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Mickey Rourke in 'Angel Heart'

FACING THE TRUTH: In Angel Heart, Mickey Rourke plays a private eye who finds he’s been chasing himself to hell. (Lionsgate)

35 Years Later, Angel Heart Movie’s Soul Remains Intact

March 6, 2022, marks the 35th anniversary of director Alan Parker’s neo-noir classic, a supernatural detective story starring Mickey Rourke and Robert De Niro that ignited controversy when released in 1987

By Greg Beaubien

By GREG BEAUBIEN     March 6, 2022


A PRIVATE DETECTIVE CONFRONTS THE DEVIL in a case that sends him straight to hell. What a great premise for a novel—Falling Angel, by William Hjortsberg, 1978—and its movie adaptation, Angel Heart (1987), starring Mickey Rourke and Robert De Niro. A box-office flop when first released thirty-five years ago, Angel Heart now stands as a neo-noir classic.

Alan Parker, the movie’s writer and director, was attracted to its “fusion of two genres: the noir, Chandleresque detective novel and the supernatural,” he wrote in an essay based on his production notes from the film. Roger Ebert, then the movie critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, called Angel Heart “sensuous and depraved.”

Set in 1955 New York, the story finds Harry Angel (Rourke), a shabby, sweaty, unshaven private eye who specializes in small-time divorce and insurance cases, summoned to a tenement church in Harlem. There, he’s introduced to an elegant, mysterious client named Louis Cyphre (De Niro). Bearded, his long black hair pulled into a bun behind his head, dressed in a black suit and sitting atop a throne-like chair as he twirls a silver-topped cane with his pointed fingernails, Cyphre wants to hire Angel to locate a missing 1940s crooner named Johnny Favorite.

Cyphre says he helped Favorite start his career twelve years earlier, but then the singer reneged on their contract and didn’t pay the collateral he owed. During World War II the crooner was sent to North Africa as part of a special entertainment division, but in an enemy attack he was badly injured about the head and face and suffered amnesia.

“I know how that feels,” says Angel, who tells Cyphre he was also in the service but got “fucked up real quick” and was discharged. Cyphre says Favorite returned home “a virtual zombie” and has supposedly been confined to a mental institution outside of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., ever since. Cyphre has his doubts and wants to know if Favorite is still alive. 

Low notes throb ominously on the soundtrack as Cyphre shakes Angel’s hand and says with a grin: “It’s funny; I have a feeling I’ve met you before.”

Despite the foreboding he feels, Angel accepts the job, an investigation that will lead him to the voodoo dens of New Orleans and toward his own damnation. Along the way, most of the people Angel questions are soon found murdered in grisly fashion—starting with Dr. Fowler, an elderly, junkie psychiatrist who was paid $25,000 to falsely update Johnny Favorite’s medical charts after the crooner’s friends spirited him away from the mental hospital in Poughkeepsie. As the private detective interrogates him, Fowler aches for the morphine fix that Angel says will send the doctor to “Palookaville.” Fowler is later shown dead on his bed, shot through the eye and clutching a black-and-white photo of his late wife.

Robert De Niro in 'Angel Heart'

DEVIL IN THE FLESH: Lucifer, played by Robert De Niro, comes to collect Harry Angel’s soul in New Orleans. (Lionsgate)

In New Orleans, Angel questions a blues guitar player named Toots Sweet, who had performed with Johnny Favorite and is into voodoo. Soon after Angel grills Toots, police find the musician asphyxiated on his own severed genitalia. Margaret Krusemark (played by Charlotte Rampling), a wealthy woman who practices black magic and was Favorite’s lover, is discovered with her heart cut out after talking to Angel. Her father Nathan, a devil worshipper, is later found face-down in a boiling cauldron of Cajun gumbo.

Meticulous period detail, naturalistic lighting, a misty green-and-blue color palette and a grinding hum on the soundtrack—at times punctuated by a beating heart or by a 1940s pop melody plunked on worn-out piano keys—deepen the film’s portents. Motifs of rusty fans spinning, iron gates closing that throw sharp-angled shadows onto adjacent concrete walls, elevators descending to the sound of minor-key saxophone notes, symbolize Angel’s fall to hell and the futility of trying to escape the past and who you really are—no matter what you might think you have become.

Lisa Bonet plays Epiphany Proudfoot, a 17-year-old Creole girl in the Algiers, La., bayou, whom Angel questions about her late mother’s relationship with Johnny Favorite. We soon learn that Epiphany is a mambo priestess who takes part in late-night, backwoods voodoo rituals.

Angel secretly follows Toots to the remote site. The private eye sneaks through the hanging Spanish moss to see Epiphany in a circle of pounding drums. She holds up a live chicken and slits its throat, pulsating to the rhythm as the creature’s blood drips onto her face and bare breasts. A woman flops supine on the ground; Epiphany mounts her and arches her back, moaning with her mouth open to the dark sky.

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Angel’s sense that something sinister is brewing is heightened by his flashbacks to a crowd of returning soldiers celebrating in New York’s Times Square on New Year’s Eve, 1943. To the dissonant squeals of a saxophone, we then see the exterior of a gray tenement building, one of its windows blood-red above an exhaust fan. We hear screams.

As he pursues the case, Angel tumbles toward the destination he can’t escape. Near the end of the movie, when Angel threatens Ethan Krusemark, the older man admits that before the war, Favorite had sold his soul to the devil in exchange for stardom as a pop singer. But after his career soared, Favorite thought he could outwit the prince of darkness.

Excitement growing in his voice, Krusemark tells Angel that he, Margaret and Toots had taken Johnny Favorite to Times Square on New Year’s Eve, looking for another young man Johnny’s age among the crowd of celebrating soldiers and women. They found a G.I. and lured him to Johnny’s hotel. Following an ancient rite with incantations in Latin and Greek, they bound the boy naked to a rubber mat on the floor and branded a pentangle on his chest.

“Margaret handed Johnny a virgin dagger, and he sliced the boy clean open, and he ate his heart,” Krusemark tells Angel, whose sense of his own doom is becoming unbearable. “He cut it out so quickly the heart was still beating when he wolfed it down!”

By eating the young soldier’s heart, Favorite thought he could steal the boy’s soul and assume his identity. His plan was to drop out and then resurface as the solider, without paying the devil his due. But then Favorite himself was drafted and sent to North Africa—where he was wounded, suffered amnesia and later underwent facial-reconstruction surgery. Favorite was sent home without knowing who he was, and then committed to the psychiatric hospital near Poughkeepsie. The Krusemarks later snuck him out of the mental institution, his face wrapped in bandages, and then dropped him off in Brooklyn, where he emerged from his shell shock, believing he was the soldier.

In the movie Angel Heart, watching Mickey Rourke’s character lose his soul reminds us not to betray our own.

In the movie’s dramatic conclusion, it’s revealed that Harry Angel himself is Johnny Favorite, and Louis Cyphre is Lucifer. Angel can’t face the terrible truth.

“I know who I am,” he tells Satan, his voice hoarse. “You’re trying to frame me. You murdered them people. I never killed nobody.”

“I’m afraid you did, Johnny.”

My name’s not Johnny!

“All killed by your own hand,” Lucifer says. “Guided by me, naturally.” The devil grins. “Frankly, you were doomed from the moment you slit that poor boy in half. But Johnny, for twelve years you’ve been living on borrowed time and another man’s memories.”

 “I know who I am!” Harry/Johnny rasps. He runs in the rain back to his hotel room, where he finds a police detective standing over Epiphany’s body. She’s been viciously murdered in his bed.

“You’re gonna burn for this, Angel.”

“I know,” he says. “In hell.”

Lisa Bonet and Mickey Rourke in the movie 'Angel Heart'

ILLUSION OF LOVE: Epiphany Proudfoot, played by Lisa Bonet, doesn’t know the man whose bed she’ll share. (Lionsgate)


Bonet’s involvement in the film would make Angel Heart controversial even before it was released. Then 19 years old and a star of TV’s wholesome “The Cosby Show,” in Angel Heart she appears naked in a rough, graphic sex scene with Rourke (then 35), as water leaking through the ceiling turns into torrents of blood, intercut with images of orgies in hell. At first Epiphany had denied knowing Johnny Favorite, but it turns out she’s his daughter—and Angel is Favorite.

When Angel Heart was completed, the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings board slapped it with an “X,” a ruling that would have severely limited the film’s release. As Parker later recalled, the rating that restricted anyone under 18 from entering the theater was imposed because of “Mickey Rourke’s backside pumping up and down during the bloody, lovemaking scene with Lisa Bonet. Once I had excised about eleven feet of the offending footage—about seven seconds—they adorned it with a more acceptable ‘R’ rating.”

Parker said he loved working with Rourke. “From moment to moment he was a tough street kid, a vain movie star and a sweet, vulnerable, dented child,” the director wrote. Rourke’s performances were “always surprising and constantly mesmerizing.”

De Niro’s performance as Lucifer was reportedly so eerie and realistic that Parker avoided him during his scenes and let the actor direct himself. On the film set, Parker wasn’t the only one wary of De Niro; tensions would also arise between De Niro and Rourke.

“I shot with two cameras simultaneously, in opposite directions,” Parker recalled. “This way, should the two of them begin to improvise or go off at a tangent, provoking in the other an action or reaction, a moment’s magic that one inspired in the other would be captured on film.”

For Parker, it soon became clear that the process was not about acting, but rather “akin to a couple of prize-fighters testing one another out as they slowly encircled one another: an ad-libbed jab here, a wisecrack left hook there. Bob was cool, meticulous, charming and generous, but had everything under control. Mickey was disarming and ingenuous, but at all times gave as good as he took. For me, as the referee-onlooker, it was electric to watch.”

Parker shot the movie’s final confrontation between Angel and Cyphre in the French Quarter apartment of the Margaret Krusemark character. Angel breaks open a sealed vase and finds the dog tags of the soldier from Times Square that Favorite had sacrificed, stamped with the name “ANGEL, HAROLD.”

Delighting in Angel’s damnation, Lucifer smiles and says: “The flesh is weak, Johnny. Only the soul is immortal.” With his long hair down, his eyes glowing yellow, the devil points a sharp-nailed finger at him and growls: “And yours belongs to me.”

As Parker would recall, “It was a pleasure to watch as De Niro, his real hair cascading over his shoulders, taunts and plays with Harry, who cannot accept the truth. It was also Mickey’s strongest scene, and one where, I think, he revealed more of Mickey the actor than we’d seen in his previous work.” But it wouldn’t be long “before the demons inside of him chose a one-way ticket to Mickey’s own particular Palookaville.”

Alan Parker directs actor Mickey Rourke for the movie 'Angel Heart'

ARTISTS IN THEIR PRIME: Alan Parker (left) directs actor Mickey Rourke on the set of Angel Heart.

Then one of the biggest movie stars in the world, Mickey Rourke was at the height of his acting career when he starred in Angel Heart. But in one of the stranger circumstances surrounding the film, the actor, like the character Johnny Favorite that he played, would soon have his own face disfigured—and also like Favorite, he too would disappear from stardom.

Rourke had been an amateur boxer, but after Angel Heart he tried to box professionally—and he got his face punched in. After incompetent plastic surgeons molded his visage into a blob (and Rourke’s contempt for authority had burned bridges all over Hollywood), he dropped out of acting. He would eventually return, but never again at the same level.

“I was lucky to know Mickey before he decided he would quit acting to become a prizefighter,” Parker wrote. “When I knew him, he was the most exciting young actor in America … before his face was beaten to a pulp by second-rate fighters who delighted in the hubris of a movie star who thought that he could have been a contender—and before the vulturous surgeons sliced, poked and pushed his face into a Play-Doh version of his once handsome self.”

Parker was a versatile English director whose other films included Midnight Express (1978), Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982), Birdy (1984) and Mississippi Burning (1988).

Unlike the egoists and phonies who swarm Hollywood, Parker was immensely talented but also soft-spoken and unassuming. In 1988, a year after Angel Heart was released, I met him at a press screening of Mississippi Burning at Chicago’s Biograph Theater. I was a college student at the time, reviewing movies for the school newspaper at the University of Illinois at Chicago. But as I entered the theater with a colleague, the film critic Patrick Z. McGavin, Parker walked up the aisle to greet us, rather than the other way around. He was friendly and gracious. Alan Parker died in London July 31, 2020, at the age of 76.

Rourke has said that he lost his soul when his career fell apart. In Angel Heart, watching his character Harry Angel surrender his soul to the devil is a reminder not to betray our own. As Falling Angel author William Hjortsberg wrote before his death in 2017, “Only the soul is immortal. Guard this treasure well.”


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Greg Beaubien’s first novel is the critically acclaimed psychological thriller, Shadows the Sizes of Cities

Shadows the Sizes of Cities by Gregory W Beaubien

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