Angel Heart 1987 *****

I was still a teenager when I saw Alan Parker’s 1986 genre-bending horror/detective story; just old enough to beat the 18 certificate. The film ran for several months at my local Odeon; I returned over and over again to watch the print turn ragged on the screen. While friends waxed lyrical on Scorsese and Godard, it was Alan Parker’s film that caught my imagination, so to see a restored blu-ray pressed decades later is a welcome opportunity to revisit a well-thumbed, well-loved text.

The story is simple in synopsis but surprising in execution. Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) is a down-at-heel private eye hired by Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) to investigate a missing singer by the name of Johnny Favourite. Those unlucky enough to cross Angel’s path end up dead; Angel senses he’s being set up, but it’s only when he travels to New Orleans that the gumshoe begins to realise that supernatural forces are at work, and he’s little more than a pawn in the game.

Michael Seresin’s photography is the first thing to notice here; poor DVD prints haven’t helped the film’s reputation, but this blu-ray looks as good as if not better than the original; it’s hard to think of another film that looks as moist as this, which detailed textures to snow, paper, clothes, sweat and blood. The result is a film that’s vivid and atmospheric, with dream-like interruptions scored to the sound of a beating heart, telling a story with an outrageous twist ending that’s tricky to fully explain in detail.

Based on William Hjortsberg’s book Falling Angel, Parker shifted the action largely from NYC to New Orleans, and also changed the time-period and a few crucial details; elements from the book like the magic show are dropped, despite being remarkably cinematic in their own right. Parker’s use of mirrors, fans and blood is very much his own pictorial style, and while audiences weren’t sure of Angel Heart at the time, it’s clearly a misunderstood work that had a huge influence on Christopher Nolan

Parker’s wry commentary starts by discussing the problems of directing cats; it’s also implied that herding De Niro and Rourke through a number of scenes together wasn’t much easier. De Niro makes something iconic of his devilish character, but it’s Rourke that’s the revelation here. It’s not surprising to hear that Rourke couldn’t act the same scene the same way twice; his work feels spontaneous, and there’s an edge that makes Angel feel both larger than life and vulnerable.

Some of the other extras on this fresh re-issue suggest that Parker was prepared to bend the rules of voodoo in order to get what he wanted from his New Orleans shoot; such comments are interesting, but don’t detract from the film’s power. In the classic notion of drama, Angel’s investigation of his case is a search for himself, and a discovery of an unpleasant truth about human nature. Parker’s film may have been better known for its sex scene than it’s dramatic content at the time, but with the benefit of hindsight, Angel Heart is an essential purchase for fans of all the considerable talents involved, and for horror aficionados in general.

ANGEL HEART is  released on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, DVD and Digital on October 14th 2019 and can be streamed below…

 

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Birdy 1984 ***

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British director Alan Parker’s work has been critically neglected of late; his 1984 film Birdy shows him at the top of his game, directing Nicolas Cage and Matthew Modine  in a off-beat but moving drama about post-traumatic stress syndrome. Having been boyhood friends, Al (Cage) and Birdy (Modine) returns from Vietnam with emotional and physical scars that affect their relationship; Birdy is in hospital, and seems intent on realising his childhood dream to fly. Al is trying to bring his friend down to earth, but understands that Birdy’s dream of taking wing is potentially bad for his health. Adapted from a book by William Wharton, Birdy keeps the Vietnam flashbacks to the minimum, but focuses patiently on the friendship between the two men, topped of with a great final scene (and line) that wraps the story off with offhand aplomb.

Angel Heart 1987 ****

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Alan Parker got a career best performance from Mickey Rourke as shambolic private-eye Harry Angel in this intense thriller from 1987. Favourite is pressed into service for Louis Cyphre (Robert de Niro), a saturnine presence who wants to retrieve a mysterious something from a crooner called Johnny Favourite. Louis is the devil, and that something is a soul, and Parker’s New Orleans’ set metaphysical thriller depicts Angel’s investigation as a one way ticket to hell and back.  Skipping some of the more humorous touches of William Hjortsberg’s novel Falling Angel, Angel Heart is a vicious, beautiful, profound yet pulpy cinema experience, with a underlying gravity that’s deeply untypical of the time when it was made.

Melody 1971 ***

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An early, rather charming effort from Alan Parker (Angel Heart, Midnight Express), this slight British movie from 1972 is a simple tale of a schoolboy and girl who challenge authority by running away together. Scored to a melodic selection of Bee Gees songs, long before their name because synonymous with disco funk, Melody is an engaging time capsule of UK life, likable simple and tinged with the same bittersweet melancholy for lost innocence that charged Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom.