Angel Heart is one of my favorite movies. Unfortunately, I cannot begin to do justice to its style and tone, the music and the imagery, which I always find unnerving. I might do better discussing the symbolism—the fans, the mirrors, the stairs and elevators—or the clever use of names, but I’ll just stick to the story; for the manner in which it is told can be confusing, and so much so that I was still not sure exactly what happened, even after a third viewing, especially since what we see is not always veridical, owing to distorted memories and perceptions. For that reason, I believe it will be worthwhile to focus on the logic of the narrative, both as to the sequence of events and the metaphysics of the soul.
One of the problems with the story of Faust, the man in the German legend who sold his soul to the Devil, is that we never understood why anyone would make such a foolish bargain in the first place. A few decades of wealth, power, fame, and sex in exchange for an eternity of suffering the fires of Hell? The story fares much better when understood in the allegorical sense, of course, but it is always better if a story makes sense literally if it is to have much value figuratively. Angel Heart at least makes an effort to satisfy both requirements.
Johnny Liebling is a crooner who thinks he knows a way to cheat Satan. He makes a pact with him, in which Satan gets Johnny’s soul in exchange for fame as a singer, under the name Johnny Favourite. Having made the deal and benefited from it, he then performs a ritual that involves cutting the heart out of a soldier and eating it. By so doing, Johnny is able to get rid of his own soul and replace it with that of the soldier, whose name is Harold Angel.
Let us pause for a moment to consider this. It is common for those that believe in life after death to suppose that the soul and the body are two distinct entities. In some versions of Christianity, the soul occupies the body during life on Earth, but when the body dies, the soul goes to an afterworld, like Heaven or Hell, where it will spend eternity. Some Christians believe the soul will get a new body, others do not. In either event, the soul is what is essential to the person, so the loss of the body it occupies here on Earth is not lamented. Likewise, for those that believe in reincarnation, when a person dies, his soul is reborn into another body. Again, it is the soul that is essential to the person, not the body that it occupies, so that here too the person is said to survive death.
With that in mind, the idea that Johnny acquired Angel’s soul would seem to be the reverse of the usual understanding of the relationship between the soul and the body. Instead of saying that Harold Angel now has a new body, that of Johnny Favourite, the movie is saying that Johnny Favourite has a new soul, that of Harold Angel. The identity is a function of the body, not the soul. But that would seem to call into question the whole notion of immortality.
Let us continue with the narrative before trying to sort this out further. Since Johnny has gotten rid of his old soul and has now acquired a new one, the one that used to belong to Harold Angel, he has escaped damnation. In addition, he planned to take on the soldier’s identity, allowing him to hide from Satan. As part of the ritual, the soldier’s dog tags are sealed up in a vase. Only if Johnny himself opens the vase himself will the ritual be undone.
Before Johnny can assume the identity of Harold Angel, World War II breaks out. Johnny is drafted and subsequently suffers an injury, which causes him to have amnesia. He spends some time in a hospital, during which he has extensive facial reconstruction. His friends get him out, but his face is still in bandages, so they don’t know what he looks like with his new face. They bribe the doctor to falsify records, making it appear that Johnny is still there as a patient. Not knowing what to do with him, they simply drop him off in a crowd of people in Times Square on New Year’s Eve of 1943, hoping that will jog his memory, for it was on a previous New Year’s Eve in Times Square that Johnny had ritually murdered the soldier. As a result of Johnny’s confused memory about acquiring the soul and taking on the identity of Harold Angel, he comes to believe that he is Harold Angel.
Ten years after the war, which is when the movie starts, this Harold Angel (Mickey Roarke), who knows only that he got messed up during the war and was sent home, has become a private detective. As such, he is hired by Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) to find Johnny Favourite. Angel does not realize it, but he has been hired by the Devil to find himself. We do not realize it either, at this point, and we are encouraged by the movie to like Angel and to identify with him. He seems to be a nice guy, and after all, we usually like private detectives in movies. He even blows bubble gum.
At one point in the movie, Johnny’s daughter Epiphany (Lisa Bonet) says that her mother told her that Johnny “was as close to true evil as she ever wanted to come.” If this is so, then how is it that Angel is so likeable? Or, since this is getting confusing, let us say that the when Johnny Favourite acquired the soul of Harold Angel, he became what we shall call Johnny Angel. Therefore, Johnny Angel is likeable because he has the soul of Harold Angel, who was presumably a likeable person. But this brings us back to the standard understanding, which is that the essence of the person is the soul, not the body.
Just as an aside, I cannot help but wonder how it makes sense for the Devil to make a pact with someone as evil as Johnny Favourite supposedly was. Such a person is already destined for Hell, so what does he have to bargain with? The Devil would naturally want to make a deal for the soul of someone who is a devout Christian, one who believes that Jesus Christ is his savior. Now, that would be a soul worth the effort. Why would the Devil waste his time providing all those worldly goodies for someone whose soul he already has in the bag?
Anyway, as Angel starts investigating, he begins experiencing disturbing images from the past. Little by little, he begins to suspect the truth. He is horrified at the idea that he might be Johnny Favourite, and as we have come to like him and identify with him, we are horrified too.
In his desperation to assure himself that he is who he thinks he is, he breaks open the vase, and the dog tags of the real Harold Angel fall out. The spell is broken. At this point, Louis Cyphre appears, announcing that Johnny’s soul now belongs to him. But wouldn’t the soul to which Louis Cyphre now lays claim be the soul of Harold Angel, not the soul of Johnny Favourite? The reason Cyphre has been going to all this trouble is that he wants the original soul of Johnny Favourite, not the Harold Angel substitute.
Recent memories that Johnny had distorted are replaced by accurate ones, memories of the gruesome way he murdered people in his effort to keep anyone from finding out that he was Johnny Favourite hiding out as Harold Angel. And so now we find that this amalgam we are calling Johnny Angel, while being the likeable Harold Angel on the one hand, is also the evil Johnny Favourite on the other, and this evil side surfaces from time to time, something the good side has been unaware of.
Perhaps we are now in a position to interpret what happened in a way that is consistent both with the usual understanding the relationship between the soul and the body, on the one hand, and with the split personality of Johnny Angel, on the other. When Johnny Favourite acquired the soul of Harold Angel, his own soul did not vanish, but rather remained in Johnny’s body alongside the new one. When Johnny eventually died, the soul of the hapless Harold Angel would have gone to Hell, while Johnny Favourite’s soul would have passed through the Pearly Gates of Heaven to dwell among the righteous. But now that the ritual has been undone, Harold Angel’s soul has been released, much in the way the dog tags were released from the vase, and Johnny’s body now has just the one soul, the one he had to begin with. And that is why he can now remember the murders with such clarity.
Because Johnny had a way to cheat the Devil, this story works on a literal plane. But a remark made by Louis Cyphre gives this Faustian story a new twist. Cyphre says that Johnny was doomed the minute he cut that boy’s heart out. In other words, all that dabbling in black magic and making a pact with the Devil was just so much hocus-pocus. In itself, it was harmless nonsense, and Johnny would never have gone to Hell for that. It was only when he did something truly evil, when he murdered that soldier, the very act that was supposed to undo the hocus-pocus, that Johnny was damned. By this remark, Cyphre links the literal understanding of this story with its allegorical one.