WTD: Angel Heart

Watching the Detectives is a series of posts about drawing inspiration from fictitious paranormal investigators, occult detectives, police psychics, and monster hunters. The rest of the series can be found here.

The Heart of Blackness.

Living as we do in the long and cursed aftermath of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alan Parker’s Angel Heart feels like a relic from another age. While the TV series may have a number of precursors and influences, Buffy the Vampire Slayer fundamentally changed how we view the paranormal investigator. Traditionally, occult detective stories drew heavily on the crime and horror genres with only the occasional nod to the outright fantastical. The point of the occult detective genre was never to triumph over evil, it was merely to investigate and uncover the things that go bump in the night. Buffy the Vampire Slayer changed the genre by moving it away from crime and towards the genres of romance and fantasy where the paranormal could not only be defeated but also romanced.

In much the same way as Edgar Rice Burroughs acknowledged shifting genre topographies by opening his Barsoom stories by having the protagonist fall asleep in a Western and awaken in a science-fiction story, Buffy provided its fantastical chosen-one protagonist with a stuffy over-educated side-kick who could easily have been the protagonist of a series of occult detective stories set in the UK.

How can stories about overly-cerebral weirdos struggling to survive encounters with cosmic horrors hope to compete with stories about chosen ones defeating monsters with magic swords, undead lovers, and ready quips? It’s not just that urban fantasy stories are more successful than occult detective stories, the structural similarities between the two genres mean that the very existence of urban fantasy stories somehow makes occult detective stories feel small, lifeless, and depressing. Made in a time before Twilight, Anita Blake, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel Heart feels like the product of another era. It is a story that is deliberately small, deliberately depressing, and yet somehow full of life.

The film opens with Mickey Rourke’s Private Investigator Harry Angel being summoned to a church in Harlem where he is hired by Robert De Niro’s Louis Cyphre to track down a popular singer who was supposedly injured during the war and left to live out his days in a sanatorium in upstate New York. Having not seen or heard from the man in over a decade, Cyphre suspects that he might have either died or escaped the sanatorium. Regardless of his state or whereabouts, Angel must confirm whether the singer is alive or dead.

Much has been made of De Niro’s appearance in this film. Already a star by 1987, De Niro spends so little time in this film that once suspects he probably hired on for a large paycheque in return for a couple of days easy filming and the ability of producers to put his name on the film’s poster. In some ways, this was a warning of things to come as the 1990s saw De Nitro flirt with self-parody before eventually settling down to a lucrative career as the world’s foremost Robert De Niro tribute act. 1987’s De Niro was not yet a professional self-parody but his performance is so low-energy that the man effectively allows himself to be upstaged by his own finger nails.

That was a bit unfair as De Niro’s Cyphre is a masterclass in costuming as he shows quite how much you can accomplish with the right props and good facial hair. Angel Heart was made in 1987 but is set in the 1950s and while Rourke’s oversized coat is a lot closer to the baggy trench coats of the 1990s than it was the sculpted elegance of film noir tailoring, nobody in either the late-1980s or the mid-1950s looked anything like Louis Cyphre: Nobody in either period rocked a full beard, long finger nails, and an ornate silver cane. Thus, without even opening his mouth, De Niro presents himself as something Other… a person who doesn’t fit.

Cyphre’s outsider status is further augmented by the fact that he agrees to meet Angel in a room above a Church in Harlem. Now… Angel lives in New York and explains many of his personal eccentricities with smirking reference to the fact that he comes from Brooklyn. While the New York of 1987 was already well on its way to gentrification, the film was made at a time when a lot of people still thought of New York as a run-down, crime-infested, war-zone. Back in those days, nice middle-class white boys don’t come from Brooklyn and that is what Angel is trying to say with his frequent references to New York: He’s not some suburban stiff… he grew up in the city. However, if Angel is something of an outsider purely by virtue of the fact that he lives in Brooklyn, what does that make Cyphre? He not only comes from Harlem, he’s on close enough terms with black church leaders that he has a meeting room above one of their churches.

I realise that I’m going on at some length about the first scene in the movie but this is because I am skirting around a deeper issue. Indeed, if you are going to understand this film’s treatment of race, you first need to understand its treatment of New York as white characters living in poor neighbourhoods is less about poverty than it is about proximity to race and – in this film – proximity to blackness is very hard to disentangle from proximity to the supernatural and the occult, but I’ll come back to that issue in a little while.

Having been hired by Cyphre to track down the wartime crooner known as Johnny Favourite, Angel drives to upstate New York where he finds the sanatorium, a large house seemingly in the middle of nowhere. In an attempt to gain access to the sanatorium, Angel digs out some fake ID and puts on a pair of ill-fitting glasses. The disguise is comically inept and yet somehow he manages to talk his way into the nurse’s good graces. While the name of De Niro’s character is an obvious tell that pays off at the end of the film, one of the film’s more subtle tells is to have virtually every female character in the film throw themselves at Rourke’s character. While the ‘Louis Cyphre’ clue may be a bit on the nose, the fact that respectable 1950s women seem to throw themselves at the stumbling, mumbling, unshaven Harry Angel hints at some kind of supernatural power at work behind the scenes. Indeed, the end of the film informs us that Johnny Favourite sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for fame and fortune as a crooner while folk tales speak of people selling their souls in order to play the guitar, what if Favourite traded his soul for irresistible sexual magnetism?

Having now re-watched the film for the first time in about fifteen years, I’d be intrigued to see how good a detective Angel actually is in the original novel. It’s easy to imagine a man with no investigative skills managing to make a living as a PI simply by virtue of the fact that he can flutter his eyelashes and win over every single woman he happens to meet. In fairness, the film does not really engage with this idea as Angel comes across as a really skilled private investigator who works out that one of the doctors employed at the hospital is a junkie and uses his addiction to extract information about Johnny’s escape from the sanatorium as well as the payments that covered his tracks. When Angel returns to the doctor’s house to give him his fix, he finds him dead in suspicious circumstances suggesting that someone might be shadowing his investigation.

Having already run into a dead body, Angel tries to squirm his way out of his agreement with Cyphre only for the man to offer him a large amount of money to continue his investigation by tracking the people responsible for Favourite’s disappearance back to New Orleans. This is the point at which the film starts to break with the source material and starts engaging with the question of race.

Angel’s status as something of a racial outsider becomes quite evident when he arrives in New Orleans. The scenes in New York stress Angel’s comfort around people of colour but this comfort doesn’t quite translate to Louisiana as both white people and black people seem to hold him at arm’s length. In fact, there’s a wonderful scene where Angel tries to get some information out of the black woman who runs a shop that sells herbs, roots, and other magical ingredients. Angel walks straight up to the woman at the counter, flashes his grin, and gets nothing but stony-faced politeness.  He then tries to suggest that he is ‘hip’ to matters both racial and magical only for his charm to fall completely flat. In fact, the scene is so tense that a black man in the shop seems on the verge of throwing him out before thinking better of it and sitting back down. This dynamic is also evident in Angel’s failed attempt to make friends with one of Favourite’s old band-mates but the fact that Angel is able to sweet talk practically every woman in the film other than the woman in the shop is another one of the film’s more subtle tells.

The reason I tend to read Angel’s charm as super-natural is that it tends to stop working the closer it gets to power. In the opening scene, Cyphre is so brusque with Angel that his (mundane) lawyer keeps on butting into the conversation to smooth out the harder edges. A similar brusqueness is evident in the scene where Angel tracks down Favourite’s old girlfriend. Tellingly, when Angel is dealing with the Louisiana Police or some New York carnies, the charm still works.

Angel Heart presents a strong correlation between blackness and being in possession of occult power. In this film, even relatively mundane black people have occult wisdom while white people are either powerfully clued-in or blissfully unaware. Despite being white, Rourke’s Angel seems to sit somewhere between these two extremes; He comes from a multi-cultural neighbourhood and relates quite easily to people of colour but he is white and seemingly blind to his own privilege. Angel’s blindness to racial matters parallels his blindness to the occult as he seems to shift between absolute scepticism and being incredibly knowledgeable about magical herbs. This selective blindness is yet another compelling tell.

The film’s relationship between blackness and occult power is complicated by the character of Epiphany Proudfoot played by Lisa Bonet. On the one hand, Proudfoot is a voodoo priestess who absolutely sees Angel coming the second he wanders up wearing his nose shield (the shield is attached to sunglasses, a nice visual reminder that Angel’s character might be somehow both intentionally dimming his sight and protecting himself from the light of day). Despite being black and having some degree of occult power, Proudfoot’s scepticism about the strange white man is tempered by unambiguous lust. It would be tempting to suggest that Proudfoot’s lack of resistance to Angel is a reflection of her bi-racial heritage but that’s maybe a little bit too close to actual racial science. Dwell too long on the essentialising question of ‘black bodies’ and you inevitably start reaching for the callipers.

Watching Angel Heart in 2021 is a somewhat uncomfortable experience simply by virtue of the fact that Parker does draw a link between blackness and occult power. That thematic link invites all kinds of ugly essentialist thinking and the film could quite easily have gone down the Lovecraftian route of treating non-whiteness as a sign of malign power born of spiritual corruption. What prevents Angel Heart from sliding into outright racism is the fact that while its black characters are all dripping with occult signifiers, the most evil characters in the film are all white. Indeed, if we view Robert De Niro’s Lucifer as the heart of moral darkness, then we can understand the film’s depictions of black spirituality as attempts by black people to protect themselves against the spiritual depredations of well-connected white folk. Indeed, Epiphany Proudfoot is a voodoo priestess who kills a few chickens… how many people does Angel kill as the memories of Johnny Favourite begin to resurface? It’s telling that the one thing that Angel appears to fear is chickens and that the black people in the film use chickens to protect themselves from evil.

Angel Heart is an interesting choice for Watching the Detectives as the idea of having both the film’s MacGuffin and its primary antagonist occupy the same physical space as the film’s protagonist does not translate well to RPGs. White Wolf’s Wraith: The Oblivion had a mechanic whereby each player character had a dark reflection known as a Shadow that was often controlled by other players but I’m not sure how you’d write or play a character like Angel in most RPGs. Angel Heart is a film that draws quite heavily on psychological horror and that isn’t something that translates terribly well to traditional RPGs. What drew me to the film as a subject for this series is the way that it handles race.

As I wrote earlier, I think it would have been quite easy to turn Angel Heart into a racist film. The association between blackness, the occult, and evil is difficult to navigate and while I think that the film does manage to thread the needle and disconnect blackness from evil, I could understand people struggling with a lot of the film’s imagery and ideas. The issue is similar to that raised by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as while the story can be read as explicitly anti-colonial and a critique of the violence inherent in ‘civilisation’, non-white critics have drawn attention to the racism present in some of Conrad’s other works as well as the fact that Conrad uses Africa and black people as set dressing for a story about a white man’s descent into amoral madness. Angel Heart treads similar territory to Heart of Darkness in so far as it is a film about evil white people that uses race albeit with some degree of sensitivity to the issues surrounding how white people view people of colour. What complicates the matter is the fact that while Parker does present voodoo and magic as ways for black people to protect themselves from a form of evil that the film associates with white people, the film does lean into and make use of negative and racist ideas about black spirituality. This isn’t Live and Let Die or even The Devil’s Advocate where voodoo is presented as inherently decadent and evil, but the film does allow its audience to be scared by black people practicing their own religion.

I mention this because Angel Heart is a horror film made by white people about black occultists and despite some questionable decisions, I think it engages with those themes and images in a way that is both thoughtful and very nearly progressive. Those of us who enjoy horror stories and horror games could stand to learn a lot from films like Angel Heart… especially seeing as a lot of Call of Cthulhu material continues to consist of stories in which white player characters travel the world machine-gunning degenerate occultists who just happen to be non-white.

1 thought on “WTD: Angel Heart”

  1. […] One of the issues I had with Secrets of New York was that the information was so dry that it seemed to be actively going out of its way to avoid engaging with New York’s broader cultural footprint. To this day, I’m still not sure how you can write an entire sourcebook about 1920s New York and fail to tap into some of the ideas and energy of something like The Great Gatsby. While I can understand some people wanting to know where people might eat and how they travel around the city, I think it’s reasonable to assume that anyone deciding to write a Call of Cthulhu campaign set in New York is doing so because they were inspired by a film or a book and so the impediment is more likely to be sustained creativity and inspiration than dry factual content about a particular city. There are many reasons why you might fail to write a Call of Cthulhu adventure but not being able to track down who was actually on the New York Chamber of Commerce in 1924 is unlikely to be one of them. In other words, if your sourcebook engages with a place’s broader cultural footprint then your sourcebook is more likely to be useful as it is meeting people half-way. This approach paid real dividends for both Secrets of Los Angeles and Secrets of New Orleans as while both of those books did contain more than their fair share of dry and useless facts, they did at least try to engage with inspirational source material like L.A. Confidential and Angel Heart. […]

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