This week, we recorded a Shouts From the Back Row podcast on the career of Robert De Niro. During the mid-1980s, after establishing himself as one of the top actors in Hollywood, De Niro seemed to go through a brief phase where he mostly played supporting roles. Examples included his portrayals of Al Capone in The Untouchables and renegade terrorist/air conditioning specialist Archibald “Harry” Tuttle in Brazil. Even though these were smaller supporting parts, they were also larger-than-characters, so it only made sense to cast a renowned actor like De Niro to give them the larger-than-life personas they deserved. Another memorable De Niro supporting role took place in Alan Parker’s 1987 psychological horror film, Angel Heart, where he played the role of the devilish Louis Cyphre. Given De Niro’s long-time collaboration with Martin Scorsese, it seemed only appropriate that he would finally decide to deliver a performance modelled after the director. De Niro’s presence lends a lot of colour to a very offbeat thriller which starts off as a film noir private eye story before taking an unexpected journey into supernatural horror.
Angel Heart starts off in New York City in 1955 and is told from the point-of-view of a low-rent private investigator named Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke). Angel gets himself a lucrative assignment from an elegant-but-sinister individual named Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro), who offers Angel a generous fee to track down a missing person named Johnny Liebling, who was best known to the world as “Johnny Favorite”. During the late 1930s, Johnny had himself a pretty successful career as a singer, but after being drafted to fight in World War II, he was wounded and suffered some serious neurological trauma. After returning home, Johnny just seemed to disappear from the private hospital where he was being treated. Since Cyphre previously had a contract with Johnny and was unable to collect on his debt, he wants Angel to track Johnny down. Of course, one look at Cyphre’s pointy beard and long fingernails should provide a clue that Angel’s assignment is a lot more than just a simple missing person case.
Angel eventually travels to New Orleans to track down Johnny and finds himself immersed with the occult. He meets a lot of colourful characters, including: Margaret Krusemark (Charlotte Rampling), Johnny’s devil-worshipping ex-fiancée; blues musician Toots Sweet (real-life blues singer Brownie McGee in one of his only acting roles), who was one of Johnny’s former bandmates; and Epiphany Proudfoot (Lisa Bonet), a young voodoo priestess who happens to be Johnny’s illegitimate daughter. However, it seems that many the people Angel encounters wind up being killed in a very gruesome fashions. Even though Angel knows he didn’t commit the murders, there always seems to be some circumstantial evidence pointing towards him and the police consider Angel a suspect. Angel Heart is an adaptation of the William Hjortsberg novel, Fallen Angel, and remains pretty faithful to the book. The whole thing leads to a big twist ending and it’s not exactly difficult to figure things out. However, to the movie’s credit, the plot holds together pretty well, and it’s very easy to lose yourself in the story and become immersed in the unsettling nightmarish atmosphere. The narrative does a clever job of intertwining the film noir and horror genres and you’re often left unsure if what you’re seeing is reality.
In 1987, it was almost considered a dream pairing to put Mickey Rourke and Robert De Niro together in the same film since Rourke was one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed young actors at that time. Of course, Rourke’s personal problems would soon lead to his career going into a downward spiral before his resurrection two decades later. Alan Parker actually described Rourke as a nightmare to work with on Angel Heart, but he still delivers a solid performance here and effectively conveys the horror of the Kafka-esque situation his character finds himself in. While he only appears in a handful of scenes, De Niro does a masterful job as Louis Cyphre and you can tell the actor is having a blast attempting to work Martin Scorsese’s persona into such an ominous character. At the time, it was pretty shocking to see Cosby Show star Lisa Bonet (who was still only 19 years old) in a role like this. Angel Heart ran into trouble with the MPAA because of an explicit sex scene between Bonet and Rourke and several seconds had to be trimmed in order to secure an “R” rating. Their sex scene becomes infinitely more unsettling once the full ramifications of the plot are revealed. Angel Heart remains an underrated film, but it’s almost hard to convey just why it works. This is a prime example of a movie which sounds pretty hackneyed on paper, yet somehow, the right combination of first-rate acting, direction and production values turn it into a very effective thriller.