The Devil You Know

Okay then, so who do you think makes the better devil, Robert De Niro or Al Pacino?

Let’s consider the evidence.

Angel Heart (1987)

Alan Parker’s film is set in 1955, ranging from New York to New Orleans. Private investigator Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) is hired by the enigmatic Louis Cyphre to track down missing crooner Johnny Favourite, but the search leads him ever deeper into the mysteries of voodoo and Harry finds that there’s a trail of dead bodies piling up in his wake.

Based on a William Hjortsberg novel, this is one of the horror genre’s classic films, with a marvellously convoluted plot, one that still has surprises to spring on the viewer even in the final furlong. The period feel is captured perfectly, with a washed out look to the whole enterprise that is effective in conveying a sense of the past, almost like the sepia photographs of yesteryear. Equally sound is the way in which we keep getting flashes, akin to subliminal advertising, that hint at what is really taking place, setting us up for the finale in which reality comes crashing in on Harry Angel. Undercutting it all are competing and yet complementary versions of spirituality, with little to choose between the marching band and gospel singers on the one hand and on the other the voodoo celebrants, with their ecstatic dancing and animal sacrifice – each one is trying to touch the numinous.

The cast are excellent, with Rourke seldom better than he is here as Angel, protagonist more than hero, with hints of what he is really like in the ruthless zeal with which he prosecutes his search for Favourite. There is superb backup from Charlotte Rampling as a Devil worshipper and a young but assured Lisa Bonet as a voodoo priestess who is momentarily Angel’s partner in lust.

De Niro as Louis Cyphre (Lucifer) is the puppet master par excellence, the one who pulls everybody’s strings. He always seems restrained and in control, the ornate walking stick that he uses as a prop having about it something of the regal sceptre. Unlike the Pacino incarnation, you can’t imagine this guy ever losing his temper or having to shout at people, it would be beneath his dignity. And yet in a way this detachment is, more even than his not a hair out of place appearance, a signifier of the fact that he is not human, at least by any standards we recognise. He is unmistakably the other, not just by virtue of an admirably  restrained performance, but by embodying restraint itself.

The Devil’s Advocate (1997)

Hotshot lawyer Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) gets the chance to join a prestigious and powerful New York firm, where he is taken under the wing of the ebullient John Milton (Pacino), who appears to have big plans for his talented protege. But of course there is far more to all this than meets the eye.

While Angel Heart, in the loosest sense, was a quest come voyage of self-discovery film, this is more typical demonic fare, a tale of temptation, with Lomax as the man who stands to gain everything at the cost of his soul. Entrusted with great responsibility, Lomax finds that he has the chance to shine on a global stage and put his ability to use, but while he is showered with wealth he fails to notice that his wife has become estranged and is quietly going mad. At the story’s resolution he faces a moral choice, one that cuts to the heart of our legal system, opposing the ethics of his profession with Lomax’s desire to do the right thing. And yet, both throughout and in the sting in the tail coda beloved of horror films, it’s the flaws in his own nature that leave the character vulnerable.

This isn’t as subtle a film as Angel Heart and it’s not as visually appealing, eschewing gritty realism in favour of a modern baroque that conveys wealth and power in every single scene. There are suggestions of other films, most obviously Rosemary’s Baby, but it’s in the film’s vision of a war against God that it strikes a note of originality, the way in which the legal profession is suborned to the satanic cause, a breed of Pharisees going about the Devil’s work, with the concept of justice overthrown by an ersatz legalism.

Reeves as Lomax is adequate, and Charlize Theron as his put upon wife convincingly loses her mind, but the film belongs to Pacino, far more than Angel Heart did to De Niro. His presence is latent in every scene, so that you are always thinking about him, looking for the tell. At bottom his Devil is a spoilt frat boy, eating and drinking, fucking and farting. Cunning and manipulative, using your own desires against you, he is a Devil who wants to seduce and to be liked by those he bends to his will, one who has bought into his own illusions about himself as an equal to God, ruled by the very failings he exploits in others, but at the same time he doesn’t like to be thwarted, losing his temper with Lomax, raging and almost frothing at the mouth when defied. He lacks the control shown by Louis Cyphre. While De Niro’s Devil seems cold, detached and inhuman, Pacino is all our o so very human shortcomings writ large and played out free of restraint or let.

So, which Devil do the rest of you prefer? Who would you sell your soul to in an instant?

Personally, I rather liked Walter Huston’s interpretation of the character in The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941).

Apologies to anyone who saw the Subject line and was expecting to read a post about Kylie Minogue.

Maybe next time.

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4 Responses to The Devil You Know

  1. Ray Cluley says:

    I’ve been meaning to see Angel Heart for years – might have to visit Amazon today. I did enjoy Pacino in Advocate though, all loud and me me me.

    I rather liked Viggo Mortensen as the devil in Prophecy, as brief as his appearance was, especially his whispered hiss “I love you, I love you more than Jesus…” In fact, I liked that gem of a ‘straight to DVD’ film so much that I haven’t dared watch the others.

    • petertennant says:

      Yeah “The Prophecy” is a much underrated film, and I love the way the fallen angels are portrayed, almost like carrion birds, sitting and watching and waiting for something to die. I watched the second one, but it was nothing special, rather like a fair to middling episode of “Angel”.

  2. Dave Grohl’s my favourite, from Tenacious D videos and films:

    • petertennant says:

      Tim Curry having a bad beard day. Good fun, but in the Devil sweepstakes I prefer the little old lady whose eyes light up at the end as she cackles insanely.

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