Can a film’s last shot ruin it? Or am I just being petty? Well, pettier than usual. Not only had I been enjoying Angel Heart, I was passing over its minor little quibbles because of how much it dragged me in. Then the last shot. Not the previous scene; not the mid-credit footage. No, I am talking about the last freaking shot in the film. It is just so dreadful compared to everything else in this film that it touched a nerve, and now everything is horrible.
So yes, Angel Heart review, out now on Special Edition and 4K Ultra HD from Studiocanal.
Opening with a grim but otherwise beautifully shot scene, the film follows Harry Angel (Micky Rourke), a New York private detective in 1955. He is hired by the enigmatic Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) to locate a crooner Johnny Favorite. Severely wounded during World War Two, Favorite has disappeared with an outstanding debt to Cyphre who aims to collect. Angel’s investigation takes him from Harlem to New Orleans as he chases down Favorites associates, each of whom suffers a case of horrific murder just as Angel is about to get closer to the truth. Against a background of sex and Louisiana Voodoo, Angel’s investigation is rocked by murder and sins of the past.
Angel Heart is not a horror. Despite its subject matter; it is part Neo-Noir, part Southern Gothic. As we watch, we see Angel get dragged into a complex woven plot against his will. While Angel might owe more to Jake Gittes from Chinatown (1974) that to Chandler’s Philip Marlow, like both he’s caught up in conspiracies of betrayal, power, and abuse. We spend most of the film watching Angel hunt for the truth about Favorite and his disappearance. From down on their luck jazz musicians; hop headed doctors, socialite femme Fatales, and mysterious and powerful men. Just here it happens to have overtones of voodoo and dark powers. It captures that Noir feel of low-key lighting and harsh lighting contrasts. It combines them with skewered and low camera angles that masks so much in shadow or isolates them in long open shots that heighten the sense of mystery.
Like I said, Angel Heart is not a horror. It doesn’t scare you, but it does unnerve you, leaving a bad taste in your mouth and a worse feeling in your gut. You don’t see any of the murders, not really. Even when you think you’ve seen them, it’s more like the shower scene in Psycho (1960), clever editing hides most of it. We see the result of the violence, the graphical description, but never the act itself. And it’s something about the way the characters described it that makes it last longer than seeing it. If we had seen it, we would dismiss it as a gory slasher film, one of the dime-a-dozen. But deciding to tell rather than show has amped the unease of it. We share Angel’s horrified reaction to discovering a body; we share his shock at the truth.
There is a subtley to it, even during what should be the more extreme moments, since everything teased out slowly, we are investigating the murder along with Angel. That is until the build-up to the climax, when we get a truckload of exposition dumped in our laps. Maybe they ran out of money or had deadlines, but it is just a real cop-out. Sure they try to hide it behind a panic attack but that it comes from a suddenly introduced character and breaks all the tension and, more importantly for a Noir, the mystery. Rourke and De Niro’s fantastic acting only just save the climax, and you slide over it. Until the last shot ruins as it reminds you this film has issues.
A shame because, whether intentional or not, Angel Heart raises some philosophical issues. On the nature of guilt and sin, it asks, without spoiling the film, questions about responsibility inherited blame and control.
The disc comes with an introduction and audio commentary from director Alan Parker and behind the scenes footage and interviews. But the stand out is the series of featurettes on Voodoo. Rather than showing Voodoo as some dark, evil force, it addresses its realities and the misconceptions. How it became a bogeyman in Hollywood horror, its history in New Orleans and its connection to traditional West African belief systems, Catholicism and the Atlantic slave trade. It isn’t sensational, more of a calm, measured discussion on the nature of the belief system.
If it weren’t for Angel Heart, we wouldn’t have the Americana Occult Detective which has shown up in shows like Supernatural (2005 – now) or books like the Dresden Files. I’m still going to give it a good rating, but I want you to know. I want everyone to know. That save for a 5 second shot at the end it would have been perfect.
Yes, I am petty.
Dir: Alan Parker
Scr: Alan Parker
Cast: Micky Rourke, Robert De Niro, Lisa Bonet, Charlotte Rampling
Prd: Alan Marshall, Elliott Kastner
DOP: Michael Seresin
Music: Trevor Jones
Runtime: 113 minutes
Angel Heart is out ON DIGITAL, DVD, BLU-RAY and 4K UHD now