The wonderful Armin Ganz was the art director of Angel Heart. Alan Parker had used him before in Birdy. Ganz had a long successful career as a set decorator (he was nominated for an Oscar for Tucker) – and if you look at his bio you can see many “period” pieces on it: mid-20th century Americana was his milieu. Robert Franco and Leslie Pope (both Oscar-nominated artists) were the set decorators for Angel Heart. The art director is in charge of the whole look of the picture (or, the cinematographer is REALLY the one in charge) – and the set decorators are the ones who fill the apartments with knick-knacks, period-appropriate calendars, family photos, whatever. They are the ones in charge of atmosphere. They are the ones who will butt in and say, “There were no milk cartons then. There were only milk bottles.” They are the nitpickers. They research the period exhaustively (if it’s appropriate, I mean) and make sure, to the best of their abilities, that there are no glaring errors. Like someone writing with a ballpoint pen in 1941, for example (ha. If you’ve seen Angel Heart recently you’ll get the reference). The way the lamps were, what the clocks were like … they’re in charge of all that.
(I like to focus on how objects are filmed, how they are handled in films.)
For Angel Heart there was, again, multiple layers going on at the same time. It takes place in 1955. And while it is a movie about the devil, and supernatural evil exerting its influence on us here on earth – Alan Parker never wanted to film it in the style of a horror movie. He always wanted to keep it in the cliched world of the crumpled gumshoe, the tough-talking Sam Spade guy, trying to put his case together. It just happened that the devil was involved. Because Parker made that conscious choice, the art direction and set decoration followed suit. There should be no “clue” that this will be a supernatural story about the occult. The objects in the film should reflect the period and yet at the same time comment on it, and work with the audience expectations that, oh yes, they know what kind of movie this is, because they had seen it before …
Nothing should grate or pull you out of it. So that – in those startling supernatural scenes – with the elevator grate sliding open, and the scary black-shrouded woman walking up the spiral staircase – images clearly out of a surreal non-realistic world – should come as a surprise, and be even more terrifying. Because here in our everyday world, we don’t see things like that, and so we don’t know how to interpret it.
The juxtaposition works wonderfully, I think. The atmosphere of the film is truly creepy. Through the objects we see, the coffee pots, the crumpled cigarette packs, the key rings and newspapers … we think we know where we are. Not just in terms of time and place, but in terms of what movie we are in. We have seen this before, in every lonely detective story ever made. And so there’s a kitschy feeling to some of it – which appears to me to be deliberate. With some films, the kitsch is not deliberate – and those are the films that “wear” their “period” like a self-conscious costume. “Oh, look at me, using an old-fashioned percolator with marcelled hair! Aren’t I cute? Weren’t people so cute back then??” It’s condescending. Kitsch doesn’t necessarily have to be phony. In Angel Heart, I feel like it is giving us clues, breadcrumbs through the forest, sometimes leading us astray. We see the old-fashioned cars and garter belts and think: “Oh yes, oh yes, I know where I am.” The kitsch here is appropriate – because it serves as a misleading signal. By the time we realize we are in the middle of a really fucking scary story about Mephistopheles – and not a cute little period-piece movie – it’s too late. We can’t escape.
The cinematographer (Michael Seresin) is also responsible here – for choosing to cut-away from closeups of faces to objects … at times when it seems odd, pulling you out of the action, distancing you … and he should be congratulated. I think it helps to create a really haunting atmosphere, yet beautiful and seductive at the same time.