Alan Parker’s ANGEL HEART is an odd blend of genres, taking noir, psychological thriller and horror to a three-way shotgun wedding. The screenwriting lessons it can teach us are similarly diverse. The basic plot is this: a private detective named Harry Angel is hired by the mysterious Louis Cyphre to track down ex-singer Johnny Favorite, but everyone Angel questions seems to end up dead…
**Warning: this article contains spoilers**
Screenwriting lessons from an unconventional film…
The plot itself is simple; the structure is loose – where ANGEL HEART shines is in the elements surrounding them, as the following screenwriting lessons demonstrate.
As screenwriting lessons go, this may seem a simple one, but inconsistency in tone is like an iceberg to a hull, so setting out a clear one is important.
It can be the most effective way to set up and subvert an audience’s expectations, but if people find themselves laughing every second minute during a psychological thriller, the upcoming revelation probably isn’t going to fly.
In ANGEL HEART, tone is clearly set up right from the off:
- First we have high rise buildings, the black railings of fire escapes and steam rising from below ground instantly giving us the impression that we’re in noir territory.
- A cat and a dog growling at each other suggest this place is aggressive, combative.
- Add a mysterious lone man walking away from a dead body and now we’re pretty sure this isn’t a comedy.
Within a minute, we know where we stand.
It’s an effective opening in that it both sets up the (accurate) expectation of a noir or crime thriller, while allowing for later subversion when more supernatural, religious elements begin to seep into the story.
2. Angel by name… Introducing character and story simultaneously
Contrary to numerous screenwriting lessons on structure, the inciting incident in ANGEL HEART happens less than three minutes in: Angel receives a call to attend a meeting with a potential client, Mr Cyphre. Other scripts might devote more time to establishing their protagonist first, but the fact that this opening doesn’t feel rushed is testament to just how deftly Angel is introduced.
First, he walks to his office, giving friendly greetings to a shop owner and a passerby. We can already hear the phone ringing. During the phone call itself, he’s a little smart with Winesap.
“Of course I know what an attorney is. Yeah, it’s like a lawyer only the bills are bigger”
Then, on his way to the meeting, he picks up someone’s hat for them. Two bits of proof that he’s a nice guy, and one reigning that in a little by showing he can be a bit self-assured and sarcastic. And that’s it. The story’s already underway because the character development is covered in transit. No words wasted.
3. The audience needs a friend in the dark
Stories that hinge on mystery run the risk of alienating their audience. The problem arises if
- the events unfolding are too impenetrable and
- the characters know more than the audience – viewers will end up confused to the point of boredom.
This can be avoided with a protagonist like Harry Angel. Every discovery he makes is one we make. When he finds someone’s answers to his questions suspicious, we’re usually right there with him, and this kinship makes the discovery of who he really is all the more affecting.
It has the same logic behind it as using an ‘outsider’ protagonist in a sci-fi or fantasy setting. We don’t know what a psionic tonsilfork is, and characters who use them every day have no incentive to explain it unless there’s a character there who’s equally confused. An outsider protagonist gives the audience a vessel through which to learn.
4. If you only have one main character, commit to it
When your story significantly focuses on one person, the temptation is to give them someone to play off; a wife; a husband; a best friend; a co-worker; an amorous chiropodist. This is in line with those screenwriting lessons warning writers to avoid things like voice-over: lone characters can make story progression tough, necessitating occasionally clumsy techniques to get around it.
Adding a character to keep things moving works if they’re integrated into the story, but if not they can feel a bit functional.
ANGEL HEART doubles down on Harry Angel as its sole protagonist. There are other prominent characters, of course, but even Louis Cyphre and Epiphany stay relatively peripheral in terms of screen-time. This really helps push the notion that Angel is on his own in all this, isolated, and it’s something that is reinforced throughout.
He seemingly only talks to two people he actually knows throughout the film: Ellie and Connie. He meets Ellie on the street and she seems less than interested in talking to him, and Connie helps find him some information and sleeps with him before promptly vanishing from the rest of the film. He doesn’t seem to have any friends or relatives.
On top of this, it becomes a trend in the film for Angel to pass or walk through large groups of people engaged in some other activity. Parades, religious services, horse racing… Angel is constantly present at events he plays no part in, constantly either watching or disrupting but never involved.
These are effective ways of keeping the story focused: what we’re being told, however subtly, is that this is all about him. Once we reach the end, this helps sell us on the twist retrospectively. The whole way through, we realise, we should have been asking ‘Who is this guy?’
5. Setting is a character
Not literally of course. Wallpaper isn’t sentient, but the atmosphere created by the setting has a marked effect on what goes on within it, and should reflect the type of story that takes place there.
In this case, the cities of New York and New Orleans in 1955 play a huge part in creating the ‘feel’ of the film – they have a personality. Parker himself states that he set the film four years earlier than the novel so he could give it an older feel, one more distant from a more 60s aesthetic, and it pays off by complementing the ‘noir’ feel of the film, but also allows the voodoo, sacrificial weirdness not to feel too anachronistic.
6. Don’t be afraid of silence and inaction
One of the screenwriting lessons often repeated to writers is to keep ‘moving the story forward’, but sometimes slowing down or lingering on some seemingly uneventful moment can Not every scene has to be a story-altering discussion or set-piece.
Silence is uncomfortable, and using it for that reason can have a pretty profound effect. After Angel leaves Dr. Fowler locked in his room, we are treated to a scene of him sitting, silent and alone, in a diner.
No dialogue, just Angel idly playing with the key, the sound of it clattering on the counter. The ‘action’ in this scene is, as Angel mentions moments before, him going to ‘get a cheeseburger’ while Fowler’s withdrawal softens him up to talk.
Feasibly, the scene cold be made more active, with Angel walking from the apartment to the diner, talking to the waitress, eating, walking back. But the sudden slow in pace has an uneasy effect, making the audience feel as though something awful must be going on while Angel waits idly (which, of course, it is).
7. Something’s not right – creating unease
General unease is a pretty difficult feeling to evoke, but ANGEL HEART manages it by keeping a lot of its background scenes unnervingly uncanny.
- A religious service in a gospel church has the preacher overtly asking for money for a Rolls-Royce.
- Winesap is completed unfazed by blood on the wall from a suicide.
- Angel sees two nuns in a cathedral, neither bothered by blood dripping from the ceiling into a bowl by their feet.
- Even the police in New Orleans don’t seem overly concerned by the murders happening all around Angel.
In fact, the only person who seems to react correctly is Angel himself, which helps us sympathise but, more importantly, gives us the impression that he is somehow in danger. He is not party to what’s going on here, and what’s going on doesn’t look pretty. Murder, religion, blood – none are out of the ordinary in film, but by twisting them slightly through the incongruous reactions of secondary characters, they’re made more unsettling.
8. Follow the signs – setting up a twist
The risk with any twist is that, once the rug has been pulled out from underneath the audience, they’re going to take a closer look at the fabric and see a doormat. The revelation has to be woven in from the start, or it will undermine everything that came before and leave people thinking nothing makes sense.
ANGEL HEART is peppered with clues as to its particular revelation (Cyphre is the devil, Angel is Johnny Favorite and is being punished for breaking his side of a deal). The best example is the running symbols of violence or manipulation coupled with religion.
“You know, some religions think that the egg is the symbol of the soul…”
There are the aforementioned preacher seeking funds and blood dripping in the cathedral, but also:
- Fowler’s revolver next to his Bible.
- Fowler’s bullets inside his Bible.
- Cyphre eating the egg he’s just called a ‘symbol of the soul’.
- A statue of a saint right after Krusemark’s death.
- A parade in which worshippers carry their preacher like an emperor.
- A Christian shrine decorated with odd demon-like figures.
There are countless examples, all of which help set up the ‘satanic’ revelation at the end.
A twist changes the context of everything that comes before, so it’s essential that ‘everything that comes before’ can take the weight of that change – that’s what these running symbols help achieve.
ANGEL HEART is careful to pre-emptively answer any questions the script may leave. Why doesn’t Angel look like Favorite? Favorite had facial reconstruction after a surgery. Why does Angel think he’s Angel at all? Angel was a real person, one whose soul Favorite took to hide from Cyphre. This information is fed to us before we need it, ensuring that the reveal stands up to scrutiny.
9 and 10. Screenwriting lessons for dialogue scenes
These final two screenwriting lessons are connected, both tackling character interaction in one-on-one exchanges.
Keep characters active during dialogue
It’s easy to let verbal exchanges devolve into ‘character in chair talks to other character in other chair’. It’s true that the character and power dynamics of a scene can be conveyed solely through dialogue, but keeping characters active, or at least adding some secondary element to the exchange, can reinforce those dynamics while making the scene more visually interesting.
Cyphre peeling an egg while Angel reports what he’s found, for example, helps illustrate their dynamic. The power Cyphre has in the scene (he’s calm and collected, while Angel is panicking) is reinforced as he cracks the eggshell by rolling it across his plate. That he then eats what he has just likened to a soul is even more sinister.
This technique crops up over and over. Angel’s exchange with Dr. Fowler has the doctor going through drug withdrawal. He’s sweating and semi-conscious throughout their discussion, and power clearly lies with Angel as he leans in close and quizzes a weakened Fowler.
Equally, Krusemark talks to her maid in French while Angel sits with her, unable to comprehend, reflecting that fact that she has information she won’t tell him. These simple additions to basic back-and-forths help push character development that bit further while simultaneously offering clues about each character’s status in the scene.
Enhance dialogue by mixing up your locations
This follows on from the above. The location in which a conversation takes place can really change the dynamic of the exchange. Arguing about cabinets in a furniture shop just isn’t the same thing as arguing about cabinets at your son’s christening. One’s locationally appropriate and the other enrages the clergy. Same exchange, different dynamic.
Angel and Cyphre are the only patrons in a restaurant in which they meet, reinforcing Cyphre’s mysterious and sinister character – why has no one else come in? They have another exchange in a church, allowing for the double ironies of Cyphre (who, of course, turns out to be the devil) asking Angel not to swear and of Angel responding that he’s an atheist. Like the egg, it suggests power, but it’s also a little prospective nod to the truth of the character.
After their first exchange, Angel follows and confronts guitarist Toots Sweet in a toilet, which helps show how desperate he is to be done with this case but also allows their conversation to start from a point of conflict, i.e. ‘why did this guy just disturb me at a urinal?’
Which screenwriting lessons apply?
The relevance of specific screenwriting lessons is generally dependent on the type of story being written, and a point worth reiterating is that, structurally, ANGEL HEART is pretty unusual.
After the inciting incident, the story is on a straight track until the final reveal gives it closure. This is why the unease, the incongruous settings and stilted exchanges are so brought into focus. The key thing is, they’re more than enough to make the film work.
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