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This text has been submitted as an original contribution to cinetext on January 6, 2009.

The Portrayal of Lucifer in Alan Parker's Angel Heart

Angel Heart (Carolco 1987)

by Jens Nepper

In relation to Christian iconography, the portrayal and role of Lucifer in Alan Parker's Angel Heart (1987) is quite interesting in a number of ways. The name, Louis Cyphre, has a phonetic and phonological similarity to the name Lucifer, which is a very intelligent and subtle way of handing the film's protagonist, Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke), and the viewer a clue as to who he really is. In a very tense scene where Harry brings Louis Cyphre up to speed regarding his investigation of the disappearance of a crooner named Johnny Favorite (who has not really disappeared after all), Cyphre peels an egg, eats it with great gusto, and tells Harry that an egg represents the soul in some cultures and parts of the world. By telling him this and actually eating the egg, Cyphre implies that he wants Angel's soul. Although this particular egg-eating-scene does not appear in the novel on which Angel Heart is based, more specifically William Hjortsberg's novel entitled Falling Angel, there is one particular clue in the novel that does not appear in the movie, which is when Harry pays Cyphre his first visit; the address that he is given is "666 Fifth Avenue" (4), 666 being the "Number of the Beast".1

The appearance and description of Louis Cyphre owes quite a lot to the various interpretations of the Faust legend where Lucifer is at times portrayed as a rather noble and somewhat charming entity: "The familiar modern pictures of Satan as dressed in a tuxedo — or, even better, in White tie and Nails, with modest sized horns and a slender pointed tail, has doubtless been much influenced by the portrayals of Mephistopheles in Faustian operas by Berlioz, Boito, and Gounod" (Ansgar 295). When Harry first encounters Lucifer in Hjortsberg's novel, Falling Angel, he describes him

[...] as a man who might have been anywhere between forty-five and sixty. His hair was black and full, combed straight back on a high forehead, yet his square-cut goatee and pointed moustache were white as ermine. He was tanned and elegant; his eyes a distant, ethereal blue. A tiny, inverted golden star gleamed on his maroon silk necktie [...] Cyphre tapped his glass with a manicured finger [...] Languid, yet lethal, the cruel, tapered fingers perfect instruments of evil. (4-5)

As to the nature of devil-contracts, which is arguably the main theme in Falling Angel and Angel Heart, philosopher Paul Carus characterizes this old phenomenon in the following way:

The Devil, fighting with God for the possession of mankind, was supposed to have a special passion for catching souls. Being the prince of the world he could easily grant even the most extravagant wishes, and was sometimes willing to pay a high price when a man promised to be his for time and eternity. Thus originated the idea of making compacts with the devil [...]. (414)

Regarding the comparison and similarity between Angel Heart and the Faust legend, the story of Harry Angel/Johnny Favorite and Louis Cyphre may be said to mirror that of Dr. Johannes Faust and Mephistopheles. The latter concerns the quest of a learned scholar named Faust, who, in his pursuit of happiness, insight and understanding, summons the devil, represented by Mephistopheles. The two parties agree to a pact that involves Mephistopheles serving Faust for a period of twenty-four years: "Mephistopheles entertained his master with all kinds of merry illusions, with music and visions [...] Faust became sick of his empty pleasures" (Ibid 424). The resemblance between Angel Heart and the Faust legend is striking; the protagonist is willing to strike up a deal with the devil and sell his soul. Compared to, for instance, Goethe's Faust, the outcome of the devil-pact in Angel Heart is different; Faust is able to prevent himself from losing his soul, whereas Harry Angel/Johnny Favorite tries to avoid repaying Lucifer by transferring his soul to another man but is caught in the diabolical web spun by Cyphre.

When comparing Milton's rebel angel in Paradise Lost to Alan Parker's devilish Louis Cyphre character, it is quite interesting to note how they are quite similar in terms of intellectual power, because Cyphre is anything but mentally incapacitated in the film. Paul Carus is of the opinion that "The Protestant Devil, as a poetical figure, received his finishing touches from Milton. And Milton's Devil acquires nobility of soul, moral strength, independence, and manliness which none of his ancestors possessed [...]" (Ibid 351). The portrayal of Lucifer in Angel Heart owes something to the interpretation held by Carus where Lucifer is strong and noble in spirit, which is underlined by the fact that he outwits Harry Angel/Johnny Favorite and honors the pact they once made.

The way in which Cyphre is depicted is also in line with how certain old Christian and Jewish circles viewed Satan: "At first glance these stories of Satan may seem to have little in common. Yet they all agree on one thing: that this greatest and most dangerous enemy did not originate [...] as an outsider, an alien, or a stranger. Satan is not the distant enemy but the intimate enemy — one's trusted colleague, close associate, brother [...]" (Pagels 49). This is certainly comparable to Cyphre as he also gets up-close and personal before he makes his move, making sure that Favorite/Angel has really felt his presence and power before finalizing his punishment. This relates to old Christian and Jewish perceptions of the devil as an entity that is an intimate and close enemy who is deceptive and calculating, yet elegant, charming, and well-spoken in some instances. Notice also that there is no godlike opposition to Cyphre in Angel Heart; no merciful God of any kind intervenes in his diabolical game. There is no other power to outweigh Lucifer and therefore no savior in sight for Favorite/Angel, although it could be argued that his soul has not been within reach of salvation from the beginning of the narrative. As to the lack of an interventionist God in the novel and movie, this could indicate that William Hjortsberg may have been inspired by old religious literature such as the Book of Job, in which Satan and God are not opponents, but rather in coalition with each other: "The prophet Zechariah speaks of Satan as an angel whose office it is to accuse and to demand the punishment of the wicked" (Carus 71). Regardless, Harry Angel/Johnny Favorite is certainly punished beyond the limits of natural sickness, as implied, or symbolized if one will, by the final scene in Angel Heart where Angel/Favorite slowly descends to unknown realms in an elevator.


1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Number_of_the_beast 



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