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September 15, 2006

Murder a la Mod


Brian De Palma - 1968
Something Weird Video Region 1 DVD

While most critics are weighing in on The Black Dahlia, I've been able to see Brian De Palma's second feature which was just released on DVD. More polished than The Wedding Party, Murder a la Mod is a mobius strip of a narrative, packed with the elements that De Palma would revisit again and again with his thrillers. Had this film been re-released following the success of Greetings and the comedies that had followed, it may have helped putting De Palma's so-called Hitchcockian films beginning with Sisters into a clearer context.

While there are parts of Murder that recall Psycho and Rear Window, De Palma crams in references to Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace, and Antonioni's Blow Up. The familiar De Palma themes of the artist as voyeur, dreams confused with reality, and sexual conflicts are here, along with the first explorations of violent slapstick. The film begins with stills of a model, part of a photo-biography by Chris, the photographer-director. We see several young women undressing in front of the camera, the voice of an unseen male coaxing them to shed their clothing. The women repeat a scripted line in which they say they are making this film to help out the director, who needs the money to pay for a divorce. Deliberately unclear is whether we are watching a movie in the process of being made, or if this is a movie within a movie.

De Palma repeats his narrative, going forward and then leaping backwards, from different points of view. Are the murders real or imagined? The question is probably besides the point as far as De Palma is concerned. That the film is an elaborate joke should be indicated by the title song, written and presumably sung, by William Finley. One of the plot points concerns the confusion between a prop ice pick and a real one, with superimposed titles helpfully distinguishing the two for the audience.

Within a limited budget, De Palma has the means to do some more interesting visuals than in his first film. In addition to the shot seen in the above still, Murder has De Palma's first use of extensive travelling shots. One of the best is when a woman pursues Finley, who has a mysterious trunk, through a graveyard. A later scene looks like a rough draft in anticipation of filming Sissy Spacek wreaking havoc in Carrie.

One fan of Murder a la Mod was Vincent Canby of The New York Times. In his review, Canby noted: "There is a limit as to just how far this sort of playfulness can be carried. In the context of most of today's moviemaking, however, it's fun to see directors who are willing to acknowledge the movie form, and who do not try to convince us that what we see on the screen is necessarily "real." When they don't try — curiously — we often do believe, which is what movies are all about."

Murder a la Mod is enjoyable on its own terms, but also should prove to be a key film in viewing the career of Brian De Palma.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 15, 2006 01:24 PM


I agree with your comments wholeheartedly. "Murder A'La Mod" has to be seen as the key film in De Palma's filmography because it so nakedly lays bare the essentials of his approach to modern cinema. It also acts as a stunning bookend in a way to "The Black Dahlia" in that both films feature screen test sequences where actresses are "directed" by an offscreen voice: Brian De Palma. I go further into this in my review of "Dahlia" at www.beyondhollywood.com which is more about the filmmaking style of De Palma than just a review of that movie.

Posted by: Brian Holcomb at September 20, 2006 02:46 PM