Tales of Despair: Angel Heart

Post-war, times are tough. His clients are few, and those few are poor. His investigations rarely amount to much.

The suave and sinister gentleman who hires him, however, pays well. Cash, some in advance – irresistible. It’s simple enough; a pre-war big band singer had a contract with the gentleman, but suffered brain damage during the war. The hospital says he disappeared – conveniently preventing the contract from being fulfilled. Find the singer – simple enough.

And then the singer’s doctor blows his brains out. Too much – murder isn’t down his alley.

Five thousand dollars changes that. He keeps going, keeps asking questions. Following those who knew the singer, he ends up in New Orleans, desperate to track the man down. And as he goes, further people end up dead. Could the singer be killing his former friends, to prevent himself from being discovered?

Eventually, the private eye uncovers a terrible truth – the singer, a voodoo heretic, had made a deal with the devil in exchange for fame. His wartime injuries lost him his stardom, but also prevented the devil from collecting on the deal.

Unwilling to believe this insanity, he seeks out the woman who was once the singer’s lover – to find her dead. Panicking, he searches her room, desperate to find any evidence – and comes upon a dog tag…with his own name upon it.

Reeling, he returns to the gentleman, hoping to find understanding. And understanding he gets – he was the singer, and now remembering, the gentleman – the devil – is free to cash in on the deal. A girl is found murdered in his own apartment; he is arrested; he is to be executed.

And when he dies, he descends, into the basements of hell.

Angel Heart (1987) is a masterpiece of darkness, a tale of insanity, of panic, and of evil. Set against the background of 1950s New York and New Orleans, Alan Parker’s genial directing paints an intensely moody and grim atmosphere, wholly dragging the viewer into the slow descent into madness as we follow Harry Angel on his circuitous – and ultimately fruitless – investigation of himself.

Mickey Rourke – pre-bashed-up boxer Mickey Rourke – is phenomenal, entirely convincing as the amnesiac private investigator; hard, sure and competent, the nature of his character at the start of the film only serves to contrast all the more with the power the devil has to drive any man to madness. And Robert DeNiro, though appearing essentially as a supporting role, is perfect: no one else could play the devil as he does.

Angel Heart is a movie of despair and depression; there is no happy ending, no get-out clause or last-minute rescue. Harry Angel is drawn into a sordid world of voodoo, murder and conspiracy, only to find that it was the world he left and forgot in the first place. It is gripping and graphic, and well-worth the watch. Just don’t expect to be happy at the end of it.

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