"I think it's obviously the fundamental story, what it has to say," Sir Alan Parker told me when I asked him what a script had to have to pique his interest. "And secondly, the milieu in which it is set. It’s always been important to me. It allows me to give a film a different identity." With this condensed, simplified explanation in mind, it’s not that difficult to decipher what exactly attracted the great London-born filmmaker to novelist William Hjortsberg’s 1978 hardboiled prose entitled Falling Angel.
Soon after the novel’s release, Paramount Pictures moved fast to option the film rights, and after it expired, Hjortsberg tried to bring the story to the silver screen with the support of Robert Redford, but deeming it overly somber and pessimistic, no studio wanted to touch it. Only after a fateful meeting with Parker in 1985 did the project get rolling. “I never, ever liked to make things other people were making. I always wanted to go somewhere else, you know?” Parker explained, and a highly stylized combination of hardboiled noir and supernatural horror spawning from the gritty streets of Harlem to the surreal ambiance of voodoo-laden New Orleans seems to have been right up Parker’s alley. And so Angel Heart was born. Familiar with the source material, Parker jumped on board, discussed his vision with Hjortsberg, got his blessing and finished the first draft of the script as early as September 1985, upon which he traveled to Rome to meet producers Mario Kassar and Andrew G. Vajna to secure financing through their legendary Carolco Pictures. An agreement was soon reached, but as it is often the case, the road from that first draft to the film’s premiere a year and a half later was a rather bumpy one.
And so Angel Heart was born. Familiar with the source material, Parker jumped on board, discussed his vision with Hjortsberg, got his blessing and finished the first draft of the script as early as September 1985, upon which he traveled to Rome to meet producers Mario Kassar and Andrew G. Vajna to secure financing through their legendary Carolco Pictures. An agreement was soon reached, but as it is often the case, the road from that first draft to the film’s premiere a year and a half later was a rather bumpy one.
Parker spent several months trying to convince Robert De Niro to commit to the film and after considerable, out-of-his-way efforts, he finally got the icon to agree to a short but highly memorable and plot-wise consequential cameo. When it comes to the lead role–that of a ragged detective accepting a mysteriously fishy gig of finding a long-lost famous jazz singer, only to delve deeper into darkness and paranormal with every ensuing step–after Jack Nicholson’s polite rejection, Mickey Rourke passionately grabbed his chance to leave a real cinematic mark.
The most important female part went to Lisa Bonet of The Cosby Show fame, which was by itself a hazardous move not only for Bonet, due to her rather shocking departure from the family sitcom image she had built for herself, but also for Parker because of the specific misleading expectations the audience was bound to have with Bonet’s name on the credits.
The principal photography was finished mid-June 1986. However, after Parker and his long-time collaborator, editor Gerry Hambling, spent the following four months editing 400.000 feet of film, the MPAA handed Angel Heart the infamous X-rating usually reserved for pornographic films. What the board found troubling was a visceral Rourke and Bonet’s sex scene, and Tri-Star Pictures, the film’s distributor, declined to release it with this rating for obvious economic reasons. Parker appealed to no avail and, finding himself between a rock and a hard place due to the imminent scheduled release, finally cut out ten seconds of the then-controversial stylized sexual bloodbath.
On March 6, 1987, Angel Heart hit the theaters, but “hit” is probably not the most adequate verb here. In its entire run, definitely partly affected by not so encouraging early reviews, the film earned 17 million dollars, ending up one million short of going even. To understand why Parker’s dark, complex, nihilistic blend of genres fared rather poorly, it’s enough to note which films came out the very same month with a lot more success: Raising Arizona, Blind Date and Lethal Weapon. The audience wasn’t ready for it and neither were the critics. Quick-witted noir gumshoe slowly gets engulfed in the fumes of satanic horror, ending in desperation and gloom? Why don’t we rather watch Beverly Hills Cop II again?
Editor Gerry Hambling wasn’t the only frequent collaborator of Parker’s that was an integral part of the crew. As was the case on Bugsy Malone, Midnight Express, Fame, Shoot the Moon, Birdy, Angela’s Ashes and The Life of David Gale, the great Michael Seresin was Parker’s director of photography. The esteemed New Zealand-born cinematographer who met Parker in his early days, when they started building their chemistry and honing their craft in the world of TV commercials, is the main reason Angel Heart looked as stunning as it did. It’s clear we’re in for a treat for the eyes as early as from the opening scene of a littered, moonlit New York City street, on whose pavement two of the most domestic animals, a dog and a cat, stumble upon a bloody corpse, a short sequence ingeniously suggesting what kind of a mixture of mundane and insidious awaits us. Seresin is a master of light and shadows, and the mood he manages to create both in New York and, in the last two-thirds of the film, New Orleans, is captivating and powerful, a visual storytelling tool that takes Parker’s script to the next level. The haunting recurring images of squeaking fans, rusty elevator doors closing, as well as rain, sweat and blood dripping literally everywhere, nestle comfortably somewhere in the back of our psyche, with the accentuated heat that strikes and visibly takes over the screen in the second half of the film leading us down our hero’s psychological downward spiral.
“We had a great rapport… an aesthetic rapport, a sense of humor, work ethic,” Seresin told us why he always clicked so well with Parker. Angel Heart was one of the films I enjoyed doing the most, because I love New York City and I love New Orleans, they are very cinematic cities. I love the story, the drama of it, I love everything about it. It was easy to work on it, too. Sometimes I put one light, and between shadows and light and faces, it worked. That’s rare.”
Impressed with his work on Andrei Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train, Parker approached South African artist Trevor Jones to compose the score. The director instructed Jones to “approach the movie from wherever he chose” and deliver something special. When Jones watched the rough cut all alone in the screening room, he was “shaking like a puppy”: he then created a score with the main purpose of connecting the ordinary world of the protagonist with the macabre circumstances he was slowly but surely getting himself suffocated by. The tunes were composed electronically on a Synclavier, an early digital synthesizer that had its peak in the eighties. The saxophone solos were performed by British jazz musician Courtney Pine, and several blues and R&B songs were added to great effect, most prominently Glen Gray’s 1937 Girl of My Dreams.
Regarding performances, this is, by and large, Mickey Rourke’s film. Ranging from casual nonchalance through violent decisiveness to helpless frustration, the actor carries Angel Heart on his shoulders giving a career-defining performance. Although present in only a handful of scenes, De Niro serves as a perfect counterbalance to Rourke and those rare moments when they share the screen remind us how much talent and energy Parker had to coordinate in his orchestra. “Adrian Lyne said to me,” Parker remembered with a smile on his face, “if Mickey had died after Angel Heart, he would’ve been bigger than James Dean (laughs). I will always remember the scenes I did with De Niro and Rourke, from a directorial point of view, because I’ve never, ever experienced anything like it. The electricity of the two of them working together, the danger of the two of them, and the way in which a scene could be fantastic, and the way in which a scene could also be terrible if they were allowed to go off the rails. It was a great experience.”
What makes Angel Heart stand out the most is the peculiar, unique and highly daring concept of blending genres that aren’t naturally associated with one another: Parker and his crew aimed at creating something original, fresh and challenging for the viewers, an honest approach we’d be ecstatic to see more in today’s cinema. The filmmaker wasn’t lying when he stressed how important for him was to make films other people wouldn’t dream of doing. “American films don’t really have to have something to say,” Parker elaborated. “And that’s why they’ve been so successful, because they’re easy. They don’t really test you intellectually at all.” Angel Heart, for the most part, is not easy and requires your attention. Sure, there might be a couple of clues too many that telegraph the plot twist in the final stages of the film, but Parker’s film is primarily a triumph of style. It definitely didn’t get the immediate recognition it deserved, but the most reliable test for a work of art’s value is ultimately the test of time. And the bleak Angel Heart, funnily enough, passes it with flying colors.
For further reading/viewing, we highly recommend the following:
Sven Mikulec's other great pieces at Cinephelia & Beyond: Sir Alan Parker: A European Sensibility Among American Studio Sharks and Alan Parker's 'Angel Heart' is Astonishing as Hell, Sir Alan Parker's essay on the making of 'Angel Heart', beat by beat as well as the videos below.