08 January 2007

My Top DVDs Of 2006: Restoration Pt. 1

"Murder A La Mod" (with "The Moving Finger")
(1968) (Something Weird Video, 1 disc)

Brian DePalma, still the critical establishment’s favorite whipping boy, has disappointed me more times lately than I’d like to admit, but I still think he’s one of our greatest living filmmakers; while each was flawed, his recent Euro-financed thrillers Femme Fatale and The Black Dahlia showed that Mission To Mars didn’t turn him into Peter Hyams...yet.
Like most horror buffs of a certain age, I first grooved to DePalma’s series of hyperstylized mid-70s shockers--of course, I eventually learned that he’d had a whole other career before he became Hitchcock’s heir, or pillager, depending on whether you read Kael or Sarris.
Before “indie film” meant emo rock scores and ironic, anti-suburban ‘tude—DePalma shot independent comedies on the streets of New York, most of them loping, counter-culture romps reflecting the unrest and ennui of the Vietnam era. Some, like Greetings, Hi Mom!, and Get To Know Your Rabbit have been available on home video in one form or another since the advent of VHS. But MIA was something intriguingly titled Murder A La Mod, reportedly his debut feature, which legend has it was shelved after a single theatrical screening and therefore became something of a Grail Quest for me, even though I’d more or less decided a long time ago that like Tod Browning’s London After Midnight, it was a lost cause.
September 2006: While killing some time between screenings at the annual Toronto film fest (and awaiting my annual DePalma sighting), I walked into a downtown video store and stumbled upon the thing sitting right there on the New Releases wall. I couldn’t believe it—where was the pre-release fanfare?
Admittedly, this is hardly a lost classic or a Criterion uberedition of some essential Film Forum darling--this modest package is strictly for DePalma die-hards only, as Murder A La Mod is very much “of its time”, to use the diplomatic expression. Which means, of course, that it was produced in 1968 and is thus awash in not only the Paraphernalia fashions and “with it” expressions of the day (heightening the camp factor for some, but not me), but also in all the French New Wave indulgences that tempted New York film students at a time when Breathless and Jules Et Jim were viewed on campuses about as often as ‘Bum Fights” and “Girls Gone Wild” are today.
Its elliptical, fractured time structure is nothing more than a gimmick in the end (but an engrossing one) that might not seem quite so revolutionary post-Jackie Brown and Memento, and the murder caper never really adds up, but who cares? Much of the film is concerned with technique purely for technique’s sake—a standard reason for condemnation to DePalma’s detractors but to his fans a scholarly opportunity to marvel at just how much of what would become his later thriller “signatures” were being sketched out in his far-reaching (and frequently succeeding) debut.
Just as 1981’s Blow Out was as concerned with the malleable “reality” of audio and its power to alter perception and rewrite “facts”, so is Murder A La Mod with the photographed image, but pre-Watergate, there’s nothing political about it. As with the later film, the influence of Antonioni’s Blow Up is staggeringly obvious: the series of stills of a blonde model cavorting around Manhattan that make up the titles tilt, flip flop, pixilate in sync with co-star William Finley’s groovy theme song (preferably to the plinky-plonky DeVol-ish cues that make up most of the film’s music cues). Then, the first of many rug pulls, as the titles end with a gruesome ice pick stabbing to her eye that could be real or faked.
Next, we are staring down the eyepiece of a camera at a nervous co-ed sitting on the edge of a mattress, as an offscreen voice coerces her into disrobing as part of her audition for a new “art film” (the voice is DePalma’s in a discomforting scene that anticipates his auditory cameo under similar dramatic circumstances in last year’s Dahlia). As she explains the plot synopsis of the film she’s trying to land, she reluctantly strips. She is replaced by a second, more aggressive actress, who follows the director’s orders and demands her cash.
From verite (seemingly) we move to a more conventional narrative setup. Blonde Karen(Margot Norton in her only screen role according to the IMDB) meets up with her socialite friend Tracy (Andra Ackers, who would enjoy a prolific career in television until she died in 2002) and as the two shop for a weekend getaway Karen confides that her fiancé would like to marry her but is immersed in a messy divorce. Christopher (Jared Martin, later of the sci-fi TV series “Fantastic Journey” and “War Of The Worlds”), her besmirched beau, is an up-and-coming photographer who has pioneered a new art form: the “photobiography”, but toils in the smut flicks of producer “Mr. Wiley” (Ken Burrows, in his only credited turn as actor and producer)and his assistant Otto (one-time DePalma regular William Finley in full-on sleaze mode) in order to raise the $10,000 his ex is demanding (it’s worth noting that the plot summary explained by the first auditioning actress is pretty much what has just been set up here). Christopher is a vain, hectoring hothead curiously reluctant to sleep with his obviously-willing and patient bride-to-be (he wants to keep their relationship “pure”).
Meanwhile, Tracy goes to her bank to withdraw some jewels and cash, much to the chagrin of the branch’s doting Mr. Fitzsimmons (an amusing if bizarrely overlong scene, seemingly improvised, with the actors on the verge of giggles), who reminisces on about her grandfather’s fiscal conservatism like a combination William F. Buckley and Floyd the barber. She takes the valuables away in an envelope and leaves them under her car seat, then leaves a note informing Karen she’s going to a dress shop and will be right back.Karen just misses her friend as she exits the building, heads to Tracy’s car, finds the note, steals the envelope, and avoids a suspicious cop.
She goes back to her fiancé’s studio, where she’s attacked by Otto in the lobby. But his repeated ice pick jabs aren’t fatal. The creep flees and Tracey discovers she’s covered in—ketchup? She quickly showers up but is attacked again. This time, her gushing wounds are fatal.Now things get interesting: the onscreen time stamp changes from 3:42 to 3:32. The events are now replayed from Tracy’s perspective, once she spots Otto’s hasty exit and suspicious trunk and decides to give chase. We rewind again to Christopher, who tracks the girls. And finally, it’s Otto’s manic take, as he reveals himself to be more of a twisted practical joker than homicidal maniac. But why does Otto brandish two ice picks, one a fake, the other one all-too real? When they discover that Christopher has been photographing models with his own hidden camera, Wiley and Otto scheme to blackmail their moody young partner. And just what is on that roll of film from the hidden camera that Christopher is afraid will be seen once Wiley returns from the lab?
For a very low-budget film that’s nearly 40 years old, it looks about as good as one could expect—better, in fact, considering that the negative likely wasn’t preserved with a great deal of care or concern for potential fans of what was then probably just another bearded Sarah Lawrence student with a Bolex. Image quality is sharp with occasional lapses into muddy Tri-X grain that give certain scenes an appropriately seedy Roberta and Michael Findley quality (its impressive black and white photography is courtesy of DOP Bruce Torbet, who would later shoot Henenlotter’s Basket Case in bleeding primary hues). SWV doesn’t identify the print source, but given DePalma’s lack of participation in the release, I assume it’s not from his own collection.
The cast is likeable and the multiple stagings and re-enactments are impressively done—too bad there’s an unfortunate heavy reliance on Tony Richardson-styled undercranking for comedic effect (which DePalma still thought was funny years later in Wise Guys). The audio is a comparatively shaky overall and heavy on the ADR and catalogue sound, which gives it a Carnival Of Souls feel perhaps not intended.
Extras are depressingly puny (read: none)—I wouldn’t expect them to have hired the services of Lawrent Bouzereaux but couldn’t someone have penned some more informative liner notes? Instead, SWV adds a co-feature, the Beatnik noir melodrama (a first) The Moving Finger (which costars Vanishing Point's Barry Newman and features music by Shel Silverstein), and laughably tawdry 60s short subject on how to photograph nude models that soon becomes painful in its length and technical ineptitude (you’d expect anything less from a Harold Klein production?).