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MOVIE REVIEWS : A LEAP BACK IN TIME AND PLACE FOR A COMEDY AND A THRILLER : 'Angel Heart'

March 06, 1987|SHEILA BENSON | Times Film Critic

Alan Parker's occult thriller "Angel Heart" (citywide) is the color of marcasite--steely gray-silver and cold even when its actors are steaming in New Orleans humidity. It is a movie cool to the eye, but it's hell's own terrifying vision.

It's not the universal, you-are-there, clutching terror of "Blue Velvet," which somehow bypassed the brain and went straight to the soul, but a precisely manufactured sense of doom that escalates as its intricate story unwinds.

Harry Angel is at the heart of that tale, which Parker adapted from William Hjortsberg's novel "Falling Angel." As played to scabrous perfection by Mickey Rourke, Angel is a classic '50s gumshoe, a savvy, chain-smoking, illusionless Brooklynite whose clothes look as though he'd just pulled them out of a dumpster seconds ahead of a derelict.

He is, also in classic fashion, elegantly counterpointed by the mysterious gentleman who hires him, the sardonic Mr. Louis Cyphre (a smallish but perfect role for Robert De Niro, with lasting reverberations), who pronounces his last name Sy-fee-aire, and conducts his business above a shady Harlem mission. Cyphre wants a man tracked down--Johnny Favorite, a heartthrob crooner who hit his enormous popularity just before World War II--some matter about an unhonored contract. The money offered Angel is considerable.

Beginning with Angel's first Harlem contact, he finds himself in the world of ominous religions, beginning with this neck-prickling Kingdom Mission and Pastor John, its unquestioned leader, and moving precipitously into the occult and voodoo. (When the movie's final mystery is revealed, these references and their meanings will all make better sense.)

"Angel Heart" has probably the most impenetrable story line since "The Big Sleep," as Harry Angel doggedly follows the trail of the elusive Johnny Favorite, but two things becomes clear: that murder follows Angel's key witnesses, and that for all of director Parker's cinematic sleight-of-hand, this film is a Mt. Everest of exposition.

Our detective goes from place to place, gathering infinitely complicated information about a shadowy man whom we never have seen, and may never, in an increasingly murky and dangerous atmosphere. Pure film noir , you might say. But even for that genre, this slender plot thread--and our willingness to follow it--almost snaps.

What keeps us glued to the screen is Parker's voluptuous visual sense. In its more overwrought manifestations, this style has overpowered some of his past films, but it has certainly found its match here, in this mid-'50s period and in locales like Harlem and the more seedily picturesque fringes of New Orleans.

What you may remember best (or best after the film's bloodier images) is a moment on a windy, deserted Coney Island beach, as a genial carny geek reclines on a deck chair while his blowsy wife wades out into the Atlantic hoping to soothe her varicose veins. This pink-gray sky, the expanse of horizon and clouds and the audacious humor of this couple, zing right into the great film memories album, as well as acting as a release from the dark and evilly claustrophobic interiors that surround us for the rest of the film.

(All credit, too, to Parker's usual and superlative technicians: editor Gerry Hambling; cinematographer Michael Seresin; production designer Brian Morris; and relative newcomers to him, art directors Kristi Zea and Armin Ganz. Parker's producer was, as always, Alan Marshall, with Elliot Kastner.)

Among the other singular characters who cross Angel's path are a 17-year-old bayou priestess and young mother (19-year-old Lisa Bonet, sullenly fine and certainly beautiful), the great Brownie McGhee as New Orleans jazzman Toots Sweet and the always enigmatic Charlotte Rampling, as a fallen Louisiana aristocrat, Margaret Krusemark, who had apparently taken to dabbling in the occult even in the Ivy League. (The movie's funniest straight line? "She was known as the Witch of Wellesley.")

Good as these performances are, and powerful as Rourke's is, it is the film's cumulative atmosphere that builds its mounting sense of doom: a great musical score (by Trevor Jones), which has everything from what sounds like prepared-piano chords to sax solos, to the fine old song "Girl of My Dreams" appearing will-o'-the-wisp fashion. There are those dozens of slowly turning fans, which seem to be blowing noxious fumes straight at us; the images of descending elevators; dread that lurks beyond half-closed doors; and the blood that bathes more than one sequence.

(Presumably it was partially the film's literal buckets of blood, its nudity, its sex and its language which earned it that interim X rating, now replaced by the tamer R. Having seen that X-rated version, I find it a peculiar choice, unless it turned on a plot point unrevealable here. Other films have had sex, nudity and violence in these proportions, and far less tastefully, and remained unscathed.)

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