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This text has been submitted as an original contribution to cinetext on October 15, 2007.

Last-Minute-Revelation: The Postmodern Aspects of Angel Heart

Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav'n.
(Milton: Paradise Lost)

By Jens Nepper

Angel Heart, which is based on William Hjortsberg's Faustian detective novel Falling Angel (1978), was written and directed by Alan Parker and released theatrically in 1987. Mickey Rourke puts up with a career-highlight performance as detective Harry Angel while Robert De Niro makes an everlasting impression as the noble, elusive and, ultimately, horrifying Louis Cyphre. On an interesting side-note, De Niro's performance as Cyphre is said to be an impersonation of famous movie director Martin Scorsese 1.

      Without going into a detailed account of the differences between the film and novel, it should be noted that Angel Heart differs a bit from Hjortsberg's novel in the sense that it has a more oppressive and threatening atmosphere to it, yet they both share the same tragic and sinister undertones. Much like the novel, Parker’s film is firmly entrenched in what may be termed a postmodern (Gothic) noir atmosphere, which, in other words, is a shadowy world of crime, low-key lighting, mysticism, and slippery identities.

The Postmodern Aspects of Angel Heart:

In an overall perspective, one may think of postmodernism as something that embraces scepticism and challenges the idea of absolute authority in every possible way: “If any one common thread unites the diverse artistic and intellectual movements that constitute postmodernism, it is the questioning of any belief system that claims universality or transcendence.” 2 What often characterizes postmodern fiction on a general level is its ability to break away from traditional fiction and subvert the whole foundation of security and meaning in order to expose the meaninglessness and emptiness hidden underneath certain modes of thinking and experiencing things. In terms of literature, postmodern fiction is quite diverse: “Many of the works of postmodern literature…blend literary genres, cultural and stylistic levels, the serious and the playful, that they resist classification according to traditional literary rubrics.” 3 This view on postmodern literature could also be applied to Angel Heart in that the film incorporates and mixes various genres to great effect and succeeds in blending two different narratives. Professor Fred Botting ties an interesting comment to the narrative structure of the film: “Punctuated by flashbacks of mysterious shrouded figures, blood-filled bowels and blood-stained walls, the film suggest another story: one narrative, the detective story, is gradually supplanted by a Faustian tale of diabolical repossession.”4 This narrative structure is echoed in Hjortsberg's novel as well.

Postmodern Gothic fiction deviates from the more traditional and classic fantastic fiction in that the latter often returns to the sane and the rational by re-enacting, re-building and restoring the boundary between the natural and supernatural, whereas this is not the case in much postmodern Gothic fiction. In the case of Angel Heart, the distinction between what is real and unreal is deconstructed, subverted and, eventually, broken down, thereby leaving the narrative centred in a fictional world derived of paternal laws and clear-cut binary oppositions. Fred Botting summarizes the whole Faustian-like plot in the following way:

Angel discovers that he is the criminal he has been pursuing. For, in the arcane ritual alluded to in the flashbacks, the heart of an innocent victim, Angel, was torn out and eaten by the criminal who then assumed Angel’s appearance. This was done so that the villain could renege on a contract with the devil, substituting another’s soul for his own. Satan - ´Lucifer´ in the shape and name of Louis Cyphre - returns to claim his due, hiring ´Angel´ for the purpose… 3

Cyphre's interest in Favorite/Angel is to collect his “profit” and honor the pact they once made, but in the process of doing so, he makes sure that Angel is also framed for the murders that have been left in the wake of his quest for Favorite: “In the course of the investigation Angel becomes the chief suspect for the murders that shadow it.”6 Upon the ending of the film, which depicts Angel/Favorite descending in a dark and rattling elevator, one may assume that he will end up in the hell he assigned his soul to when he sliced the real Angel clean open, but one may also assume that he will be punished by the Court of Justice for the murders of Toots Sweet, Margaret Krusemark and Epiphany Proudfoot. One could then argue that there is more than one ‘reality’ in the film and that the concept of identity operates on more than one level. When watching the film, the viewer may have a clear idea of what will happen next due to the preceding events, but most assumptions and/or interpretations developed by the viewer most likely fall to pieces when Angel’s reality merges with, or is supplanted by, Favorite’s reality. Daniel Jones, who draws a parallel between Memento and the novel on which Angel Heart is based, states that:

In both Memento and Falling Angel, the texts force the reader to see their own inabilities as detectives, their failures as empirical readers. Falling Angel, by its last minute revelation of ‘true’ identities, deconstructs any theory the reader has developed from the text before this point – it forces the reader to reread, in the light of these revelations, and with the knowledge that they have been duped by the author. 7

The postmodern idea of id entity as something unstable, unfixed and fluid is quite relevant when discussing and analyzing Angel Heart since its main characters are all embodiments of slippery identities and personas. When the film’s end draws near, Harry Angel turns out to be the missing Johnny Favorite; Louis Cyphre is none other than the mighty Lucifer; and Angel’s lover, Epiphany Proudfoot, turns out to be his own (i.e. Johnny Favorite's) daughter, thereby weaving a twisted element of incest into the narrative. Angel’s fragmented memories, strange visions and incomplete self underline that the film’s take on the subject of identity is somewhat rooted in how postmodernism, on a more general level, approaches the idea of identity: “…the postmodern version of identity exchanged the authority and certitude of previous cultural periods for pragmatic scepticism that pursues diffuse and open-ended explanations for what was previously believed to be a unified phenomenon.” 8 Daniel Jones seems to be able to apply this postmodern concept and idea of identity-crisis, or identity-chaos if one will, to his analysis of Memento and Falling Angel: “The theory that in postmodernity, identity is subjective and self-constructed, a text of thoughts and language to create an image of oneself, suggests equally that the textual worlds these characters narrate are also subjective and fluctuating constructs, likely (as in both the film and novel) to prove as unstable and ultimately ‘false’ as the detectives’ identities.”9

   Since irony is often utilized in postmodern fiction, it is quite interesting to note that Parker has kept some of the novel’s rather ironic elements and lines in the film. For instance, towards the end of the film, where everything finally dawns on Angel and he realizes that he has been tricked by the greatest trickster of them all, he hurries back to his hotel room, only to find himself the prime suspect in the killing of his daughter/lover, Epiphany Proudfoot. When detective Sterne says “You’re gonna burn for this, Angel”, Angel responds by saying “I know. In hell.” There is a morbid irony running through the film, exemplified by this particular scene where the detective is merely of the opinion that Angel will probably fry in the electric chair or be sentenced to life-imprisonment, not knowing that he will not only suffer earthly punishment, but also otherworldly torment. One may also find Angel’s atheist approach to life and his denial of anything religious or supernatural quite ironic when taking into consideration that his ‘other’ self, Johnny Favorite, was deeply steeped in occultism, mysticism and Satanism.

In summing up this essay, Angel Heart clearly exhibits a number of traits and techniques belonging to postmodern art and fiction, for as it is stated in A Poetics of Postmodernism: “Postmodern art similarly asserts and then deliberately undermines such principles as value, order, meaning, control, and identity…”10, which is certainly also the case with Parker's narrative. It is possible to view the film as a piece of fiction where hierarchies are destabilized and where the narrative is a metafictional game in which the concept of how things are perceived is contested and broken down. It is a chaotic world of paranoia and split identities where what is thought to be fixed and stagnant is replaced by identity-chaos and an erasure of selves. It could then be argued that the possibility of solving the whole mystery in a conventional sense is ruined or rendered impossible when the film reaches its cryptic dénouement. As the title of this essay suggests, it is Angel’s last-minute-revelation that essentially reveals him as a hybrid villain/victim and pursuer/pursued.


  1. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0092563/trivia
  2. Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology. ed. Paula Geyh, Fred G. Leebron, Andrew Levy. New York: Norton, 1998. p. xx
  3. Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th ed. Boston: Heinle and Heinle, 1999. p. 168
  4. Botting, Fred. “Postmodern Gothic”. In: Gothic. London: Routledge, 1996. p. 174
  5. Botting. “Postmodern Gothic”…p. 174
  6. Botting. “Postmodern Gothic”…p. 174
  7. Jones, Daniel. Split Identities and World(s) Under Erasure. Lancaster University. <http://www.crimeculture.com/Contents/DanJones.html>
  8. Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology…p. xxvi
  9. Jones, Split Identities…
  10. Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism – History, Theory, Fiction. (1988). New York: Routledge, 1999. p. 13