A dozen years before American movie audiences heard the name Tyler Durden, there was Harry Angel, a Brooklyn-based private detective whose connections to the man he is trying to find are not what he expects. Only partially a Southern movie, 1987’s Angel Heart was perhaps most famous in its day for a graphic sex scene that had then-Cosby Show daughter Lisa Bonet and bad-boy actor Mickey Rourke rolling naked in pools of bloody rain. At its core, Angel Heart is either a horror movie or a thriller, and the seedy black-magic underbelly of mid-1950s New Orleans and its surrounding bayous provide the necessary locale.
Although the meat of the story happens in and around New Orleans, Angel Heart opens in mid-1950s Brooklyn, New York, where Harry Angel is hired by a lawyer named Herman Winesap and his dark-arts client Louis Cyphre, played by Robert DeNiro, to find a long-lost crooner named Johnny Favorite, who disappeared from an upstate New York mental hospital. Harry Angel is an eccentric character with his three-day beard and messy Bryl-creem hairdo, his belt outside his belt loops, and his euphemism-heavy noir descriptions of events and actions. Cyphre, on the other hand, is way creepy with his long hair, full beard, pointed fingernails, and cold stare. (We find out, of course, that he is the Devil: Louis Cyphre = Lucifer.)
The first forty minutes of Angel Heart involve Harry Angel getting his feet on the ground to pursue the Southern story. He first meets Winesap and Cyphre in a room above a black charismatic church in Harlem, where he learns that he has to travel first to Poughkeepsie to see if Johnny is actually still in the private hospital where he has supposedly been since 1943, when a horrible war injury damaged his face and mind. Harry goes to the hospital, posing as an agent from the National Institute of Health, to find that Johnny is indeed gone. He then has to pursue a doctor named Fowler. Harry finds him to be a drug-addicted mess who has accepted $25,000 from a man named Edward Kelly to falsify the records stating that Johnny Favorite was still in the hospital, though Kelly and an unknown woman took him away. After Harry Angel interrogates Fowler, he learns that Johnny had gone down South many years ago. Unfortunately, Harry later finds Fowler dead from a gunshot to the eye, and the first witness is dead.
Back in Harlem, Harry meets once again with Louis Cyphre, who is interested to know that Johnny is in fact not in the mental hospital. Harry wants out, since he believes that he is now a murder suspect, but Cyphre offers him $5,000 – quite a sum in 1955 – to continue. Harry accepts, and gets a bit more information from a woman he alternately undresses and asks questions. We then learn the names Margaret Krusemark, a debutante who befriended Johnny; Toots Sweet, a former guitar player in his band; and Evangeline Proudfoot, a black woman who was Johnny’s lover. After a trip to Coney Island, Harry connects the dots: the sideshow fortune teller Madame Zora is Margaret Krusemark, so he knows that he has to head to New Orleans, and to look for Evangeline, who must know where Johnny is.
Harry gets off the train in New Orleans sweating profusely, and goes immediately to the French Quarter, where he gets a dingy hotel room, changes into his cleanest dirty suit, then proceeds with his investigation. The first thing to do is find Margaret Krusemark and stalk her on the trolley car back to her apartment. Harry poses as a man wanting his charts done and uses this ruse to inquire about Johnny Favorite. With the calm grace of her Southern blue-blood upbringing, an offended Margaret informs Harry, “He’s dead. And if he’s not, he is to me,” before seeing him out. At the door, Harry remarks on the pendant that Margaret wears around her neck: an upside-down pentagram. (Harry doesn’t say so, but we’ve also seen this symbol on Louis Cyphre’s ring.)
The second stop is Mama Carter’s, the hoodoo shop with the same name as Evangeline Proudfoot’s shop in Harlem, where a distinctly unfriendly black woman behind the counter informs him that lots of people use that name “but dis da real place.” Harry asks the proprietor if she knows Evangeline Proudfoot. The woman does, but Evangeline is dead, long ago. She went home to Holy Shelter Swamp and died, waiting for a man who never showed up for her, “just like in the da poem.”
At this point, Angel Heart moves to beyond being a stranger-in-a-strange-land story. Harry is out of his element in New Orleans, but he is way out of his element in Holy Shelter Swamp: a white private eye from Brooklyn, wearing a plastic noseguard and snooping around in a black shantytown in the Louisiana swamps. While gazing on Evangeline’s tombstone in a weedy cemetery, Harry sees a pretty young woman with a small child coming toward him, and he hides while she puts a small offering on Evangeline’s grave. Harry follows the young woman and finds her back in the rough little neighborhood, in a see-through white tank-top, washing her hair under a hand pump. Epiphany Proudfoot is the daughter of Evangeline. After asking a few questions and getting few answers, we get that hint of sexual tension between the two and Harry leaves the dirt yard, but only after revealing another of his recurring quirks: “I got a thing about chickens.”
In the next scene, Harry is at the blues bar, listening to Toots Sweet’s band play. Coming off the bandstand, Toots stops at the bar for a “two sisters cocktail,” and that’s when Harry accosts him, this time posing as a journalist, with questions about Johnny Favorite. Toots says he barely remembers the singer and has no time— a few drinks and a piss and back on stage he must go. So Harry follows him to the bathroom . . . After another brief exchange, Toots discovers a chicken foot on the urinal and freaks out, right before a very large bouncer throws Harry out on his butt.
Yet, Harry Angel won’t give up that easily. He waits outside in his car, then follows Toots as he leaves— follows him all the way out to Holy Shelter Swamp, where a swarming group of people hold a wild voodoo ritual, complete with Toots on percussion and Epiphany Proudfoot in the lead role, slicing open a chicken and dousing herself with its blood as she gyrates and pulses in the dirt. Harry is confused and mortified— and in way over his head. Later, as Toots is returning home to his apartment, Harry jumps him, and pushes him into the apartment. Toots slices Harry’s hand with razor but Harry gets the best of him, securing the old bluesman for a round of tough questioning. The chicken foot meant the Toots Sweet has a big mouth, but according to Harry, “Not big enough for me.”
After a surreal dream sequence where Harry sees himself covered in blood while observing a solitary woman sitting on a spare church bench, he wakes up to find the police in his room. Toots Sweet is dead – somebody cut off his genitals and shoved them down his throat – and Harry’s name and room number were found in his hand. Harry is perplexed. This is dead witness number two.
For Harry Angel, things are spiraling downward. While trying to call Margaret Krusemark, he has strange and ominous visions that include a down elevator, a post-war street celebration, and a red-lit tenement windows, until a barroom saxophone player interrupts his daydreaming by seeking a tip. So, Harry goes to see Margaret, only to find her sliced open with her heart laying on a newspaper nearby. Dead witness number three.
Undeterred, Harry continues his search. As if he didn’t have enough to worry about, he is now being harried by two rednecks with a pit bull, who inform that Margaret Krusemark’s father wants him to leave this case alone. Next, he meets up with Epiphany in Holy Shelter Swamp, where he confesses that he saw her and Toots Sweet at the voodoo ritual, so she confesses that Johnny Favorite was her father. Harry alternately interrogates and hits on the young woman. We are beginning sense what will come next.
Back in town, Harry receives a message and goes to a Catholic church to meet Louis Cyphre, who is passing through town on his way to Baton Rouge. Harry levels with his employer about the state of affairs, and Cyphre responds, “The future isn’t what it used to be, Mr. Angel.” Frustrated and alone, Harry tells Cyphre, after being told to watch his mouth in the church, that he has a disdain for religion and is an atheist, that the overtones of the investigation creep him out, and that he understands the trouble that he is in. Cyphre glibly brushes Harry off, explaining that he has “old fashioned ideas about honor” and just wants Johnny Favorite to be found, so the debt can be paid.
Returning in the rain to his hotel room, Harry finds Epiphany sleeping on his doorstep and invites her in. Sultry as usual, Epiphany comes in and accepts a glass of whiskey from Harry. She reveals that her mother was completely enamored of Johnny Favorite but also told her, “Johnny was as close to pure evil as she ever wanted to come.” Harry then ask Epiphany how old she is – seventeen, she replies – and he remarks that that seems young to have a child. Epiphany then explains to him that her child was fathered by a spirit during “the best fuck I ever had.” This loaded comment leads to the graphic sex scene that the movie became known for, which culminates in Harry trying to strangle Epiphany, then stopping himself and going to the mirror to punch it into shards.
If there’s one thing that a white Yankee snooping around in the mid-1950s Deep South doesn’t want, it’s to have two cops knock on his hotel door while he has a naked seventeen-year-old black girl in his room. But that’s what happens to Harry next. He gets a dressing-down from the same two officers who came to see him after Toots Sweet was killed, then returns to his room where Epiphany is in the bath, singing a Johnny Favorite tune. Harry looks sad and bewildered at hearing it.
Back on the streets, Harry confronts the two rednecks in the pickup who have been following him on behalf of Margaret Krusemark’s father. He punches one of them a few times and is chased by the other through the New Orleans streets and stables, before Harry turns up at a horse race in the boonies to confront Margaret Krusemark’s father, the man who has paid them to harry him— the man he has surmised to be “Edward Kelly.”
Here, the final piece in the puzzle is put in place. The man lays it all out there for Harry: Johnny was into black magic, and he and Margaret were the ones who posed as the Kellys, taking Johnny out of the New York mental hospital. They took Johnny and dropped him off in Times Square, where he could find another young man to possess, to steal his soul— Harry begins to realize what has happened, and it culminates for him when he locks himself in a bathroom then comes out to find the man face down in a huge put of gumbo, dead.
Harry, who distraught, confused, and ranting, rushes back to Margaret Krusemark’s apartment, rifles it, and finds the sealed vase with the dog tags of the possessed young soldier: Harold Angel. He is Johnny Favorite. And Louis Cyphre appears to apprise him of who he is, of what he has done, and of the price he must now pay. However, Harry refuses to believe that he is facing the Devil, much less for the crimes of a man he never knew, and he runs through the rain to his hotel, where the two New Orleans police officers are investigating a gruesome murder scene. Epiphany Proudfoot is lying bloody and dead on his bed, and one of the officers holds her child in his arms. The antagonistic fat officer says to Harry, “You’re gonna burn for this, Angel,” to which Harry replies tearily, “I know. In Hell.” The last thing we see is Epiphany’s baby with bright yellow, demonic eyes pointing at Harry, just at Louis Cyphre did. The credits rolls as we watch Harry ride down, down, down in a cagey elevator.
Based on the 1978 novel Fallen Angel by William Hjortsberg, Angel Heart is a good (but not great) movie whose reputation has stood more on that graphic sex scene than on its Southern-ness. Though one March 1987 review in Shreveport’s The Times had few nice things to say about Angel Heart, the review in Alexandria’s newspaper The Town Talk called it a “terrifying yet wonderful film to watch.” In a 2015 article about Fallen Angel being adapted again into a New York opera, the Times-Picayune assessed that Angel Heart “lives eternally in the horror-loving hearts of New Orleans film fans.”
As a document of the South, Angel Heart relies heavily on myth and reputation to build its story. This is the New Orleans that outsiders want New Orleans to be, where blues guitarists practice voodoo in the swamps, where aging aristocrats cook gumbo in huge pots, where swampy slums house barely dressed mulatto girls. Directed by Alan Parker, who also made Pink Floyd’s The Wall in 1982 and Mississippi Burning in 1988, Angel Heart appeals to certain sensibility about the Deep South, where nothing is at it seems, where outsiders wander befuddled among strange signals, where crude hicks commit violence with impunity. Sure, maybe that happens,but let’s be honest: this one is not a documentary, it’s a horror movie, and we shouldn’t confused the two.