Wednesday 24 June 2020

Angel Heart | review by Rafe McGregor

Angel Heart, by Alan Parker (Tri-Star Pictures)

Hellishly hardboiled detection.

The story of the occult detective is the tale of a turn of two centuries.  In the late nineteenth century, magazine contributors on both sides of the Atlantic began to explore ways in which the relatively new and incredibly popular figure of the private detective could be merged with the much older but still entertaining milieu of the ghost story.  One of the progenitors of this exploration was Sheridan Le Fanu (1872), with Dr Martin Hesselius.  The combination of detective protagonist and ghostly setting saw the initial blossoming of the subgenre of ghost-finders, paranormal physicians, and occult psychologists with notable contributions by Arthur Machen (1894) with Mr Dyson, L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace (1898) with John Bell, E. and H. Heron (1899) with Flaxman Low, Algernon Blackwood (1908) with Dr John Silence, William Hope Hodgson (1913) with Thomas Carnacki, and Aleister Crowley (1917) with Simon Iff.  The occult detective became a staple of the cheaper weekly and monthly magazines of the Golden Age of the Pulp era, particularly Cassell’s Magazine and Weird Tales.  The first female occult detective was most likely Ella Scrymsour’s (1920) Sheila Crerar, whose adventures appeared in The Blue Magazine.  As the pulp era came to an end, interest in the subgenre waned, being sustained through the nineteen fifties, sixties, and seventies by three main sources: Dennis Wheatley’s series of eleven novels featuring the Duke De Richleau (published from 1933 to 1970 and including The Devil Rides Out in 1934); the dogged persistence of short story writers such as Seabury Quinn, whose Jules de Grandin appeared in Weird Tales from 1925 (“The Horror on the Links”) to 1951 (“The Ring of Bastet”) and were frequently reprinted and collected during the nineteen sixties and seventies; and the successful migration from short story to small screen evinced by the popularity of Adam Adamant Lives! (1966–1967), Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) (1969–1971, remade in 2000–2001), and Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974–1975).

The revival of interest in the occult detective at the end of the twentieth century was heavily influenced by migration to another medium, the graphic novel.  Precursors to this revival included William Hjortsberg’s (1978) Harry Angel, Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently (1987), and Tiziano Sclavi and Angelo Stano’s Dylan Dog (a comic series that began in 1986).  The revival came with the publication of the Hellblazer and Hellboy comic series, the first created by Jamie Delano, based on Alan Moore's Swamp Thing character John Constantine, (from 1988 to 2013) and the second created by Mike Mignola and featuring the eponymous half-demon investigator (from 1994 to 2019).  The last decade of the twentieth century saw the subgenre regain some of its mainstream appeal, appearing in the most popular contemporary literary form, the serial novel.  Notable occult detectives include Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake (twenty-six novels from 1993 to 2018), Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins (fifteen novels from 1998 to 2019), Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden (fifteen novels from 2000 to 2015), and Kim Harrison’s (actually Dawn Cook) Rachel Morgan (thirteen novels from 2004 to 2014).  Several of these series have been adapted for television, with popular series such as Supernatural (fifteen seasons from 2005 to 2019) and Penny Dreadful (three seasons from 2014 to 2016) being created exclusively for the medium.  While the occult detective has traditionally held no official status, there has been a recent interest in police detectives in a combination of the police procedural with the ghost story that can be traced back to Fox’s The X-Files (eleven seasons from 1993 to 2018), for example Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant (beginning in 2011), Grimm’s Nick Burkhardt (played by David Giuntoli, beginning in 2011), Paul Cornell’s James Quill (beginning in 2013), and Paul Crilley’s Gideon Tau (beginning in 2016).

The essence of occult detective fiction has remained largely unchanged since its initial popularity, the combination of a crime fiction character with a horror fiction setting.  This combination creates an immediate narrative tension because ever since Edgar Allan Poe introduced C. Auguste Dupin in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), the detective has been the man or woman of reason, a rational agent who restores the moral and social order following its disruption by harm or crime.  Poe referred to all three of Dupin’s cases as “tales of ratiocination” and the same could be said of the cases of Dupin’s most illustrious descendants, Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot.  In contrast, the setting of horror fiction may be more or less like the real world, but there is at least one aspect of that world into which the irrational in the form of the divine, the supernatural, or the paranormal intrudes.  One may only catch the briefest of glimpses of it, as in M.R. James’s Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904), or it may be supervenient upon science, as in H.P. Lovecraft’s revelation that the monsters in his Cthulhu Mythos stories were actually aliens in At the Mountains of Madness (1936), but the divine, supernatural, or paranormal is always in excess of human reason, rationality, and ratiocination.  One of the advantages of occult detective fiction is that creators can introduce an additional layer of suspense in having the detective investigate both criminal and supernatural cases and Hodgson employed this device with Carnacki very successfully.  The world of the occult detective must nonetheless be one in which the supernatural intrudes into the natural in some way, whether or not that intrusion is revealed in every case.

In Hjortsberg’s gripping and innovative novel, Falling Angel, Angel is hired to find a missing person and framed for a series of murders by his client.  Alan Parker’s brilliant and inventive adaptation (he wrote the screenplay as well as directed), the feature film Angel Heart (1987), takes Hjortsberg’s novel a step further, a step that could perhaps only be taken on the screen (as opposed to the page).  In this respect, I am reminded of Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder (1990), where it seems highly unlikely that the three simultaneous realities being experienced by the protagonist – suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, spending an afterlife in hell, or being in a coma – could be sustained with equal conviction for the full length of the narrative.  Parker’s adaptation is ingenious, superior to the novel, and I recommend that first-time viewers watch the film before reading the novel as the similarities are sufficient for each to spoil the other.  Angel Heart is one hundred and ten minutes long from opening credits to end credits and set in and around New York and New Orleans in 1955. Angel (played by Mickey Rourke) is a thirtysomething private investigator who has spent his whole life in Brooklyn, except for a brief period of military service in North Africa during the Second World War.  He is a somewhat stereotypical private eye, chain-smoking, gum-chewing, unshaven, untidy, and unambitious, but well-known and well-liked in his neighbourhood.  He is single, with no apparent family or close friends, and prone to lasciviousness, albeit charming enough for women to find his lechery flattering rather than predatory.  Angel was both physically and mentally wounded in the war.  He recovered from the former with the aid of reconstructive surgery, but not the latter, his “shellshock” resulting in an early discharge, in consequence of which he was one of the first combat veterans to return to America, at the end of 1942.  Angel seems to have overcome his post-traumatic stress disorder in the intervening years, although he refuses to “get involved in anything really heavy”, intending to keep out of harm’s way for the rest of his life.  The majority of his work is for insurance companies and suspicious spouses.

Angel Heart opens with Angel being contacted by Herman Winesap (played by Dann Florek) of Winesap and Mackintosh attorneys with a job offer.  He meets Winesap’s client, Monsieur Louis Cyphre (played by Robert De Niro), who hires him to find Johnathan Liebling, a singer with the stage name of Johnny Favorite, who was also wounded in the war but never recovered.  Angel goes to the hospital where Liebling has spent the last twelve years and finds that he has been missing for some time.  He breaks into Liebling’s doctor’s house, discovers that Albert Fowler (played by Michael Higgins) is a morphine addict, and questions him.  Fowler tells him that Liebling left the hospital in December 1943.  Angel thinks he is concealing information so he locks Fowler in his bedroom in the hope that he will be more truthful after a few hours of morphine withdrawal.  As Angel walks to a nearby diner, there is a strange sequence, variations of which will be repeated four more times, and which signify the intrusion of the occult into Angel’s world, which otherwise appears to be entirely historically accurate.  These sequences involve shots of a lift descending and the sound of a beating heart combined with either shots of a fan, a veiled woman in black, or both.  Viewers who are able to decode Parker’s sequence will be able to work out the occult intrusion and penetrate to the secret at the core of the narrative – which is highly unlikely until its fourth occurrence, in the final fifteen minutes of the film.  Parker makes expert use of these sequences as well as his other cinematic clues, meeting the detective story ideal of misdirection without deceit.  Ideally, the dénouement of a murder mystery should come as a surprise to most of the audience, but they should not feel cheated.  Agatha Christie was famously accused of cheating her readers in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) and while I disagree with this assessment any reader who has a basic knowledge of gunshot wounds (which, it seems, Christie did not) will feel cheated by And Then There Were None (1939), her bestselling novel (and, I suspect, the bestselling novel of all time).  On the other hand, readers do not want to be able to work out the identity of the killer too soon or the murder mystery will end in an anticlimax, which is true of Christie’s weaker works, such as Lord Edgware Dies (1933) and Cat Among the Pigeons (1959).  In other words, as readers or viewers we want to feel that sufficient clues were made available to us by the author or director and that if we had only been that little bit more astute, we could have solved the case.  When Angel returns to Fowler’s house, he finds him murdered, his death faked to look like suicide.  

Angel meets Cyphre and resigns, but is persuaded to continue with a five thousand dollar bonus.  He learns that Liebling was engaged to Margaret Krusemark (played by Charlotte Rampling), a wealthy socialite, while having an affair with Evangeline Proudfoot, the African American proprietor of Mammy Carter’s Herb Store.  Margaret has moved to New Orleans and Angel leaves New York for New Orleans, where the remaining two-thirds of the film is set.  He interviews Margaret, who tells him that Liebling died in 1943.  He finds another herb store of the same name and interviews Evangeline’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Epiphany (played by Lisa Bonet), who tells him that her mother died in 1947.  Angel then interviews Toots Sweet (played by Brownie McGhee), who was in Liebling’s band and is still working as a musician.  When Sweet refuses to talk, Angel follows him to a Louisiana Voodoo ceremony in which Epiphany takes the lead and then ambushes him when he returns home.  Sweet informs him that Epiphany has been a “mambo”, a powerful priestess, since she was thirteen, but insists that he hasn’t seen Liebling since before the war.  As Angel walks down the stairs, the strange sequence begins again and the remainder of the narrative is best summarised by Angel himself, in his third and final meeting with Cyphre: “there’s a lot of religion going around with this thing, it’s very weird… and I don’t understand it; it’s ugly.”  Ugly indeed, but a great work of cinema and possibly unique in succeeding as both a sinister murder mystery and an erudite horror story.  But why the interest now, thirty-three years later?  I first saw the film on video a few years after its release and have never really lost interest, as will be obvious to anyone who has read the third story in my occult detective collection, The Adventures of Roderick Langham (2017).  Recently, however, I discovered that No Exit Press is due to publish Angel’s Inferno, a sequel to Falling Angel, in October this year.  This came as a surprise for two reasons.  First, I have read as much as I could find about Hjortsberg, who died in 2017, online and all of his novels and screenplays were standalones.  Second, Falling Angel (unlike Angel Heart) ends with Angel being arrested for a murder that he did not commit, but for which there is conclusive evidence of his guilt and for which the arresting officers are seeking the death sentence.  Angel is stoic and resigned to his fate, hardly fertile ground for a sequel.  If that sequel is any good, then I’ll be returning to these pages; if not, then we still have Hjortsberg’s original and Parker’s adaptation, both of which are five-star fare.*****               

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