Angel Heart (Dir. Alan Parker, 1987)
Watching this film got me thinking about cinematic twists and how they can make or break a movie-going experience. I haven’t blogged in this space in quite some time, so while thinking of how to intro this review with some talk about twists and spoilers, I dug into my drafts folder to copy and paste some formatting stuff over.
Through this, I discovered an abandoned review of Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects that featured an intro pretty much identical to the one I was about to write. I’ll give way to my past self here for a moment (yes, I’m about to quote my own unpublished work):
Twists are a controversial topic in modern day film making and oftentimes audiences can get so caught up in trying to guess a twist before it happens that they ruin the film for themselves. M. Night Shyamalan is probably to thank (or blame) for audience’s hyper awareness of plot twists today, but in reality it is not a new phenomenon. One of the earlier notable twists in a movie occurred in Les Diaboliques (1955), a French Hitchcockian thriller that was so concerned about its audiences’ potential reaction to having the rug pulled out from under them that it contained a request in the credits:
Knowing a twist or sensing one coming can greatly alter your perception of a film. Prior to watching Angel Heart, I googled it quickly, curious to see what year it was released. Stupidly reading the synopsis that Google gave me, I realized how things would likely shake out before I could even hit the play button on my remote. The engineers at Google must not be big into French cinema.
The true test of any big reveal is: can it stand up to repeated viewing or someone knowing about it ahead of time? Shyamalan’s Sixth Sense always rubbed me the wrong way in this regard. With the knowledge that Bruce Willis is dead the whole time, the events of the film seem unbelievably silly.
But with Angel Heart, which stars Mickey Rourke as your prototypical New York private dick, knowing the final destination of the plot did not ruin the journey for me one bit. Rourke’s character is conscripted by a shadowy, strange man named Louis Cyphre (say that name out loud a few times fast and you’re well on your way to figuring out what’s going on here) to track down a singer that disappeared post-WWII.
Rourke’s attempts to find the missing man follow your typical, boilerplate detective story. There’s plenty of alluring dames, intriguing questions and dead bodies lining his path as he attempts to solve the mystery at the heart of the film.
The juicy parts here focus in on the detective, not the case he’s trying to solve. Rourke’s character – named Harry Angel, one of many ridiculous nom de plumes we’ll encounter – is a complete blank slate to the viewer.
There is one brief scene where he interacts with a female friend on the street, but otherwise, Angel appears to have no family or associates of any kind. There’s no secretary out in the hallway of his private office, no wife waiting for him at home. In fact, we never even see where Angel lives.
Hence the shots like the one above, Angel viewed from outside, usually through frosted or stained glass. Not only are we, as the viewer, separated from him physically, but our perception of him is commonly filtered through something, masking him.
We’re also given a plethora of shots of Angel looking at himself in the mirror. The viewer is first made to question, who exactly is this guy? Then, we slowly start to ask, does he even know the answer to that question?
There are additional recurring motifs that foreshadow Angel’s true identity. Throughout the film, there are an abundance of fans lurking in the background of shots. Despite exterior shots having the appearance of winter (mushy snow on the ground, deserted beaches) every room Angel lurks into has a fan idly rotating somewhere in the corner.
What at first seems an innocuous coincidence slowly comes into focus. In dreams and at stressful moments, Angel hazily recalls a scene in Times Square involving troops fresh home from the war. A solider with his back turned to the camera is about to kiss a woman, then before we can see his face, there’s a slam-cut to the exterior wall of an apartment building, with just one of the multitude of windows featuring… a fan.
Sometimes the fans are shown in the background, as above, and other times just the shadows created by the blades are displayed. The fans allow some light through to the floor, but the blades obfuscate the rest.
If we are to read into the light as truth and view the darkness as what we have yet to figure out, the prevalence of the fans begins to make sense. Angel has many of the facts at his disposal, but he’s obsessed with what he can’t figure out, and sees shadows everywhere he goes.
The solution to the mystery clearly lies in Angel’s vision of Times Square and the apartment building. Is the mystery man he’s looking for the soldier embracing the woman? What terrible thing happened in the ominous stone building with the fan?
With Les Diaboliques and my intro in mind, I won’t give away the ending here. I will just suggest that any viewer of this film go in with the mindset of enjoying the visual depth and not getting too caught up in playing a guessing game.
There are fun nods to other films, and some downright pretty landscape shots of New York and Louisiana. Robert De Niro plays Cyphre, and is good in the limited screen time he gets. Recommended for fans of noir, private detective stories and De Niro eating hardboiled eggs.