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 (1987) solves that problem. Johnny Liebling is a crooner who thinks he knows a way to trick 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 substitute the soldier’s soul for his own, the result being that the soldier’s soul will have to suffer the fires of Hell, while Johnny’s soul does not. The soldier’s name is Harold Angel, suggesting his innocence, of course. As part of the ritual, the soldier’s dog tags are sealed up in vase. Only if Johnny himself opens the vase will the ritual be undone. Because Satan wants Johnny’s soul and not Angel’s, he must trick Johnny into breaking open the vase.
When 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, but his friends get him out. Not knowing what to do with him, they simply drop him off in a crowd of people on New Year’s Eve, hoping that will jog his memory. As a result of Johnny’s confused memory about swapping souls with Harold Angel, he comes to believe that he is Harold Angel, and eventually starts working as a private detective under that name.
Ten years after the war, which is when the movie starts, this Harold Angel is hired by Louis Cyphre (Lucifer) 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 basically a nice guy. As he 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 having 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. Finally, recent memories that Johnny had distorted are replaced by accurate ones, and he is forced into the realization that he has murdered several people.
Because Johnny thought he had a way to trick the Devil, this story works on a literal plane. And by making us like him as Harold Angel and identify with him, the movie forces us to realize that we too may not be as good as we like to think we are, that we too have something inside us that is evil.
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, that Johnny was damned. By this remark, Cyphre links the literal understanding of this story with its allegorical one.