Handsome Johnny Favorite

Mickey Rouke | art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

Who am I? What do I look like? Where have I been? These questions dominate the 1947 noir thriller Dark Passage. It famously opens inside first-person, subjective cinematography from the point of view of the film’s anti-hero Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart). He speaks only as a disembodied voice. When the mysterious Irene Jansen (Lauren Bacall) picks him up on the side of the road, she looks directly into the camera’s eye, staring him, and by extension us, in the face. Partway through, Vincent, whose face is hidden from us by the camera’s strict first-person point of view, goes under the knife for plastic surgery, which turns him into Bogart. The camera’s tightly bound subjectivity is broken for good, and it subsequently retreats to the usual noir conventions, playing out in dark, traditionally-framed compositions. But while still trapped inside the first-person device, the film plays on our awareness of Bogart’s iconic, one-of-a-kind face, as if it were possible to imagine that voice coming out of anyone else, someone who didn’t look exactly like that. 

The first-person point of view shots are a gimmick, and they play like one. Director Delmer Daves consistently chafes against the limitations the device creates, cutting from one subjective shot to another despite the obvious inconsistency with the abilities of the human eye; occasionally he has to break the subjective spell to present establishing shots of San Francisco’s skyline, or Irene as she drives with standard rear-projection city flashing out the back window. He judiciously avoids catching a glimpse of the camera and the pre-operation Parry in a mirror—revealing too much would blow the whole game, expose the trick. It is a radical experiment in depriving us one of the key symbols of noir, more than shadowy back rooms or rain-slicked streets: the weather-beaten, cynical faces of its characters, certain only of their impending doom.

Noir faces are tired, worn out, sick of struggling against the cruelty of the world they inhabit, wrapped tight with disgust and failure, lined with wrinkles and creases that embody the pain of living so long without hope. This actor’s face, which we can conjure in our mind the moment we hear his voice, is both here and not here. These faces stay with us long after they leave their owners, imprinted forever on screen as a living, talking, smiling memory of different times. 

The memory of classic noir faded before a resurgence in the 1970s and 1980s, this time under the heading “neo-noir,” films constructed in the deliberate image of their predecessors, knowingly calling back to the classic period’s iconography, themes, and, yes, its faces. One example, Lawrence Kasdan’s 1981 film Body Heat, refigured Billy Wilder’s 1944 classic Double Indemnity; when the femme fatale’s paramour Ned Racine (William Hurt) needs help building a bomb to bump off the pesky husband, he turns to a lowlife arsonist, who’s introduced with a shock cut to his perfect, handsome face, lip-synching to the gravel-voiced Bob Seger, a clash between the image of the fresh young man and the crackling guttural sound of gravelly rock and roll. The arsonist, Teddy, is played by Mickey Rourke, whose boyish charm, half-smirk, and smooth voice (imbued with a vaguely east coast patois) instantly suggest the character’s entire history. It wasn’t Rourke’s debut, but his two-scene appearance in Body Heat quickly led to other, more substantial roles in Barry Levinson’s 1982 buddy-movie Diner and Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 greaser drama Rumble Fish, roles infused with the same classical 1950s nostalgia that courses through Body Heat. Mickey Rourke came of age on screen in a period defined by its backward looking obsessions, preoccupied endlessly with the cinema and culture of the past. In playing these roles, Rourke’s career blossomed through his embodiment of figures drawn from the decade of his birth, as though he were slipping through time, capturing eternal youth. 

Beyond Rourke, the 1980s represented the full flowering of the new tradition of neo-noir. Body Heat was an ironic reimagining of Double Indemnity that drew upon its conventions and story and characters to capture something inexorable about filmmaking—that it is doomed forever to repeat itself, reaching back into its own history to cover the same ground over and over, like one of the protagonists of classic noir, fated to make the same mistakes again and again. Others soon followed—Michael Mann’s Thief updated the heist film with an electronic, Tangerine Dream score infused with the filmmaker’s burgeoning fascination with professionalism. Joel and Ethan Coen likewise reached for James M. Cain, who authored the novel Double Indemnity was based upon, using his sensibility (if not an actual story) to inform their debut, the dusty 1984 Texas murder story Blood Simple. That same year, Taylor Hackford directly remade one of noir’s landmarks—Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 film Out of the Past—as Against All Odds, telling its story of obsessive lust and love with all the affordances newly allowed by the absence of the Motion Picture Production Code.

Noir’s ideas and visuals came roaring out of the past as new filmmakers found value in them once again, not merely as ways to reflect their disillusionment with society (as the original noir films did), but to ride an undercurrent of skepticism in their own abilities to make original work. Implicit in every neo-noir is the crippling self-doubt of insecure artists unsure of their ability to stand on their own. This is not to say that neo-noir has no value—quite the opposite. Some of the most fascinating, important art is borne out of the terror that you are not good enough, that you don’t measure up, that someone else is better than you and always will be, and there is nothing you can do to change it. You can change how you look—color photography instead of black and white, neon instead of shadows, open depictions of sex and violence instead of implication—but you can’t change the doubt you feel inside. You can’t change yourself, even if you can change your face. 

Mickey Rourke has been trying to change both for a long time. During the 1980s, it would be difficult to name a more celebrated, important young actor. Of the Brat Pack generation—many of whom spent 1983 starring in Coppola’s The Outsiders and/or Rumble Fish—Rourke was obviously the most dynamic, an heir to the throne of sensitive, thoughtful men like the trio who dominated the cinematic image of the 1950s: Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and James Dean. Rourke’s effortless cool led him to internalize, filling every moment in his performances with emotional vulnerability that belied the exterior charm. 

In Diner, Rourke’s character Boogie bets his friends that he can get a woman to touch his penis during a date at the movies; he secretly inserts it through the bottom of a box of popcorn, so that when she reaches her hand in, she’ll accidentally touch it. It’s supposed to play like a “boys-will-be-boys” prank. For some audiences, of course, it didn’t play that way when Diner was released and it almost certainly doesn’t now—but Rourke almost sells it when he apologizes to the woman in the street, after she has understandably fled the theater in horror. When he lies, he lies so convincingly that the two end up back in the theater, Boogie’s feigned embarrassment now making him into the victim, instead of her. It’s psychopathic, self-deluding, and a bravura effort from Rourke, making the ritualistic, misogynist humiliation of a woman into a fascinating window into a self-destructive character incapable of understanding the harm he is inflicting on others—and ultimately, himself. 

In Boogie, you might see the trajectory of Rourke’s career in microcosm. After a string of successful performances in the 1980s, Rourke became disillusioned with acting and briefly tried boxing professionally; when he returned to the screen, something was different about his face—the result of plastic surgery. Rumors about what happened circulated for years, but Rourke finally confirmed what happened in an interview during the promotion for Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler in 2008: According to Rourke, in order to repair damage incurred during his brief fighting career, he had reconstructive surgery that was badly botched, and then underwent additional procedures to try to fix what had gone wrong. “I had my nose broken twice. I had five operations on my nose and one on a smashed cheekbone. I had to have cartilage taken from my ear to rebuild my nose and a couple of operations to scrape out the cartilage because the scar tissue wasn’t healing properly. Most of it was to mend the mess of my face because of the boxing, but I went to the wrong guy to put my face back together.” The plastic surgery seems to have continued—every few years, photographed on the red carpet for a new role heralded as his comeback, his face seems to look different than the last time.      

At the end of the decade, Rourke would star in two neo-noir films by celebrated directors. First, was Alan Parker’s Angel Heart, a 1987 thriller in which Rourke plays Harry Angel, a private detective on the hunt for a missing big band singer named Johnny Favorite, who owes a debt to an effete businessman named Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) and has been missing since 1943. If the characters’ names weren’t enough to give it away, the film’s religiously infused narrative certainly would—Angel is, of course, really a post-plastic surgery Favorite, who has been commissioned by The Devil (Louis Cyphre—get it?) to investigate himself, uncovering the sins of his past and his sell-your-soul-for-stardom deal with the Dark Prince, which are buried under years of amnesia induced by post-traumatic stress suffered during combat in World War II. Angel’s journey to the truth about who he really is features a series of graphic, bizarre murders and nightmare imagery that tugs him back into the past. 

Two years later in 1989, a heavily made-up Rourke starred in Johnny Handsome, directed by neo-noir master Walter Hill, wherein he plays a low-rent crook with the titular nickname, ironically bestowed upon him because of his face, a craggy, puffed-up, surface-of-the-moon visage with jaws full of jagged teeth and a mane of greasy, unkempt hair, his voice a lispy, mush-mouthed purr. When Johnny is betrayed by treacherous accomplices during a jewelry store robbery, his jail sentence is interrupted by a team of innovative doctors who save his life after a hoosegow shanking and want to enroll him in an experimental program: he will receive an extensive procedure that will refashion his face into, well, Mickey Rourke circa 1989, in an effort to test whether the facial reconstruction will lead to moral and legal rehabilitation—parole by plastic surgery, in other words. Once Johnny’s surgeries and attendant psychological testing are completed, he actively defies his treatment by seeking revenge against the goons who betrayed him and killed his friend.    

Though Parker and Hill both eagerly wade into noir’s stylistic waters, de rigeur among filmmakers in the 1980s, Rourke’s presence elevates each film’s generic roots. In both films, Rourke walks through cities full of dark alleys, through hallways that cast shadows on walls that look like prison bars. Rourke’s characters are the hard-bitten cynics resigned to the inevitability of the world’s harsh treatment that populate classic noir. Parker uses Angel Heart’s period setting, 1955, to look back at the genre with an exaggerated eye, never more distorted than in the film’s many surrealistic sequences that represent Angel’s alternating dreams and visions of the past. An old-fashioned elevator gate slams closed, thundering through an empty warehouse, its metal bars dooming Harry; Rourke stands inside the car as it descends, his face wearing the resignation of damnation. This space is both real and unreal, somewhere between the tactile and the imaginary.

Hill’s perspective is similarly distorted; by 1989, he had started to embrace a more expressive, stylistic camera and often used canted angles shot from below and wide lenses for close-ups that twisted the sides of the frame into funhouse mirrors, a step away from the straightforward, workmanlike action style that dominated his first decade as a filmmaker. In Johnny Handsome, the finished product reveals a longtime neo-noir filmmaker exaggerating its techniques to a heightened degree, an approach that extends to the heightened representation of Rourke’s heavily made-up face in the film’s first third. The film buries Rourke’s famous face beneath a noir aesthetic, the ugliness on the surface contrasting with Johnny’s relative innocence—as the film moves towards its climax, Johnny gets handsome, but his actions get ugly. Every star carries baggage into the roles they play, and thus Angel Heart and Johnny Handsome take on new resonance in light of Rourke’s successive, seemingly endless relationship with plastic surgery, which would alternately make him both a punchline and a tragic figure. 

Neo-noir films, self-aware and ironic as they are, veer between comic implementation of noir conventions and the bleak tragedy that befalls their characters, almost always rendered in more graphic images than ever before. The violence in Angel Heart is outrageous and extreme, infused with occult rituals and Satanism, all of it perpetrated by the self-denying anti-hero at the center. Early on, in one of Parker’s surrealistic sequences, Harry is walking down a New York street when he feels the undefinable pull of a church; he ascends its steps and stands in the open doorway, a mystic wind blowing around him, ominous music rising. He hears the thunk of an elevator gate, the film’s dread-inducing refrain. Though at this moment none of Harry’s misdeeds are clear, Parker’s camera catches Rourke leaning against the doorway, his face teetering on the edge of total emotional collapse. His lips are quivering, his eyes red with the onset of tears, sweat on his brow.

This is unmistakably a damaged, broken person, even though the narrative has yet to illustrate just how damaged and broken he is. Rourke’s face wears the guilt of what he has done in the past but also seems to anticipate the cruelty he will dole out throughout the rest of the narrative, all of it off-screen and only revealed in a climactic flashback montage: an execution by gunshot, a brutal stabbing with a twisted dagger, a mutilation with a straight razor, and a gumbo-cauldron drowning. Rourke’s performance, giving everything to what might be nothing more than a routine genre thriller in lesser hands, exists simultaneously in the past and the future, the present moment’s pain bringing them together, his character’s previous sins motivating future ones. This is the essence of neo-noir, and perhaps why so many rely heavily on neon lights, signifying an almost sci-fi hybrid perspective that renders the landscape’s past and future indistinguishable from one another, a cultural mishmash of a disused past lingering into an advancing future. Time is irrelevant when suffering is the only certainty in life. 

Johnny Favorite’s plastic surgery has turned him into Harry Angel, but has only delayed his suffering. The facial reconstruction he received has not hidden him from Satan, who knows his soul, sees through him, and has come to collect his due. Rourke’s other plastic surgery hero, Johnny Handsome, at least flirts with the possibility that his new face will give him a new life, one free of the violence in his past. His burgeoning relationship with Donna (Elizabeth McGovern), who works in the administrative offices at the Port of New Orleans where the paroled Johnny goes to work as a stevedore, offers one route to respectability. Their romance briefly makes Johnny forget about his quest for vengeance—until he is driven to violence once again, beating up a fellow dockworker who has been sexually harassing Donna at work. From there, it’s a short trip back to his criminal life; in fact, his new face actually makes him a more effective criminal than before, earning him new credit with the crooks he is targeting, the vicious Rafe (Lance Henriksen) and his femme fatale, Sunny (Ellen Barkin). The plastic surgery has sufficiently buried their shared history, allowing Johnny to infiltrate their operation with the promise of a big score, a plan to rob the count room at the Port. The tough cop on Johnny’s trail, Lt. Drones (Morgan Freeman), turns out to be right, at least in part, in his skepticism that Johnny will truly be able to reform. “I know who you are, and I know what you are. And we both know right where you’re going. Don’t we, Johnny?” 

Though Drones is referring to Johnny’s pursuit of vengeance, it’s not hard to hear echoes of Angel Heart in the inevitability of the future, shaped by the inescapability of the past. The film’s climactic showdown, a standoff between Johnny and Rafe, who is holding Donna hostage, brings it all rushing back. Rafe says of Johnny’s face, “I think I liked it better the old way. I think I can help you get it back.” During their fight, Rafe pummels Johnny’s face, slicing it with a switchblade, and briefly, Johnny’s old, mush-mouthed voice comes back, blood pouring out of his cheeks. Once again, Rourke’s authenticity lends unexpected pathos to a work of genre cinema. His face may be a ruined wreck, his voice back to the way it was, but the man underneath truly has changed; his dying words, “How do I look? How’s my face?,” asked of Donna, whose life he has saved, fulfill the noir anti-hero’s destiny, undone by the very thing they seek to change about themselves. The film’s image of Johnny likewise reverts, as Hill crossfades from Rourke’s bloody face to a photograph of the old, pre-surgery Johnny, a totem of his past that he has carried with him since the beginning of the film. In this final moment, Rourke’s Johnny is both men; the pre-operation man with the puffed-up, craggy face, and the post-operation beauty: “handsome” and handsome.  

The best neo-noir films are about surfaces. The ostentatious use of an earlier era’s cinematic iconography works most effectively when the themes of the film align with the filmmakers’ stylistic borrowing. Both Angel Heart and Johnny Handsome, with Rourke at the center, express deep-felt anxiety about the inevitability of aging. As time marches forward, faces sag and droop, crack and break. Favorite assumed another man’s identity, had plastic surgery to give himself a new face, and tried to outrun the deal he made with the Devil, only to have to relive it all over again through a series of nightmare discoveries that brought it all rushing back. As Harry starts to unravel the mystery, it’s the realization that his plan didn’t work, that he couldn’t cheat death, that he couldn’t hang on to what he had that destroys him. Johnny Handsome, meanwhile, finds that his plastic surgery cannot change who he is, trapping him in an endless cycle of violence and vengeance that eventually destroys him as well.

In neo-noir, the anti-heroes freed from the moral judgments of the Production Code sometimes get away with their schemes; Rourke’s Johnnys do not—damnation is certain for them, just as it is for Rourke’s most recent neo-noir anti-hero, the ugly, muscle-bound crook Marv in Sin City and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, both directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, based on the latter’s graphic novel series. Hyper-stylized in black and white, Rourke’s Marv is buried under another Rocky Mountain face full of make-up, a role that deliberately draws upon the performer’s complicated relationship with the man in the mirror. “Not with my looks,” he says in voice over. “Take a look at this mug,” he tells a woman who slaps him. Rodriguez uses digital highlights to shine a spotlight on Rourke’s eyes, glinting through the makeup in the rain, a moment of noir aesthetics come to twenty-first century life. Marv’s story is as much about Rourke’s relationship to his own face as it is anything that happens in the plot. “‘Cause of the way I look,” he says, ruefully regretting his lifelong inability to get close to a woman. Once again, Rourke’s pathos comes through the makeup, his voice and eyes expressing deep sincerity beneath both the artificiality of Rodriguez’s comic book noir-on-steroids aesthetic and the mounds of makeup that sharpen his features, cutting trenches through his forehead. As with all of Rourke’s neo-noir characters, the surface use of noir style masks the deep pain underneath. Mickey Rourke, neo-noir icon from Body Heat to Angel Heart to Johnny Handsome to Sin City, illustrates the genre’s fusion of the superficial with the everyday wounds of life. Its surfaces oscillate between shadow and neon; its core is dark and despairing.        

In Dark Passage, a cab driver tells the pre-plastic surgery Parry, “It’s funny. From faces, I can tell what people think, what they do, sometimes even who they are.” But what do we do when an actor, whose face is his most defining feature, keeps changing it? Will he ever be truly knowable? What story does Mickey Rourke’s face tell? He has once again been relegated to cinema’s margins, making direct-to-streaming films every year or so that are far beneath his capability. His performance several years ago in The Wrestler, its self-reflexivity infusing the story of a washed-up has-been whose body is letting him down, who climbs to the top rope to pull off his signature splash move even though the doctors have told him his heart may give out, demonstrates there is still a remarkable, sensitive actor beneath the surgeries, beneath the cigarette-choked voice, beneath the bravado and bluster and sunglasses and hair and eccentric clothing. Rourke’s neo-noir characters, especially, reckon with the pain of disappointment through their visions of what a face means—who you are, who you were, who you might have been, who you will never be. Mickey Rourke’s faces change; his power as an actor doesn’t.