the next morning, telling him what he already knows - about Margaret Krusemark being dead. Of course they also have words about the black girl in his room, stating polite society doesn't stoop that low in New Orleans (it is the mid-fifties after all). Harry comes back with a witty "Well I ain't from here..."
After they leave, Epiphany is taking a bath and singing one of Johnny's songs, which Harry seems to find unnervingly familiar.

Okay, here's where you'll want to stop if you haven't seen the ending. You've been warned.

Harry heads off to a primitive (horse) bush-race track to have a chat with the elusive Edward Kelly (Stocker Fontelieu) the man who supposedly took Johnny out of the hospital and down south. Turns out his real name is Ethan Krusemark - Margaret's father - making her the unidentified woman with him the night Johnny was taken away.

Edward admits he's had his goons chasing him all along, and that he's the one that stole Johnny away. Margaret and Johnny were into all kinds of black magic, and Johnny made a pact with Satan - selling his soul for stardom.
Attempting to deceive the Devil , they stole a man from the street on New Years Eve - took him to a hotel, cut him open and ate his heart in a bizarre ritual. Favorite assumed the original Harry Angel's identity to escape the devil's wrath by pretending to be wounded in the war and tucked away in the hospital. Margaret kept the soldier's dog tags, hiding them away in a vase.

At this point, Harry starts remembering. He finds Kelly, dead in a vat of boiling gumbo. Running back to Margaret's he searches for the vase. Finally finding it, he breaks it open and finds the dog tags of the soldier who was stolen from the street. The tags say Angel, Harold.

Louis Cyphre appears in the room, finally making it know that he is Lucifer (the name being a play on the word) and that he's come back to get Johnny's soul that is owed to him. Utterly destroyed, Harry realizes he IS Johnny Favorite, and under the devil's influence he killed all those people... Then it dawns on him that Epiphany is actually his daughter.

He rushes back to his hotel but finds Epiphany dead on his bed, his dog tags around her neck and lying in a pool of blood. The cops are already there, and issue him a warning that he's going to burn for this.
Harry/Johnny agrees, adding, "In Hell."

The final scene as the credits run is Johnny, riding an old iron elevator down floor after floor, most certainly to hell.

Angel Heart is a very visual, very atmospheric film. There are so many dark yet beautiful images, some of which are repeated several times for effect, such as the fans. In scenes that precede or follow violence, we almost always see a scene of a fan, generally an old fashioned slow-moving one.
The New Orleans and Harlem locations also lend a lot of grim reality to the film. The nastiness of human nature can be scarier than anything conjured up by a filmmaker.

There are such grim, morbid overtones from the beginning to the end of Angel Heart. From the ominous back alley bowels of a city to the sinister religious innuendos infused throughout, the film has no chance of a happy ending, you know that going in. But the hopeless journey is so frighteningly engrossing that you can't take your eyes off the screen.

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