In 1987, Mickey Rourke was fast becoming one of the most controversial movie stars of the era, the go-to guy for potentially commercial but decidedly ‘off-colour’ material.
Even David Bowie rated Rourke as one of the coolest people on the planet in ’87 – to my knowledge, only Mickey, Iggy Pop, Tina Turner and Al B Sure! ever shared ‘lead vocals’ on a Bowie solo album (though their collaboration was less than essential…).
‘Angel Heart’ turns 30 this week. I’ve been a Mickey fan since randomly renting the video circa 1988. If, as Marlon Brando attested, acting (or at least good acting) is essentially ‘behaviour’, Rourke delivers one of the great modern screen performances in the film.
He mumbles lines, adds strange emphases (‘Yeah, I could be free‘) and quirky ad-libs, smirks inappropriately and generally shambles around in his filthy linen suit; Pauline Kael memorably wrote that ‘he has enough dirt on him to sprout mushrooms’. But he also deals with the action sequences with aplomb, looking like he could take care of himself in a bar fight.
Most importantly, Rourke tempers the increasingly hokey supernatural elements of the film with a believable, sympathetic, relatively down-at-heel protagonist: ‘Harry Angel seems to be a regular knockaround guy in Brooklyn. He likes the simple life, going for a beer, getting laid whenever he can. He minds his own business. He just gets by. He works, reads the comics, he takes a walk,’ Rourke told his biographer Christopher Heard.
William Hjortsberg’s screenplay for ‘Angel Heart’, based on his New York-set novel ‘Falling Angel’ (described by Stephen King ‘as if Raymond Chandler had written “The Exorcist”’), had been hanging around Hollywood for a while. First it looked like Robert Redford would produce and star.
Then ‘Midnight Express’/’Fame’ director Alan Parker came onboard, rewrote the script (with the questionable decision to relocate most of the action to New Orleans) and offered the lead role to naysayers Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, the latter taking the role of Louis Cyphre (geddit?) instead.
Enter Mickey. Parker made it clear to Rourke that he was nowhere near his first choice, but was interested in what he could bring to the role. Rourke was disillusioned with acting in general and Hollywood in particular but desperately needed the part: ‘I was about to lose my big-assed house in California and needed a big paycheck fast…’ Parker warned Rourke that he wouldn’t put up with any funny business, also apparently giving him many a dressing-down on set.
But how does ‘Angel Heart’ stack up these days? It’s still incredibly watchable, salvaged by the Rourke/De Niro scenes and Mickey’s eccentric ‘behaviour’. Bonet is a refreshingly natural presence and De Niro hams it up semi-convincingly. Trevor Jones’ original soundtrack (recorded at the aptly-named Angel Studios in Islington, North London) still holds the attention alongside some great crooner and blues tunes.
But Parker searches in vain for his inner Nicolas Roeg (or Ken Russell?), showing his background in advertising with a succession of beautiful, if clichéd, images of ‘evil’ (a glistening, freshly-extracted human heart, ceiling fans, lift shafts, writhing bodies, blood-stained walls), memorable crane shots and disorientating flashbacks, but it all feels way too slick.
Kael again: ‘There’s no way to separate the occult from the incomprehensible. Parker simply doesn’t have the gift of making evil seductive, and he edits like a flasher.’ There’s also a lack of memorable secondary characters – Charlotte Rampling and Brownie McGhee seem miscast and barely register.
‘Angel Heart’ just about broke even at the box office but has enjoyed a healthy cult following since. My brother tells me that it most definitely worked on the big screen, delivering a real sense of impending doom. I don’t doubt it.