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Still in his prime, Robert De Niro presided over a devilishly cool noir

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: To celebrate the return of Veronica Mars, we dig up some other unconventional detective stories.

Angel Heart (1987)

Private eye fiction gets a demonic twist with Angel Heart, a 1987 gumshoe saga that slowly reveals itself to be about a quest for consciousness and identity. The man unwittingly in search of himself is Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke), a 1955 P.I. who’s hired by the mysterious Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro)—a dapper man in black, introduced clutching an ornate cane with his long, pointy fingernails—to find a once-famous singer named Johnny Favorite. Cyphre’s identity, and what he might want from Johnny, remains a mystery to Angel, who repeatedly tells everyone he’s from Brooklyn, but seems largely clueless about the reality in which he exists. That state of affairs becomes even more pronounced as his investigation takes him from grimy NYC to humid Louisiana where those who spirited Favorite out of a mental hospital reside, practicing voodoo with severed chicken-foot talismans and nude, bloody rituals.

Alan Parker’s neo-noir story (adapted from a novel by William Hjortsberg) isn’t a subtle beast, and his direction is suitably bold and lurid, generating a mood of swampy terror. There are greasy shadows, sweaty close-ups, crimson hues, horrifying flashbacks, and symbolic dreams of an elevator that takes Angel down, down, down. That Angel Heart is situated firmly in Faustian territory is never in doubt, but the hero’s fate remains in constant uncertainty all the way through his series of encounters with black-magic practitioners. (Lisa Bonet, then of The Cosby Show, plays one of them and earned considerable notoriety for tackling a role of such oozing carnality.) In a deviously underplayed performance, De Niro affects a placid demeanor, his true nature betrayed only by the slight, occasional sneer. Truly holding the salacious material together, however, is Rourke, exuding world-weariness and disheveled street-urchin cool that makes Angel resemble a junkyard dog that knows its day is fast approaching.

Availability: Angel Heart is available on Blu-ray and DVD, which can be obtained through Netflix and to rent or purchase through the major digital services.