Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Murder à la Mod

It is evident immediately in 1967's MURDER à la MOD that director Brian De Palma loves film. That most voyeuristic of mediums. Celluloid not merely to document with a master shot, but a tight, intrusive zoom invading the space of his victims, er, subjects. The first images of MURDER are of a woman modeling for the camera in period garments, instructed by the cameraman (not seen) to suggestively pose and eventually remove her clothes. She is the first of several "birds" to be sleazily persuaded and bullied by this anonymous documentarian, and the first to have her throat slashed with a razor.

De Palma has used such imagery throughout his subsequent career. For a film buff familiar with his later work, watching MURDER à la MOD is a revealing experience. The (pardon the pun) obsessions and fetishes which infected many of De Palma's suspense films are evident in this, his first full length feature. Stalking cameras from the killer's point-of-view, stylized bloodletting and violence, loving angles on female forms, split screens, nimble camera dollying (usually tracking a chase) - it's all here. What's also on display is the playful method of telling the story, a sort of RASHOMONish telling of the same events several times, but from different points of view. With each episode, we learn something new, are given visual information as to why something happened, such as how that tire went flat. From a filmic standpoint, it's almost like what filmmakers call "coverage", shooting from different places to get different perspectives.

I won't bother with a long synopsis. A young filmmaker has a very devoted girlfriend who hangs out with her stylish friend over the course of a mid-afternoon. The filmmaker works with a slick producer and a really odd guy named Otto, who runs around Greenwich Village with both real and fake ice picks (titles appear onscreen to tell us which is genuine and which isn't) and flits around like he's on amphetamines or maybe too much coffee. There will be murders. We think we know who committed them, but as we back up in time and view things from a different vantage point, we may learn otherwise. I liked the scene where someone is listening to a radio soap opera, then quotes it as if they are his words to someone else. Previously, watching this same scene, we believed they were his own thoughts and feelings.

We later follow Otto, hearing the traffic jam of thoughts in his head, sounding like Frank Zappa played at 78 speed. Even without the sped up photography (undercranking?), this chap is plenty hyper. I'm not sure if De Palma and actor William Finley (who would appear in many later De Palma movies) were going for a Buster Keaton homage, though at times it seemed that way. There's even a pie in the face gag. Is he a killer? Or just weird? Finely's performance will likely divide viewer opinion.

This being a De Palma film, the violence, quick as it is, is lingered upon perhaps even more than the (mild) sexuality. MURDER à la MOD is nowhere nearly as explicit as DRESSED TO KILL or BODY DOUBLE, both of which owe much to this film. The lengthy city street and cemetery chase reminded me of a key scene in the latter film. The inserts of murder weapons evoke 1973's SISTERS and 1980's DRESSED TO KILL. The slashing and Karo syrup spurting is virtually a De Palma trademark. The palpable sleazery is evident in films as late as THE BLACK DAHLIA (2006), a film to which I was not exactly beholden.

MURDER à la MOD is included as an extra on Disc 2 of Criterion's release of De Palma's 1981 thriller BLOW OUT, a fine film. Tracing the threads over the 14 years between the 2 efforts is an exercise that probably only students of the director will enjoy. I was expecting to really dislike MURDER à la MOD, but after a tedious first half hour, was consistently entertained. The acting is more or less amateur night, especially a bank employee you will want to strangle after about 2 minutes (that scene, by the way, is unforgivably long), but the real star is behind the camera. Any De Palma retrospective would do well screening this film as the lead off.
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