The 70s and 80s was a golden era for Hollywood. Young actors brought up on classic cinema like Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, John Cazale et al were coinciding with film school brats like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, well versed in the post war films coming over from Europe, particularly France and Italy.
Robert De Niro was maybe the most exciting actor to emerge in this era. His roles as Jake La Motta and Travis Bickle spawned some of the most iconic scenes in cinema history, not to mention his Oscar winning performance as the young Vito Corleone in The Godfather 2. However, as great as these performances were, his turn in Alan Parker’s twisted neo-noir Angel Heart more than stands up against them, and is due for far wider recognition.
Angel Heart contains all the elements of your classic film noir: an enduring mystery, pulpy, quickfire dialogue, a femme fatale (my kingdom for a Lisa Bonet), a mysterious leading man, Mickey Rourke’s private investigator Harry Angel and an even more mysterious villain – step forward De Niro as the mercurial Louis Cypher. The film tells the story of Angel, hired by Cypher to locate an ex-wartime crooner by the name of Jonny Favourite, but as Angel delves deeper into the case more blood keeps appearing on his hands, climaxing in one of the greatest twists in movie history.
Despite his recent resurgence, watching Rourke glide through the dialogue here you can’t help but think “what might have been”.
A special mention for Rourke here too, who at the time was seen by many as De Niro’s heir apparent. Over the course of his career a number of things took its toll on his body and mind, he made some truly terribly choices (Harley Davidson & The Marlborough Men anyone?) and became something of a caricature of himself. Despite his recent resurgence, watching him glide through the dialogue here you can’t help but think “what might have been”.
Immense credit must go to Alan Parker for cultivating such a superb performance out of De Niro. From the first frame Parker creates an atmosphere of quiet menace and unease. Shadows slice through scenes and the recurring image of fans make everything so stifling and claustrophobic. De Niro is right at home amongst these cues. He delivers his lines with a calm authority, almost a conviviality. In many ways his performance is similar to John Goodman in the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink: unspeakably evil and grotesque, yet entirely hypnotic. When De Niro’s on screen, you can’t keep your eyes off him.
However, the moment that encapsulates De Niro’s brilliance in this film comes about half way through when Cypher has arranged to meet Harry Angel in a very grand, yet completely empty cafe. Throughout De Niro is quietly seen peeling the skin of some boiled eggs and lining them up in front of him (No soldiers to be found though, odd...). He then reveals that in some cultures the egg is considered to be symbolic of the soul. It’s a ridiculously hammy piece of dialogue that could be fatal in the wrong hands, but De Niro hits it perfectly, before pouring an inhuman amount of salt onto an egg, staring menacingly at Angel, then taking a gargantuan bite. There is so much drama contained in that small, almost insignificant action. Essentially, in that one moment Cypher spells out Angel’s downfall, signs his death warrant, without giving away the all important ending.
To me, that’s the mark of a great actor: the ability to say more with a look or a gesture than is there in the script, to know more about the character than the director does, or than we do, and De Niro says more with that one look than Keanu Reeves has done throughout his entire career, which ironically has been made up of only one look. If you are trying to remind yourself of why people call Robert De Niro the greatest actor of all time, then you could do a lot worse than to have a look here.
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