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Isn't it strangely fascinating how a talented and visionary filmmaker will always distinguish him/herself from the others, regardless of how ridiculously little financial means he/she has to work with? "Murder à la Mod" got released on the Something Weird label in America and on similar Grindhouse-type of DVD label here in the Dutch speaking countries, but it's almost too good to get associated with the usual stuff these labels throw on the market. Numerous of the Something Weird films were made by young and aspiring directors with lots of ambition and occasionally even some good ideas, but without any money or professional cast and crew members, and that is why they usually look poor and sleazy instead of good. But with his debut Brian De Palma proves that blaming the lack of budget is all too easy. With an intriguing narrative structure, eccentric character drawings and ingenious visual gimmicks, De Palma neatly camouflages the lack of funds and even the complete absence of story! Also, the director's later obsession with the work of Alfred Hitchcock is already noticeable here, through a variation of subtle references and downright open homages. The plot, revolving on a young girl falling for an amateur filmmaker with dubious and questionable intentions, is actually of minor importance. The slightly psychedelic atmosphere, the irresistible title song and the crazed characters (William Finley is superb as Otto) keep the film entertaining even if the screenplay ceases to make sense. Particularly the extended sub plot where one event is shown from three different perspectives is very accurately done and undeniably far ahead of its time. Obviously, De Palma's first born also suffers from copious defects, like dreadfully boring padding scenes (the conversation between Tracey and her bank manager oh my God!) and a confusingly abrupt ending.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never
see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have;
the act turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.
Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is
a subliminal murder - a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened
time." ― Susan Sontag
Brian De Palma's first thriller, "Murder a la Mod" opens with screen tests, the familiar hash marks of a camera viewfinder imprinted over two nervous young women. We then watch as the duo are coerced into removing their clothes by an unseen speaker, a scene which recalls the voyeuristic violence of similar sequences in subsequent De Palma films (and Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom").
A fairly simple plot then unfolds: Karen, a naive young woman, desperately wants to help Christopher, an "artist" who is working the porno beat in an attempt to raise enough money to divorce his wife. When Karen sees her best friend Tracy pull some jewels out of a bank, she hatches a plan to finance Christopher's freedom. All too grateful, Christopher beds Karen on his porn set. Moments later the girl is killed with an ice pick. In the eye, naturally.
The rest of the film replays the events surrounding this murder from each character's perspective. De Palma handles the story with customary flair (split screens, slow motion, lots of dazzling camera work etc), but at times he's hampered by inexperience and the film's low budget.
7/10 - Worth one viewing.
It's something refreshing to the mind of a movie buff when we come
across a filmmaker who doesn't change all that much during a career,
but keeps making himself seem fresh, if that makes sense. Brian De
Palma, for better or worse (and he's had both), is a filmmaker who
hasn't changed a whole lot in forty years, at least where some of his
central concerns meet. Take the opening scene, where a director is
holding a screen test for a few girls, telling them to take off their
clothes. This is also seen later on in The Black Dahlia where a
director auditions Elizabeth Smart (in both I believe might be voiced
uncredited by De Palma himself). Right from here there's no mistaking,
even in just a simple one shot, how much he loves the act of watching,
the technical, plastic aspect of it, the movement of a camera, frame
speeds and the possibilities in even satirizing the process of
film-making and voyeurism.
Muder a la Mod is possibly his first feature, and it's certainly not technically perfect, or even very accomplished in the sense that his films of the 80s look (storyboarding, as he said he did for films like Dressed to Kill and The Untouchables). But I would much rather watch a work like this, which has a lot of invention and off-the-wall comedy and unpredictability, than one of his more recent bloated studio productions. And the story is gleefully ripped off the pages of quarter-cent paperbacks and given the De Palma twist: Karen is in love with Christopher, who is a freelance photographer and aspiring filmmaker, but she doesn't quite understand why he wants her to leave when she stops in one day as he watches dailies. Turns out he's making this film, a skin-flick, so that he can get a divorce from his wife. But there's more: a leering, merry/psycho prankster named Otto is stalking around the building doing this and that, holding not one but two ice-picks (one fake and one real, as little title-arrows direct us to at one point), and as Karen's friend waits outside for her a murder occurs, with bizarre circumstances.
The twist to this, aside from seeing De Palma mess with the speed of film and timing and framing and cutting and this and that with lighting and going between Gothic horror and silent slapstick (in more Godard form than Hitchcock as one also saw in Greetings and Hi, Mom!) is that De Palma adds the touches of dark comedy that one associates with him, and that he can do well when working without a net. He jumps around, for example, in the middle of what should be a simple exposition scene between Karen and Tracy (not bad though not quite "good" actresses Norton and Akers), where the script seems to be presented in tact, just no in the usual 180-degree kind of structure of a scene. It's an uneasy feeling at first, but it's nevertheless captivating, and this attitude continues throughout, as though De Palma knew he had nothing to lose but his creative freedom on limited resources. I'm even reminded of Kubrick's two early films, Killer's Kiss and the Killing, by featuring a freewheeling, guerrilla-style take on New York City, and a the triple-back structure of the narrative in regards to the Killing.
As I said, it's not exactly great shakes as a film, but it's flaws are mostly due to budget and, as expected, not having the best cast members (my least favorite scene involved a bank manager who gave Tracy a tough time in receiving her "ice", not simply because the bank actor but the scene goes too long). Though as in other cases, De Palma has a wild card in one of the great unsung character actors: William Finley. This is a strange, creepy man, who apparently can make some music as well as go about like some demented clown (he wrote and performed the title track). His character Otto is a little like his character in Sisters crossed with his character in Black Dahlia (the latter the one pleasant surprise in that film aside from the screen test bit); he has these two ice picks, and at first looks like a very sinister character, the "obvious" one to do the work of being the murderer, and as well carrying along a fresh corpse in that trunk. But De Palma's double back to him in the story is the most entertaining: he doesn't speak, but his thoughts are jumbled like out of a Frank Zappa record, and as he ascends stairs he sprints and the camera jubilantly follows quickly. In his first role, in the first De Palma movie, he makes his mark well.
Brian De Palma would go on to become the number one Hitchcock imitator with the release of films such as Sisters, Body Double and Dressed to Kill. It's his style that he is most famous for; so as you would expect, his first feature is absolutely full of style and various experiments...the result is a mixed bag really. First of all, the stylish flourishes and experiments are all at the expense of the story, although some of it is interesting to watch. The plot itself focuses on a maker of very strange films and a girl who falls in love with him. The plot is clearly not the most important thing about the film, however, and really nothing in it makes a great deal of sense. The picture is a stark black and white and this gives the film a distinctive look which is to its credit. The majority of the movie is taken up by sequences that see the film's pivotal event (an ice pick murder) from the perspective of several different characters. I would not really say that this film is entertaining or even fun to watch really; but it is interesting to see the film that De Palma made before he got famous and the film is worth seeing for that reason.
Just finished watching this early De Palma, and I am glad that I was finally able to see it. I have seen almost all his early films and this one certainly was not boring, in fact there were a few thrills and chills. I found the story confusing but it still kept my attention. It featured some good DePalma stylish moments,as well as clumsy comedy. I was reminded of some of his later works, and when you watch this film it is apparent that DePalma really knew how to get the right thriller feel, even way back in his black and white days.....this film, in its own way is about as good as "The black dahila", but you gotta be a DePalma fan.......
I bought this expecting nothing because I knew nothing of it, I had always thought Greetings was De Palma's first feature but I was wrong I guess. I thought this movie would have the feel of a student produced documentary or something small like that, but this film is somewhat wide in scope and pleases for a movie of it's age. I can't believe this unseen gem has aged so well while mainstream crap from the 60's just chatters on. This movie is the wave of the future that was to come. If you've ever seen Quentin Taretino's Jackie Brown and remember the sequence where all the characters go to the mall and it's told from three different points of view and you liked that then you'll love this movie. It's 80 minutes of that and I can't believe for this to have been so early in De Palma's career that he was able to pull it off so well. William Finnely does another great turn at acting in this movie as Otto a somewhat retarded stage hand and actor who goes beyond his means in this movie. It is from this where I can see why Brian De Palma would later hire him for 1974's The Phantom of the Paridise. He plays a character a little like that. Watch this movie, especially if you love De Palma and Finnley.
Murder à la Mod (1968)
* 1/2 (out of 4)
Brian De Palma's feature debut has a woman (Margo Norton) trying to raise money so that her boyfriend (Jared Martin) can continue shooting a movie. The only problem is that the girlfriend is brutally murdered but who committed the crime?
MURDER A LA MOD is a film worth watching if you're a fan of De Palma and must see everything that he's done. It's certainly much better than THE WEDDING PARTY but that's not really saying too much considering how bad that one is. This film here offers up a few interesting ideas and it's clear to see a few things that the director would use in later movies.
There are several homages here to Hitchcock including some obvious ones to PSYCHO. These are mildly entertaining but the biggest problem with this movie is the fact that the story itself is just boring and it's quite confusing. Some would say that the director was already showing his "more style than substance" here. As far as the actual style goes, there's some of that on display here but it's easy to see this was a director learning his trade.
The young cast were good for the most part and we also get William Finley in a small role. As I said there are several bits here that will appear in later De Palma movie including the sped up action (like in CARRIE when the boys are trying their suits on) as well as a woman being directed by the director (later seen in BLOW OUT). This film is a bit too boring for its own good but De Palma die hards will want to check it out.
Naive young lady Karen wants to help her struggling amateur filmmaker
boyfriend Christopher raise enough money so he can divorce his wife.
Meanwhile, jolly psycho prankster Otto stalks the building where
Christopher is shooting a low-grade adult movie in order to keep
What we have here is the world of exploitation, underground film presented by a young auteur working in the experimental art scene. I think it works. Granted, this is not a fully developed film, as it had no budget and little cast. But not unlike the early work of Polanski or Cronenberg, there is plenty of potential here.
The film was released in one cinema in New York City, quickly disappeared not long after, and was thought lost. Lucky for us, this was not the case. Although on its own it may be nothing special, it is a crucial piece in understanding De Palma's talent and vision.
We also get some music and screen time from William Finley (1940-2012), who would go on to work with De Palma many more times (and also with Tobe Hooper). His character alone makes this worth a peek.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
A box perched on a dolly is rolling down a hill in the cemetery. A
woman watches as it comes to a complete stop and then tumbles to the
ground, lying only a dozen feet away from her. The box is shaking.
There is something alive inside. Because of what we as an audience have
seen elsewhere in the film, we have an idea of what is trapped inside
the box- and we yearn for the woman to hustle up, run over and open it.
Instead, she hesitates before slowly advancing forward, preparing to
open the box with caution. The suspense of waiting is unbearable.
Murder a la Mod was Brian De Palma's first thriller, his first cinematic experiment, and his first full-length feature film. History has always told us that De Palma's first films were his comedic collaborations with Robert De Niro (Greetings; The Wedding Party; Hi, Mom!), and that he didn't truly begin paying homage to Hitchcock until Sisters in 1973. If I haven't convinced readers otherwise, then I will consider this review a failure. I want nothing more than to make sure that De Palma's very first full-length feature stands alongside the rest of his gleeful, gorgeous, under-appreciated gems. You want deranged serial killers chasing after vulnerable, half-naked babes? You got it. You want a voyeuristic camera that never seems to give anybody a moment's peace? Here it is. You want to see an incident from every point of view? It's all in Murder a la Mod. To put it simply, this is the film that started it all.
Like a select number of De Palma films afterward, Murder a la Mod is purely an exercise in style. De Palma doesn't worry about whether or not you follow the plot, whether or not you take the writing and acting seriously, or whether or not you even care at all what happens to the characters. We spend the 80-minute running time getting to know people like Christopher the porno filmmaker (Jared Martin); his dumb blonde actress Karen (Margo Norton), who is falling in love with him; her lady friend Tracy (Andra Akers), who will also play an important role in the events to follow; the nosy producer Max Wiley (Murder a la Mod producer Ken Burrows), who keeps hounding Christopher to have his movie finished on time; and you know what? All of them are cardboard. We couldn't care less about who gets killed, who survives, who gains anything, who loses, etc. The only amusing character in the entire film is a skinny young man named Otto, who, when he's not busy playing a fashion photographer in Christopher's latest movie, delights in playing "tricks" on various crew members. Armed with two types of icepicks- a "trick" pick and a "real" pick- his tactic is to use the first (harmless) type of pick on his victims and then smear them with ketchup blood. Whether or not he ever even uses the real pick is a mystery.
But that's quite enough of the plot. I wouldn't dream of spoiling the film's surprises; and how Tracy ends up in conversation with a queer little old bank clerk (John Quinn) who has her handcuffed to a briefcase, I will leave for you to find out. Let's just say that between 3:32 PM and 3:42 PM, something atrocious happens to one of the characters, and De Palma then proceeds to show us the event not from one perspective, but four perspectives. This plot device is familiar to anyone who remembers Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950), but De Palma famously makes it his own in this film; he later recycled this device most famously in Snake Eyes (1998) and Femme Fatale (2002). One by one, we see different variations on the incident involving the rolling box, and later there is a battle of fists in the cemetery that, for some reason, reminded me of the axe duel in the dummy warehouse in Kubrick's Killer's Kiss (1955). Midway through the film, there is also a frenzied moment when De Palma's cameraman, Jack Harrell, races to keep up with a character who is rushing up the stairs, onto the roof, and then back down the stairs again- all in one take. We can't help, either, but take pleasure in watching Jared Martin, Margo Norton, Andra Akers and Ken Burrows as they helplessly try to turn Chris, Karen, Tracy and Max Wiley into believable characters without giving overly hammy performances.
And at the heart of it all we have the daffy, diabolical trickster Otto, played by none other than the Olivier of De Palma cinema: the great William Finley. It was thought for a long time that Finley owned the sole copy of Murder a la Mod right up until the year 2006, when the film was bought and redistributed onto DVD by- who else?- the cult classics home entertainment company Something Weird Video. The new DVD transfer is not entirely satisfying, as it lacks subtitles (it is difficult to hear what characters are saying in a few spots) and a Widescreen ratio, so therefore we end up getting only a fullscreen transfer and- I suspect- not the whole picture. Not that it's the end of the world; Murder a la Mod should be seen regardless of its current state. "It's everywhere! Why can't you see?" sings Finley in the film's title song. He's singing about the nature of the murder, of course, but I would like to think that he's also singing about the influence on De Palma's subsequent career by what resulted from Murder a la Mod. Everything that De Palma was, and is, came from this film. What's more, none of the characters exit the film without first being subjected to one of De Palma's cruel cosmic jokes. Even Otto makes a horrifying discovery of his own.
A Something Weird Video release of a Brian DePalma film? That is
something weird. "Murder a la Mod" is DePalma's feature film debut and
is an avant-garde experimental movie. It's obviously not nearly as good
as either "Scarface" or "Blow Out", but it has some interesting
aspects. However, many of the problems that plagued DePalma for the
rest of his career were apparent from the start (notable the favoring
of style over substance). The film is well-made and nice to look at,
but doesn't do anything for you emotionally. At the end, it leaves you
cold. Still, fans of the filmmaker should check it out.
The performances range from good to poor. Jared Martin, as the exploitation filmmaker who loses it, turns in a superb performance. Its a shame he didn't work with DePalma any more. William Finley (who later appeared in "Phantom of the Paradise") and Margo Norton are okay. Andra Akers and Ken Burrows are both very wooden. The editing is what makes it the most interesting, as this is a clever concept. By the end the whole experience leaves you cold and DePalma eventually overdoes his style over substance. Still, its not without interest. (5/10)
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