The news of Alan Parker’s passing was tremendously sad for myself as a British film fan. A truly influential, and accomplished director who has been a presence in my life since my school put on a performance of Bugsy Malone and we spent many afternoons watching Parker’s fantastic 1976 debut in preparation. Since then I remember watching Mississippi Burning as a young teen, and eventually after falling in love with Pink Floyd’s music watching the incredible The Wall. But in an accidental twist of fate, I participated in a twitter challenge with some fellow film fans where one of the films included was Parker’s Angel Heart, so after hearing of his passing it felt right to sit down and finally watch the acclaimed psychological thriller, and I’m pleased to say that once again Parker’s work has proved to be great.
What starts off as a seemingly typical noir-mystery, soon devolves into an eerie, brutal and heart-pounding thriller after Mickey Rourke’s Harry Angel becomes embroiled in a series of brutal murders. The first half of the film is admittedly weak, after the introduction of Robert De Niro’s Louis Cyphre, which is one of the coolest characters in film history I must admit, the film’s pacing really suffers as Rourke investigates all his possible leads on where the missing crooner Johnny Favourite is. There are moments in this part of the film that excel, when Angel visits the doctor for example, but the film really picks up after Angel travels to New Orleans to continue his investigation. These pacing issues, which are present in both the New York section of the film as well as the New Orleans section early on, are the film’s biggest weakness as when it’s presenting itself as a typical noir, it feels just that; typical. Parker infuses the film with plenty of style during these more standard scenes and certain motifs like the fans, and the clever use of shadows by cinematographer Michael Seresin make these sections visually stunning, but the slow nature of the film and the lack of agency really took me out of the film during these portions. But in the second half of the film, and especially in the last 30 or-so minutes, the film really kicks itself into a higher gear and I was glued to my screen throughout the climax.
What really set this film apart from the typical neo-noir for me is how it really leans into psychological horror and thriller themes with the introduction of the New Orleans Voodoo. Sequences like the voodoo dance that culminates in a chicken sacrifice, the infamous sex scene, and the final confrontation with Stocker Fontelieu’s Krusemark are all incredibly disturbing and uncanny. With the sex scene especially being a fantastic scene that puts you firmly on edge, the rough sex is uncomfortable enough to watch anyway then as the ceiling starts dripping with blood before becoming a full-on torrent only adds to the discomfort of the sequence. While I agree with some critics that the scene isn’t nearly as bad as the censors made it out to be, it’s still a deeply unpleasant scene to watch unfold and made worse in hindsight by later revelations. Once again in all of these sequences the cinematography and style really capture the feelings of confusion, paranoia and terror, one of my favourite shots in the entire film is during the sex scene where the camera is focused on the jug of water on the table being pounded by rain only to turn red as the water turns to blood. That whole sequence is shot beautifully but it’s that specific shot that really impressed me. But similarly throughout the film there are some great uses of wide-shots that are composed beautifully, one that really stood out to me is right after Angel rents a car and we see his car speed across the dirt roads with a trail of dust shooting out behind the car set against the sky and the fields that looks fantastic.
One of the films biggest strengths is its cast, with Mickey Rourke giving what I would consider one of his best performances, bringing a fiery passion to Harry Angel that is so intense and yet charming. Rourke makes Angel feel both in-line with the typical noir detective, while also setting the character apart from the expected characterisation in the genre. As I mentioned before, Robert De Niro’s portrayal of the mysterious Louis Cyphre is almost hypnotic, the character is suave and prim in a way that makes him so curious, but the details like his sharp fingernails and his methodic dialogue underpin his characterisation with a sinister tone. The scene in the cafe where De Niro eats the egg is a perfect example of how this layered character is pulled off. There’s something so uncomfortable about the scene while De Niro’s charisma keeps you engaged and inquisitive of the background of the character. Meanwhile Rourke’s chemistry meshes brilliantly with the rest of the supporting cast, Lisa Bonet is a stand-out in this regard and holds her own as a much more stoic and calm presence to Rourke’s intense and dynamic performance.
While I have my reservations about the pacing of the film that really bring down my rating, the film is still a masterclass in style while adding an interesting twist to the traditional neo-noir genre, creating an interesting and engaging mystery while also moving through genres seamlessly. But it was bittersweet watching this film so soon after Alan Parker’s passing, it just reaffirmed in my mind what a tremendous talent he was in the industry and how versatile his talents as not only a director but also a screenwriter were. I implore any of you reading this to take an evening and put on an Alan Parker film to honor his memory, whether it’s Angel Heart, Bugsy Malone or Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and I sincerely hope that Parker rests in peace.