New York, January 1955 and Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) is a private detective specialising in minor cases, nothing too serious, just enough to get by. He receives a telephone call from an attorney working for a client who wishes to hire him, inviting him over to his Harlem offices for a meeting. When Harry gets there, it is being used as a church, though the preacher seems to be curiously mercenary from the little he hears, and as he passes a doorway he notes a cleaner washing a huge bloodstain off the wall, which the attorney explains away. Then Harry meets Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro), who wants him to find somebody...
Angel Heart was a minor sensation back when it was released, but not much of that was down to its Satanic themes, more down to the presence of Lisa Bonet in the cast. She was then famed as a star of America's top-rated sitcom The Cosby Show, so to see her appearing in full throttle sex scenes and generally getting naked regularly in this was not the image Bill Cosby wished to convey. It was rumoured this was the reason she was packed off to her less high rating sitcom the year this made the cinemas, and you could argue she was never as famous as she was in 1987 subsequently, but now the dust has settled, perhaps audiences have a different take on director Alan Parker's work.
It certainly bore all the hallmarks of a filmmaker ladling on the style, which saw some accusing him of rendering the visuals so pristinely to prevent viewers noticing the deficiencies in the plotline. Actually that story was drawn from a fine horror novel which pastiched the Raymond Chandler approach to mystery thrillers, but taking it to the screen tended to show up the mechanics of the narrative: basically, it was far too easy to guess the twist. By offering up so many trappings of atmosphere and flair in the imagery it was evident Parker was more interested in the surface than the events which brought his main character to his eventual fate, but then Parker was no slouch in that department anyway.
And he did do this very well, so that if you were finding the investigation Harry conducts tiresome, you could at least appreciate the methods and results on the decorative side of things. For a start, you can tell there's something up with his Cyphre fellow - they got De Niro to play him after all, and this was in the days before he tended to show up for the paycheque rather than the pleasure of working out a finely honed character. You can tell he's enjoying himself as the sinister, long fingernailed, cane-sporting, boiled eggs are just like the soul observing Machiavelli, and every time he shows up you get a kick out of his portrayal that you don't get from Little Fockers or whatever.
But as far as acting went, this was Rourke's show, given he's in practically every scene and essaying what was pretty much a signature role for him, undoubtedly the one which, more than 9 1/2 Weeks, cemented him as a cult star more than a conventional leading man. He was well cast, but Parker was showing his eye for detail everywhere, not only in the supporting parts but in the way he obsessed over bric-a-brac cluttering the frame or the frequent religious accoutrements, often in conjunction with ceremonies both Christian and voodoo. This left a mood suggesting both that there was something going on beneath the surface of normal life, and that these places we saw were most definitely lived and breathed in, and eventually died violently in as everyone Harry tries to interview ends up murdered in a gruesome fashion. As a tale of a man losing his soul, it verged on the grindingly predictable which went against its overall effectiveness as a spooky yarn, but never mind that, Parker seemed to say, drink in these pretty pictures. Music by Trevor Jones.