WARNING: The analysis I do for this film makes spoilers inevitable. Watch this film one time through before reading this review. Or don’t and just read this review first, I don’t really give a shit. The important thing is that I gave you a spoiler warning so that you have no one to blame but yourself if you choose to proceed. The funny thing is though, I find this film to get better with each viewing after knowing what will happen.
This was originally a 5 star film for me. But after what I believe is my fourth time watching it, this time with the mindset of a critic and an analyst, I found it to be almost perfect rather than perfect. A couple small annoyances really, but I have a very high standard for 5 star films. 4 stars is no joke regardless, this is a damn good film. Time to discuss why I think so.
The film opens with a black background and white opening text. We can barely hear the whispers of some unknown entity whispering, “Johnny”. Fade in to an alleyway covered in snow during what looks like the winter season. Everything about it seems cold, save for the steam coming out of the sewer vents, as if hell is just below the surface. We see a man walking down it with a limp and a cane. Then a dog comes sniffing around, looks up to see a cat atop the emergency fire escape, and barks at it. The cat stays safe high above the dog, and near bars that give the feel of encasing the cat. Then the dog comes upon a dead body, the victim’s throat slit open, the victim has been dead for a while. The dog scampers away as the cat looks on at the scene below.
There is something very wrong and sinister about this place. Cut to the city itself the next morning, New York 1955, when racial segregation was still a popular thing. The starting camera view of the city seems a bit similar to the view of the alleyway at the start of the film. We then see out main protagonist, Harry Angel, a private detective, walking down the sidewalk, seeming peppy and content, smoking a cigarette and chewing bubblegum.
Soon this happy individual gets in a meeting with Louis Cyphre, and takes a job from him to track down a man known as Johnny Favorite. During the course of his investigation, bodies of potential leads start to pile up, he begins to get more and more stressed as the investigation takes its toll on him, yet he has a strange obsession with finding out the truth that goes beyond just doing a professional job.
Eventually, he finds out that Johnny Favorite was heavily into devil worship, and struck a deal with the devil to make him into the man with the “golden tonsils”, giving him a grand singing voice hat would make him famous, at the price of his soul. To trick the devil and sneak his way out of this pact, he performed a ritual, killed a young soldier named Harry Angel, at his heart, and possessed his soul, and possibly his body. But when he got drafted into the war, his memory was lost after an incident, so he began living in Harry Angel’s memories. Harry Angel is Johnny Favorite, and the devil has come for him.
That’s basically the big twist in the movie that is revealed at the very end. However, if one pays close enough attention to a few scenes, particularly to one early in the film when Harry meets Louis Cypher (aka Lucifer) for the first time, it’s pretty obvious that he is Johnny Favorite. We, as an audience, just don’t know the how or the why as of yet.
So once the twist is revealed, that would pretty much take the fun out of repeated viewings of the film, right? There’s no mystery left, and mystery/suspense/horror films tend to lose their edge when no surprises are left. But that’s not the case with this movie. On the contrary, once the twist is revealed after the first watch of the movie, that’s when the fun really begins.
On other viewings, you tend to see things differently. I find it particularly interesting to see how themes and messages shine through clearer and stronger than ever once the general plots and twists are known.
For example, when Harry Angel meets Lucifer for a second time, at a coffee shop, the Devil is cracking open a hardboiled egg in a very non-subtle manner, before mentioning that the egg is a symbol of the soul, and then bites into it. One could view this as the devil stating that he’s going to claim and devour Harry’s soul after he eventually breaks his shell, his barrier. Or you could say he was just egging him on (hahah). But upon repeated viewings, after learning that Johnny cut out Harry’s heart and ate it in order to possess his soul and trick the devil, you realize that this is the devil doing an imitation of Johnny devouring Angel’s heart. So it acts as a blatant reminder for Johnny/Harry, being very in your face about the matter, trying to make it impossible for Harry to ignore this, to remember the truth about the past. All of the above is true all at once with the scene.
Harry Angel (aka Johnny Favorite) is like the dog and the cat at the beginning of the movie. A part of Harry is like the cat, wanting to stay high up and safe from the dangers below, in Brooklyn, where it’s nice and cold. But another part of him is like the hound who wanders the streets for anything that strikes his fancy. What you find may not be what you really want. “How terrible is wisdom when it brings no profit to the wise.” Regardless, the cat is still witness to all of this, and is kept behind bars similar to those that Johnny is destined for ever since committing the unforgivable and irredeemable ritual, or so the devil claims, and as shown when mysterious elevators open their metal gates for Harry, inviting him to enter to go down into the pits of hell.
Ah yes, about the elevator. It tends to appear, along with the sound of a heartbeat mimicking the beating heart of Harry Angel that cries out of the silence, whenever Harry/Johnny kills off-screen. And all the kills are done off-screen, as the film is supposed to make one wonder whether or not Harry is actually killing these people or not until the very end.
There are elements that foreshadow the deaths of these individuals, most of whom are not as innocent as they may seem, if not all. Whenever Harry looks into a mirror, and has a strange look when gazing into himself, the scene of a murder tends not to be very far behind. Whenever we see a slow spinning fan, that’s an indication that the devil is near. Harry is doing the murders, but they’re “guided by my hand, naturally,” so says Lucifer. And Lucifer isn’t one who punishes the innocent. At worst, he tempts them, but can’t punish until their soul is beyond saving.
The first victim, the doctor, is killed not long after Harry glances at a mirror, handles the murder weapon and other objects found near the body, and a spinning fan is shown. The doctor is not only a drugatic, but also assisted others in keeping Johnny hidden after his injuries from the war, which did extensive damage to his face, which had to be reconstructed. The devil doesn’t take kindly to those who assist with sinners trying to dodge their reckoning.
Madam Krusemark is also not so innocent. Harry meets her, and handles an interesting knife that she keeps in her household. Later on, the same knife is used to kill her and cut our her heart. We eventually learn that she also participated in the ritual to kill Harry Angle, possibly with the same knife.
Toots Sweet, one of the members of the band Johnny was in, helped Johnny take Harry Angel to the hotel they were staying at in order to kill him and have the ritual done. In fact, he has a pentagram carved on his silver tooth, the same pentagram symbol found on Madam Krusemark’s necklace, and on Lucifer’s ring.
Mr. Krusemark is also a devil worshiper, who became one after Johnny introduced him to the cult, and assisted in Johnny’s escape from the hospital. So he gets boiled alive. After all, eggs become hard boiled when submerged in boiling water.
And then there’s Epiphany Proudfoot, daughter of Johnny. I still question her innocence now, in that I’m not sure if she deserved her punishment or not. She was never a part of Johnny’s scheme, and not a devil worshiper, and oblivious to Johnny’s history altogether. Her only fault is her involvement with voodoo, and supposedly becoming pregnant due to getting involved in a ritual that had some gods of her cult give her the best fuck of her life. Similar to how her mother said Johnny was pure evil, but the best fuck she ever had. The similarities make me conclude that the black magic Epiphany was involved in was evil. But I could be wrong.
Things that seem innocent on the surface turn out not to be. That’s an underlying theme in this movie. When Harry enters a church for the first time, a pastor talks of reincarnation and reproducibility, similar to Johnny’s condition. Then he demands all the churchgoers to give him money so he can be rich. Then there’s a room with blood splattered on the wall where a follower of the pastor’s flock committed suicide. It’s obvious that something is not right in the church. On top of that, every time Harry enters a chapel, the devil is always there. In fact, Harry does cause a bit of harm to the pastor at one point in the film, something that the pastor deserves.
Of course, there are also objects which aren’t as innocent as they appear, such as the Bible book that Harry only briefly touches before moving on, preferring to keep his distance from religion. But later on, we see that the Bible held bullets used with a gun to kill one of Johnny’s victims. If Harry had decided to take a closer look, disregarding his fear, would he see the truth and have things turn out different? Should the darkness within be ignored? Will confronting it make things worse?
Harry Angel himself is also not what he appears to be at the surface. He is really Johnny Favorite, though without conscious knowledge of it. This also has other implications. Aside from the innocent not being innocent, this also means that he’s really a black man. Johnny Favorite was black, Harry Angel is white.
It brings up the race theme in the movie at certain points, more-so upon further viewings. Harry sitting in a “For Colored Folks Only” section of a bus, being chased by two black bodyguards in New York, being chased by two white bodyguards in Louisiana. The fact that both Harry and Johnny had a black and white lover. This can be translated as a metaphor for Harry Angel struggling with his fears and desires of black people. A fear that is internal in more ways than one.
On the surface, white people of the time may want to keep peace and not have any issues with blacks. But deep down, they had a fear and anger of them, unjustified, shown in the film’s depiction of their voodoo practices. But how much different is it from following a religion where animals, and sometimes a son, are sacrificed for the greater good of God?
“Black, white, what difference does it make?”
There is an online article that covers this issue much better than I possibly can, so I’ll just provide the link for anyone who is interested:
Lastly, I’ll bring up some other metaphors and symbolism. Chickens come up off and on. Aside from them being those who lay eggs, they are also used in voodoo. And Harry seems to have a thing with chickens, in that he prefers to stay away from them, his inner self telling him to stay away. Epiphany is scene around chickens on more than one occasion. At one point, Harry is forced to flee through a chicken coop, running trough the very thing he fears and wants to stay away from, running straight into the past for all to be revealed.
Water is also a strong symbol. Harry is shown trying to keep away from the water in the ocean while trying to talk to a woman who stands in the ocean. He eventually travels to Louisiana, a hot humid environment, with plenty of rain, rivers, and puddles. The film starts off in an environment where it’s ice and snow, with water frozen solid. As the film progresses, the snow starts to melt away more and more until Harry is in the south. By the end of the film, he has dashed into the pouring rain not caring about protecting himself from water anymore. Water is the truth. Water is used to cleanse people in baptism. In the scene where Harry is making love to Epiphany (the above link also expands on this more), everything seems to go fine until water leaking from the roof drips onto Harry’s back. Soon after the water starts to turn into blood, and the sex becomes disturbingly violent and filled with violent visions. If Harry had no fear of the truth, things may have turned out different. But he accepted the truth too late.
And then there’s the elevator itself. After certain scenes, Harry either approaches an elevator that opens on its own, inviting him in, or he has a vision of an elevator. His fate is tied to the elevator, for him to go in, become locked in, and go down and down and down until he reaches his final destination. A bowl of blood is occasionally in front of it, to remind him of the blood he has spilled.
So, yeah, there is a lot that goes on in this movie if you decide to take a closer look. It’s these discoveries and realizations upon a second viewing that made me love this film. The best part is realizing that Harry Angel’s character has been receiving development without some viewers even realizing it the first time watching the film. On subsequent viewings, you realize you’re not just learning about Johnny favorite, you’re learning about Harry Angel in the process. It’s one of the ultimate tricks done for character development. That said, the pacing and progression do get a tad bit slow during the middle of the movie, and there is an unnecessary scream sound effect that happens a couple of times in the film. It’s distracting more than engrossing. Small complaints for a good film.
Oh, and fun fact, Robert DeNiro plays the devil in this. And Al Pacino played the devil in The Devil’s Advocate. Why couldn’t we get a movie that these two playing as demons and facing off against each other in a battle of biblical proportions?