Following publication of the novel, Hjortsberg began developing a screenplay for a film adaptation, but found that no film studio was willing to produce his script. The project resurfaced in 1985, when producer Elliott Kastner brought the book to Parker's attention. Parker began work on a new script, and in doing so, made several changes from Hjortsberg's novel. Angel Heart was produced by Carolco Pictures with a budget of $18 million. Principal photography commenced in March 1986 and concluded in June of that year. Filming took place on location in New York City and New Orleans.
In 1955, Harry Angel, a New York City private investigator, is hired by Louis Cyphre to track down Jonathan Liebling, a crooner known professionally as "Johnny Favorite" whom Cyphre had helped become successful. Cyphre stands to benefit from unspecified collateral on Favorite's death and suspects that a private upstate hospital, where the war invalid Favorite was receiving psychiatric treatment for shell shock, is issuing false reports. Angel goes to the hospital and discovers that a backdated transfer record has recently been added by a physician named Albert Fowler. After Angel breaks into his home, Fowler admits that 12 years ago he was bribed by a man and woman to allow Favorite to leave while maintaining the fiction that he was still a patient at the hospital. Believing that Fowler is still withholding information, Angel locks him in his bedroom. Hours later, he finds the doctor murdered.
Unnerved, Angel tells Cyphre that he no longer wants the job, but agrees to continue after Cyphre offers him $5,000. He soon discovers that Favorite had a wealthy fiancée named Margaret Krusemark but had also begun a secret love affair with a woman named Evangeline Proudfoot. Angel travels to New Orleans and meets with Margaret, who divulges little information, telling him that Favorite is dead. Angel then discovers that Evangeline is also dead, but is survived by her 17-year-old daughter, Epiphany Proudfoot, who was conceived during her mother's love affair with Favorite. When Epiphany is reluctant to speak, Angel tracks down Toots Sweet, a blues guitarist and former Favorite bandmate. After Angel uses force to try to extract details of Favorite's last-known whereabouts, Toots refers him back to Margaret. The following morning, police detectives inform Angel that Toots has been murdered. Angel returns to Margaret's home, where he finds her murdered, her heart removed with a ceremonial knife. He is later attacked by enforcers of Ethan Krusemark—a powerful Louisiana patriarch and Margaret's father—who tell him to leave town.
Angel returns to his hotel and finds Epiphany on his doorstep. He invites her into his room, where they have aggressive sexual intercourse, during which Angel has visions of blood dripping from the ceiling and splashing around the room. He later confronts Krusemark in a gumbo hut, where the latter reveals that he and Margaret were the ones who helped Favorite leave the hospital. He also explains that Favorite was actually a powerful magician who sold his soul to Satan in exchange for stardom, but then sought to renege on the bargain. In 1943, Favorite kidnapped a young soldier and performed a Satanic ritual on the boy, murdering him and eating his still-beating heart in order to assume his identity and hide from the Devil. Favorite was supposed to drop out and resurface as the soldier he murdered, but was unexpectedly drafted into the war, injured, then sent home with amnesia. Hoping to jar his memory, the Krusemarks took Favorite from the hospital and released him into Times Square, never to be seen again. Angel has a panic attack and runs into the bathroom. He returns to find Krusemark drowned in a cauldron of boiling gumbo.
Angel goes to Margaret's home, where he finds a vase containing a clue to Favorite's true identity: a set of dog tags with Angel's name stamped on them. Angel is in fact Johnny Favorite. Cyphre then appears, and Angel deduces that "Louis Cyphre" is a homophone for Lucifer. Cyphre confirms that he is the Devil and proclaims that he can at long last claim what is his: Favorite's immortal soul. In a fugue state that Cyphre induces, it is revealed that Angel/Favorite has murdered Fowler, Toots, the Krusemarks, and Epiphany.
A frantic Angel/Favorite returns to his hotel room, where the police have found Epiphany raped, brutally murdered and wearing Angel's dog tags. When Angel/Favorite reveals that Epiphany was his daughter, a detective tells him that he will "burn" for what he has done to her, to which Angel/Favorite replies, "I know. In Hell." During the end credits, Angel is seen standing inside an iron Otis elevator which is descending. It soon stops, with an immobile Harry inside. As the screen fades to black, Cyphre can be heard whispering, "Harry" and "Johnny", announcing his dominion over both their shared souls.
Following publication of his 1978 novel Falling Angel, William Hjortsberg began work on a film adaptation. His friend, production designer Richard Sylbert, took the book's manuscript to producer Robert Evans. The film rights to the novel had been optioned by Paramount Pictures, with Evans slated to produce the film, John Frankenheimer hired to direct and Hjortsberg acting as screenwriter. Frankenheimer was later replaced by Dick Richards, and Dustin Hoffman was considered for the lead role. After Paramount's option expired, Hjortsberg discussed the project with Robert Redford and wrote two drafts. Hjortsberg felt that no film studio was willing to produce his script. He reflected, "Even with [Redford] behind the script, studio executives weren't interested. 'Why can't it have a happy ending?' every bigshot demanded."
In 1985, producer Elliott Kastner met with Alan Parker at Pinewood Studios to discuss a film adaptation of the novel. Parker, who had read the book following its publication, agreed to write the screenplay. He met with Hjortsberg in London before moving to New York City, where he wrote most of the script. After completing the first draft in September 1985, Parker traveled to Rome, Italy, where he brought the script to Mario Kassar and Andrew G. Vajna. The two producers agreed to finance the film through their studio, Carolco Pictures, and Parker was given creative control. Pre-production work began in January 1986 in New York, where Parker selected the creative team, reuniting with several of his past collaborators, including producer Alan Marshall, director of photography Michael Seresin, camera operator Michael Roberts, production designer Brian Morris and editor Gerry Hambling.
Parker made several changes from the novel. He titled his script Angel Heart as he wanted to distance his film adaptation from the source material. While Falling Angel is set entirely in New York City, Parker had the second half of his script take place in New Orleans, based on the novel's perpetual allusions to voodoo and the occult. He discussed the story setting change to Hjortsberg, who approved of the decision and said that he had considered setting his novel in New Orleans. Angel Heart is set in the year 1955, whereas in the book, the events take place in 1959. Parker explained, "1955 for me still belonged to the 1940s—and, because of the historical pause button of World War II, conceivably the 1930s—so quite simply, setting it in this year allowed me to give an older look to the film."
Other script changes from the novel involved characterization and dialogue. Parker sought to make Harry Angel a character that evoked sympathy. He also wanted to create a realistic depiction of Louis Cyphre, as opposed to the character's "larger-than-life" personality in the novel. Another script change involved the ending and the identity of the killer. While Angel is framed for the murders (presumably by Cyphre) in the novel, Parker established the character as the killer for the film's ending.
Parker originally wanted Robert De Niro to play the role of Harry Angel, but the actor expressed interest in playing Louis Cyphre. De Niro did not fully commit to the role until after many discussions with Parker. Jack Nicholson was also considered for the role of Angel. Parker met with Nicholson in Los Angeles to discuss the project, but the actor declined. Parker also met with Mickey Rourke, who expressed a strong interest in playing Angel and secured the leading role after a meeting with Parker in New York.
Various actresses auditioned for the role of Epiphany Proudfoot before Lisa Bonet secured the part. Bonet was then known for her role on the family-oriented sitcom The Cosby Show, and her casting in Angel Heart sparked significant controversy. Parker cast Bonet based on the strength of her audition and was unaware of her role on The Cosby Show. On preparing for the role, Bonet said, "I did a lot of meditation and a lot of self-inquiry. I did some research on voodoo. My earnest endeavor was really to let go of all my inhibitions. It was really necessary for me to be able to let go of Lisa and let Epiphany take over." Parker had difficulty finding an actress for the role of Margaret Krusemark, until Rourke suggested English actress Charlotte Rampling. Rampling secured the role after Parker contacted her to discuss the part.
In January 1986, Parker held an open casting call at a New York nightclub known as The Kamikaze, with more than 1,400 people auditioning for various roles. Actress Elizabeth Whitcraft, who had a small role in Parker's previous film Birdy was cast as Connie, a journalist who aids Angel in his investigation. Parker held another casting call in New Orleans, where he requested that local musicians audition for possible roles in the film. Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and Deacon John Moore were among the many musicians who auditioned for roles. Moore was cast as Toots Sweet's bandmate. Parker then returned to New York, where he auditioned other musicians, including Bo Diddley and Dizzy Gillespie. Blues guitarist Brownie McGhee, who plays Toots Sweet, was cast during the film's principal photography.
During the casting process, Parker and producer Alan Marshall began scouting locations in New York City. On January 20, 1986, he travelled to New Orleans, where he continued writing the script. Parker looked at unused buildings located on Royal Street that could act as a hotel, and an abandoned house on Magazine Street that would serve as the home of Margaret Krusemark (Rampling). He returned to New York City where he looked at Staten Island and Coney Island. Parker's script required a total of 78 locations in New York and New Orleans.
Principal photography began on March 31, 1986 and concluded on June 20, 1986, on a budget of $18 million. Filming began in Eldridge Street, Manhattan, New York City, which acted as Harry Angel's neighbourhood. Production designer Brian Morris and the set decorating team spent two months designing the set prior to filming, hoping to recreate 1950s New York. Because of the warm weather conditions, ice trucks were used to create fake snow. Filming then moved to Alphabet City in Manhattan, where several bar scenes and Angel's intimate bedroom scene with Connie (Whitcraft) were filmed.
The production team then moved to Harlem to film a chase scene set during a procession before moving to Coney Island, where the cast and crew underwent severely cold weather conditions. The location was used to film a scene in which Angel questions a man Izzy (George Buck) about the whereabouts of Johnny Favorite, while Izzy's wife Bo (Judith Drake) stands waist deep in the ocean. The original actress who was cast as Bo was injured when she was knocked off her feet by a wave while delivering her first line. The actress refused to reshoot the scene, which led to her being replaced by her stand-in, Drake, whom Parker found to be a better actress for the role.
Production returned to Manhattan to film the opening credits sequence. Filming then moved to Harlem, New York, where a hospice was used to film a scene involving the character Spider Simpson (Charles Gordone), and many of the hospice's elderly residents acted as extras for the scene. On April 17, 1986, the production team moved to Staten Island to film exterior and interior scenes involving the character Dr. Fowler (Michael Higgins). Filming then moved to Hoboken, New Jersey, which doubled for a scene set in a New Orleans train station. From April 28 to April 29, the production team returned to Harlem, where Parker filmed Rourke and De Niro's scene in a Harlem mission. The two actors next filmed a scene at Lanza's, an Italian restaurant located on the Lower East Side.
By May 3, 1986, production had moved to New Orleans. In the town of Thibodaux, Louisiana, Parker and his crew discovered a plantation village that would serve as a graveyard. An unused Louisiana field was used to create a racetrack where Angel meets the wealthy patriarch Ethan Krusemark (Fontelieu). On May 13, the crew encountered some difficulty filming a chase scene involving Angel, as they had to deal with shying horses, trained dogs, gunshots, two hundred chickens, and a horse specially trained to fall on top of Rourke's stuntman.
Production then moved to Magazine Street, where production designer Brian Morris and the art department recreated 1950s New Orleans. Filming then moved to Jackson Square where the crew filmed one of the final scenes, in which Angel runs from Margaret's home. The production then filmed a voodoo ceremony scene choreographed by Louis Falco. Falco, who had previously choreographed Parker's 1980 film Fame, was inspired by an actual Haitian ceremony.
The sex scene involving Rourke and Bonet was filmed in one of the unused buildings located on Royal Street and took four hours to shoot. Parker limited the crew down to himself, cinematographer Michael Seresin, camera operator Michael Roberts and the camera assistant. To make the actors more comfortable, Parker played music during the shoot. Production then moved to a corner of New Orleans, which doubled for flashback sequences set in 1943 Times Square, New York. The crew then discovered an unused bus depot, which was used to film scenes set in Ethan Krusemark's gumbo hut. Filming then moved to the St. Alphonsus Church, where the crew filmed a dialogue scene between Angel and Cyphre. Production returned to Royal Street in the French Quarter, where the final confrontation between Angel and Cyphre, and the film's ending were shot.
After filming concluded in June 1986, Parker spent four months editing the film in Europe, with 1,100 different shots from 400,000 feet of film. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) gave the original cut an "X" rating, which is widely associated with pornographic films. The board, composed of industry executives and theater owners, expressed concerns over several seconds of the intense sex scene involving Rourke and Bonet, in which Rourke's buttocks are seen thrusting in a sexual motion. The board voted 6 to 5 to reclassify the film to an "R" rating; a reclassification required a two-thirds majority vote.
The film's distributor, Tri-Star Pictures, refused to release it with an X rating, as the film would have fewer theaters willing to book it and fewer venues for advertising; Steve Randall, executive vice-president of marketing for Tri-Star, stated that it was the studio's "firm policy not to release an X-rated film." With only a few weeks before the film's release, the studio was desperate for the less-restrictive R rating, but Parker was reluctant to alter the film. He filed another appeal, in which the board voted 8 to 6 in favor of the X rating. Parker then removed ten seconds of sexual content from the scene. "That scene was very complex, very intricate, and the cutting quite rapid, involving 60 to 80 cuts in the space of about two minutes," he said. "Eventually, I cut only 10 seconds from the scene, or about 14 feet of film." On February 24, 1987, the film was granted an R rating. Parker later stated that the MPAA's concerns were "a wasteful, pointless and expensive exercise".
The film score for Angel Heart was produced and composed by South African composer Trevor Jones, with saxophone solos by British jazz musician Courtney Pine. Parker hired Jones after being impressed by his orchestral score for the 1986 film Runaway Train. Jones viewed a rough cut of Angel Heart prior to scoring the film.
Jones composed the score electronically on a synclavier. Parker chose Glen Gray's 1937 song "Girl of My Dreams" as a recurring theme with elements incorporated into the score and casually doodled by the haunted Harry Angel on Margaret Krusemark's piano. He wanted the song to act as a motif that would haunt viewers as it had haunted Harry Angel. In addition to Jones's score, the soundtrack features several blues and R&B performances, including "Honeyman Blues" by Bessie Smith, and "Soul on Fire" by LaVern Baker. Brownie McGhee performs the songs "The Right Key, but the Wrong Keyhole" and "Rainy Rainy Day", with Lilian Boutte acting as a vocalist. The 1937 recording of "Girl of My Dreams" is played at the end with the fictionalized title "Life Would Be Complete" by Johnny Favorite. During post-production, Jones mixed the music tracks at Angel Recording Studios, a recording studio built in an abandoned church in Islington, North London, with final mixing taking place at Warner Hollywood Studios in Los Angeles. A motion picture soundtrack album was released by the recording labels Antilles Records and Island Records.
In North America, Angel Heart opened in wide release on March 6, 1987, distributed by Tri-Star Pictures. The film debuted at number four at the weekend box office, garnering ticket sales of $3,688,721 from 815 screens, with an average of $4,526 per theatre. The film's overall domestic gross was $17,185,632, which is below its estimated budget of $18 million.
Angel Heart was released on VHS on September 24, 1987 by International Video Entertainment (IVE). The releases included the R-rated theatrical cut, and an uncut version which restored the ten seconds of sexual content that was removed to satisfy the MPAA. Ralph King, senior vice president of IVE, said, "The scene cut from Angel Heart is both provocative and shocking, but it is by no means pornographic. We're pleased to give the public the opportunity to see the film as Alan Parker originally meant the film to be viewed."
The film was first released on DVD on June 23, 1998 by Artisan Entertainment. Special features on the DVD included a theatrical trailer, production notes, a making-of featurette, and information on the cast and crew. The DVD release received criticism for its poor video transfer and shortage of special features. Artisan later released the film on LaserDisc on August 18, 1998. Lionsgate Home Entertainment re-released Angel Heart with a "Special Edition" DVD on May 18, 2004. The Special Edition features additional material, including an introduction and audio commentary by Parker, a scene-specific commentary by Rourke, a video interview with the actor, and the theatrical trailer. Lionsgate released the film on Blu-ray disc on November 24, 2009. The Blu-ray presents the film in 1080p high definition, and contains all the additional materials found on the Special Edition DVD.
The review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes sampled 23 reviews, and gave Angel Heart a score of 78%, with an average score of 7 out of 10. William Hjortsberg, author of Falling Angel, voiced his support of the film adaptation, stating, "[Alan] Parker wrote an excellent script and went on to make a memorable film. Casting Robert De Niro as Cyphre was a brilliant touch." Although initially supportive of Bonet's decision to appear in the film, Bill Cosby dismissed Angel Heart as "a movie made by white America that cast a black girl, gave her voodoo things to do and have sex".
Initial reactions among film critics were mixed. Vincent Canby of The New York Times praised the cinematography and production design, but criticized Rourke's performance as being "suitably intense, but to such little effect". Rita Kempley of the Washington Post wrote that Angel Heart "is over-stylized, and we're over-stimulated when the soundtrack goes berserk, from a few thumpity-thumps to a visceral, ventricles a-pumping score". Pauline Kael of The New Yorker criticized Parker's direction: "There's no way to separate the occult from the incomprehensible...Parker simply doesn't have the gift of making evil seductive, and he edits like a flasher." Kael also criticized De Niro: "It's the sort of guest appearance that lazy big actors delight in—they can show up the local talent."
On the syndicated television program Siskel and Ebert and the Movies, Gene Siskel gave Angel Heart a "thumbs down", while his colleague Roger Ebert praised the film and gave it a "thumbs up". In his review for the Chicago Tribune, Siskel wrote that "Parker seems more concerned with style and with hiding the film's big mystery than with pacing." Siskel also criticized the film's controversial sex scene for not being "as shocking as the rating board would have you believe."
Ebert, writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, gave the film three and a half stars out of four, writing that "Angel Heart is a thriller and a horror movie, but most of all it's an exuberant exercise in style, in which Parker and his actors have fun taking it to the limit". Ian Nathan of Empire called the film "A diabolical treat with Rourke and De Niro in top form." Almar Haflidason of the BBC wrote, "The movie maintains intrigue at every turn and Rourke is spellbinding. Robert De Niro, Charlotte Rampling, and the assembled cast are all excellent. But this is Mickey Rourke's movie, and he puts in a mesmerising performance." Richard Luck, writing for Film4, concluded in his review, "The book's so good it deserves a better movie, but Rourke's performance is such that Angel Heart stands out from the necromancy movie crowd."
While not initially a success with North American audiences, Angel Heart has gained a cult following. Filmmaker Christopher Nolan stated the film was a major influence on his 2000 film Memento. Video game developer Ken Levine stated that Angel Heart was one of several films that inspired the first-person shooter game BioShock Infinite.
In 2010, Wired magazine ranked the film at number 22 on their list of "The 25 Best Horror Films of All Time", and in 2012, Mark Hughes, writing for Forbes, ranked Angel Heart at number nine on his list of the "Top 10 Best Cult Classic Horror Movies of All Time". Den of Geek writer Ryan Lambie ranked the film at number six on his list of "The Top 20 Underappreciated Films of 1987", writing, "Some viewers may be able to predict where this twisty, murky thriller's going to take them, but the ride remains one worth taking thanks to the quality of the acting and direction." Film critic Tim Dirks of the film-review website Filmsite.org added the film to his list of films featuring the "Greatest Film Plot Twists, Film Spoilers and Surprise Endings", based on two of the film's major plot twists—Harry Angel being revealed as Johnny Favorite, and Louis Cyphre revealing himself as Lucifer. Screen Rant writer Tim Butters added Robert De Niro's performance on his list of "One of the 10 Best Movie Depictions of the Devil".
Angel Heart received several awards and nominations following its release. At the 10th Jupiter Awards, Mickey Rourke won a Jupiter Award for Best International Actor for his performances in both Angel Heart and A Prayer for the Dying (1987). At the 9th Youth in Film Awards, Lisa Bonet won the Young Artist Award for Best Young Female Superstar in Motion Pictures. At the 15th Saturn Awards, Angel Heart received three Saturn Award nominations, though it failed to win any of the awards.
In 2008, it was announced that producers Michael De Luca, Alison Rosenzweig and Michael Gaeta were developing a planned remake of Angel Heart that would be produced by De Luca's production banner Michael De Luca Productions. The producers had optioned the rights to both the film and the novel Falling Angel. De Luca expressed that he was a fan of the novel, stating, "It's a great blend of genres with a great Faustian bargain, compelling, universal themes and a rare combination of literary and commercial appeal."