Tag Archives: Brian De Palma

Brian De Palma’s Blow Out: “Good Scream.”

(Everything I post is to some degree unfinished, but a movie about which so much can be said and so dear to my heart as this one, I will no doubt have more to say about, and so this post might be considered more unfinished than others. An invaluable resource on all things De Palma, which I have already mentioned here is the site De Palma a la Mod; an excellent resource for this specific post was the three hour plus episode devoted to this movie by The Projection Booth podcast, “Episode 140: Blow Out” hosted by Mike White, Rob St. Mary, with guest Jamie Duvall, and featuring interviews with Nancy Allen, Dennis Franz, and producer Fred Caruso. The podcast is frequented quoted in the following and I’m grateful for their diligent and in-depth work. SPOILERS for Blow Out, Dressed to Kill, The Fury, The Black Dahlia, Casualties of War, and The Parallax View. Since this is a fairly in-depth examination of this movie, it is assumed that whoever reads it has already seen Blow Out and requires no summary or description of the plot, and none is given. A version of this post, with the same title bu slightly different layout, is on Medium: “Brian De Palma’s Blow Out: “Good Scream.””)

Something’s Got to Give had portrayed Marilyn as a shipwreck survivor who has been out of the world for years. She was to ask her rescuers, “Who’s President now?” Told it is Kennedy, she would respond, “Which Kennedy?”

Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe by Anthony Summers

PAULA
Where were you when Kennedy got shot?

HARRY MOSEBY
Which Kennedy?

Night Moves

SEGISMUND
A dream!
That seem’d as swearable reality
As what I wake in now.

CLOTALDO
Ay-wondrous how
Imagination in a sleeping brain
Out of the uncontingent senses draws
Sensations strong as from the real touch;
That we not only laugh aloud, and drench
With tears our pillow; but in the agony
Of some imaginary conflict, fight
And struggle – ev’n as you did; some, ’tis thought,
Under the dreamt-of stroke of death have died.

Life is a Dream by Pedro Calderón de la Barca

There came Death expertly threading his graceless bicycle through traffic at the intersection of Wilshire and La Brea where, because of street repair, two westbound Wilshire lanes were funneling into one.

Death so swift! Death thumbing his nose at middle-aged horn honkers.

Death laughing, Screw you, buddy! And you.

Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates

SEGISMUND
In all the shining circuits you have gone
About this theatre of human woe,
What greater sorrow have you gazed upon
Than down this narrow chink you witness still;
And which, did you yourselves not fore-devise,
You registered for others to fulfil!

Life is a Dream by Pedro Calderón de la Barca

I face the difficulty that anyone does who writes about one of their great passions, that the insights you have, the details you wish to point out, all an expression of the fervent excitement I have for this movie, these things have already been pointed out, are already well known, and your analysis is ultimately a self-centered demonstration, only of your own devotion, rather than giving off anything of valuable luminescence. I do not think what follows is an entirely well worn path, and I try to avoid the rote or the obvious, but given that this is one of Brian De Palma’s most cherished films among his fans, I no doubt repeat things others have many times before. As always, it carries the value and disadvantage that it is only my view, an idiosyncratic map of a movie that has meant so much to me for many years.

STRONG AS A COBWEB IN THE WIND1

It’s often classed as a conspiracy theory movie, and though this is definitionally correct, it’s also a misrepresentation that might disappoint viewers expecting a creature of this zoological class. The approach of most of this genre of movie is polemical, and the conspiratorial schematic it presents is part of the polemic: such a conspiracy is possible, now. The Parallax View might be the most memorable example of this, attempting to make the implausible plausible, a conspiracy theory without melodrama in music, direction, or characterization, told in the language of social realism; where the assassination of political figures in the United States takes place, a cover-up with the accompanying murder follows, and the very man investigating the conspiracy becomes its patsy, the assassin’s weapon placed in his dead hand. There is the outlining of a plausible schematic, and at the same time the conspiratorial group is invested with powers that verge on the mystic. They are able to travel everywhere, they are near invisible, they can kill whoever they wish, and they are flawless in their actions, never giving themselves away or making a mistake – when they appear to do so in Parallax, they are actually just laying down a trail of breadcrumbs to lead the hero to his doom.

Blow Out inverts this almost immediately; it is not the villains who possess a power that might be considered almost divine, but the hero. Jack Terry goes out into the park to record sounds, and we see him able to hear at vast superhuman distances, the same mechanical gift which gives him entry into the world of the twisting plot that follows. He moves his microphone and picks up what to the viewer’s ears sounds like the leg rubbing clicks of some night insect, yet Jack’s knowledge of sounds is superior to ours, and he already hears something unnatural, mechanical in these insect-like sounds. They are not insect noises at all, but Burke pulling the wire back and forth of his watch, a nervous tic he falls into whenever he waits before pulling one of his acts of subterfuge, and we hear this same sinister noise when he is lying in the car before going into the garage to change the tire, and finally, before killing the prostitute at the train station.

After the sounds of the wire snapping in and out, Jack hears another sound from Burke at extraordinary distance which no one else nearby hears, the crunch of leaves as the man adjusts his position on the ground. The soundman then focuses on the owl, and the two briefly share the sides of the screen, both creatures of superhuman hearing. The owl cocks its head, picking up a sound so faraway it doesn’t even appear on the soundtrack and not even Jack hears it, the senator’s car approaching. The owl then turns its head entirely as the car drives quickly down the road and Terry shifts his attention as well, hearing the squeal of the tires long before the car is anywhere near in view.

The other trope of conspiracy movies, unused in Blow Out, is a hero moving along the nodes of the conspiracy before reaching its nexus, the heart, or one of several hearts of american power. This might be the Parallax corporation in Parallax, the top echelons of the CIA in Three Days of the Condor, the White House, no matter – but we have a sense of the hero navigating through the labyrinth and getting closer and closer to a center of the universe, the truth finally unveiled. By contrast, Blow Out begins on the fringes and stays on the fringes, with Jack’s position remaining essentially static. Jack and Sally are portrayed as being on the edges, of being unimportant people, not the Jim Garrison of JFK, but something like a face in the Dallas crowd and a minor dancer at Jack Ruby’s, through the movie’s compositions. There is Jack, on his listening expedition, the camera moving further and further out, till he is an insignificant point in the landscape.

A similar sequence, after Jack rescues Sally:

Jack is in the hospital, after the rescue, and he is sealed off in rooms while the frenzy erupts outside.

Jack is given a condescending point and summoning finger, as if he were a delinquent child, by a cop on behalf of one of the Philadelphia brahmins:

Jack and Sally meet for a drink as he tries to persuade her from leaving the city, and we have a prolonged establishing shot where the focus is split between them and the men at the bar.

There is the obvious culmination of this, where Sally fights for her life, a figure invisible to the crowd, high above the festive celebration:

That Jack and Sally remain on the edges of the conspiracy is a function and a necessity of the plot, but it also is very much to do with the position of these characters in society itself. They are part of the overly broad, overly general category “working class”, and though the label is overly vague, there is the obvious marker in both characters, which is that neither goes to university and there appears to have been no expectation that they would get a degree, joining one of the coveted professional classes, of doctors, lawyers, engineers, or tenured professors. Jack’s only recourse for acquiring a technical education is through military service – his family does not have the money for university, and Sally is not surprised that this would be his only option. America is both supposedly a classless society while being very much a country with a class hierarchy, and we can see the prevalence of such a hierarchy by the fact that characters from this class – other than cops, firefighters, and soldiers – rarely appear in movies unaccompanied with a polemical theme about their economic status. The movie must be about bettering themselves, about being someone other than themselves, about acquiring a university education – Blow Out, in contrast, is simply about these characters on their own terms. They are not made stupid, crude, or ugly as an expression of their class, they are not seen solely by those outside of their class, but rather, the movie’s perspective is their own. It’s difficult to conceive of Jack Terry having much interest in a university education, not because he’s unintelligent or incurious, but because his interest is so focused, so specialized around sound technology, that he would rightly wonder what a degree in any field would offer him. That Jack Terry fails by the movie’s end is not because of any lack of education or lack of intelligence, but because he sees the unveiling of the conspiracy as a redemption for the failed police sting, and he wants that redemption so badly that he becomes careless. This sin is not made into a problem or issue of any particular class, but a fatal error possible of every member of the audience.

I have written of an assassination plot and its cover-up, at which Jack and Sally are positioned at the very far fringes, and we now reach the final point which makes Blow Out very distinct from other conspiracy thrillers: there is no conspiracy. The events of the movie are not the result of a convergence of shadowy figures and forces, but the result of only one man, and that’s Burke. He has been given the simple assignment of having Manny Karp take photos of Sally and the governor together, and either by accident or on his own maverick initiative, he commits a murder. Everything that follows, the cover-up, the serial killings, the erasing of Jack’s tapes, the death of Sally, is Burke acting on his own, with campaign manager Jack Manners wanting nothing to do with this out of control lunatic he hired for a very simple piece of campaign sabotage.

The conversation between Burke and Jack Matters, campaign manager for the president:

JACK MATTERS
You were supposed to get some pictures of McRyan, not kill him.

BURKE
I understood the objectives of the operation…I never concurred with them. But I didn’t kill him, it was an accident.

MATTERS
You accidentally shot out the tire of his car!

BURKE
As you may recall, this was my initial plan as proposed at our meeting of June the 6th.

MATTERS
We rejected that plan, don’t you remember?

BURKE
Course I do admit I had to exceed the parameters of my authority somewhat, but I always stayed within an acceptable margin of error. After all, the objective was achieved. He was eliminated from the election.

MATTERS
Burke. I don’t know you. I’ve never seen you. Don’t ever call me again.

BURKE
Just a minute, sir. We’ve got some loose ends. I’ve changed the tire, made it look like a blow out. I’ve erased the sound guy’s tapes, so everybody will think he’s a crackpot. Karp’s disappeared, but I’ll find him. That still leaves the girl. I’ve decided to terminate her, and make it look like one of a series of sex killings in the area. This would completely secure our operation.

MATTERS
WHAT OPERATION!

The Projection Booth podcast put together an episode, “Episode 140: Blow Out”, full of vital details on the movie in which they touched on the way information on the conspiracy is conveyed, far different from that in other movies of the genre. Mike White is the co-host, along with Rob St. Mary (fragment is at approximately 24:19-26:12 in the recording):

MIKE WHITE
So, it’s an interesting story of who’s watching who and who knows what when. Because that’s the other thing that I find very interesting about this one is the way we’re being handed information, like I was talking about with the television earlier, which kinda comes back a few times. I mean, there’s Manny, we see him on the TV, and that’s when Jack’s buddy comes in, and turns on the television set for him. But this whole idea of when do we know things versus when Jack knows them? Like, Burke putting the tire, the replacement tire, with the car, Nick Ryan’s car. We know that before Jack knows, and Jack is insisting “Check the tire! Check the tire!”, you know. It’s like, okay, we already know that that’s going on, and then we know as well, because we have Burke saying “I’ve erased all of his tapes,” so they’re going to think he’s crazy, we know that before Jack knows, and we get that amazing scene, of Jack going in, and playing all of his tapes, and having everything coming out blank, and that whole camera move, you know, I don’t wanna say three sixty, because that would imply the camera was in one spot and just turning around, cuz that camera is really exploring the space and going around, throughout the entire room, and just the way we run into Jack as you’re going around clockwise, it’s just a remarkable set piece.

This unveils a crucial aspect of Blow Out, but this is only a partial aspect. It is not simply that the audience knows things before Jack learns of them, but that we know things with certainty, that Jack only hypothesizes about – and of which he never gains hard evidence. Only the audience is able to clearly see that there is no conspiracy, that all the malice which takes place is caused by Burke. For Jack, this is all a cloud of unknowing, on which he projects a vast network which doesn’t exist onto this opaque expanse. “Who’s ever in on this thing has a contacts in the police, because they want McRyan to sink without a trace,” Jack tells Sally. “They don’t want to hear about my gunshot.” There is not Burke alone, but a they: “They have erased my tapes, they’ve made you disappear, and next it’s going to be me.” The asymmetry of information between Jack and the audience begins almost immediately after the accident, when Jack dives into the water to save Sally, at the same time the audience clearly sees Manny Karp move away from his hiding place under the bridge and run away, a figure entirely unseen by Jack.

By the end of the movie, he still has no idea whether the attempt to compromise McRyan came from the opposing camp, or McRyan’s own campaign manager, the man who asked that he lie about being at the scene of the accident. Jack’s suspicion is not glib paranoia, but comes from difficult worldly experience. He worked for the King Commission2, where he saw cops take money from gangsters to avoid prosecution, and he saw cops turn on their own when these crimes were revealed. Mackey hates him for his part in this, “I know all about you and your fucking tapes, you put a lot of good cops away”, and Jack must consider the obvious possibility that Mackey is working against him out of vengeance for what he did in the past3. In something like Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, or even All The President’s Men (if we’re unfamiliar with the real-life basis of the last), we learn things at the same pace as the heroes, while in Blow Out we’re given a situation that is entirely its opposite. Jack Terry has a gift of far reaching and discerning hearing which exceeds ours, yet he learns almost nothing more of the plot behind the accident, while we are shown all.

THE DROWNING POOL, THE BAGMAN, THE BURGLARS, ASPIRIN ROULETTE

The approach of Blow Out places an emphasis on the intimate, and the vivid sensual of noise and light, rather than the traveling of a convoluted plot which twists through the nodes of the conspiracy. As already said, this conspiracy has a node of one, Burke – there is no conspiracy – except that which Jack Terry has past basis to imagine. Instead of explorations of the echelons of power, we are with the characters close-up. We are given a lengthy sequence as Jack splices together the photos of the crash accident and syncs the audio with this film where we see his dedication and skill in his work; the well-known scene where Jack discovers the disorienting violation of his audio tapes having been erased, as the camera spins dizzyingly around and we hear the absence in what’s been left, not silence, but a chugging rumble and a whirring siren; the squalid scenes between Manny and Sally where we see the desperation and misery of her life. This is the core of the movie, rather than a murder plot, which, as said, remains largely a mystery to Jack by the film’s end.

I would liken the movie’s relationship to the historical scandal which initiates the plot with Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates, which takes the event of Chappaquiddick and rather than dwell on the specifics of that actual scandal, turns it into a kind of novella of vivid, often fantastic, sensation, where a woman drowns in a senator’s car, only to be revived, and the revival revealed to be an illusion, and again she dies, but no, by some miracle survives, all on an infinite loop, the recurrence of the death and the false promise of survival an unending nightmare. The senator’s tongue down the girl’s throat melts into the choking dark water, then into the suction hose that pumps her stomach in a revival attempt, the hose becoming the senator’s tongue again. The senator is obviously Edward Kennedy, but those wishing for a scathing satire will be disappointed; no mercy is shown by Oates in the portrayal, but her focus is more abstract, creating a fantastic horror world, and portraying the liberalism of the early nineties as a kind of a church in decline, where novices such as the dead woman have lost interest in the tenets of the faith and community good works, preferring idolatry of the church elders like the senator.

A fragment of Black Water, one of the many describing the crash, conveys the hypervivid sensation which takes precedent over plot points or attempts to parallel historical fact:

She heard the single expletive “Hey!” as the car skidded into a guardrail skidding sideways, the right rear coming around as in a demonic amusement ride and her head cracked against the window a red mist flashing across her eyes but she could not draw breath to scream as the momentum of their speed carried them down a brief but steep embankment, an angry staccato tapping against the car as if dried sticks were being broken, still she had not breath to scream as the car plunged into what appeared to be a pit, a pool, stagnant water in the marshland you might think only a few feet deep but black water was churning alive and purposeful on all sides tugging them down, the car sinking on its side, and Kelly was blinded, The Senator fell against her, and their heads knocked and how long it was the two of them struggled together, stunned, desperate, in terror of what was happening out of their control and even their comprehension except to think This can’t be happening, am I going to die like this, how many seconds or minutes before The Senator moaning “Oh God. Oh God” fumbled clawing at the safety belts extricating himself by sheer strength from his seat behind the broken steering wheel and with fanatic strength forcing himself through the door, opening the door against the weight of black water and gravity that door so strangely where it should not have been, overhead, directly over their heads, as if the very earth had tilted insanely on its axis and the sky now invisible was lost in the black muck beneath – how long, in her terror and confusion Kelly Kelleher could not have said.

Because Blow Out‘s focus is on the world of its two major characters, the initiating event incidental, the accident itself has the quality of a dream of overlapping scandals, of the Kennedy assassination, Chappaquiddick, and the government cover-up of Watergate. I would argue that the movie’s lack of focus on the conspiracy event, its disinterest in outlining a surrounding labyrinth, leaves us with images, the vast park, the sinking car, the drowning woman, the dead governor, abstracting the accident like Black Water does, and partly disconnects the event from actual history – when it is very much connected to past history, in the characters of Burke, of Manny Karp, of the accident, all of which are taken from the hard details of the intersection of Watergate and Chappaquiddick, and of which I think De Palma was familiar.

Richard Nixon was obsessed with all of the Kennedys, their good looks, their charm, their wealth, their connections to the eastern establishment that he despised, an animus that ran from the brother he ran against and lost, to the last survivor, even after the debacle of Chappaquiddick. This obsession shows up in that other movie which touches on Watergate, All the President’s Men, when Carl Bernstein talks to a secretary who used to work in the White House, about one of the Watergate burglars, E. Howard Hunt:

BERNSTEIN
Did you know…Howard Hunt? Didn’t he work in the office?

SECRETARY
Yeah, I knew Howard. He’s a nice person. He’s secretive. He is secretive. But. A decent man.

BERNSTEIN
Do you have any idea…what he did?

SECRETARY
Well, the White House said he was doing some investigative work.

BERNSTEIN (smiles)
What do you say?

SECRETARY
He was doing investigative work.

BERNSTEIN
On what?

SECRETARY
Different things.

BERNSTEIN
Like what? I’m just asking you.

SECRETARY
Well…the scuttlebutt for a while was that he was investigating Kennedy.

BERNSTEIN
Why?

SECRETARY
White House is real paranoid about Teddy Kennedy. I remember seeing a book about Chappaquiddick on his desk. And he was always getting material out of the White House library, the library of congress, anything he could find.

(the previous dialogue is not from the published script of All the President’s Men, which can be found here, but is a direct transcript from the movie since there are substantial differences between the lines in the movie and that of the script.)

This obsession is also revealed in the Nixon White House tapes, in these moments where the president tells his close advisors that he wants Ted Kennedy’s Secret Service protection to be used for surveillance, in order to gather damaging information which can be used to destroy him in the 1976 presidential campaign:

(Transcripts are taken from Stanley Kutler’s Abuse of Power and the transcript at whitehousetapes.net, Thursday, September 7, 1972 – 4:47pm – 6:15pm. Audio for the first segment is the file rmn_e772_06.mp3 taken from the nixontapes.org audio archive, specific page “Chron 4 Oval Office Conversations: July 1, 1972 – November 1, 1972″, entry OVAL 772-006. Audio for the second segment is the file rmn_e772_15b, also taken from the same site, same page, entry OVAL 772-015b. The tangential issue dealing with the names Schultz and O’Brien deals with George Schultz, then head of the Treasury and Larry O’Brien, head of the Democratic National Committee. The Nixon administration was trying to go after O’Brien through IRS audits.)

The ongoing attempt to find dirt on Ted Kennedy intersected with the Chappaquiddick drowning, which prompted the Nixon White House to send out a private detective to research the area to find any witnesses or dirt they might use to further damage the Massachussetts senator. The man they sent out for the assignment, Tony Ulasewicz, is described by another Watergate burglar, G. Gordon Liddy in his memoir Will. The Caulfield mentioned is Jack Caulfield, another private detective in the pay of the Nixon White House:

We found “Tony,” later identified at Watergate hearings as Anthony Ulasewicz, at Apartment 11-C, 321 East 48th Street, Manhattan. Caulfield had described the place as “a very elaborate pad – beautiful, wait’ll ya see it. My guy Tony’s puttin’ the make on one of the Chappaquiddick broads. The joint’s wired for sound. He gets her in the sack a few times, wins her confidence, and we get the facts.”

When “Tony” opened the door, I couldn’t believe what I saw. First there was “Tony” himself; a big, overweight middle-aged man who in his best day would not exactly rival Redford. Still, Casanova himself was an ugly man, and maybe “Tony” had something only a woman could appreciate. The apartment itself was something else. It was small, so small that the “bedroom” was nothing but a tiny converted alcove with a pitiful, homemade wall erected across its opening and a curtain for a door. The wall, in which he was trying to hide a tape recorder, was covered in the fake brick sold at Montgomery Ward stores in poor neighborhoods to dress up aging kitchens. A white shag rug was on the floor, and the windows were hung with red imitation velvet drapes. The decor was strictly better-grade Juarez whorehouse circa 1951.

I note two things. Jorge Luis Borges praises the magical precision of the phrase “half as old as time,” in a poetic stanza4, as opposed to the more banal and obvious “as old as time,” and this magical precision is there in describing an apartment as “better-grade Juarez whorehouse” as opposed to simply “Juarez whorehouse”. The other, more important point, is that the description of the sleazy Ulasewicz and his tiny, squalid apartment is very reminiscent of a character we are already well familiar with, Manny Karp.

Ulasewicz’s voice, a practical, matter of the fact, guttural well familiar with the ass end of politics, comes across well in a BBC documentary on the Watergate scandal (“Watergate 1/5: Break-in”, “Watergate 2/5: Cover-up”, “Watergate 3/5: Scapegoat”, “Watergate 4/5: Massacre”, “Watergate 5/5: Impeachment”), showing up in “Cover-up”, when the detective is recruited for another assignment, to pay off hush money to the Watergate burglars.

Segment running from approximately 24:24-26:35:

NARRATOR
Five days after the break-in, the burglars were brought to court to be released on bail. The president’s men set about organizing their hush money. Richard Nixon’s private lawyer, Herb Kalmbach, got the assignment.

MAURICE STANS (CAMPAIGN FINANCE CHAIRMAN)
Herb Kalmbach was a close personal friend of mine, and I trusted him in every respect. So, when he came to me and said he’d like all the money I could find up to a hundred thousand dollars, I said, “I can’t find a hundred thousand dollars,” but I know where there is some money, can you tell me anything more about it? He said, “I can only tell you it’s a matter of the White House needing some money – related to the campaign.

NARRATOR
Kalmbach collected seventy five thousand dollars of Nixon campaign funds. But he had to find someone to deliver it.

TONY ULASEWICZ
I got a call…to come down to Washington. And to meet with Mr. Herbert Kalmbach. I came to the hotel in Washington, D.C., I came up right away…he didn’t have his socks on, and he apologized for that. And I’d been in the army, in the navy, and he apologized for not having his socks on. At any rate, he got into this story, he’d met with John Dean. A park bench across from the White House. Dean said that on the highest authority, it was decided, that Herb Kalmbach would provide funds and that Tony Ulasewicz, the only one they could trust, would distribute said funds, to those who broke into the Watergate building. So now, he has an attaché case, and he’s got seventy five grand in there. The seventy five thousand now, he’s taking it out of the attaché case, and putting it on a bed. Now, seventy five grand, you know, is quite a bit of lettuce. And there was a laundry bag in the closet, one of these, very thin brown paper that you put your laundry in and leave it out by the door. And I plucked all that cabbage, and I put it into the bag, tied it up with the string, maybe twice over, put it under my arm, and said we’ll be in touch. Now, I’ll await your instructions.

Segment running from approximately 40:16-41:43:

NARRATOR
Nixon’s re-election machine looked unstoppable. But he knew that if the Watergate burglars started talking, it would be all over. So his campaign funds were used to buy more than just rallies, they bought silence. Howard Hunt and his wife began taking delivery of the hush money to distribute to the burglars.

TONY ULASEWICZ
I’m gonna do these drops at the airport. And I would- Because lockers were always handy. I’d get a locker number, I’d take the key, put the money in the locker, take the key out. And I’d tape it underneath the telephone. Then I would call on another phone, I’d call the person, whatever name we’d use, Mrs. Hunt at that time, one time Mr. Hunt appeared and picked it up, and I’d say the key is taped- Take that key and go to the locker and pick up your drop. And that’s the way we did it. And it worked very well.

If Karp is made in the image of Ulasewicz, then Burke is a replica of the Watergate burglar already mentioned, G. Gordon Liddy. There is a constricted, lunatic fanaticism to Liddy, and a blind worship of force, both of which can be seen in Burke. It is possible that Liddy’s later behavior can be traced to his overwhelming desire to serve in the army, and fight in Korea, the latter hope dashed when he busted his appendix after a bout of drinking followed by a sit-up contest. This failure to serve may have caused him to overcompensate later on, where he invested every aspect of life with the rigor of a Prussian and coiled violence of a Cossack. Liddy would work in the White House, ostensibly as legal counsel to the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP), but really to perform intelligence gathering and sabotage of their democratic opponents. The political aides inside the Nixon White House would brag and brag about the presidential rallies they’d organized, which soon ran on Liddy’s nerves. “Hey, you guys,” he’d ask, “you want to see a real rally?,” after which he took them to one of his favorite movies, Triumph of the Will.

Liddy would present something called GEMSTONE to Nixon’s Attorney General for approval. GEMSTONE was a series of plans to disrupt Democratic rivals and gather information on these rivals through spies and surveillance, each element named after a gem or mineral element. Liddy does a thorough job describing the presentation in Will, and the following are some representative excerpts:

DIAMOND was our counterdemonstration plan. At the time, we still expected the [Republican convention] to be held in San Diego. I repeated my objections to the site, then pointed out that the best technique for dealing with a mob had been worked out years before by the famed Texas Rangers.

I pointed out that we would be dealing with skilled and determined urban guerillas who had been distributing manuals for violent guerilla tactics against the convention, including homemade bombs; that the Sports Arena area would be impossible to hold against a well-led mob attack; and that I proposed to emulate the Texas Rangers by identifying the leaders through intelligence before the attack got under way, kidnap them, drug them, and hold them in Mexico until after the convention was over, then release them unharmed and still wondering what happened.

RUBY concerned the infiltration of spies into the camp of Democratic contenders, then the successful candidate himself. COAL was the program to furnish money clandestinely to Shirley Chisholm of New York to finance her as a contender and force Democratic candidates to fight off a black woman, bound to generate ill-feeling among the black community and, we hoped, cause them difficulty with women.

EMERALD outlined the use of a chase plane to eavesdrop on the Democratic candidate’s aircraft and buses when his entourage used radio telephones.

QUARTZ detailed emulation of the technique used by the Soviet Union for microwave interception of telephone traffic, and I explained in detail the way it was done by the Soviet Embassy.

For use in gathering information at the Democratic National Convention at Miami Beach, Hunt [this is the already mentioned Watergate burglar, E. Howard Hunt] and I had an option to lease a large houseboat moored within line of sight of the Fontainebleau [a hotel in Miami]. This would enable it to be used as a communications center for CRYSTAL – electronic surveillance. It was an opulent barge, with a lush bedroom featuring a large mirror over the big king-sized bed. We’d get our money’s worth from the houseboat. It would double as headquarters for SAPPHIRE because it was from there that our prostitutes were to operate. They were not to operate as hookers but as spoiled, rich, beautiful women who were only too susceptible to men who could brag convincingly of the importance of what they were doing at the convention. The bedroom would be wired for sound, but I disagreed with Hunt’s suggestion that movie cameras be used. That wouldn’t be necessary to get the information, might cost us the women recruited who might object to being filmed in flagrante, and, as I pointed out to Howard, there wasn’t room to install them overhead anyway.

I presented a plan for four black-bag jobs, OPALs I through IV. They were clandestine entries at which microphone surveillances could be placed, as well as TOPAZ: photographs taken of any documents available, including those under lock. As targets I proposed the headquarters of Senator Edmund Muskie’s campaign on K Street, N.W.; that of Senator George McGovern on Capitol Hill; one for the Democratic National Convention at any hotel, because we had access to just about anything we wanted through all the Cuban help employed in the Miami Beach hotels. One entry would be held in reserve for any target of opportunity Mitchell wished to designate as we went along. I looked at him questioningly, but he just kept sucking on his pipe, suggesting none.

The total cost of these operations, Liddy would tell attorney general John Mitchell, was one million dollars.

John Mitchell made much of filling and relighting his pipe and then said, “Gordon, a million dollars is a hell of a lot of money, much more than we had in mind. I’d like you to go back and come up with something more realistic.”

As I restacked the charts, John Mitchell continued, “And Gordon?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Burn those charts; do it personally.”

“Yes, sir.”

Again, these plans for illegal wiretaps, break-ins, use of prostitutes for surveillance of members of an official political party of the United States were all presented for approval to the highest arbiter of justice in the land, Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell. In Blow Out, Burke receives his orders from the president’s campaign manager, Jack Manners, with the killing of the governor and the later cover-up all rogue operations which had been presented to the campaign manager, and which he has already rejected. Who does Manners look uncannily like? John Mitchell.

There was another operation that Liddy was involved in, outside of the command structure of John Mitchell, and that dealt with a reporter named Jack Anderson, who’d infuriated the White House by his publication of stories reliant on insider leaks that were devastating to the administration. Liddy is forthright in Will about the plan of action against Anderson, put forth by fellow Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt at a luncheon, also attended by a medical doctor named Edward Gunn. Both Gunn and Hunt were formerly of the CIA.

The purpose of the luncheon, Hunt had explained to me previously, was to take advantage of the expertise of Dr. Gunn in preparing, for the approval of Hunt’s “principal,” a plan to stop columnist Jack Anderson. Even with each other, Hunt and I often, when discussing the most sensitive of matters, used the term my principal rather than identify our superiors. I, at least, had several. Hunt, to my knowledge, had only one: Chuck Colson.

Anderson, Hunt reported, had now gone too far. As the direct result of an Anderson story, a top U.S. intelligence source abroad had been so compromised that, if not already dead, he would be in a matter of days. That was too much. Something had to be done.

I took the position that, in a hypothetical case in which the target had been the direct cause of the identification and execution of one of our agents abroad, halfway measures were not appropriate. How many of our people should we let him kill before we stop him, I asked rhetorically, still not using Anderson’s name. I urged as the logical and just solution that the target be killed. Quickly.

My suggestion was received with immediate acceptance, almost relief, as if they were just waiting for someone else to say for them what was really on their minds.

Liddy would also explain in Will his justification for assassinating a journalist:

There is a point beyond which I will not go, and that is anything my conscience tells me is malum in se (evil in and of itself) or my judgement tells me is irrational. I have no problem with doing something that is malum prohibitum (wrong only because of the existence of a law prohibiting it).

An example of malum in se would be the sexual assault of a child. In every society such a thing would be recognized as wrong. It would require no act of the legislature forbidding it to inform people that it was wrong. An example of malum prohibitum, on the other hand, would be the statute prohibiting driving through a stop sign without coming to a complete halt. Absent such a law, to do so would be a morally indifferent act.

Common sense tells us that minor problems require and justify but minor responses, and only extreme problems require and justify extreme solutions. In the case of killing it is well to remember that the Ten Commandments, translated correctly from the original Aramaic, do not contain the injunction “Thou shalt not kill.” It reads, “Thou shalt not do murder.” Quite another thing. There are circumstances that not only justify killing but require it (when one is charged with the safekeeping of a child, for example, and the only way to prevent its death from another’s attack is to kill that other person). These are all situations that require informed and responsible judgements.

A number of methods of assassination were discussed. There was the possibility of applying LSD to the steering wheel of Anderson’s car, which might trigger a disruption of motor functions, causing Anderson to fatally crash his vehicle. You could play a game called aspirin roulette, where one of Anderson’s aspirins was substituted with a lookalike pill that was a lethal poison. Another suggestion from Liddy: “I submitted that the target should just become a fatal victim of the notorious Washington street-crime rate.” One more was to smash into Anderson’s car, killing him, but making it look like one more traffic accident. Liddy would recall this last approach when he was a guest on “The Howard Stern Show” (this interview is in four parts on youtube, one, two, three, four, and the following is taken from part one, 13:35 to the end of the clip):

STERN
If you had killed Jack Anderson, like you proposed to the Nixon Administration, what would you have used? Because you did advocate an assassination.

LIDDY
Yeah. Well, what we decided to do was…we knew the route he came into the office…and it included a traffic circle.

QUIVERS
You’re going to shoot him in the circle?

LIDDY
No, you’re not gonna shoot him in the circle. There’s a way you hit the car in a certain way, and it would flip and kill him.

STERN
The bullet, when they-

LIDDY
There’s no bullet, there’s a car accident.

QUIVERS
You’re hitting the car with a bullet, right?

LIDDY
No. No. You are hitting the car with another car.

This background is brought up to make obvious that the elements of the conspiracy in Blow Out are neither radical nor fantastic, but a very real part of American history, with a few small paths changed. Rather than gather information after Chappaquiddick, imagine if Tony Ulacewicz had been tasked with getting damaging information before it had taken place. Instead of Hunt and Liddy hiring prostitutes for purposes of surveillance as part of the SAPPHIRE section of the GEMSTONE plan, Ulacewicz would bring in a woman with the objective of destroying a candidate. Instead of assassinating a journalist for the greater good of the country, we might imagine Liddy, or a figure like him, believed that the killing of a governor was one of those situations that served a greater and necessary purpose. Rather than kill the man through an ersatz car accident, he would take the suggestion of Robin Quivers, and hit the tire with a bullet. It was a situation that required “informed and responsible judgement,” to use Liddy’s phrase, and perhaps the killing of a senator or a governor fell under the category of malum prohibitum rather than malum in se. Perhaps the killing of three women to cover up the assassination might fall under malum prohibitum as well. If anything, Blow Out is perhaps more conservative in its conspiracy, because we have only the actions of a rogue agent. As we can see in the excerpted section, however, one of the top officials in the White House may well have been behind the initial order to kill Jack Anderson. We now have audio tapes of Nixon personally ordering a break-in at the think tank, the Brookings Institute5. In this movie, we have a single agent acting on his own. In reality, we had a White House that went rogue.

AUDIOPHILIA / PERSONAL EFFECTS / I AM OF BOTH YOUR DIRECTIONS

Blow Out was at first not called Blow Out, but something else entirely, as described in The Projection Booth podcast, fragment going from 46:50 to 48:00:

MIKE WHITE
The title, Blow Out, was not the original title for this film. Personal Effects was the first title for it…which I found to be a very interesting title, really, because you’ve got both the idea of the sound effects and them being your effects, but then the whole idea of personal effects, usually, when you talk about someone passing away, you are given their personal effects. And so it’s just this kind of nice play on words, and him going to Blow Out was definitely much more of a throwback to Blow Up, which I think is a very nice homage that he’s doing with the title, and you’re right, there’s definitely some nods back to Antonionni but…I don’t know, the thing when it comes to Antonionni’s films, at least the few that I’ve seen, it always feels like somebody took his movies and put them in a pot of boiling water, boiled out all the emotions, and then what’s left is what gets projected on screen? Because it just never feels like I care about any of the people in his films, it always feels like a bunch of sleepwalkers going through the motions, whereas with Blow Out, I definitely felt like there was so much emotion, and I really cared for these characters.

There are several associations with the phrase “Personal Effects”, the most obvious that it’s the name of Jack Terry’s sound engineering company, never said aloud, but there in the print on the glass of the door:

Personal effects, as White says, are the possessions you might acquire after someone’s death, which immediately makes one think of Sally, but I find the phrase hints at Sally in another way: Jack works in sound effects, while Sally works in make-up, which might be thought of as personal effects. De Palma’s movies are often extraordinarily succinct, wasting few words on lengthy exposition or backstory. We sense characters visually, through their expressions, their posture, movements, clothes, and their work. Kate of Dressed to Kill is one of the most memorable characters in any of his movies, yet she has almost no dialogue, with Kate made a tangible, memorable presence entirely in her face, as she observes, reacts, is chased, and chases back. The vocations of Jack and Sally are a handy metaphors for aspects of these characters which, in another movie, might be made more explicit.

The sensibility of a conspiracy theorist, or simply someone looking deeply into a particularly obscure world and discerning a pattern, is well captured in the profession of a sound engineer. Jack Terry doesn’t just hear at great distance through his technology, his hearing is extraordinarily acute through years of experience, able to discern small subtleties of sound. “You heard the blow out,” the cop tells Terry of what he heard on the night of the accident. “Yes I heard the blow out, but the first sound I heard was the bang.” Replies the cop: “That’s some kind of an echo.” Jack: “No. Look. I know what an echo sounds like, I’m a sound man, and, the bang was before the blow out.” He insists that the sound is there, though no one else can hear it – when Jack plays back the tape for Sally, she says, “I mean, I heard a noise, maybe it was a gunshot.” Only when she hears the sounds accompanied by Karp’s film is she able to clearly recognize the gunshot. This is very much like the closed off world of someone who might be investigating a historical or political mystery; they insist they perceive a pattern, yet others, not knowing the details of the various minor characters and coincidences of this unilluminated corner of the world cannot say with certainty whether their theory is credible, only seemingly credible, or false. This is also something like what a movie director feels – whatever the setbacks and problems in filming, whatever others say, they see a vision in the screenplay and the footage that others do not, and sometimes these certainties crashes thuddingly to the ground, and other times this mad vision is exhilaratingly right. The viewer has the luxury of certainty, the movie showing us that Burke clearly was behind the governor’s death. This certainty is often expected on the part of the audience, that the hero’s suspicions are always right, that the hero is always correct and righteous in his actions, and this very attitude is upended by the movie’s finale. De Palma is well aware of how easily the audience can fall into unquestioning assent that a movie’s protagonist is always right, and later in his career he uses this to play a rather nasty trick in Mission: Impossible. There, in an early scene, we are shown footage of a senator speaking on TV, who Ethan Hunt will impersonate at the embassy. This speech is played loud enough for the audience to easily make out every word, for us to easily discern its meeting, and this senator is greeted with withering disdain by the television host, and dismissive laughter by our heroes:

ETHAN HUNT
We’re using Waltzer?

JIM PHELPS
He’s our guy.

HUNT
Isn’t he chairing the arms services committee?

PHELPS
Not this week. This week he’s fly fishing, at the Oughterard Slough in County Kildaire with one of our best Irish guides.

CLAIRE
He won’t be back anytime soon.

WALTZER
-irrelevant at best, or unconstitutional at worst.

TV HOST
With all due respect, Senator, it sounds as if you want to lead the kind of charge that Frank Church led in the nineteen hundred and seventies.

WALTZER
No- No-

TV HOST
…and in the process destroyed the intelligence capability of this country.

WALTZER
I wanna know who these people are. And how they’re spending our tax payers’ money. We were living in a democracy, the last time I checked6.

De Palma, I think, is very much a skeptic of the national security state, and he puts what is probably the sanest attitude in this movie, and the one he probably most likely agrees with, in this marginal character who simply wants greater accountability and transparency for an intelligence agency that might well be acting outside of the constitution. This attitude may well have greater resonance in the present time than at the time of the movie’s release, given what we now know. Yet how can this senator possibly be right, if he is some reedy voiced senior, dripping in earnestness and piety, looked on with ridicule by a heroic character played by the biggest movie star in the world and mocked so mercilessly by the host of a TV show? It is perhaps helpful to note, and allows us to return to the subject of Blow Out, that this same TV host is John McLaughlin, an alumnus – like G. Gordon Liddy and John Mitchell – of the Nixon administration, where he was a speechwriter and one of the staunchest defenders of the president, even after Watergate broke7. Yet how could this Nixon devotee possibly be wrong, if a character played by Tom Cruise agrees with him?

There is nothing obviously unsympathetic about Jack Terry, there is no karmic payback in Sally’s death. Jack is more heroic and virtuous than most of us; he worked to end corruption in the Philadelphia police department, and he saves Sally from drowning. Jack is a man who is the audience’s heroic proxy, and his quest for redemption is our quest for redemption as well – we wish him to succeed as it gives us hope that we too might begin again, that we will have second and third chances. There is the expectation of movies that they will affirm our heroic fantasies, and Blow Out gives us a partial affirmation, providing us the concrete proof that Jack is entirely right in his belief in an assassination attempt, and then pulls the rug out from us – Jack fails in his mission because he badly misjudges the situation, and this misjudgement is a result of his quest for redemption by exposing the conspiracy, yet we in the audience wish him on in this reckless mission. We expect the very mechanics of the type of movie we’re watching – a thriller with a charismatic Hollywood star – will save him, that a hero in this context cannot fail. Yet he does.

Sound effects are Jack’s specialty, and make-up is Sally’s. Though we are never told any exact details about the matter, I think it can be inferred that she has suffered great abuse, and had to abide such abuse. We see her with Manny Karp as he paws at her, as she initially resists with little energy, as if she has become conditioned to expect a steady dose of such maltreatment in this life. This might be what allows Jack to act as he does in his worst moments in the movie, sending her back to get the film from Karp, humiliating her and then intimidating her into doing this, knowing that she won’t fight back.

SALLY
What are you going to do?

JACK
What do you mean what am I going to do? What are we going to do?

SALLY
What do I have to do with this?

JACK
Oh, will you cut the shit, Sally. I know what you were doing in that car.

SALLY (quietly)
What do you know.

JACK
That you and your friend Karp were setting up McRyan to be blackmailed, getting scummy pictures of you and the candidate getting laid after the Liberty Ball, right? What did you do, tell him that running water under a well-lit bridge gets you hot?

SALLY (quietly)
Who told you that.

JACK
I got a look at your earlier work. Some motel candid camera shots. You got nice tits. Who was paying you to flash them at McRyan?

JACK
Nobody wants to know about conspiracy, I don’t get it. Let me tell you something. I know what I heard and what I saw. And I’m not gonna stop until everyone in this fucking country hears and sees the same thing. And you’re gonna help me. Yeah you. You’re gonna find your pal Karp, and you’re gonna get that original film. Because this isn’t any good, I need the original. Because if we don’t get this out and in television for everybody to see, they’re gonna close the book. And any loose ends that happen to be hanging out like you or me, are going to be cut right off. So you got your choice. You can be crazy or dead, either will do.

SALLY (on the verge of tears)
Alright, alright. I’ll try and get the film. Then will you just leave me alone about all of this?

JACK
I wish I was the only one you had to worry about.

SALLY
You know if you’re trying to scare me, you’re doing a good job.

JACK
I’m trying to save our asses.

SALLY
I’ll look after my own ass, thank you.

When Jack tells Sally, “And you’re gonna help me. Yeah you. You’re gonna find your pal Karp, and you’re gonna get that original film,” he gives her the same condescending, commanding pointed finger that he received from the cop, when he was told to change his story:

There is an economic element to this intimidation as well: we see the sizes of their respective places, and Jack’s is clearly bigger, a two storey house. Money determines your importance, and whatever the miseries of his work, he is doing far better than her, has more money, is relatively more important, and this intimidates her as well. The assassination film is his project, and he forces her to do what’s necessary that it be completed. Jack stashes the audio tape away in the ceiling, and the camera takes its perspective, looking down, Jack’s guiding polar star which he makes Sally’s guiding polar star as well. When we shift to the scene at Karp’s, it ends with Manny unconscious, the camera looking down again from the ceiling on the wreckage, the outcome of Jack’s obsession.

(the respective houses of Sally, and then Jack’s)

Sally tells Jack, “I know how to fix a face”, and he asks her in the conversation at the bar, “How about if I broke a nose? How would you deal with a broken nose?”, and she says, “Ah, that’s easy.” You’re reminded that make-up is a useful skill to have to hide bruises, to conceal the personal effects of a man kicking the shit out of you. Sally, of course, knows how to apply make-up so that it doesn’t even look like she’s wearing make-up, and she’s equally able to adopt a pose where one cannot easily tell how much of it is natural girlishness, and how much a survival strategy to forget past hurts and avoid further suffering.

She is a particularly nettlesome character to some viewers, and the discussion on The Projection Booth with regards to her is especially enlightening. This excerpt conveys succinctly the broad range of feelings towards her, as well as what her character embodies, fragment running approximately from 18:54 to 22:49:

MIKE WHITE
Jack saves Sally, pulls her out of the sinking car. We’ve got the governor, who might have been the next president, in the car with them, setting off this whole political intrigue. So, what did you guys think about Nancy Allen as Sally?

ROB ST. MARY
She seems almost child-like. At times. And child-like to a point, for me, is a bit annoying. It’s almost like she’s so oblivious to what’s going on, is so sorta naive, that it’s almost, it’s kinda hard for me to have sympathy for her at times, because I’m like, you are so dumb. You can’t even kinda figure this out. There are parts where she just seems way too ten years younger than she should be, she seems like a girl in her early teens or something, and I don’t know why I got that feeling, but I definitely got it in the early go, and as she progresses, it gets better, like the character gets a little hip to what’s going on, and sorta realizes the implications of what she’s dealing with.

JAMIE DUVALL
It’s a tough performance to grapple with in many ways, and I think it was a completely brave choice the way she chose to play it. Because you could see her as a complete air-headed bimbo at the movie’s start, with the high voice and the, you think it’s too exaggerated, but I think she starts with a stereotype, and she slowly humanizes it. And I think that her idealism, her kinda wide eyed idealism, is very fitting with the theme of the movie, because she’s the stereotypical hooker with the heart of gold. In her position, she has probably seen a lot of terrible things in life, and yet she maintains that kind of wide-eyed dreamy innocence in some way. While Travolta’s character, he’s grasping at the last straws of his idealism. And this is his, through the course of the movie, this is his one chance to try and make things right. I like the contrast between those two characters and I like that the innocence in her is exaggerated.

WHITE
Yeah, there’s a telling moment towards the end of the film, I know we’ll eventually get to it, kinda want to throw out this here now: do you guys see her as just being, I know this is going to sound really frickin ponderous, but: do you see her more as a symbol of America’s innocence and, you know, Jack is maybe someone who is post-sixties whereas she is maybe pre-sixties kind of thing? Do you see her as kindof that desire for a simpler, better time and that she kinda lets some of these things, because she has been in these bad places. I know that you said, Jamie. I know that you- you see her caught in one of these candid motel photograph kind of things and yet, she doesn’t seem like she’s that person. She just seems to be kinda oblivious and wants to move on with things, and look for the better way whereas Jack doesn’t, do you see her as that symbol of innocence?

DUVALL
I do think you can very easily see her as that. She’s got her blinders on, to the dangers of the world around her. But she can’t escape them forever. And- I think there’s a reason why she’s killed in front of a big American flag, at the end of the film. I mean-

WHITE
Oh, SPOILERS.

DUVALL
Oh, I’m sorry. It’s pretty hard to avoid when you’re talking about where that character goes and what she means to the story. You know, her demise. Yeah, I think that’s a beautiful reading, and I love how you used the term countercultural, because De Palma is a countercultural film-maker. He’s always been a political minded film-maker. And I think that both of these characters kinda represent that in some way.

The startling, iconic shot just mentioned is, of course, this one:

Though an outwardly simple character, Sally has several fascinating ambiguities, such as whether she ever worked as a prostitute, how much she was involved in that work, and how she reconciles the frequently rough life of sex work with a kind and trusting disposition. The sections of The Projection Booth when Nancy Allen speaks of her character might be its most insightful moments, as she seemingly acknowledges that Sally worked as a prostitute while also denying it. We sense perhaps the protectiveness actors adopt for their own characters, but perhaps also the way an actor cannot express a detail about their character without also adopting the perspective of the person portrayed: I wear the kind of elegant expensive boots that a prostitute of the time would wear, but I’m not a prostitute since I’ve insisted on forgetting that I was ever such a thing, and so how could I be something that I don’t remember being?

A fragment that runs from 2:15:08 to 2:15:54:

MIKE WHITE
Your character, even though I sense she’s a prostitute, is one of the nicest people in the film.

NANCY ALLEN
Well, she’s not exactly a prostitute (laughs) as I said before. She is in her- She is working with this guy, this creepy detective, to expose these horrible cheating men. So, in her mind, she’s really doing a service to other women. Of course, she’s in complete denial of what she’s doing. As I am of her character, because I don’t see her as a prostitute. I see her as a very sweet, well-intentioned, young girl, who was easily manipulated and trusting, of men. So, you know, I can relate to that.

Another fragment, running from approximately 2:28:55 to 2:33:51:

MIKE WHITE
Where did you come up with that voice to do?

NANCY ALLEN
The voice came after, I had a visual, sometimes I try, just when you think about a character, and I had this visual of her as a, just a little rag doll, just a little raggedy ann, curly red haired, I don’t know, it kinda floated through me as I was walking around, as I tend to do, just mulling over characters, and I had a visual of her, and Brian wanted me to do a Philadelphia accent, which I had a really hard time with. I just hate accents so much, I was really resistant to doing it. We talked about characters like Giulietta Masina in, god, I’m going blank now- You know, not so bright, well intentioned, kindof character, do you know the movie I’m thinking of? With Giulietta Masina and Anthony Quinn? What is that movie, I know you know what one I’m talking about, I know what one I’m talking about.

WHITE
Is it La Strada?

ALLEN
YES! Thank you. Brilliant. You win the prize. So, we were talking about that, and I said, what if I just do kindof a New York-ese, not well educated kind of way of talking that, and just- The idea of, I was trying to think, why do women, certainly the women that I know, [goes into higher pitched, babyish voice, which sounds a lot like Sally] You know, this is kind of one of their voice days. [back to normal] And I thought, well, you know what? These are women who are resistant to growing up, keep their child like qualities, it works for them to a point, I mean, obviously, as you get older it’s a little bit unappealing. But- so- Maybe that’s going to justify- Take that idea and apply it to this character. And so, that’s where that came from. I will tell you, I think one of the first things that I shot was the hospital scene. With John. Who was unshaven, and wouldn’t wear make-up, and poor George Litto, who was producing at that time, came to the set, and he said “I’m paying three million dollars to a movie star, and he won’t wear make-up?” And then he looked at me and said, “Are you…you using that voice throughout the whole picture, or just in this scene?” And he just walked away, shaking his head, he didn’t know what to do with either of us. That’s where all of that came from.

WHITE
Whenever I think of you in the film, I think of your voice, but I also think of that coat, that you wear.

ALLEN
Oh, yes! [laughs] YES. There were many of those. Ann Roth made, six or eight of those, with the fox collar and…yeah yeah yeah, it was a great coat.

WHITE
It was like crushed velvet?

ALLEN
EXACTLY! Very good. Indeed it was. And I had very expensive boots. Always very expensive boots, because Ann Roth had done Klute, and she’d done a lot of research about hookers and girls like that, and they always had good shoes. Great boots.

WHITE
But you weren’t a hooker?

ALLEN
Well, THAT’S RIGHT. That’s what I say. [laughs]

WHITE
I guess the coat helped my perception of that.

ALLEN
She [Ann Roth] had such a great touch of detail, I don’t know if anyone has noticed it, because there’s probably only one scene where it’s visible to the eye, but when I talked to her about the character and I told her my visual concept, and things I was thinking about with her, and the idea, that some day she was going to be a make-up artist, a movie star. I liked the idea that this young girl had an idea about lucky charms, and things like that. So, she put together, I still have it somewhere, it’s a rabbit’s foot, on a thin pink satin ribbon. That I always wore, and it was either under- but I always wore that charm when we were shooting. It was, those little details really make a difference when you have something like that. That’s what’s so great about the collaboration of film, where an actor can work with another actor, and a director, and a costume person, and make-up person, and really great costumes, and wonderful hair and make-up, it really fleshes out a character, and all of a sudden you look at yourself, and you go, yeah, that’s her. That’s it. This is it exactly, and you start to feel it in a big way.

This mixture of ambiguity and simplicity, the kindness, the voice, all make me link this character to an actress now inextricably connected to the Kennedys, and that would be Marilyn Monroe. The accident at the heart of the movie, which might feel like a dreamy conflation of american tragedies, might carry the echo of a lost hypothetical: what if Marilyn Monroe had hooked up with the one Kennedy brother she didn’t, and was there in the car with him at Chappaquiddick? Though I think Allen has a wider range, I can see Monroe’s peculiar genius making her a perfect fit for the part of Sally had Blow Out somehow been made in the 1950s, one of those roles where she would have been great, but which would also provoke the question of whether she was acting, or just playing Marilyn Monroe…or whether she’s always playing Marilyn Monroe. This tragic icon would get paid $50 to be photographed nude by Tom Kelley, who would sell the pictures for $500, which then went into a calendar that made a profit of three quarters of a million dollars; “He says he heard all about our fine divorce work and offers us six grand,” says Manny Karp, explaining the meeting with Burke for the McRyan job. “Six? You told me three,” says Sally. “Yeah, well, three before and three after,” says Karp. Sally: “When were you going to tell me about the three after?” Monroe, we’re told in The Genius and the Goddess, “was a prostitute, in cars on shady side-streets, in return for small amounts of money to buy food,” just as Sally had to do paid sex work to survive; the most striking similarity is that Monroe, despite the very grim circumstances of her life, was able to exhibit a girlish, open-eyed, friendly attitude, and how much of that was affect beneath which the actual Marilyn was enwrapped is an open question. Nunally Johnson, a screenwriter and friend of Monroe would say that she was “generally something of a zombie. Talking to her is like talking to somebody underwater“, and this might be something like the exasperation people have with Sally, where you might ask, what part of you isn’t gauzy cotton candy?8

I don’t think I’ve ever had this complaint with the character, because Sally has always made perfect sense to me, someone who has been very badly hurt over and over again, and has made herself into a strange kind of creature, an unknowable amnesiac submissive, to avoid being hurt again. In her first scene after the drowning, Sally moves about drugged, finally so comatose she has to be pushed onto her bed. In her last scene, she’s dragged about in a tight grip by Burke. Manny gets her in the beds of men for divorce work. Jack pushes her into retrieving the film from Manny. Throughout the movie, she acquiesces to being a device in other plots, culminating in the last, which she finally resists, a victim in a series of killings. We might see in the three characters of Jack, Burke, and Sally, a trinity, with Jack the middle point. Burke is technically adept like Jack, able to tap into and re-wire the phone system much like the title character of Three Days of the Condor, yet he is a sociopath, a man entirely without any sense of the humanity of others. Jack does have this feeling, along with Burke’s precision and focus, yet when his obsession overtakes him, when he forces Sally to retrieve Karp’s film, he loses this empathy. Sally has none of the engineering gifts of these two men, but is far more compassionate, with a far greater sense of the feelings of others, and this makes her guilt ridden, and it compels her to forget, to sometimes act as if some things never took place. “Manny, we got him killed,” she says tearfully to Karp, about governor McRyan’s accident. “Don’t give me any of this conscience shit,” says Karp. “You’re a pig, Manny,” she says, “And I’m a pig too.” Though it’s never said openly, one reason why Sally connects with Jack, feels such sympathy for him, is that they both know what it’s like to be haunted by the past, a death they feel complicit in causing.

One can understand why Allen felt the rabbit’s foot so crucial, because this is a character, whatever her outward circumstances, who somehow remains wide eyed and optimistic. She believes that luck will guide her to a better life, and this is the same magical thinking cure of most Hollywood movies, that we needn’t worry, that things will somehow turn out for the best in the end. The rabbit’s foot will protect Sally’s life, and Jack Terry will somehow prevail, save her, and become a hero by uncovering an American coup, and in another movie we can easily imagine this happy ending. But not this one. The one detail that Allen misremembers is that the rabbit’s foot was not a hidden talisman serving as just a helpful lodestone to the actress visible only in one scene – it is prominently displayed throughout the movie, another example of De Palma effectively using the visual, clothing and props, to convey a character well. Sally is wearing the rabbit’s foot when she dies:

I see Sally as someone like Marilyn Monroe, where we’re no longer sure where the artifice begins and ends, but I also see her as a play on the types we might see in the kind of exploitation movie that’s shown in the opening. Sally would be the squeaky voiced Bimbo, but rather than leave her as the flat expendable type of a low grade horror movie, she’s made into something complicated, a woman of kindness, suffering, and desperation. She’s accompanied by another possible type from the exploitation movie, the nameless hooker played by Deborah Everton, who in another movie would be a woman to be hated, the Bitch or Slut. Though we know almost nothing of this character, the performance makes this character into something other than a flat type as well, a woman who has to put up with lousy, tiresome, nasty work for her pay. She can turn on a charming, luminescent face and turn it off on a dime, which aren’t simply the skillset of a hooker, but the basic necessity of anyone in the service industry, whether you’re a waiter, counter person, barista, or tech support, with the demand that you remain friendly towards the customer putting you on the edge of hating the customer as well. The hooker gives a beaming smile to Burke, then with a quick turn it fades off, the fade out accompanied by the clank of the telephone door. The friendliness is machine like, just as working in the service industry is like an unending lesson in how to be a friendly machine, and you have to be a friendly machine because you have no other choice. “You need the money that bad?,” Jack asks Sally about her extortion work. “C’mon, you know where I work,” she replies. “I get paid to smile my ass off and show the twenty seven colored lipsticks they’re pushing. You know how much I make? Shit is what I make.”

Rather than hating this prostitute for the coldness you need to make it through the day doing certain kinds of work, we empathize with her. Any hatred for this character, who might be the nasty Bitch the audience is supposed to hiss at in another movie, does not emanate from anyone sympathetic who we might connect with, but the lunatic serial killer Burke, who stares after her with cold loathing. We’re briefly given something of this perspective in Blonde, the fictional account of Marilyn Monroe’s life by Joyce Carol Oates, when it enters the mind of the photographer who shoots Monroe’s calendar. “Shooting a girl’s ruined face and her breasts jiggling and her ass and she’s young-looking as a kid stuffed into a woman’s body, innocent like something you’d want to smudge with your thumb just to dirty up.” These women move from exploitation types where their killings would be simply a dramatic musical cue and gore, blood dripping over bare tits, say, to a place where their deaths have a tragic weight, where the audience resists the possibility that Sally might die. The women have a sorrowful end, but the movie does not smudge them with its thumb. After Sally’s death, she is reduced back to something inhuman again, a mere sound effect, an accompaniment for a horror movie’s routine, expected death that means nothing. Her last breath on earth is now a small useful element, like gristle or copper residue, left over from one industrial process that can be re-used in another, in this case the manufacture of low cost nudie slashers. We are given a horror movie where the victims are more substantial than we expect them to be. We get the deaths promised in the film’s mock opening, and at the same time, not what we wanted at all.

As always in De Palma, there is voyeurism. If voyeurism is an activity where we, the observers, are allowed the excitements of sex and violence without cost or involvement, then movies might be thought an ideal expression of this form, the same privilege as in real life, but where the observed activities will play out exactly as we wish – the man or woman will take off their clothes until they’re fully naked, the hero will wreak cruel vengeance, the woman in peril will be saved. All three of these describe vicarious fantasies of De Palma’s movies, and in all three movies, the fantasies are subverted. Dressed to Kill provides us sexual voyeurism, where Nancy Allen’s Liz strips down to her bra and panties, then turns on a lunatic killer by describing her fantasy of submitting to sex at knifepoint. We are then given a near recreation of this same fantasy, with Liz first showering nude when the same lunatic killer enters the house, and then Liz in a state of helpless and abject terror before her throat is cut. The very thrills that turn on the deranged killer are there to turn us on as well. We are given a titillating close-up of an unconscious nurse unzipped of her uniform, the kind of chest bursting outfit only found in exploitation movies and porno, before we shift perspective to see who is peeking on this erotic vision, and we see whose eyes we share, those of the masturbating grotesques of the asylum. The director plays the same trick on us as we gawk at a sapphic pairing in The Black Dahlia before we cut to the voyeur, another crippled grotesque, and, of course, the beginning of Blow Out, where we peek on co-eds in panties, bra, or less, and we are revealed in the mirror as one more deformed, moronic lunatic.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

The Fury is about a young man gifted with telekinesis who is programmed to hate the arabs he is told murdered his father, and his perspective becomes so distorted that he lashes out with rage and kills some Saudi sheiks visiting the United States. He is presented to us as a damaged sociopath, but when the movie’s other telekinetic character, who throughout has always been afraid of the destructiveness of her powers, finally unleashes her abilities to annihilate her enemy, it is our catharsis. The images that shape the sociopath of the movie shape us as well9.

Though Sally does sex work, like Liz in Dressed to Kill, at no point is the idea of sexual fantasy played with. Though Sally is a beautiful woman, the movie’s perspective is distinctly unerotic. Here, I think one might mention one last trait of Sally which she shares with Marilyn Monroe, and this is why Sally is the center of a fantasy, but not a sexual one. What recurs in every account and biography of Monroe’s life was her extraordinary vulnerability, a reaching out for a love that would save her. This, I think, is part of the fantasy of Monroe after her death, that you might be this man – if only she’d known you! – whose love would be subtle and tender enough to rescue her from the claws and rusty nails of this wretched life. There is the similar fantasy of the end of Blow Out, a vulnerable child-like woman unable to fend for herself who will be rescued by the hero, the hero a proxy of ourselves, redeeming everything in his life that has gone before. The Fury and Dressed to Kill foil the audience’s desires implicitly, you are given what you want, but you are likened to a monster. Blow Out is explicit, the fantasy is destroyed. The woman in trouble dies.

AMERICAN LIGHTNING / MEMORIES OF THE U.S.A. / THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION

As already said, the characters of Blow Out, people without college educations, people who would be considered part of that vague and stigmatized grouping, “working class”, are often placed on the fringes and the bottom tier roles of American movie life, the top roles reserved for executives, lawyers, doctors, and other members of the professional class, and the Philadelphia they live in is a visual reflection of this. What we see of the city is squalid and dirty, with an underlying current of despair and exhaustion, a sense perhaps of a partly abandoned city, a chunk of the population having already left for the outlying suburbs. We are given unflashy, unvarnished grit, a place of greys and faded light all the while the bright divisions familiar to all, of the American (and French) tricolor recur again and again, standing out in this stark landscape, before becoming the light that overcoats the tragic night scene at the liberty bell.

The color theme begins with the joke opening. The dancers in red and white negligées, the blue light behind them. Blow Out is a serious movie, but not self-importantly serious, and this scene contains one of my favorite lines in a De Palma movie for its beautiful delivery, “Oh, go to Sue. Fuck off.”:

The dominant red of the room in which the couple have sex. Red, obviously, is a good color to associate with sex. The main part of Blow Out is a movie without erotic sex (does anyone consider the blow job in the train station to be erotic?) and the only time this strong, overwhelming red recurs is in episodes of violence. The red of Manny Karp’s room when he forces himself on Sally, and is then knocked out by a beer bottle, the red light of the construction site where the first woman is killed, and the red light of the tower where Sally dies.

The red, white, and blue seen very briefly in one of the passing students:

The opening ends abruptly and we are in the screening room. Jack is in a blue shirt, there are the red curtains, and the man running the console wears white.

Small hints of the theme in the props of Jack’s office, the red white and blue of the schedule and the clock; the news with the liberty day logo and the newscaster in a tricolor outfit:

We leave the color scheme almost entirely in the pastoral setting of the accident, except for one element, the woman’s red coat:

During their first moments together after she’s recovered, Jack and Sally are in a setting which feels like a kind of purgatory, overwhelming white without any of the three colors:

This creates a striking contrast with the motel setting, where the colors come into play stronger than ever before. The cars in the parking lot bathed in red light from the motel insignia, which is a bell pattern in neon:

Burke changes the tire; blue coat, blue bag, red screwdriver, red wire cutters:

The red, white, and blue wallpaper of the motel room, the red, white, and blue bed settings, the blue drapes, the blue doors, the red phone, the red ashtray, the red chandeliers, Jack’s blue shirt, Sally’s white gown:

The red, white, and blue of the design on the door of the editing room where Jack puts together the edit of the accident photos and his sound recording:

The outside shot of Jack’s building as he finishes the edit of still photos and sound, red fire engine doors and red car, Jack works in a red shirt. Jack almost always wears combinations of red and blue:

There is the student of the opening that we briefly glimpse, in a red, white, and blue pattern, and the first victim who we follow for an extended period wears the very same tricolor mix, first spotted on an escalator where she is preceded by a crowd with prominent red and blue:

The two passing women who briefly obscure our gaze during this pursuit:

The red, white, and blue of the bus that blocks our view:

The red light that bathes the construction site, that shades Burke’s face, the tricolor pattern of the poster, which matches the pattern of the motel wallpaper, the red and blue of the victim’s sweater:

The red, white, and blue of the construction machines as we rise away from the building site:

With Mackey, Jack is now in all blue:

Jack goes to Manny Karp’s photo place, in red, shop with red dresses, passerby in blue:

At Manny Karp’s place, the red of the carpeting, the blue of the cop’s uniform, the whites of the photos. A sidenote: the pictures on the wall and the wallpaper make clear that the motel room at the beginning is in the same motel, perhaps the same room, where Sally and Manny do their divorce work:

Jack bullies Sally into getting the photos back from Manny, he’s in blue, she’s in red:

The overwhelming red of Manny Karp’s place:

Jack at the scream auditions, all blue, red curtains, the director in red:

The editing room when the tapes are erased, blue door, red extinguisher against white background:

Jack at home, red shirt, red cabinet, blue phone, white wall:

Jack and Sally speak on the phone, red shirt for Jack, white housecoat with blue trim and blue phone for Sally:

The red, white, and blue of the prostitute and the sailor in the train station:

The woman alone now in the phone booth:

Red dress, blue toothbrush, white bristles:

Sally in the train station; strong reds in this movie are associated with violence, and a group of children cross the station floor, the chain of red foreshadowing her doom:

Jack realizes something is wrong, red shirt and blue outfit:

As the chase begins, blue jeep and red car in the parking lot:

The tricolor of the parade members is obvious. The crowd sequence flooded with red and blue light should be well remembered by anyone who has seen the movie, and the following is a brief overview. The obvious zenith is Sally in front of the American flag, followed by the soldiers in revolutionary garb ringing the bell:

After Sally’s death, we move to a snow covered landscape, a bookend to the white background of the hospital room where Jack and Sally first spoke. Jack is all in blue, and he wore a blue trenchcoat and blue tie when he discovered Freddie’s body:

The white backgrounds of the snow covered park and the hospital room are one bookend, the other is the camera traveling from the tree leaves, to Jack’s technical equipment, till we reach a close-up of Jack himself, which is a mirror of the sound engineer on his listening expedition. Then, we moved along the antenna, now we move along the earphone wire:

The liberty bell strangler was finally killed, red white and blue:

We revisit Sally’s death in this last scene, and so the dominant color is the red of the studio drapes:

The use of this motif goes beyond the simple purpose of dramatic movement from low volume to crescendo; that these colors, recognizably American colors, reach their full bloom in a tragic act of violence that takes place in the background of a patriotic ritual, suggest the contradictions of the American character, a fascination with violence while denying that such attraction exists, or that the violence one is attracted to is anything but righteous, and yet this ambivalent fascination is not entirely a bad thing: it provided a vital heart to American movies and literature for decades. The finale of Blow Out is horrifying, but it’s also bravura, brilliant film-making, it’s gorgeous. Blow Out opens with a couple having sex in a room filled with red, and when the same dominant red appears later, it’s always there when violence is about to take place. This is a movie about a country at a time when violence was considered more acceptable than sexual desire, but it’s also about two characters, Jack Terry and Burke, whose sexual energies are sublimated in their obsessions. Film-making is an obsession as well, and the rich blooming colors of the ending are a counterpoint to the tragedy, but they are also the bright lights of ecstasy, the obsession fulfilled of the film-maker.

On The Projection Booth‘s “Episode 140: Blow Out”, the movie’s upsetting terminus was discussed by both producer Fred Caruso and Nancy Allen, as well as the possibility of a happier coda.

This fragment runs approximately from 1:55:30 to 1:57:17 (audio is occasionally quirky here, but is entirely audible and coherent):

FRED CARUSO
Let me tell you about the end of the picture. I mean, the film was well-received, as a decent business, but there was always the question, “Should Nancy Allen have lived at the end?” When John Travolta goes to the hospital and sees her, should her eyes have opened, should they have kissed on the lips, the music comes up, and a happy ending at the end. Yes, he could still be the soundman, he could still go back to his laboratory, he could still hear all of that stuff…but rather than making it such a sad, sad ending, black veiled, black cloud over the picture, what should the real ending have been in the movie? That was a question the studio had, George Litto had, I had, Brian had, and then Brian of course, said, “Look, that’s the ending of my movie. That’s how I end my movie. If the audience likes it, fine. If the audience don’t like it, fine.” So, there’s always been a controversy as to would the picture have been more popular with an audience, and done more business, if, and also if you recall, the one sheet advertising that you saw in the newspaper and the front of the theater, was a picture of John Travolta, black and white, with a horror scream, his face looked like a horror scream, and it said Blow Out, which made that look like a horror movie. Rather than a suspense love story. That’s the question, which would have been better, which would have been the better way to do it. I don’t know. But that was always wandering in the background, even as the picture got released.

This fragment runs approximately from 2:23:00 to 2:24:30:

MIKE WHITE
I heard that there was a different ending to the film at one point.

NANCY ALLEN
A different ending? No, we, myself, [editor] Paul Hirsch, and…I forget who else, really lobbied to…once John got involved, and then you have the two of us together…my argument, well, Paul Hirsch said, “You can’t have- John Travolta can’t not save the girl.” (laughs) You can’t kill her. And people are going to love these two, and they’re going to hate you for doing this. My feeling was, she can die, but you have to really have to let them have that moment together, we have to feel that maybe there’s love, maybe there’s something, so people can really feel his loss. So, there was conversation. There was never a different ending. The only thing different, as I said earlier, there were no parades, there were no mummers’ parades, there were no fireworks, none of that existed, that was all developed to make it a bigger, more important picture, now that we had John in there. “Wait a minute, this is John Travolta,” you have to make- I believe it was George Litto who talked to Brian and said you know, we gotta do this, gotta make this bigger, so, that’s how that piece developed. But, Paul and I, whoever else was vying for a slightly different thing with John and I, we lost, John and Brian said, “NOPE,” it’s not happening. So, that’s what I remember.

The death of Sally does not strike me as capricious sadism, or arbitrary in any way, or anything other than organic to the material, a finale that feels necessary just as the death of Anna Karenina feels necessary, where one cannot imagine any other possibility that wouldn’t ring false, a betrayal of the story. The movie’s closing would have no tragic power if De Palma had contempt for this character, and killed her off because he wanted her to die. It has a tragic power because he, like the audience, wants this character to live, just as he wants Oanh of Casualties of War to live, and yet if these women were to survive, it would make everything that came before it meaningless. It would transform these movies into their antitheses, where none of the choices of the characters had any dramatic weight, because the very structure of the movie would ensure that these decisions would have no consequence, because events would always turn out for the best. What I’ve just described is a shared trait of most Hollywood movies now, and one which makes them, whatever the overdramatic stakes and whatever the portentous music, so entirely lacking in tension, for the simple fact that the game is rigged, and we are sure the heroes will end up in the proper winning square, whatever they’ve done beforehand on the playing board.

Though I know some have dismissed the last scene as a ludicrous twist, I can only see it as striking a very uncomfortable, uncannily truthful note. Jack Terry once used his skills for investigation, and he now uses them again for the purpose of perceiving more deeply. Sally Bedina is someone who forgets or pretends to forget the most difficult episodes of the past, and her gifts lie in concealment. Jack Terry is discouraged from looking deeper at a mysterious accident, and encouraged by the governor’s aide and the police to adopt something closer to the attitude of Sally, to stop remembering what’s so inconvenient. “We’d like you to forget about her, forget you ever saw her,” Lawrence Henry, the governor’s friend asks of Jack, speaking of Sally. “One playmate just vanishes from McRyan’s car, just like that?,” asks Jack. “That’s right,” says Henry. This kind of amnesia of historical events is often wrongly attributed as unique to the United States, when it very much isn’t, though it’s perhaps most striking in America because of its many virtues. It is an amnesia that perhaps began with its very birth, with the idea that no man or woman who was enslaved was truly human, and so this historical crime never actually took place. “Your past catching up with you?” someone asks a nervous Marilyn Monroe in Blonde. “I told you darling,” she replies. “I don’t have any past. ‘Marilyn’ was born yesterday.” There is a tradition, occasionally an American tradition, to cleave the horror from great tragedies to make something more palatable and profitable. In Gone With the Wind, the slaves are happy men and women who fight on behalf of their masters. M*A*S*H begins as a satire of the bloody absurdities of the Viet Nam war, and ended up an incredibly successful sitcom without any connection to the horrors of that war. The mass death and devastation of New York City is replayed as a background of colorful apocalypse in Man of Steel and Star Trek: Into Darkness. The horror of this last contains an extra frisson because it was connected to something very real, very upsetting, and now it is spliced into something without any such weight – and this splicing is exactly what Jack Terry does. He still has evidence of the conspiracy, having made a copy of the audio tape, and he could easily put it together with a series of photos again, since all that Frank Donahue ever wanted was just the audio tape. Jack Terry, however, has stopped investigating, and now he’s trying to do what Sally does, which is to just forget.

Jack Terry is involved in image-making, and throughout the movie, we are shown images made that turn out to be misleading, wrong, false, or exploitive, the surface horror of the viscera, rather than the squalid horrors of Sally’s life. “When these policies are carried out, and the economic climate improves, as we expect it will…the people will rally to support the president, in the upcoming primaries,” says campaign manager Jack Matters on TV in the opening. “A lot can happen between now and then.” The “lot that can happen,” which the TV doesn’t reveal has nothing to do with the policies, but the photos of Sally with McRyan. We are told on TV that the first woman is the victim of a ritual sex slaying, when we know her death is part of a cover-up plot. The movie ends with the news telling us that Burke was finally killed by Sally, when we know it was Jack. Neither Jack nor Sally are ever mentioned as being anywhere near the accident site. The news is misleading, or it is callously opportunistic. “EXCLUSIVE! PHOTOS OF MCRYAN’S DEATH!” blares the newsstand ad for the magazine with the pictures that Jack edits together, and the PHOTOS OF MCRYAN’S DEATH! have nothing to do with any larger investigation of the accident, but blood, guts, corpses. Jack works on movies that are horror and death as entertainment, and the newspapers are in the same business as well.

Jack Terry returns to cheapie horror, where blood, and death, and killing, disconnected from anything is acceptable. In this, he might also be tracing the very arc of his creator, who started out as a political film-maker before becoming very successful making thrillers, and would always arouse revulsion when he moved back into anything political. A movie about a sex criminal like Dressed to Kill or a fictionalized account of a crime fighting squad like The Untouchables is just a fun night at the movies. To make a movie about sex criminals in an actual historical context, with a very real individual fighting for justice in Casualties of War is to touch a third rail that everyone wishes did not exist. The problem with Jack Terry isn’t that he’s so emotionally destroyed that he uses a tragedy for its necrokineticism to give a cruel flourish of an exclamation mark to a terrible movie’s scary moment, because this kind of exploitation is commonplace and expected. The problem is that Jack Terry just can’t forget.

(On March 25th, 2014, some exact quotes were added, specific livelier substitutes in place of generalizations; no meanings were altered. Some new images were added as well, such as the comparison of the houses of Jack and Sally, as well as the text on the pointing fingers of Jack and the cop. The section on the hooker played by Deborah Everton was added as well. On March 26th, some small fixes were made, footnote #3 about Mackey in the flashback and the comparison of the personality types of Sally, Jack, and Burke was added. On March 28th, the text was again edited for various aesthetic fixes, and small issues of grammar. No new material was added on that date. On April 14th, 2014, the excerpt from Hunter Thompson’s The Great Shark Hunt was added to the footnote on John McLaughlin.)

(All images from Blow Out copyright Orion Pictures. Images from All the President’s Men copyright Warner Bros. Images from Dressed To Kill copyright Filmways and associated producers. Images from Mission: Impossible and The Fury copyright Paramount Pictures. Images from The Black Dahlia copyright Universal Pictures.)

FOOTNOTES

1 This subhead, as well as the part of the later subhead, “I am of both your directions”, is taken from the stanzas of a poem by Marilyn Monroe, excerpted in Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe by Anthony Summers:

Life -
I am of both your directions
Existing more with the old frost
Strong as a cobweb in the wind
Hanging downward the most
Somehow remaining
those beaded rays have the colors
I’ve seen in paintings – ah life
they have cheated you…
thinner than a cobweb’s thread
sheerer than any-
but it did attach itself
and held fast in strong winds
and singed by leaping hot fires
life – of which at singular times
I am both of your directions-
somehow I remain hanging downward
the most
as both of your directions pull me.

2 The King Commission is an obvious substitute for the real life Knapp Commission (the wikipedia entry, “Knapp Commission”), which arose after Frank Serpico would testify to corruption in the NYPD. A number of movies feature the Knapp Commission, or an obvious stand-in, in their plots, including The Pope of Greenwich Village and Prince of the City. De Palma would spend many years developing Prince before it was taken away, to be directed eventually by Sidney Lumet.

In her interview on The Projection Booth, “Episode 140: Blow Out”, Nancy Allen would explain the connection between Prince, Blow Out, and the King Commission scene, fragment runs from 2:28:00 to 2:28:55:

MIKE WHITE
That flashback, with Travolta, to that moment where the cop got killed, just adds so much to our understanding of him.

NANCY ALLEN
Oh yeah. It really does. And that was Brian’s opportunity, that was his wink and nod to Prince of the City, which he was originally supposed to direct. So, I don’t know if you’re familiar with that story, Prince of the City? About the corrupt cop. Well, he spent a lot of time developing it, he spent a lot of time with that cop, so I think this was Brian’s way of saying, well, you took the movie away from me, but I’m going to put a little bit of it in here anyhow. So, it served a good purpose, it exorcised those feelings for him, but I also think it served the character very well.

3 The further twist to this suspicion is that Mackey was there when things went very wrong at the taping of the undercover cop. When they’re prepping him, Jack very clearly says, “Mackey, hand me the tape.” No doubt Jack always considers the possibility that the whole incident might have been a case of internal sabotage to destroy the commission.

4 From the lecture “Jorge Luis Borges – The Metaphor [Conference]“ (youtube link):

Since I spoke of “as old as time,” I must quote another verse, a verse that is perhaps bubbling up in your memory. I can’t recall the name of the author, I know it quoted in Kipling in a not too memorable book of his, From Sea to Sea. “A rose red city / Half as old as time”. Had the poet written “A rose red city / As old as time,” he would have written nothing at all. But half as old as time, gives it a kind of magic precision.

5 An article from the time when this tape was first released is “Tapes Show Nixon Ordering Theft of Files” (author unlisted):

Recently released audiotapes capture President Richard M. Nixon ordering his top aide, a year before the Watergate burglary, to break into the Brookings Institution and steal its files on Vietnam, The San Francisco Examiner reported today.

The newspaper quoted from a conversation between Nixon and his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, part of 201 hours of private tapes released this week by the National Archives.

During a conversation on June 30, 1971, in the Oval Office, Mr. Nixon asked Mr. Haldeman to take the institution’s files relating to the Vietnam War, the Examiner said.

According to a partial transcript provided by the newspaper, Mr. Nixon said to Mr. Haldeman: “The way I want that handled, Bob, is through another way. I want Brooking — just to break in. Break in and take it out! You understand?”

A transcript of a meeting from Stanley Kutler’s Abuse of Power, where breaking into the Institute was discussed:

JUNE 17, 1971, THE PRESIDENT, HALDEMAN, EHRLICHMAN, AND KISSINGER, 5:17-6:13 P.M., OVAL OFFICE

A few days after the publication of the Pentagon Papers, Nixon discusses how to exploit the situation to his advantage. He is interested in embarrassing the Johnson Administration on the bombing halt, for example. Here, he wants a break-in at the Brookings Institution, a centrist Washington think tank, to find classified documents that might be in the Brookings safe.

HALDEMAN
You maybe can blackmail [Lyndon B.] Johnson on this stuff [Pentagon Papers].

NIXON
What?

HALDEMAN
You can blackmail Johnson on this stuff and it might be worth doing…The bombing halt stuff is all in that same file or in some of the same hands…

NIXON
Do we have it? I’ve asked for it. You said you didn’t have it.

HALDEMAN
We can’t find it.

KISSINGER
We have nothing here, Mr. President.

NIXON
Well, damnit, I asked for that because I need it.

KISSINGER
But Bob and I have been trying to put the damn thing together.

HALDEMAN
We have a basic history in constructing our own, but there is a file on it.

NIXON
Where?

HALDEMAN
[Presidential aide Tom Charles] Huston swears to God there’s a file on it and it’s at Brookings [Institution, a centrist Washington "think tank"].

NIXON
…Bob? Bob? Now do you remember Huston’s plan [for White House-sponsored break-ins as part of domestic counter-intelligence operations]? Implement it.

KISSINGER
…Now Brookings has no right to have classified documents.

PRESIDENT NIXON
…I want it implemented…Goddamnit, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.

HALDEMAN
They may well have cleaned them by now, but this thing, you need to-

KISSINGER
I wouldn’t be surprised if Brookings had the files.

HALDEMAN
My point is Johnson knows that those files are around. He doesn’t know for sure that we don’t have them around.

6 The dialogue from the movie is my own transcript, as it is a little different from the script which can be found here. The speech by Waltzer is whole and uninterrupted in the screenplay, but the themes are the same:

SENATOR WALTZER

I’ll go you one further. I say the CIA and all its shadow organizations have become irrelevant at best and unconstitutional at worst. It’s time we throw a little light on the whole concept of the Pentagon’s “black budget.” These covert agency subgroups have confidential funding, they report to no one — who are these people?! We were living in a democracy the last time I checked.

7 A photo of McLaughlin and Nixon, taken from “John McLaughlin (host) – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia”:

From “Jesuitical Defense is given for Nixon” by Philip Nobile, an interview with McLaughlin from the time of Watergate:

Only one White House staffer would dare say that – compared with some ecclesiastical skeletons, Watergate is like the “peccadilloes of novice nuns.” He is the Rev. John McLaughlin, a Jesuit priest and presidential speechwriter. Although Father McLaughlin once ran for the U.S. Senate as a liberal Republican peace candidate, he now is a member of Richard Nixon’s church. The dictionary defines “Jesuitical” as “crafty, cunning, equivocal. Father McLaughlin is certainly all that in defense of the President. I have never heard a more benevolent explanation of the Watergate mess. Charity begins at home but McLaughlin abuses the virtue by whitewashing the entire affair.

Q. Aren’t you uncomfortable serving Richard Nixon in these times?

A. No. I believe the President is morally innocent in the developing events.

Q. You mean the President is without sin himself?

A. The most he can be charged with is holding too loose a rein on subordinates but the price of holding tighter would probably have meant forsaking singular and important initiatives, both foreign and domestic, which I would not have wanted to see him do.

Q. Why are you so convinced of Richard Nixon’s innocence? Despite everything that has been revealed so far, how can you still believe he has committed no wrong?

A. I know from the President’s demeanor, his habitual thinking regarding matters of ethical significance, his deference to people, his determination to leave lesser details to others and others to keep these details from him – the confluence of these factors leads me to that conclusion of the President’s innocence.

Q. If you were a betting man, would you wager that the President will serve out his term?

A. I certainly would.

McLaughlin also makes a brief, but memorable, appearance in Hunter S. Thompson’s The Great Shark Hunt:

At that point in time, most of Nixon’s traditional allies were beginning to hear the death shrieks of the banshee floating over the White House lawns at night, and even Billy Graham had deserted him. So Clawson [White House Communications Director Ken Clawson], in a stroke of cheap genius, put a sybaritic Jesuit priest and a mentally retarded rabbi on the payroll and sent them forth to do battle with the forces of Evil.

Father John McLaughlin, the Jesuit, wallowed joyfully in his role as “Nixon’s priest” for a month or so, but his star faded fast when it was learned he was pulling down more than $25,000 a year for his efforts and living in a luxury apartment at the Watergate. His superiors in the church were horrified, but McLaughlin gave them the back of his hand and, instead, merely cranked up his speechmaking act. In the end, however, not even Clawson could live with the insistent rumor that the Good Jesuit Father was planning to marry his girlfriend. This was too much, they say, for the rigid sensibilities of General Haig, the White House chief of staff, whose brother was a legitimate priest in Baltimore. McLaughlin disappeared very suddenly, after six giddy weeks on the national stage, and nothing has been heard of him since.

But Clawson was ready for that. No sooner had the priest been deep-sixed than he unveiled another, holy man — the Rabbi Baruch Korff, a genuine dingbat with barely enough sense to tie his own shoes, but who eagerly lent his name and his flaky presence to anything Clawson aimed him at. Under the banner of something called the “National Citizens’ Committee for Fairness to the President,” he “organized” rallies, dinner parties and press conferences all over the country. One of his main financial backers was Hamilton Fish Sr., a notorious fascist and the father of New York Congressman Hamilton Fish Jr., one of the Republican swing votes on the House Judiciary Committee who quietly voted for impeachment.

8 The excerpts from The Genius and The Goddess by Jeffrey Meyers:

The nude calendar that Mankiewicz mentioned originated in May 1949 when Marilyn was an obscure and occasionally impoverished model. Tom Kelley photographed her perfect body, a modern Venus, in several poses and paid her a modest $50. He sold the pictures for $500 to a company that put them on calendars, sold them throughout America and made a huge profit of $750,000. In the best photo Marilyn is shot sideways (to hide her pubic hair) and from a ladder ten feet above her. Her long wavy blond hair flows from her backtilted head and mingles with the blood-red waterfall of drapery beneath her.

It’s sadly ironic that Marilyn herself did not live to see the sexual revolution and suffered greatly for being its symbol. She’d experienced intense sexual pleasure with Jim Dougherty and with Fred Karger in the mid-1940s; but by the 1950s, under the stress of promiscuous sex and stardom, she’d become frigid. In the late 1940s, when she was modeling and trying to break into movies, she rarely had natural and spontaneous sex. Instead, she was a prostitute, in cars on shady side-streets, in return for small amounts of money to buy food. It’s astonishing – after all her acting lessons and her brief appearances in movies – that she would not only sell her body for the price of a meal, but would also risk humiliation and shame, predatory pimps and police, robbery and beating, sadism and sodomy, venereal disease and pregnancy.

Employing a metaphor that colleagues often used to describe the frequently remote, self-absorbed and almost somnambulistic Marilyn, the screenwriter and producer of the movie, Nunnally Johnson, said Marilyn “is generally something of a zombie. Talking to her is like talking to somebody underwater. She’s very honest and ambitious and is either studying her lines or her face during all of her working hours, and there is nothing whatever to be said against her, but she’s not material for warm friendship.” Johnson also felt she was as unresponsive as “a sloth. You stick a pin in her and eight days later she says ‘Ouch.'” Despite Marilyn’s difficulties, this first Cinemascope picture was a great success and grossed five times its lavish budget of $2.5 million.

9 The Fury and Dressed to Kill are discussed in greater depth on this site in “Brian De Palma’s The Fury, Or: Hollywoodland” and “Brian De Palma’s Dressed To Kill, Or: Two Women”. The Black Dahlia is discussed at very, very great length in a five part series of posts: one, two, three, four, five.

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Brian De Palma’s Passion and Alain Corneau’s Love Crime: A Brief Style Comparison Part Two

(This post is the second of two appendices to the post, “Brian De Palma’s Passion, or: Le Gaspard de la Nuit”, an attempt at an analysis of that movie. What follows contains major SPOILERS for both Passion and Love Crime. The first appendix is “Brian De Palma’s Passion and Alain Corneau’s Love Crime: A Brief Style Comparison Part One”)

I’ve chosen the material for these comparisons because there is nothing inherently visual to it, nothing like a gunfight or a chase, making it very suitable for examining how one can take material that has the potential to be static or turgid, and make it dynamic. In both of these examples, characters are talking almost the entire time, the focus on the dialogue itself, and though the technique shown in Passion animates the material, at no time does it distract from it. The movement of the camera from an open space to a close-up of Dirk in the first example embodies the character’s freedom slowly slipping away as the evidence mounts that he defrauded the company and killed Christine, ending in his arrest. The technique is an extension of the material, not a betrayal of it.

The segment examined in this appendix – Christine revealing to Dirk that she knows of his fraud, Isabelle trying to contact Dirk, and Dirk then breaking up with Isabelle in the elevator – is ideal for comparison because in terms of the actual material, it is almost entirely the same in both movies – the only major differences are that the man Love Crime‘s triangle is named Phillippe, rather than Dirk, and the difference in Isabelle’s devoted assistant, Daniel in Crime and Dani in Passion. De Palma makes one smart, obvious change to make it more vibrant: he intercuts Christine and Dirk’s confrontation with that of Isabelle messaging Dirk. Dani is more passionate than Daniel, and so the viewer can see an interesting contrast in Isabelle’s disconnect with her outburst, as her thoughts remain centered on Dirk, and her concentration on Dirk’s own outburst. In the conference room, De Palma emphasizes Christine’s power visually, a head of rich blonde hair against a bright red blouse, and the sharp bladed metal cross, the red echoed in the corporate name in the boardroom. Christine embodies the corporation: she is all-powerful, she is gorgeous, she is frightening, she is lethal; the obvious and immediate forcus of the room.

Both movies use the confined space of the elevator to convey Dirk and Phillippe’s lack of choices. Passion, however, emphasizes the effect by having Dirk move quickly through a wide open space before he reaches this small confined space. In the middle of Isabelle and Dirk’s argument, a group of other employees get on, their banal conversation having nothing like the passionate intensity of this couple, another effective juxtaposition, a reminder of the happy, untroubled life they once had. De Palma is often indicted as someone who focuses more on camerawork than his actors, yet this sequence works because the characters in the elevator scene, and the actors playing them, are more nuanced. Where Crime keeps the camera at the same angle for the whole scene, in Passion we move to intimate close-ups after the other employees leave, the intensity of the argument made greater by the proximity. Dirk’s angry reaction to Isabelle isn’t simply frustration at how Christine has treated him, it is an attempt by him to feel some power in this moment of powerlessness by dominating this woman. We see in Isabelle that she wants to help Dirk, that she feels something great for this man, something more sincere than what she feels for Christine, and yet when he turns on her, Isabelle’s reaction here is nowhere as static as the Isabelle of Love Crime. We see in Isabelle’s face her holding back her anger at the way Dirk is treating her, and we also see something else in her close up: how rare it is that she opens up to anyone (Christine: “I mean, we’ve been working together, what, eight months, and I don’t even know where you’re from”), and what a rare chance it was that she opened herself up to this man. We might guess from her reaction at the end of the scene that she avoids doing so because of moments like this, and we might guess that she has been hurt very badly in the past, and never wants it to happen again.

The accompanying dialogue is in the subtitles.

LOVE CRIME:

PASSION:

Isabelle takes off Christine’s gift and throws it to the ground:

As Dirk passes this corridor, Isabelle emerges and follows him to the elevator:

(All images from the movie Passion copyright SBS Productions, Integral Film, France 2 Cinéma, and associated producers; images from the movie Love Crime copyright SBS Films, France 2 Cinéma, Divali Films, and associated producers.)

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Brian De Palma’s Passion and Alain Corneau’s Love Crime: A Brief Style Comparison Part One

(This post is an appendix to the post, “Brian De Palma’s Passion, or: Le Gaspard de la Nuit”, an attempt at an analysis of that movie. A second appendix, making another comparison between the way both movies storytell one moment, is “Brian De Palma’s Passion and Alain Corneau’s Love Crime: A Brief Style Comparison Part Two”. What follows contains major SPOILERS for both Passion and Love Crime.)

This appendix attempts to look at how Love Crime and Passion handle a piece of plot exposition to isolate the approach of Brian De Palma in conveying the same material, or more roughly speaking, the same information, in a manner that is both more visually dynamic, and more succinct. Though I give some introduction, it is ultimately superfluous, as the contrast should be obvious to any viewer. I give an example that is not inherently kinetic, is arguably anti-kintic, where the visual dynamism can be attributed to the style itself.

In this moment, Christine’s ex-boyfriend, Philippe (Patrick Mille) in Love Crime and Dirk (Paul Anderson) in Passion, are arrested for the murder of Christine after a blood stained scarf is found in their car. Crime gives us the information over three scenes, including a flashback where we see Isabelle actually place the scarf on the ride home. Passion makes this into a much shorter moment, part of Dani’s revelations, with Isabelle placing the scarf in Dirk’s car after he crashes it and crawls out drunk – the business of Dirk being drunk allows for this piece of exposition to much more compact. This revelation also comes only after this scene, so we’re unsure if Dirk is even guilty or not of the crime. The rest of the exposition for this moment is done all in one scene, in a single, elegant shot that moves from Dirk being informed of the possibility of his arrest, to the search of the car, the finding of the scarf, and his arrest. The camerawork alone is not sufficient for this to work, and at each moment there is something that an actor does, such as the police inspector showing Dirk the warrant, then folding it up when the man reaches for it. Though the camerawork is fluid, lyrical, at no point does any one act in this scene in a way that we might take to be unrealistic. That it is all done in one shot makes the dramatic movement all the more powerful, from the wide open shot of a prosperous executive on his way to work, to a close-up of a man under arrest, and with damning evidence against him, for murder.

All four parts, the two in each movie, are all well-cast, enough of a visual subject for the camera to rest on them. However, I think a very smart move was made in having someone like Paul Anderson play the part of the executive Dirk, for the simple reason that he doesn’t look like an executive, as Patrick Mille does – one could imagine Anderson playing a revolutionary or poet without difficulty. This is something very different from mis-casting; at no point do we doubt Anderson in the role. Instead, there is a tension from the appearance of the person and the expected look of someone in the profession, something we encounter in our own lives – “it’s funny, x doesn’t look at like a fireman, doctor, etc.” This tension, Dirk’s background, is never resolved, and it is unnecessary to resolve it – the tension itself makes the character that much more compelling.

The accompanying dialogue is in the subtitles.

LOVE CRIME:

There is then a cut to the camera panning back from the car, in the midst of being searched:

Cut to the scarf being discovered:

Cut back to Phillippe and the inspector as they see the discovery, the policeman who made the find bringing the scarf over, while another policeman gets in place behind in order to handcuff him:

A close-up of the hand-cuffing:

We then cut to the flashback, when Isabelle planted the scarf. Each image has a cut in between:

We now have the voiceover of the inspector, explaining to Phillippe what he thinks he tried to do, and we cut to an angle to the right of Isabelle:

We cut back to a point to Isabelle’s left:

Back to the profile shot:

We cut back to the garage; Phillippe insists he’s innocent:

The inspector replies:

Alternating angles for the conversation:

A new angle for Phillippe taken away:

A cut then to the prosecutor’s office, with Isabelle and her lawyer, after she has been freed:

Cut to Elizabeth:

Prosecutor close-up:

The scene here continues on, but this roughly captures all that is conveyed in comparison scene in the re-make.

PASSION:

This scene will have no annotations, as it is a single shot where the camera moves from one point of action to another, without any cuts, with the close-up on Dirk ending in a dissolve.

(All images from the movie Passion copyright SBS Productions, Integral Film, France 2 Cinéma, and associated producers; images from the movie Love Crime copyright SBS Films, France 2 Cinéma, Divali Films, and associated producers.)

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Brian De Palma’s Passion, Or: Le Gaspard de la Nuit

(An explanation of the title of this post, a reference which I think is fitting both for this movie and its maker, can be found at, sigh, wikipedia. A good rendition of the pieces, by Ivo Pogorelich, can be found on youtube: part one, part two, part three. For those who find the subheading too pretentious might prefer the alternative, “Brian De Palma’s Passion, or: Planet Ice”, a title which I felt suited the cold machinations of the film, but one that I ultimately found too banal. What follows contains SPOILERS for Passion, Love Crime, and The Black Dahlia. It is not a review, but an attempt an in-depth examination of Passion, and therefore assumes that the reader has seen the movie, and makes no attempt to explain the plot. Two appendices to this post, going over the different approaches by Passion and Love Crime in their storytelling are “Brian De Palma’s Passion and Alain Corneau’s Love Crime: A Brief Style Comparison Part One” and “Brian De Palma’s Passion and Alain Corneau’s Love Crime: A Brief Style Comparison Part Two”. On September 16th, 2013, De Palma a la Mod put up a link and recommendation of this post. Those familiar with the site know it to be the preeminent source for all things De Palma. Those unfamiliar with it are missing out. I am deeply grateful for the kind gesture.)

In his last feature film, Brian De Palma took someone else’s material, James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia, and gave it a subtle re-working: though the book’s external structure remained, the story was transformed into a hidden network of sex, with Lee Blanchard wanting Bleichert, Blanchard’s wife, Kay Lake wanting Bleichert, and Bleichert wanting both. The movie’s revelation was Bleichert staring across at Madeleine Linscott and realizing that she was his double, a woman who acted on all her desires, sleeping with whoever she wanted, while Bleichert kept his passions hidden. The film was a new genre, an unerotic thriller, where sexual desire imprisoned you, and Dahlia ended with Bleichert glumly returning to the house where we see a slice of Kay Lake’s mouth, a detainee of the seraglio1. Passion feels like a companion piece, a movie that takes an existing work, Alain Corneau’s Love Crime (written by Corneau and Natalie Carter), and gives the characters’ motives an explicit sexual quality that was only occasionally implied in the first film. It is another in the genre of unerotic thriller: sex not as sex, but sex always as an expression of power. Where Dahlia was overwhelmed by its own poison, Passion has an energy the other lacks. Whatever their cruelties and misdeeds, we identify with Isabelle, and we are enraptured by Christine, and for the film to work we must have these connections. The movie’s energy is essential for what might be the its secondary purpose; De Palma has acknowledged that this is the dusktime of his career2, and given that Passion is often a scene-by-scene by re-make of Love Crime, it might be seen as an instruction kit to future film students, a legacy more helpful than anything De Palma might say in an interview: look, this is how you take the same material and tell the story visually, with greater dynamism and economy.

Dahlia was a portrait of Hollywood written in venom; Passion is a portrait of the corporate state drawn in arsenic. I do not think the title is an idle one – it is most definitely a play on the eternal passion, The Passion, as in The Passion of the Christ, a ridiculing of the modern ideal of corporation as creed, corporate life as the new religion, the corporation as a new christianity. The company which Christine and Isabelle work for is Koch Image International, and the coincidence of the name with a villainous fraternity is not, I think, idle either3. The film is by an older man, yet it is a provocation on the order of Harmony Korine, undetected by viewers and critics: a corporate world re-telling of the Christ story. Christine’s name is a carryover from the original, but with a specific meaning: Christine.

Christine becomes a martyr, but she has also been a martyr in the past, somehow she is an eternal martyr. Her twin sister saved her own life:

CHRISTINE
When I was six years old, my parents bought me and my twin sister a bike…’cos we liked to share everything.

ISABELLE
You have a twin sister?

CHRISTINE
So we would take turns riding it to school. And Clarissa was so much better on the bike than I was. She could pedal standing up and, you know, ride no hands. So, one day, it was my turn and I was just so determined that I was…gonna show her I could be just as good as she could. I started pedaling faster and faster and she had to run like hell to keep up with me. And then I-I let go of the handlebars and I felt like I was flying. And it felt so good. I just wanted to see myself, so I-I looked…into the window and I caught my reflection. And then I-I don’t know what happened. I swerved into the street and…This truck was coming right at me. And then I suddenly felt my sister push me from behind out of the way and I flew over the handlebars. And the last thing I remember…was this horrible thunk.

When she gives this speech, she of course wears a cross, but one appropriate to a corporate god: we’re unsure if it is has any significance other than jewelry, and most importantly, it has a very sharp end, so sharp you could stab someone with it.

Christine has a disciple, but this disciple is a Judas, and gives her what is known as a Judas kiss:

Somehow, she rises from the dead after a few days:

In “Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill, or: Two Women” (under the section “The Woman In White, The Woman In Black”), I tried to give a brief overview of an under-discussed aspect of the director’s work, the way his women characters wear black and white clothing to play with the ideals of good and bad women; a woman wears white, but only in disguise, or the woman in black is actually the woman in white. Something a little different is done with the costumes of the three main women, an example of how character can be forcefully conveyed, visually, by costume. Passion is a re-telling of the christ story, but as a pagan tale. Christine starts out in the same mysterious gray as the title character of Femme Fatale before she takes on her new identity; then it becomes clear she is a sun god, and she is the only one to wear white outfits, then every color of the prism. She is a god of a materialist age as well, so she always wears jewelry, often ostentatious diamond pieces, and lives in a house with roman pornography and a Louis XV sofa.

Femme Fatale on plane

There is only one color she does not wear, and this appears in the shoes she wears in her resurrection. The death and return to life of the pagan god represented the cycle of the harvest, so of course the one missing color is the obvious one in a revived pagan god, a return to spring: green. She is a pagan god, but also a god of an uber consumer age, so the color of the resurrection shows up on pricey heels that Christine once loved:

Her disciple, Isabelle, occasionally wears dark olive, once a grey hoodie, but with two exceptions, otherwise always wears black, and visually, this carries more than any dialogue might. She is Christine’s disciple, and she is in Christine’s shadow, even after she dies. Isabelle is granted one piece of light in her dark costume, a white scarf from the sun god. There are two other times when she wears the color. Once is in relation to her mentor: when she takes over Christine’s role as Dirk’s bed partner, she has on a white shirt. The other is when she is indicted for murder and they search her house: her hands make a prayer form, she pleads with the detective to look for her scarf, all while she wears a white sweatshirt. The implication of purity here is false: she committed the murder. Isabelle is entirely shadow herself, cryptic to the audience and to Christine. The movie reprises the same trick as the original, having a beautiful actress, Ludivigne Sangier in Love Crime, and Noomi Rapace, now, convincingly play someone who thinks themselves awkward and unattractive: the dark clothes of Isabelle are those of a woman who wants to hide her own physical form. Isabelle is ambiguous internally but physically as well, a woman who often appears as androgynous, even wearing a dark tie in one scene. It also feels as if she changes height: at work, it feels as if she has the awkwardness of a tall woman towering over her colleagues, and yet in the scene when her house is searched after her arrest, it’s as if she is suddenly as small as a child.

All the qualities of Isabelle flow through her appearance and her gestures. In Love Crime, she had a constant deer eyed look – you weren’t sure for a while if she was mentally impared, or if she was thinking obsessively about something, way off, out of contact with her facial features. Passion‘s Isabelle is something different, a woman who appears entirely normal until you look straight at her, and there’s something of a protective emptiness there, the woman willing herself into something unreadable. She is described as a sphinx by Christine in the original Love Crime, but Passion drops the line as redundant. Christine has no idea where Isabelle is from, and she never learns. The Isabelle of the original had a sister to whom she was close, but this movie provides no such family details. Love Crime‘s Isabelle reveals that she wanted to be loved, but Passion‘s Isabelle doesn’t even give us that – she certainly feels something for Dirk and Christine but what exactly that feeling is, and how much it is tied up with material aspiration – she eats in an exclusive restaurant with Dirk, she clearly wants Chrisine’s house, her bonding moment with Christine involves her buying Isabelle expensive shoes – is left unresolved. All this mystery is helpful for making what takes place more believable, the audience having no idea quite what is beneath Isabelle’s opaque facade4. The mystery also makes Isabelle a useful instrument for the narrative, a protaganist of which we know nothing, and upon whom anyone in the audience can project themselves.

The limo dialogue in Passion, a crucial scene in both movies, the closest we get to an explicit explanation of the characters of Christine and Isabelle:

CHRISTINE
You’re very secretive, you know.

ISABELLE
Am I?

CHRISTINE
Yes. I mean, we’ve been working together, what, eight months, and I don’t even know where you’re from. Or what you want. What’d you want?

ISABELLE
I don’t know. What do you want?

CHRISTINE
Well, I used to want to be admired.

ISABELLE
I admire you.

CHRISTINE
Hmm. Well, now I want to be loved.

CHRISTINE gives ISABELLE a long kiss on the lips.

CHRISTINE
You need some color.

She applies lipstick to ISABELLE’s lips.

Isabelle, of course, stares out at the audience while Christine mentions how little she knows of her, as if we know something of Isabelle that the other woman does not – yet there is nothing in the look. We are in the same situation as Christine, our eyes meeting this woman, and we see nothing but a blank, either an emotional emptiness that is the outcome of an unknown cause, or a purposeful shield, whose cause, whether it be inborn or the result of some trauma, remains unknown.

The dialogue for the same scene in Love Crime:

CHRISTINE
I bet you were a secretive little girl.

ISABELLE
I don’t know. Maybe.

CHRISTINE
Sure. Like you are now. A real little sphinx. You know, I can read sphinxes’ minds.

ISABELLE
And what do you see?

CHRISTINE
You didn’t like yourself much.

ISABELLE
I wanted to be loved.

CHRISTINE
I wanted to be admired. It’s now I want to be loved. There’s a lipstick in my purse Try it. It’ll highlight your eyes.

ISABELLE applies the lipstick.

CHRISTINE
Perfect.

Love Crime portrayed Isabelle as transformed after the murder, into someone with gorgeous untamed hair and a confident frisk to her walk, but this makes Isabelle’s character more defined, more easy to understand, and no such hints are there with Passion‘s Isabelle – she remains a mystery to ourselves, as well as perhaps to herself. All the qualities we see in her before the murder are there afterwards, and her dress remains entirely the same.

Isabelle from Love Crime, the before and after obvious:

Isabelle from Passion, after she is freed, indistiguishable from before:

Isabelle’s own disciple, Dani, was a man in Love Crime, and is transformed into a beautiful woman in Passion. Isabelle might be considered a median between Christine and Dani, someone with a mix of the control, intelligence, and ambition of her mentor, and the animal spirit of Dani, the impulsive energy that drives her to murder. Dani has the stereotypical red hair of the passionate and hot-tempered, the figure and manner of a wood sylph or sprite. She speaks too loudly and too emotionally. Her jeans are always sensually tight. Where the clothes of Christine imply a regal power, Dani’s always signify something primal and anarchic. Her outfits are full of bright color, perhaps garish, perhaps a little louche. She is closest to an animal spirit, and she sports things with leopard spots. Her sensibility is chaotic, and she’s the only one to wear stripes.

IN DREAMS, END RESPONSIBILITIES / THE FUTURE OF THE ILLUSION

All of De Palma’s films deal with the psychology surrounding images, what we wish to see and why we wish to see it, and Passion is an examination of the theme done with the spare, effortless touch of a master. Christine and Isabelle must come up with a new ad campaign, and Isabelle’s successful proposal is Dani walking around in tight jeans with a camera in an ass pocket, the spectators captured as they gawk her. Dani is exploited for the purpose of the ad, but she is complicit in the exploitation. The spectators look at her for the most obvious reason, and the camera looks back at them looking. The shot that sets this up is Isabelle in mild costume, in sunglasses, and Dani’s earrings, her background a maze of dressing room mirrors, the viewer uncertain at first where the camera is or who is being watched – but of course this is shot as well from Dani’s back pocket.

Dani participates in this ad because of her love for Isabelle, though Isabelle is unaware of the strength of her feeling. Isabelle is simply playing when she refers to Dani as her girlfriend, yet this sequence isn’t just a fantasy for men, it is a fantasy for Dani as well, to truly play this part. That this put-on is real, that this is an actual amateur production, that people are truly caught unawares is the appeal of the ad – when the company wants to re-do the ad with professional actors, Isabelle circumvents them by uploading the original ad to youtube.

The company party featuring Isabelle’s humiliation on closed camera, the humiliation of all on various closed cameras, is a variation on the ad’s idea of being caught unaware, though you are not caught in the act of looking, you are simply caught – it is expected that you surrender your privacy in a corporate space. You are humiliated in pictures, and you must find it funny and nothing more. You must. You must comply, you must be a willing participant because the corporate god, Christine, wills you to be so. I have quoted Henri Bergson’s thesis from his Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, and I quote it again, because I think it properly captures what is behind Christine’s laughter at Isabelle’s humiliation in this scene:

Here I would point out, as a symptom equally worthy of notice, the ABSENCE OF FEELING which usually accompanies laughter. It seems as though the comic could not produce its disturbing effect unless it fell, so to say, on the surface of a soul that is thoroughly calm and unruffled. Indifference is its natural environment, for laughter has no greater foe than emotion. I do not mean that we could not laugh at a person who inspires us with pity, for instance, or even with affection, but in such a case we must, for the moment, put our affection out of court and impose silence upon our pity. In a society composed of pure intelligences there would probably be no more tears, though perhaps there would still be laughter; whereas highly emotional souls, in tune and unison with life, in whom every event would be sentimentally prolonged and re-echoed, would neither know nor understand laughter.

Discounting any empathy we might have with this person portrayed, there is something ridiculous, which provokes laughter, in the situation of a woman smashing her car into a pillar. We only have to ignore her weeping afterwards. This is a movie that takes the point one step further: there is something ridiculous, something which provokes laughter, in a spoiled, wealthy woman who expects to get laid and instead gets her throat slashed; we only have to ignore her murder. That it is Christine’s own ruthless sensibility and own ruthless sense of humor there in her own murder is conveyed by the mask worn by Isabelle – it is a mask that is a cast of Christine’s own face. Juliette Daniel, an actress in the infamous The Room makes clear why she doesn’t go to screenings of the movie where people often laugh at her, laugh at her during her love scenes: because the laughter hurts5. Christine’s murder is the same reply delivered with a knife: it hurts. Where Love Crime conveyed Isabelle’s reaction to her humiliation at the company party through a series of shots of her stricken, then possessed by a strange blankness6, Passion improves on this, by instead having Isabelle join in the laughter, but with a laugh that puts a chill in the viewer’s spine, a laugh that is shot through with madness. The scene is followed by an economic gesture which establishes myriad elements in one sweeping shot: Isabelle sits on a bench looking at the poster for “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn”, while ordering the pills from a doctor, the camera spinning around until it settles on her face, entirely opaque, surrounded by the green chaos of the trees, the leaves an indistinct, unfocused cluster that conveys the primal mess in her head, an inside that is cold and infintely fractured.

The relationship between Christine and Isabelle in the original is that of a mother and daughter, touched by a very subtle erotic note. With Passion, the erotic is made a major note, made explicit, and made unerotic. One wonders whether Christine feels any attraction for Isabelle at all; what one doesn’t question is that Christine gives Isabelle a deep kiss to demonstrate that it is within her power to do so. She gives this kiss for the same reason she “kidnaps” her, to play with this woman, to manipulate her. The movie makes clear that Christine has many lovers, that she’s sexually adventurous, but there’s no hint that she actually enjoys the exercise, in and of itself. In the one moment we see of her in the midst of sex, she tells Dirk to stop: she isn’t aroused at all. Here, Dirk wears a mask that is a cast of her own face – Christine’s sexual fantasy is sex with herself. For Isabelle, he great part about sex is the power you have over your partner. In a prelude to the act, a lover gives her a necklace while wearing a dog mask. Her drawer of novelties contains a strap-on, presumably to be worn with partners whether they be male or female. She humiliates Isabelle by watching her sex tape, and forcing Dirk to break up with her. She humiliates Dani by revealing that she knows she’s a lesbian, by kissing her against her will, by telling her that no one would believe Dani’s word against a corporate superior in a sexual harassment case. In this movie, sociopathy makes you a betrer corporate employee, and sex is an expression of your sociopathy. Domination expressed by sex is there in the judas kiss, in Dani’s blackmail of Isabelle, and in the murder scene.

This masterful sequence at the center of the film, one of De Palma’s finest, boils down the director’s obsesssions into a few short minutes and the sparest of gestures, featuring a version of “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn” where the dancers look out at us as we look at them, seemingly perceiving what we ourselves desire, what we expect in this sequence, just as the ass cam captures the spectators as they stare. The ballet is one aesthetics of movement, and the camera moving about Christine’s house is another. The dancers see us looking at them, but they also somehow see us as we play a role on the right side of the split screen, an intruder in this woman’s house. We are seen as observers of an artistic work, but something other than an artistic work, a fantasy of seeing Christine destroyed. As we move closer and closer to Christine’s murder, we are given a close-up of the female dancer on the left, a look that is unsettlingly both seeing and unseeing. “Afternoon of a Fawn” is an unmistakably sensual piece of music, and there is something equally sexual in the intrusion into Christine’s house. The camera enters her bedroom and captures her while she is getting dressed. She expects us, the visitor, to be a sexual partner. The killer might be Isabelle, but the killer is masked, and so the killer could be anyone, and the murder is filmed from the viewer’s perspective, so the killer is all of us. We look at her, while the killer’s hand holds her face with the forcefulness of a lover, and Christine looks back at us as if we are a lover, the dancer in turn looking at us as we play this role, but with the cool distance of the performer. Christine suddenly recognizes that the masked figure is Isabelle because of her eyes, the eyes incriminate her, and her face is overwhelmed with fear. This is a movie where sex is always in the service of power, and the sensuality of this sequence makes further sense in this context: it is a sex scene, without sex, exclusively about domination, this unattainable woman suddenly in our grasp, under the power of the viewer, caught in fear, and it ends with an ejaculation, her throat spurting with blood, blood which falls on us, the white mask of the killer7.

I think this sequence embodies the idea that movies are often a kind of mad fantasy in which we fall sway, one which we then leave for sanity. Sometimes the film involves a character engaging in violent retribution before order is restored, or a dream of obscene wealth before they return to normal, or only slightly wealthier, life. Here, we have a character, Christine, who is extraordinarily charismatic, for whom we can understand Isabelle’s attraction, yet who also has all the qualities of the archetypal villain. She has no details which might make her more human, rather than an ideal for veneration or hatred – the one personal story she tells about herself is completely made up. Where Bleichert in Dahlia was a blank allowing him to be the ideal proxy for vicarious erotic adventures, Isabelle is a blank who serves as a proxy victim. We wish to see Christine punished for what she did to Isabelle, punish her as a proxy for people who’ve humiliated us, the viewer, and yet we do not wish any guilt for doling out this punishment. In Love Crime, it is obvious from the outset that Isabelle is the killer. Here, it is left unclear, and Isabelle is at her most sympathetic in the scenes after her arrest, and we do not wish her to be guilty.

In Love Crime, we’re shown Isabelle transformed by Christine’s betrayal, and then changed again by her killing. The Isabelle of Passion, appears unchanged – the betrayals of Dirk and Elizabeth hurt her deeply, yet there is no sense that something in her character has been re-forged. Arguably, the same callousness that Christine shows is there in Isabelle. Christine is deeply manipulative, and Isabelle has no problem with being equally manipulative, though she does not quite have Christine’s skill at it – yet. A key line, not there in the original’s scene, comes at the business party. I bold it:

CHRISTINE
Well, you see that guy over there, the bald guy, with his nose in his drink?

ISABELLE
Yeah.

He’s a very big fish for our company. If you land him, you can run the account.

ISABELLE
Oh, I-I can’t. I’m not like you. I don’t know how to do this.

CHRISTINE
You’re more like me than you think.

Isabelle must attempt to seduce this man to get what she wants; she perhaps accedes to Christine’s kiss for this purpose as well. Christine is a woman who wants men to wear a mask of her own face when they have sex with her, she is in love with herself, and this is why she is drawn to Isabelle: because this woman is so much like her. In Love Crime, Christine tells Isabelle that she’ll force her to resign; Passion has Christine making the threat not to Isabelle, but to Dani. Despite all that has happened, she wants Isabelle to stay. It is Dani, the one of intemperate and passionate feeling, that she views as the malign influence. This makes sense because all the ill consequences of the movie arise when these people truly have feelings for each other, and the games they play have hurtful consequences, and cannot be laughed away. Isabelle is someone who keeps herself closed off to most people, so that when her openness to Dirk and Christine is abused, it is more devastating than they realize. Just as Christine is manipulative of Isabelle’s affection for her, taking it for granted that it will always be there, so Isabelle is aware of Dani’s devotion to her, and exploits it. What she does not know is the depth of that feeling. The underlying passion of each goes unacknowledged by the other, and for each it ends up destroying them.

That Isabelle knows Dani is in her power, and that she assumes a deference on her part, is there after Isabelle gives Christine her judas kiss, in a line which will then be twisted back on Isabelle. It is not in the original, and makes clear again the way that Isabelle does not change in this movie, but always is a queen in waiting:

DANI
Isabelle, what are you doing?

ISABELLE
What’d you mean?

DANI
Kissing that bitch? I saw you. After all she done?

ISABELLE
Don’t take that tone with me. Who do you think you’re talking to. Shut up and go back to work.

After Dani reveals that she knows Isabelle is the one who killed Christine:

ISABELLE
What do you want?

DANI
First of all, I don’t like that tone of voice. Change it!

This movie began with Dani in the tightest jeans possible supposedly for the purposes of work, but actually out of her devotion to Isabelle. Christine kisses Isabelle, and she perhaps does not resist because she wishes to get ahead. This strange mix of love and servitude reaches its nadir at the tail part of the film, where Dani treats Isabelle, a woman she loves, as something like a life-size doll to be undressed.

The final sequence is a resolution of the idea of movies as revenge fantasy, images without consequence. Isabelle finds herself under someone’s will again, her escape from Christine only resulting in her confinement under Dani. The final dream sequence embodies all that is within her, a fear that she will be exposed for the murder, but also the simpler fear that she, this cryptic character, will be exposed, the way the sex tape exposed her. Isabelle does not want to be punished for the murder, and yet she wants to be punished. She wanted Christine dead, but she also wants her alive again. In this dream, both things happen, with Christine’s twin alive, and Christine’s twin magically appearing behind Isabelle in order to choke her to death. We in the audience wished Christine would die, without Isabelle being guilty, and in another movie we would have been granted this wish entirely: a villain like Christine would be killed, and after the hero was wrongly accused, the true killer would turn out to be someone else. We now wish Isabelle to escape her confinement from Dani, and yet we don’t want her to be a murderer. The audience is given its wish and it is taken away at the very same time, a reflection of this idea of images without consequences, dreams without any conenction to reality. We wish to dive into a mad fantasy of revenge, and then return to the sane world; we are here given our fantasy, but we are forbidden an escape. Isabelle chokes Dani to death, in a sequence nearly as graphic as Torn Curtain, with Isabelle’s face twisted into something of animal-like fury, yet it turns out to be but a dream, perhaps everything was a dream, but no: Dani is dead, strangled by Isabelle in her sleep.

De Palma has said in an interview that he believes a director’s best work may well end in his fifties8. This movie, I think, refutes that statement.

(Two appendices to this post, going over the different approaches by Passion and Love Crime in their storytelling are “Brian De Palma’s Passion and Alain Corneau’s Love Crime: A Brief Style Comparison Part One” and “Brian De Palma’s Passion and Alain Corneau’s Love Crime: A Brief Style Comparison Part Two”. On August 21st, 2013, a lengthy section was added dealing with the way Christine and Isabelle are similar. On August 31, 2013, a brief correction was added to footnote 3.)

(All images from the movie Passion copyright SBS Productions, Integral Film, France 2 Cinéma, and associated producers; images from the movie Love Crime copyright SBS Films, France 2 Cinéma, Divali Films, and associated producers.)

FOOTNOTES

1 All this is discussed over a lengthy five posts, “Brian De Palma’s Black Dahlia, James Ellroy’s Black Dahlia”: part one, part two, part three, part four, part five.

2 From “Brian De Palma Maybe Has Peaked, And He Knows It” by Rich Juzwiak:

Are you actively working on your next project?

Yes, I’m working on a Joe Paterno movie with Al Pacino.

How is it going?

It’s going good—we have a very good script. And now we’re in the process of budgeting.

What is it like to reunite with Pacino?

Two, old warriors going up the mountain one more time.

3 From a board meeting scene:

Though I think the portrait of corporate sociopathy well fits the company name, it turns out the choice of name had none of the implied affiliation.

From “Brian De Palma talks about his stylish new remake, Passion, an interview with Ben Kenigsberg:

AVC: The advertising agency is called Koch Image International. Is that a jab at the Koch brothers’ media saturation?

BDP: No. I’m searching for a German name. I look at German names, and I come up with something that seems to be effective, J.J. Koch. The art director calls me up, “What’s the name of the company?” I look at all these German names, and I come up with one I think that I like.

4 Isabelle’s house is a further reflection of her own opaque character: where Christine’s place has the expensive, anti-septic feel that gives it the feel of an extension of her office, what we see of Isabelle’s is mainly a large bed – suitable for someone whose mad dreams first give inspiration to the ad that shapes the plot, and then madder dreams which overwhelm the characters – and a wall of cupboards whose contents remain hidden to us, a great metaphor for Isabelle’s own soul.

We might see this by also comparing their houses to the dwellings of the respective characters in the original movie.

Christine’s house in Love Crime, an expensive but warm mansion:

Isabelle’s house is a similar warm, slightly smaller, but still luxrious mansion:

Some shots of Christine’s office in Passion:

Some shots of Christine’s house in Passion:

Isabelle in bed, and Isabelle’s house, filled with drawers that are opened and searched when she’s arrested:

Though Isabelle’s office has a very distinct look from her apartment, as opposed to Christine’s, we see this theme of closed cabinets holding at secrets we can only guess at in her office as well:

Note the way that the houses are used effectively to convey visually in a succinct manner, something about the characters of Christine and Isabelle in Passion, whereas this opportunity goes unused in Love Crime: there, we can say of the owners of both houses that they have money, that one has much more than the other, that they both have refined, elegant tastes, and that is all.

5 From “Lisa Exits ‘The Room'” by EJ Dickson:

In the ten years since shooting this scene, Juliette has learned how to laugh with Room fans, even while they’re laughing at her. She attends Room Q&As and fan conventions. She posts polite, smiley face-laden responses to people that quote the movie on her Facebook page. But she will not, under any circumstances, attend a public showing of the film that made her famous.

“I just don’t feel the need to subject myself to that,” she said when we spoke recently. “What is it that Tommy says in the movie? ‘Express yourself and do whatever you want, just don’t hurt anybody.’”

She laughed. “Yeah,” she said. “Well. It hurts.”

6 The scene where Isabelle is humiliated at the office party in Love Crime, a few shots from the moment directly afterwards, and a final close-up when she starts working on her plan:

7 That we are complicit in these images and all the images of the film, that we, the audience, want these sequences is there in the outward look that Isabelle seemingly gives us, the audience at two other points in the movie. This is not to suggest that we are condemned for wanting these things, only that there be honesty that certain things do not occur and recur in movies and the press out of happenstance, but because of the audience’s own desires. Isabelle looks out at us right after she has the idea in bed for the ass cam ad, the one where the passers-by themselves will be watched, and right before she is humiliated by the surveillance video which catches her having a breakdown.

8 From “Brian De Palma Maybe Has Peaked, And He Knows It” by Rich Juzwiak:

There is a widely held belief that artists peak at some point. Do you ever think about that?

I agree with that. I think Tarantino said something like that too, I think that it’s true. And I’m a great student of directors over the many years. I’ve read all the books and watched their work, and I think you made your best movies in your thirties, your forties, your fifties. And if you do anything good after that, God bless you.

So, for the record, you’re saying that you peaked?

Could be. Could be. When you’re got movies like Carrie and Untouchables and Scarface out there, I don’t know.

That’s awfully humble for somebody who spends his days directing people.

Well, it’s just a reality. Making a really great movie is a kind of convergence of a whole bunch of things that happen at a certain time in your life. And it doesn’t happen a lot.

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Brian De Palma’s The Fury, Or: Hollywoodland

(The following contains spoilers for Dressed to Kill, Sisters, Femme Fatale, and, of course, The Fury. For obvious reasons of my own comfort, with reference to the above events, a few of the more graphic stills that might accompany this piece and might illuminate a point, will only be put up after a little time has passed.)

A movie about violence. If Dressed to Kill focuses on erotic fantasy, this looks at our thantic ones. It’s a movie about killing, about movie watching, and how we seek out our violent fantasies fulfilled in the movies we watch. I write of these observations as things self-evident, when they are not: they are suggestions that have always been there for me, of something beneath this movie’s surface, and what they most resemble to me is a thesis on violence we wish to act out, which is committed before our eyes, for us. I see this analogy for movies and movie making not to find some depth in a movie I greatly enjoy, but because it is a metaphor so strongly hinted at, I yield to it: I do not ever think of the meaning in something we enjoy, but our meanings, a semaphore which chimes deep with us, but which we can also find deeply grounded in the details of the work, one not entirely floating free, entirely of our own making.

HEROES, SUPERHEROES, MORTALS

The characters of this movie might be placed in three classes, classes which, even if not given formal names, are common to many popular movies. If we take our cues from Northrop Frye’s seminal Anatomy of Criticism, there are the heroes of romance, superior to us in degree, they “move in a world in which the ordinary laws of nature are slightly suspended: prodigies of courage and endurance, unnatural to us, are natural to him” – these are Peter Sandza and Ben Childress, respectively, a spy of extraordinary agility and endurance, and his opponent, a man who commands a secret agency we have never heard of, an agency that is almost all-powerful in its ability to surveil and kill – in the words of Sandza, “it’s a frightening power these people have, they can make almost anybody disappear at any time”; there are the two gifted with telekinesis, Robin and Gillian, “superior in kind both to other men and to the environment of other men”, divine beings; there are those comic characters who are far less powerful than either of these two groups, men and women who are ridiculous, either lower than us, or who we are, but dearly wish not to be, characters of an ironic mode: those who are “inferior in power or intelligence to ourselves, so that we have the sense of looking down on a scene of bondage, frustration, or absurdity…this is still true when the reader feels that he is or might be in the same situation, as the situation is being judged by the norms of a greater freedom.” These last may include many of those in the movie, including the Nuckells family and the two cops. Even when Sandza has his ridiculous moments – when his pants fall around his ankles or a shot where we hear him panting like a dirty caller during a phone call while shaking from the cold so we at first think he’s masturbating – these are effective because they are ridiculous moments for a heroic character, a character we do not expect to have such moments – they might best be compared to Han Solo having to deal with a spaceship that keeps breaking down, or Indiana Jones confidently reaching for a pistol, but finding only an empty holster.

Such classes exist in many such movies, with one group of heroes set apart for idolatry, and another placed aside for contempt – though we often may realize that we are closer to the latter category than the former, and we might resent and deny the fact. Though these classes are in the movie, they are not unaccompanied without self-awareness and skepticism, the film questioning our perspectives on these men and women. For example: at various moments, Peter acts absurdly, and we are given no reason for his actions, a ridiculing of the assumption that every action of the hero contains heroic genius. Near the movie’s opening, Peter Sandza drives away from the beach, away from his son, out to the open ocean, a clear target – what tactical purpose does this serve? We assume, despite all appearances, something is to be accomplished in this, because he is the hero. His boat is then blown up, but since he is a hero, superior to us in degree, he survives the explosion and doesn’t drown. We next see him fire a machine gun at Childress in order to wound him, then throw the gun down and walk away, and we must ask again, why? Why simply wound the man, why not try to get his son back? We assume his actions all have a greater purpose, again, because he is the hero. What this early wounding most certainly serves is the story’s aim, which gives these characters an almost mythic genesis. Sandza is rendered into an exile, a near invulnerable, near invisible man. Childress, whatever his secret villainy before, now assumes the outward appearance of a nemesis. He only wears black for the rest of the movie, his arm now entirely dead, a good half entirely vanished, the man now engulfed in shadow. The lame arm also serves as a taint of evil, as any deformity used to signify, such as Richard III’s hump, not simply a noble creature who has strayed into malevolence, but a man who embodies it. From now on, every phrase and action of Childress is malicious, without any mitigating humanity.

Brian De Palma's The Fury

The heroic and super-heroic types – Sandza, Childress, Gillian, Robin – are distinguished from the lower, ironic types in two other ways as well. They are very good looking, the beauty of marquee movie stars, distinguishing them from the unattractive rabble. They also have far more money than any of these low characters, this money giving them a further freedom and grace that the others lack. We see the gorgeous high-rise Gillian and her mother live in; Peter and Robin have access to the great schools and foreign travel expected from a man paid a high salary by a government agency; the Paragon Institute, of course, has the money to buy just about anything. These qualities – good looks and wealth – are intertwined with their great powers, of degree and kind. We are shown Raymond Dunwoodie (played by the late and well-missed De Palma stalwart William Finley), a man with something like the abilities of Gillian and Robin, a powerful telepathy and precognition, yet he is a figure of contempt: Gillian looks upon him as a freak, while Sandza treats him with barely veiled impatience. He is, despite his powers, not a divine figure, but an ironic, ignoble one, a man of rotting teeth and shabby clothes, a man of poverty and ugliness that might remind the audience of their own, or which they may have experienced, and which they feel is ever close. Whatever this man’s magic, we do not wish to be him.

Brian De Palma's The Fury

The contrast between these two classes, not simply of character, but economic classes, is in the sequence that begins after the phone call to Dunwoodie, when Sandza must flee his apartment. He demonstrates the incredible athleticism that we wish for, not just in youth, but which gives a man hope that some virility will persist late into life. The feats demonstrated in the escape are extraordinary, but also casual, without dramatic camera placement, or any music cues, the everyday feats of a heroic man who has done them often.

Brian De Palma's The Fury

Brian De Palma's The Fury

Sandza finds himself in the apartment of the Nuckells, a family living in poverty, entirely helpless before greater forces that dominate them – oil barons and the CIA, unable to do anything but watch on TV as these powers impose themselves. While Sandza has the physique of someone god-like, their mother, of comparable age, has a body that is falling apart – one is near immortal, one is mortal. Though we are very far from the era of TV-watching people, we may well feel closer to them than the man of action, Peter Sandza, the heroic type we aspire to, a man of strength and endurance who at least is able to fight back, who has a fighting chance against these same oppressors. The Nuckells are, of course, helpless before this man – they are weak, they are poor. Added to their past humiliations, they are soon bound in place by Sandza.

Brian De Palma's The Fury

While at the Nuckells, Sandza puts on a disguise, and I think it’s further evidence of the distinction between these classes. It might be helpful at this point to quote a movie over which I have much mixed feelings, Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, but which contains some dialogue that offers great insight into this moment. It is the well-known and oft-quoted “Superman” speech, that Bill gives near the film’s end:

BILL
Now, a staple of the superhero mythology is, there’s the superhero and there’s the alter ego. Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he’s Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man. And it is in that characteristic Superman stands alone. Superman didn’t become Superman. Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red “S”, that’s the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears – the glasses, the business suit – that’s the costume. That’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent. He’s weak… he’s unsure of himself… he’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race. Sorta like Beatrix Kiddo and Mrs. Tommy Plimpton.

I think Sandza’s disguise reflects the very same thing, a superhero having to pass for an ordinary man, the appearance of this ordinary man carrying the qualities of how Sandza views this other, lower class, and how the movies present such people – he is poor, he is weak, he is overweight, he wears shabby clothes, he is helpless, his life is worth nothing.

Brian De Palma's The Fury

The moment he walks onto the street, he is immediately set upon by muggers who see these very same cues. The police think him a complete joke until he steps into their car, and reveals something of the fearlessness and determination of the man he truly is.

We also see in this sequence that where material possessions mean a great deal to these ironic types who have so little, whose status is tied to these possessions that they work so hard for, which they barely have the money to afford, these possessions are meaningless to those like Sandza because they have so much money, and have known only lives of plenty. When intelligence agents come into the boarding house to get Sandza, the landlord pleads with them not to break the door down. The income he has is meagre, and to repair or put in a new door would be a killing cost. It is something he knows well, but which these agents would know nothing about.

Brian De Palma's The Fury

LANDLORD
Hey, government man. Don’t bust my door down, please. Use a pass key.

He, of course, must show great deference to this men, even if he wishes them to go to hell – because what power does he have in comparison to them?

We have something like this again after the incredible chase scene through the docks. Sandza has taken control of the car of the policemen, a car which this movie has made clear, is a recent purchase by one of the patrolmen, one that is very expensive for him, and which he values greatly:

EGGLESTON (honks horn)
Hey, how’s that for a horn?

EGGLESTON (turns on stereo)
Or listen to that stereo. I mean, you ever hear better fucking stereo sound in your life?

SANDZA
Hi Bob. Nice car.

EGGLESTON
Yeah, it’s brand new. I just picked up a half hour ago…I sure wouldn’t want anything to happen to it.

SANDZA
Don’t blame you.

EGGLESTON
God, oh god, please don’t let anything happen to my new car.

Brian De Palma's The Fury

The end of this chase is well-known to anyone has seen the movie: another of the absurd moments of Peter Sandza, where we grant it some purpose because he is the hero. He takes this car, valued so much by the patrolman, and destroys it by driving off the pier and crashing into the water. This car has incredible value for this patrolman not just for its material qualities such as the stereo and horn, but how much it cost. The pride in owning the car lies in the pride of having earned so much, the pride of having worked so hard for it. Sandza, whose domain was of wealth, is entirely indifferent to the pride such a man might feel, and he tosses it away easily. We are left the same question as we have after the escapades in the beach – why not simply blindfold the men, or toss the keys into the river so they can’t follow him? We accept that in this grand, heroic gesture of flying into the river there is a reason. Sandza, of course, survives this crash: as we have seen already, like almost all action heroes, he is nearly immortal.

HESTER

Brian De Palma's The Fury

I try to find what is the best place to speak of The Fury‘s character I find most sympathetic, whose appearance and death interconnect with so much of what I see in the movie. Though she is Sandza’s girlfriend, she is not heroic but a character of the low mimetic or ironic tradition. She is someone of great kindness, easily the gentlest character of the film, but also a woman that appears fragile and insecure. When she describes Sandza to Gillian and the description – the part about going out dancing and buying presents – doesn’t entirely match up to the man we’ve so far seen,

HESTER
Well, he’s very charming…swept me right off my feet. In the park.

GILLIAN
In the park?

HESTER
Yeah, he picked me up in the park.

GILLIAN
What was his line?

HESTER
He said he needed help.

GILLIAN
Some line.

HESTER
What are you talking about, it worked.

GILLIAN
Yeah…what’s he do?

HESTER
Do? He…travels around a lot.

GILLIAN
Where?

HESTER
All over. Oh, when he comes to town we go to parties, he loves people…he takes me out dancing, buys me presents…oh, he dresses beautifully, and he’s a good dancer.

GILLIAN
Yeah?

HESTER
The only trouble is, he’s very hard to get hold of.

Brian De Palma's The Fury

we’re not sure if this is Hester trying to present her man as something he is not, or if these are details we just haven’t seen firsthand. An undercurrent to the whole film, it should be noted, are the unsatisfying relationships of three women: Hester and Peter, Lindstrom’s unreciprocated affection for Dr. McKeever, and Dr. Charles forced to act as consort for Robin. Gillian, who is in high school and may not have had any intimacies with a man, let alone a long-term relationship, has other ordeals to deal with.

Brian De Palma's The Fury

Hester is a woman imposed on by others: when we first see her, she is obediently strapped into the telekinesis machine serving as a sample test subject. It is possible that Sandza sees in her this submissiveness, and he knows it will prove useful to his mission. She is, of course, entirely an order taker, never an order giver or dissenter in Sandza’s attempt to kidnap Gillian. That there is a mercenary component to his relationship with her, there is no doubt. Whether it is the sole motivation is another question. Sandza is genuinely moved by her death, but whether this feeling is for a woman he loved, or whether it’s over the death of a very kind-hearted woman who he knows that he used, is another question. Hester may well see this mercenary aspect as well, but deny it to herself. There is the suggestion of a woman who does not wish to see the most hurtful things beneath affection, perhaps because she has been very badly hurt in the past. I feel this maybe all the more strongly because of the resonant last images she’s in, where she runs cheerfully in the sunlight, the music buoyant, unaware of what a dangerous game she’s in the middle of.

Brian De Palma's The Fury

Her death is a variation on the situations involving vengeance that occur again and again in the film, which begin with Childress shot in the arm, and ending with his death, inflicted by Gillian. In this scene, Sandza shoots at the agent (who has kept showing up in the background throughout the film) again and again, even after he’s wounded and helpless, solely as an outlet for his rage. This might be seen as a precursor to the finale, both with the same series of zooming cuts, both involving a good character, rather than the sociopath Robin, exacting revenge – but the vengeance of the movie’s end is purer, with an innocent, a blameless victim, destroying the villain. Here, the agent who is killed is not directly involved in Hester’s death, but more importantly, it is Sandza himself who is more to blame for this woman dying – it is he who involved her in this scheme, he who gave her no warning or preparation for escape. Once again, Sandza employs his heroic genius, employing a larger plan the audience can only guess at: he sits in a car far from the Institute, far from Gillian and Hester, then fires his gun at the on-coming car. He has nothing to fear in this situation, because he is near immortal; Hester, on the other hand, is very mortal, was built to die, so other men might kill other men in anger over her death.

PRINCE AND PRINCESS SUPERSTAR

Sandza’s storyline is one examination of the expected tropes of action movies, those of Gillian and Robin are another. Key to this examining is the opening, where Robin sees his father killed by arab terrorists, an event which will be used to make him into a weapon, a creature entirely of vengeance, vengeance for this terrible act he witnessed. This plot, a man who kills those in reprisal for the killing of a family member, perhaps even a family member killed by terrorists, is not an uncommon one in action movies. The Fury should not be seen as a political movie in the sense that it speaks to us in any way about the middle east, or U.S policy there. If The Fury is a political movie, it is because it examines the way in which the viewer is so easily manipulated by such simple provocative images, how movies give us a cathartic target for our anger, a release for our frustrations, an enemy we can hate and have a proxy destroy. That the convenient enemy here are arab terrorists is fitting for this thesis, but it could well have been a soviet military, a cuban militia, japanese or chinese business leaders, black gangsters and pimps – any number of villains.

The event from which Robin’s anger stems is, of course, entirely fabricated. Members of one intelligence agency play the part of the terrorists, and Sandza isn’t killed. The sole purpose is to create a fictional memory, which will give Robin a focus for his hate. This is not, I think, very different from many who form a sense of the world from TV and movies, where the outside world is an unending series of enemies to be destroyed. Robin disappears from the movie, and when we next see him, he is a lunatic sociopath – a proper rendering of someone governed only by destructive hatred. He has a power, and he only wishes to use it to kill.

Brian De Palma's The Fury

His opposite is Gillian, a young woman with an equal or greater power, but who is deeply afraid of it, and deeply upset any time she comes close to hurting anyone with it. The movie, by its end, cleverly plays with these characters and what we in the audience want in our fantasies: that we are sane, decent people, unlike Robin, but that we want some violent catharsis, which is finally given us.

I detect an undertone to these characters that I do not think accidental: that Robin and Gillian have something like divine powers, through which the audience acts out their own desires, makes them something like movie stars, who are often associated with the divine, their beauty exceptional and unearthly, their very presence having a charismatic power comparable to a supernatural being. That this presence is often ubiquitous about the planet is perceived not a sign of a well-designed publicity network, but another indicator of their mystic gifts.

The Paragon Institute itself makes me think of the entertainment complex dealing in young actors, who attempt to nurture and train those whose talents they recognise, and which they may well view as extraordinary, but just as Gillian and Robin are there because they could prove to be useful weapons, the primary reason for the cultivating of these young talents is because they might have very lucrative possibilities. That Robin’s ability is directed solely towards the purpose of violence makes me think of great actors whose talents are placed, over and over again, in the service of the most simple-minded action movies. The way Robin’s every appetite is indulged cannot help but suggest those celebrities whose every degenerate whim is sated so that they remain happy and productive clients.

Then there are several isolated moments that I see as comparable to that of the life of many well-known actors, such as the extended scene where Robin tries and fails to make a high pole vault:

Brian De Palma's The Fury

CHILDRESS
What’s he trying to prove?

DR.CHARLES
Mentally, Robin has developed this perfect psychotronic relationship with all kinds of machines. And so naturally he’s trying to do the same thing now with his body. Except that physically, he’s just…adequate. And when he fails…he’s intolerable.

That Robin has extraordinary mastery over one field, which he then futilely tries to duplicate in physical prowess, makes me think of actors, masterful at acting, who then try, and fail, to somehow emulate their actual roles – they try to engage in real-life heroics (or have their publicist plant such stories), they become insufferable bullies as they try to be actual gangsters that they once merely played, they think themselves full of wisdom and sagacity because they were once awarded for their brilliant acting work as saints and sages.

Here is another moment, when Robin can feel the near presence of Gillian, and he gets upset with Dr. Charles:

Brian De Palma's The Fury

ROBIN
You know what’s the matter. It’s that goddamn girl.

DR.CHARLES
What girl?

ROBIN
One that’s like me.

DR. CHARLES
What do you mean, like you?

ROBIN
Oh, you think I don’t know she’s around. She’s right out there.

DR. CHARLES
There is no girl.

ROBIN
That’s a lie.

DR. CHARLES
No, it isn’t Robin.

ROBIN
She’ll do everything I’ll do, won’t she? And you won’t miss me at all.

Again, this makes me think of a noted star who realizes that his status is being challenged, as his agency and studio suddenly move their focus to some up and coming talent, and his anxiety that he’ll be reduced to some marginal figure.

There is this final scene, the last speech of Childress:

Brian De Palma's The Fury

CHILDRESS
How did you sleep? OK? I was here most of the night. I guess you don’t remember. Move a little closer to the fire. I know what you’ve been going through these past couple of days. I know how exhausted you must be. It’ll take more than one night’s sleep. I know how I feel. Peter was my friend. Maybe the best friend I’ll ever had. But I had to do what I did. I mean, you saw what happened. Peter could have saved Robin. Instead, he let him go. He deliberately killed his son. I hope you don’t judge me too harshly. I can’t say what I did was right or wrong. I only know I acted…and it’s done. Robin is gone. Peter is gone. And you’re the only one who matters now. Yes, I know that hurts. That hurts so bad you wanna lie down and die. But you have to survive. You’re a healthy…strong…young girl. And you must survive. You’ll begin by putting all the tragedies behind you. I think that’ll be easier if you accept my help. All the bad things you heard about me just aren’t true. I’m not a bad man. All I want is for you to trust me. Time will take care of the hurting. That’s the simple truth. Tears are good. Don’t be afraid of crying. Tears are just what we need right now. I’ll be a good father to you, Gillian. You can depend on that.

This performance, given by a speaker so mendacious he doesn’t even hear the obvious insincerity of so many lines, with its utterly phony compassion and icky paternal feeling, suggests to me nothing else than yet another reptilian agent or producer, who is always affecting some ersatz intimacy, who lies so easily and so often that he can no longer even hear the blatancy of his deceit.

ILL COMMUNICATION / VENGEANCE IS OURS

For me, the central sequence of this movie, and the one which hints so strongly that this unusual action movie is very much a self-examination of the experience of watching movies, is, suitably, at its very center, when Gillian is asked by Dr. Lindstrom to use her powers to find the current location of Robin. Gillian passes her hand over the photo of the boy, and then, suddenly, she falls into a trance, and then she is Robin, transported to the recent past, a test chamber where they play the footage of his father’s death over and over again, trying to gauge his reaction. She sees entirely what he sees, she moves her head in response to the commands of Dr. Charles, while the world outside this vision has entirely disappeared. The movie Peter watches in fact becomes reality, no longer a movie on-screen, but a re-play of what took place before, actual life, or actual life for these characters, Peter and Robin, just as movies can become vivid as life. When Gillian sees Sandza killed, she responds as Robin overwhelmed with anguish at the death of a father – and it is this reaction which nearly ends up killing off Lindstrom.

Brian De Palma's The Fury

Brian De Palma's The Fury

Brian De Palma's The Fury

Brian De Palma's The Fury

Brian De Palma's The Fury

Brian De Palma's The Fury

Brian De Palma's The Fury

This, I think, is all not unlike what we experience in a movie, where our vision becomes that of the hero, and we respond with kindred feelings to the victories and suffering of this character we are linked to. That we are then unable to distinguish between reality and fiction, that we then do great harm through this lack of distinction, is an obvious truth as well. It is not so facile as movies inciting us to violence, but: say, a series of films are made, that are almost exclusively heroic narratives from the experiences of a recent war. Those who gain their sense of war from such films then expect that a subsequent war will unfold according to one of these heroic narratives, a brave native of their country in great battle against a foe whose defeat means that the chimes of freedom will now ring. That these narratives are made, and that we want them, is without question; yet with the wars launched years ago still on-going, no one now would be so cretinous to think that these heroic narratives come close to capturing the essence of what took place in Afghanistan and Iraq.

For we not only take on the perspective of a character in a movie, it often gives us the opportunity to fulfill our own fantasies. Sometimes those fantasies involve intimacy with a beautiful lover, what it’s like to be obscenely wealthy, or: to kill someone who might serve as a convenient target for our anger. We are given, over and over this fantasy in The Fury, which we might accept without scrutiny, but which instead, I believe, we are intended to question. One of the major ones is a fulfillment of a revenge fantasy based around an event which we know to be false, the killing of Sandza by arab terrorists. Robin has been programmed by being forced to watch this event over and over again. We have in the carnival sequence an examination of the catharsis a movie death is supposed to provide: he is angered by the nuisances of his own life, jealousy over the lack of affection of a woman close to him, and then he moves this anger onto something both abstract and intimate, the arabs who he has seen, over and over, kill his father. He is given an ideal image of a target, saudi sheiks who are wealthy, clownish, entirely resembling each other, anonymous. He has the power to destroy at a distance, a power we ourselves might wish for our own revenge, and he exercises it. If it doesn’t give us the satisfaction of vengeance we might have in another movie, it is because we see clearly that our proxy for revenge here is a sociopath, that the inciting event is a manipulation, a lie – we cannot enter this vengeance fantasy, and we instead question the past times we have been given this same revenge plot.

Brian De Palma's The Fury

Brian De Palma's The Fury

The next involves Dr. Charles, and again, we have the possibilities of a satisfying revenge, but again, we are outside it. Dr. Charles has many of the qualities that would make her a villainous female marked for destruction in another movie: she is a variation on the taunting girl at Gillian’s school; beautiful, with a snooty british accent, sexually confident, but a little cold. She can have drinks with some male friends at a bar, and not care how it looks. She can describe a man’s performance in bed as, “he wants to please me”, adding “isn’t that the most important thing”, in a tone that suggests no, it isn’t. Yet despite these traits, despite the fact that she helps Childress, the entire performance is sympathetic, an ordinary female executive, tired and overwhelmed. Some have found the final violence done to her especially repulsive, and this misses the point: it is supposed to repulse us. We should not be able to watch this calmly, and marvel at its visual wit, or find satisfaction in her destruction, but be disturbed by it, just as we are repelled by Kate Miller’s death in Dressed to Kill: we question instead why movies so often give us this pattern, again, of a bitch nemesis destroyed. That the violence, again, is executed by the sociopath Robin only alienates us further.

It is around this time that the two polarities of good and evil in this movie converge at the estate, Sandza and Childress, Gillian and Robin. Before, whenever Sandza drove off in a motorboat, shot Childress in the arm, or went off a pier into the river, we assumed some brilliant tactical purpose was behind these works. Throughout the movie, Sandza has appeared impervious to death. Now, he goes to this heavily guarded estate without any prior plan whatsoever to get his son back – we assume once again he has some rationale for an utterly absurd move. Of course, that the hero acts in such a ridiculous manner and we must infer some genius from it is a staple of action movies. After Sandza is caught, then forced to retrieve his son, he ends up on the roof, his strength still that of heroic figure as he manages to hold onto the bulk of Peter with a single arm. His son, though, is now entirely lost to him, a complete lunatic who tries to kill his father. Sandza, whose whole quest was retrieving his child alive, ends up being the man who kills him. This man who seemingly cannot be killed by any man, gives himself the task, and dies by throwing himself off the roof.

After this death, Gillian and Robin lock eyes for the first, and only time, with Robin’s eye flaring up with light, and Gillian’s briefly burning as well, as if some vital essence is passed between them. There is something of great significance in this moment, just as the moment when Kate and Liz lock eyes is key to Dressed to Kill: it is never hinted at what passes between them, and we can only guess at it. There is the possibility that some power passes from one to the other, but it’s already been made clear that Gillian’s abilities are extraordinary, far greater than Robin’s. A transformation takes place in Gillian between this scene and the next, but I don’t think it has anything to do with what powers she has; instead, a malevolence passes from one to the other, and finally, Gillian becomes an effective weapon.

Brian De Palma's The Fury

Brian De Palma's The Fury

The last scene takes place in a woman’s bedroom, used often by De Palma as a setting for a woman changed into something else, a subtle, internal change.

In Femme Fatale, one woman takes over the role of another:

Brian De Palma's The Fury

The bedroom in Sisters is where we realize with horror that Grace Collier has been successfully hypnotised into forgetting about a murder:

Brian De Palma's The Fury

Dressed to Kill‘s Liz Blake, always a self-possessed woman despite trying circumstances, a sexually experienced and confident female, is finally very frightened, and wearing virginal white:

Brian De Palma's The Fury

We open in this bedroom where Gillian has been asleep for a long time, the first shot not quite her, but her in a mirror. Prior to this, Gillian has always shown horror at what her powers can do, repelled by its effects, even when it hurts a school bully who has been taunting her. Now, as they say, things are different. Something has happened. Before, there was no place in this world for someone with such a destructive power who does not want to use it. Gillian, with her strange ability, has no idea where her place in the world is. She wants to meet Robin so he can show her what place there is for her in this world, and he, in the moment of light passing between them, has shown her. Where before we are given vengeance from which we were alienated, now, one is arranged through which we can finally take satisfaction. I have often wondered at the title of this movie: whose fury is it? I think I know now: it is our fury, the collected fury of the viewers, our private anger at so many things, for which we now get release. This movie which started in the maddeningly complex terrain of the middle east ends in a division that is entirely manichean. This, of course, is what is so often wanted from a movie, with whatever complex crisis is out there re-assembled into a match-up of good and evil. The villain is in black. Our heroine is in white. She, who never wished to use her powers for the most conscientious of reasons, now uses them with abandon, and it is what we want. The audience is indifferent to whether she is now a malevolent spirit like Robin. We want her to spill blood, and we want it now. She delivers for us gloriously, a sweet revenge we have been waiting for, with one of the great closing moments of any movie: “You go to hell.”

(On May 30, 2014, I changed the subhead “We Wants Revenge”, which I’d always hated, to “Vengeance is Ours”.)

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Brian De Palma’s Dressed To Kill, Or: Two Women

(This post contains spoilers for De Palma’s Dressed to Kill, Sisters, The Black Dahlia, Femme Fatale, Snake Eyes, and Body Double.)

A classic thriller and a quintessential De Palma film, it might be one of the most misunderstood movies of all time. Let’s go back to it being a classic thriller – it’s a movie where many elements of the genre are muted or dropped out entirely, so the director can concentrate on those things that interest him. Great emphasis is placed on other elements not for the purpose of making the movie a more stripped down, steroidal horror machine but to examine what the audience wants from movies, especially horror movies, and especially what men want from movies. It would be a little like if Beat The Devil, A Bout Du Souffle, or Shoot The Piano Player were named as classic crime movies – yeah, sure, but: they do not simply play out the old forms, but look only at what’s of interest to them, and sometimes viciously mock what’s there.

A movie, like almost all of De Palma’s work, dogged by charges of misogyny. This, again, as in all of De Palma’s work, is a misunderstanding. It is a movie whose center is two women and how they approach sex, and both are portrayed in a better light than any of the men around them, who are all weak, ridiculous, lecherous, and manipulative. The humiliations and, finally, butchery, endured by Kate Miller isn’t sadism that we are supposed to feel gleeful about, but something felt viscerally, where we simply cannot say, “it’s only a movie”. The aesthetics of the elevator death scene are brilliant, but I can never watch it and see the aesthetics alone; the death of Kate Miller I feel more keenly than just about anything in horror movies. That the violence is so truly felt, that it is not simply bravura editing and cinematography is what causes people to label this as sado-pornography when it is entirely its opposite – giving the viewer what they have asked for, but making the violence so difficult to watch that the audience is forced to ask: why did I want this in the first place?

THE WOMAN IN WHITE, THE WOMAN IN BLACK

I search for a way to begin writing about this film, and I pick as a possible beginning a recurrent theme in De Palma’s films which is so obvious it has no doubt been spoken of by others, but which is still insufficiently discussed – a theme of far greater importance than say, his occasional riffs on Hitchcock and others. Again and again in De Palma’s films, the women are color coded, one in white, one in black, with the obvious associations – the white of good and purity, the black of evil and carnality – and always these color codes are then mussed up. The woman in black is in fact the hero; the woman in white wears white just as a disguise; the woman in white is actually the woman in black. It is possibly the work of a man well-versed in catholic ideas of good women and bad women, virgins and whores, ideas still common in society now, who then employs these ideas only to ridicule them. You, the viewer, want the woman in white to be the woman in black. Or: you, the viewer, can no longer tell one from the other.

A non-thorough overview is easy. The good sister in Sisters wears white.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Of small, but significant note – raised in a convent, this woman in white also wears a cross:

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

The bad sister is in black:

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Both sisters, of couse, are the same woman.

In Femme Fatale, the femme fatale wears black in the opening:

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Then returns, in disguise, in white:

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

But she is still the woman in black:

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

At the end, she is perhaps both, a woman with a white outfit and black bra, or perhaps she will always be the femme fatale, the woman in black:

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

The color theme of Femme, as well as its other themes are talked about here.

In The Black Dahlia, we have the ostensible villain, Madeleine Linscott, who dresses in black:

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

The good wife, Kay Lake, who dresses in white:

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

I think, however, it is Madeleine who is the real hero. She is the one who has a modern woman’s comfort with her sexuality, she who does what she wants, who sleeps with who she wants, and who fights back when others strike against her family. Kay is one of the movie’s villains, a manipulative woman who tries to arrange circumstances whereby her husband will be killed. The two women are marked by colors which in some ways are true – Madeleine is the more carnal of the two – but otherwise are reversed: good is evil, black is white. A full discussion of the movie, including this theme, is here.

In Snake Eyes, Julia Costello, arrives in an ironic disguise – a blonde wig and a low-cut white outfit. Ironic because it is a disguise which in fact reveals who she truely is – a pure-hearted do-gooder, almost of a by-gone age. This all goes against the sensual revealingness of the outfit, but this revealingness actually reveals nothing, reveals something false – this woman isn’t a sensual figure, is almost an asexual figure of the movie, a crusader on something like a holy mission:

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

When she must try to evade those looking to kill her, she dresses in a black shirt, and now she plays a carnal figure to survive:

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Throughout, however, whatever clothes she wears, she remains constant, the same woman, a virtuous fighter, the only true hero of the film. Discussion of the movie, including this, can be found here.

Body Double, where the hero becomes obsessed with a wealthy woman in white:

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Only to find out that the woman he is infatuated with is another woman altogether, a woman in black, porn star Holly Body:

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

This continues with Dressed To Kill, and is central to how the two women act. Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) is a woman who craves the physical satisfaction of good sex, not necessarily sex without affection, but the satiation of lust, rather than the comfort of affection. She is, however, not expected to have such appetites – a married, decent woman, a figure of purity who wears white throughout:

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Her opposite, Liz Blake (Nancy Allen), is a young woman who works as a prostitute and is very comfortable with sex. She carries no degrading marks that might label her as an escort – no slow-mindedness, no cruelty, no venereal scars, no slothfulness or slobbishness. She’s an attractive, streetwise woman of New York City who happens to get paid for sex. She is the carnal woman, and in the final scenes of the main plot, she wears almost a twin of Miller’s coat, only in black:

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

The outfit underneath is all black as well:

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

GAME SHOWS, HORROR SHOWS, SEX SHOWS

The division between these two women is one possible start, a scene from an earlier De Palma movie might be another. I think you can make the same analysis of much of De Palma’s work without it, but the opening of Sisters, a fake game show, is a useful rosetta stone, embodying so many themes from his films in one small moment.

It is a show where both the audience and the players must anticipate the actions of a voyeuristic man when he has the opportunity to look at a beautiful woman take her clothes off. This game is constructed for our pleasure, just as a suspense movie is a different construction for the sating of our appetites. The ostensible purpose of the game is to determine the outcome, but it’s real, obvious purpose is for the audience to see this woman take off her clothes, as well as a secondary one, to provide us a judas goat, whose behaviour is even worse than us, who we might well label the degenerate, while we remain among the normal. We look at this woman taking off her clothes knowing that she is just an actor, and not actually blind, while the man observing her has no such knowledge – he is the pervert, not us.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

There’s also a small, obvious racial game being played here, with the scapegoat here a mixed race man, the surrounding imagery itself making obvious associations – the bars like those of the bars of a prison or a zoo. He is the criminal, he is the animal, not us. The game is spoiled when this judas goat fails his simple duty, looking away as the woman undresses. The game show audience expects this man to keep looking – wants him to keep peeping, but they are proven wrong. We are then suddenly outside the game and instead in the thriller genre, and it too is subverted. The expected voyeur instead carries all the best qualities of men in gentleness, decorum, and virtue. The woman, a beautiful, harmless, slightly ditzy type, is a murderous lunatic. She takes him to her house, but it is she who is the sexually aggressive one, and it is not her life that is in danger, but his.

This digression leads to Dressed To Kill, which is about the arrangements around which movies are constructed, to give the audience what they want, and then subverts that arrangement. Dressed is expected by its audience (as well as its producers and distributors) to provide the elements of the post-Psycho horror genre – thrills, gore, nudity – it does so, just not on the expected terms.

The movie’s opening might have one of the most effective scores ever written – a piece of simple, slow, building ecstasy that somehow never ends, but feels like it could mount infinitely. Its nature suggests, of course, the prelude to orgasm, but there’s also something ominous in what is in its absence, nothing dull or hard or everyday, like a narcotic that is such a crystalline world of gold light where you know the crash will be painful, or a spotless surface whose gleam must take a stain. When “Dressed To Kill”, in hard white, comes up, the contrast between the cold implications of the words on the card and the swoony music playing over it might be one of the best laughs the simple appearance of a movie’s title could ever produce.

With the opening scene, we get the start of the horror movie’s arrangements. We move closer and closer as a woman showers for us, giving us what we want, this naked woman. It is a woman’s fantasy, a body of youth, but the male viewer’s as well: women with bodies infinitely ripe. This is not, however, a fantasy for the character to have for herself, but for her to have for our purposes. Her pleasure might be entirely inward, but the faces she makes are outward, exhibitionistic, come-hither looks unseen by her husband through the glass, but seen by us, her looking out at the viewer.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

This, then, is not entirely her fantasy, but ours as well. A man watching the movie might look at Kate’s husband, and think “I’m better looking than that guy. In better shape. Definitely much younger. If she can get excited over him, she’d most definitely get excited over me.” A man might think that, might think – if only I were there she would welcome me, and suddenly, we, the men watching this movie, thinking we could well have this woman, are there, as a handsome, much younger man shows up, and the movie makes its first slight change in the arrangement:

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

This is a horror movie with a shower scene, so we expect nudity, and we, expect, after Psycho, that there will be horror. We are given what we want, but: we are the horror, we are the intruders into this woman’s fantasy, and she doesn’t want us there at all. There is then a cut to Kate’s bedroom where her husband diligently, unfeelingly fucks her while she feigns pleasure. Where Kate before made exhibitionist poses for our satisfaction, she now groans for her husband – one piece of exhibitionism for the audience, now one for her mate, both for others, not for her.

I’ll talk about her son Peter later on, so I skip the scene between them, and go to the scene with her psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Elliott (Michael Caine). Robert’s female double is Bobbi, and he spells his last name with double ls and double ts. Elliott, aside from his double, is easily the most sympathetic male character in the movie, cerebral, understanding, and kind. He is very much Kate’s sexual ideal, a handsome older man who is a successful professional. Elliott serves as a happy proxy for the audience, a good-looking success sexually desired by this woman. However, he also serves as a criticism of what the audience wants, nothing so complex as love or the depths of mutual desire, but the satisfaction of fantasies, with sex beginning and ending with the woman exposed, nude. This woman desires him, and he desires her back, but any time he has an erection, it triggers the presence of his counter identity, Bobbi, who wants to destroy this woman who makes him feel such lust – and whenever he has these mixture of feelings, he looks into a mirror, contemplating what he is.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

There are many things contained in this dual identity, but I don’t think the movie has anything to do with transexuality. We might instead see Bobbi as a puritanical maternal spirit, that destroys those women which step out of sexual bounds. So, the duality of importance to this movie is not of gender, but of that between the sane, scientific attitude toward sex, and a severe, lunatic one which brings the knife down whenever sex breaks out. The movie places puritans on the side of this lunatic, but it also makes clear that a horror movie’s mechanics are driven by puritanism as well – the woman who sleeps outside of marriage or with too many men endangers herself. Elliott serves also as the judas goat mentioned earlier – we, the audience, may have come to see a movie where women get naked and are then killed, but we are normal; it is this cross-dressing freak, who murders because he cross-dresses, this alien strange thing, who is the perverse, not us. That Elliott is made into a villain, into a grotesque, is what movies demand of such a character as well – he is the intellectual, the sensitive one, the member of the elite, the one who soundly refuses to violate his patients’ privacy, who looks at sex in a calm, rational fashion – that is the opposition, even now, of many. All these same qualities are also in opposition to the sensationalist ethos of the movie, and for that, he must be made the enemy and destroyed – this is not, however, done blindly, but done so that the discerning viewer might question what takes place, here and in other films.

There may also be something in this character that is a self-indictment by the director; in The Black Dahlia, De Palma played a seedy director harassing and belittling a woman for the benefit of the audience, and that might be thought of as a self-examination by a man accused (wrongly, I think) of complying with the desire of spectators to see women humiliated and destroyed. Just as this doctor plays the role of a woman, this movie centering around two women, requires the writer-director to take on the part of a woman, to look through her eyes – and the director can only wonder if he has pulled it off, or are his women characters simply men in drag, ludicrous creatures like Bobbi? Finally, the director is compelled to kill these women off not out of impulses of his own, but the bloodlust of the audience, just as Elliott is forced, out of control, to shift into a killer. We can extend this idea of a self-portrait further: the director sees himself as a clinician, a man seriously interested in the psychology of these characters, a type of psychiatrist, but the audience has come for blood, for garish tabloidy transvestite tales, and so he is then forced into this other part.

There are many things to be found in the strange twins of this doctor and the tall blonde; these may have been some of them.

PICTURES AT THE EXHIBITION, OR: THE MUSEUM SEQUENCE

What follows might be the film’s best scene, certainly its most justly famous, a lengthy piece where we get a very intimate sense of Kate Miller – all without dialogue. By the time Kate leaves the picture, we think we know her well – not in terms of the mundane specifics that movies too often dwell on, such as age, occupation, birthplace, but some central substance of who this woman is, making her death, and the pain of her death, keenly felt. Re-watching the movie will shock the viewer at how few lines Kate has – there is the dialogue in the brief scene with her son, the dialogue with her psychiatrist, and that’s it. Movies are images over all else, and the director makes this case as forcefully as he ever has, right here. That it all works is a tribute to the director, but also the actress, who is able to convey so much of this woman through small, delicate expressions. A side note: the museum is ostensibly New York’s Met – it was, in fact, filmed at the museum of Philadelphia, a place where another notable director spent some time relaxing during his hard days in that hard city.

The sequence opens with the statue of Diana by Saint-Guadens, a very apt one for a woman who is both hunting and hunted.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

She sits down at a bench, passing the time, looks up at a painting: “West Interior”, by Alex Katz.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

This is a movie where Elliott looks again and again at mirrors contemplating himself, and now Kate does something of the same, a woman of a certain age looking at a painting of a woman of a certain age that seems to be looking back, contemplating her.

She glances about, and sees different phases of her own life – a young girl dealing with flirtatious, handsy boys.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

A man blatantly trying to pick up a woman a room over.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

“Does anyone actually fall for that crap? Yes, of course. I have.”

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

The boy getting handsy with the girl again. He keeps sliding his hand, she keeps pulling it back up. She’s annoyed – but not that annoyed.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

“God, I remember how annoying that was – boys trying to get their hands all over you.”

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

“I wish someone was trying to now.”

Another contemplative look at “West Interior” – well, this is who I am, this is how old I am, now.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

An attempt to distract oneself from these thoughts, the arrangements needed for dinner tonight.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

But this is just another harsh reminder of the husband she doesn’t want to see tonight. She looks up at another painting, “Reclining Nude” by Tom Palmore.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

This sleepy ape reminds her, of course, of her husband. She goes back to looking about the museum.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Memories of being a mother with a young, mischievous child. All that time spent taking care of your kid, no longer just you and your husband.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

She turns back to the picture of the gorilla. “Well, now you have all the time you want to spend with him…too bad.”

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

“Nuts”, not just for dinner, of course, but an expression of great exasperation at it all. We now expect the focus to move to Kate after writing this, something humorous, where we’ll both laugh at life’s small annoyances, but we get something different.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

The scene gives us a first close-up, which we don’t expect, and there is nothing light in her expression – this lack of something physically satisfying, something that makes her feel beautiful and wanted, this isn’t a small burden, but cuts deep into her. She looks up, unable to keep thinking about this.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

“Let’s try again, and not keep focusing on this.”

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

But there it is again – “Pick up turkey” – is this the bird, or her husband?

Another intimate close-up:

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

In the first shot of this sequence where we are behind the bench, we see the runaway child run from left to right, our focus on her, but it will be shifted now to a new entrant, the mystery lover, who sits down, after the child leaves the frame.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

The mystery lover sits down. He is very close in physical type and look to her husband; she is not looking for something different from who she’s married to, a younger man over an older man, a bohemian type over a professional, but a sexually satisfying variation of the man she’s married to. There is another part of this game that is very familiar with a movie sexually pursuing women, but feels slightly off-kilter because it is so new here: the conquest, behind his dark glasses, remains without anything like a character, like so many female conquests in movies focusing on a man seeking them out.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Daringly, she looks over at him, but he doesn’t look back.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Her feet tap impatiently as she waits for him to look over at her. She looks over at him again.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

He turns to her, she smiles in turn, but he looks at her without expression, then turns back, she is humiliated: rejected.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

She folds her legs, showing them off: “well, mister, you could have had these, and now you won’t.” The white of her clothes is important, and so is the fact that she wears gloves – she lacks the easy familiarity with the sensual that Liz has. Now, she takes one of them off – “you could have felt these hands touch you, but now you never will.”

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

The sequence and the next is full of gestures where she accidentally does something which betrays some subconscious urge. She shows off her ring, revealing that she’s married. Why does she want to do this? There are many possibilities, none mutually exclusive: that she feels some hesitation and does not want to actually go through with this, that she wants to test this man to see how badly he wants her – if he’s willing to break this bond to have her, that he sees the diamond and knows how much she’s worth to another man and how hard he should work for her.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

He expects him to at least sneak a look over at her attractions, but, no, he gets up and walks away.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

She is astonished, so surprised she drops her glove and doesn’t notice. Again, another possible subconscious gesture – she wants to be lost and rescued by this man. She gets up and begins looking for him.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Yes, women actually fall for that crap. Suddenly, she comes upon him, and: he’s been waiting for her all along, knowing that she’d follow him. He gives a friendly nod of the head.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

She is embarrassed, sheepish, to be caught chasing him like that. She darts away, then catches herself: this is ridiculous. So, I want this guy? What’s the shame in that?

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

She turns, but he has disappeared. She now gives up again. He picks up the glove.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

She is looking at a sculpture when he taps her on the shoulder with her glove, and she’s now scared off again. She wants this, she wants his boldness, but she wants to be ready for his boldness, and this catches her by surprise. She moves away before realizing the gallant quality in this gesture – he was returning her glove just as she wanted.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

She tries to forget all this nonsense, and looks through the museum map for another exhibit – she notices the missing glove. When she goes to the bench to retrieve it, she realizes the kindness of his gesture.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

She goes searching for him again, uncaring this time of how it looks, but again, he has disappeared.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

“Well, that could have been a fun time.” She throws away the remaining glove – her hands are now naked, exposed to the air. This adventure has not deterred her, but made her bolder to seek one out. She then sees the mystery man in a cab.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

A note that Kate’s gloves can be likened to personal objects in a magic ritual, where possession of such an object gives one power over the owner. This mystery man now waves one glove and is able to pull her towards his cab, as if she’s under a spell. Bobbi, who we see briefly as the camera moves over to the cab,

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

now takes possession of the other one:

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

This glove also carries a magic for Bobbi: she is able to trace exactly where Kate goes. She even seems to know that Kate will return to the mystery man’s apartment when she forgets her ring there. This goes with other plot dynamics, where Bobbi is an instrument of what the plot needs to happen, of what the audience wants to happen, but it fits well with the idea that Kate is embodied in these objects, that when she loses them, she wants to lose part of herself, and that those that possess them do not simply possess the object, but possess part of Kate as well.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

She is pulled down by this man into the cab, and she does not mind this boldness now, she expects it, she trusts it, she wants it. Her passion is overwhelming; the taxi driver peeks at her and she doesn’t mind, the hellish traffic of New York, who cares? This is what she’s wanted for so long, and now she finally has it.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

The moment before they enter his building has always been cryptic to me – she feels a moment of hesitation, a sense of dread, that’s made greater when she spots this moving truck, a truck that plays no part in the movie earlier or later. My only guess is this: Dressed, a movie that very obviously deals with the intricacies of the horror form itself, even if it doesn’t do so as explicitly as something like Scream, is perhaps making a reference to these mechanics: the trucks are there, moving to strike the set, change the scene, and this character senses that her part will soon be over, and maybe even how she’ll leave.

A TIME TO KILL

We move immediately to the aftermath of their time together, briefly seeing this woman’s nude body outside of fantasy. It is not lit harshly, but sympathetically in dark light, a beautiful woman’s body, but a beautiful older woman’s body as well – her time of ecstasy is over, and now she returns to the life she had.

We note that the house of this man is spotless white, another blurring of this division of white and black, because despite this clear, clean surface, the man of this house is diseased and deceptive. She tries to call her house to apologize to her son for missing their meeting, but hangs up when her husband picks up – she doesn’t want to speak to him now.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

She is so possessed by what’s happened that she doesn’t realize that she’s forgotten her underwear – another subconscious desire, that she perhaps wants to lose herself entirely to this passion, that she never wants to return to her old life.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

She puts on her gold bracelets and it is obviously a hard, painful gesture, like someone putting chains back on.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

The closest that this man comes to an identity – Warren Lockman.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

The name may be coincidental, but for me it carries the quality of the gender reversal here in conquerors and conquests. We associate locks with women, and men with keys, the metaphors for genitalia, and I associate a warren with an animal shelter, a home, something domestic – the male here plays the usual female role of throwaway fling. Kate looks with some pride on the card – “Wall Street Athletic Club” – she did pretty good this time.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Though there’s been an incredible amount of economy in this sequence, a great deal of time is now devoted to what note Kate will now write – a gesture that would be given little or no importance if the genders were reversed, but one of crucial weight here. She tries first with “I loved the afternoon. Maybe we’ll meet again.”, then changes it to: “I loved our afternoon.” The afternoon is now possessive, it didn’t come upon them, but was due to their mutual effort. She does not want to hold out hope of another meeting with this man, were she to expect such a thing and he would turn her down, it would destroy what took place today. Anyway, anything that came after today would be less spontaneous, could never match what happened just now, and would only diminish what happened. Better to remain satisfied with just this.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

She leaves the note, and then, of course, what follows is the cruel surprise well-known to those who have seen the movie.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

It should be noted that what happens here, and what happens after to Kate are the traditional cinematic punishments for women who stray from marriage. You sleep with a strange man, you get a disease. You sleep with another man, you die. Some see this as sadism, with De Palma enacting these penalties on this decent women. He does, I think, the exact opposite. He creates an incredibly sympathetic character, a woman who does nothing wrong, who contains no malice, who sleeps with this man out of a simple, honest hunger, and then, by humiliating her and killing her in the manner with which every movie past has dealt with these transgressions, he points to the ridiculousness of this moral system: that every woman who sleeps outside of marriage is a bitch, a sacrificial lamb, whose blood can be spilled in artful patterns for our enjoyment.

Kate rushes out of the apartment, and goes down in the elevator. The camera moves past her and we see Bobbi hiding behind a door, bathed in sinister red light.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Kate gets into the elevator before realizing that she’s left her ring – another subconscious urge, of wanting to leave her old life entirely. She now must return to the apartment and get it, but here is a question: if Bobbi followed Kate to kill her, how is it that she knows that Kate will now return to this floor? We see no indication that Bobbi moves from the floor at all, or makes any effort to go down after Kate – it is as if Bobbi knows that she will return. There is the fact, already discussed, of the almost mystic properties of her possessions, but I think there’s something else, another way that the movie acknowledges the mechanics of the horror movie. This woman must die now, it’s inevitable, because her transgression is a mortal one, so it doesn’t matter where she travels to – she must return to this space so Bobbi may kill her.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

On the way down, a woman and her child board the elevator, the child giving Kate an unsettling, unwavering stare. This stare, I think embodies all those who judge Kate harshly, or justify their voyeurism on the basis of the misdeed of the viewed, entirely indifferent to what the anguish this woman feels now – the stare of this child is disturbing, but it is not precocious. There is something cretinous and unseeing in it, even as it stares on and on, so for a moment we’re unsure whether the girl is blind or not.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

These two leave, the elevator ascends, and Bobbi enters.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

A detail that I think is key here, is the way Kate’s eyes remain focused on the blade and never look anywhere else. It is a steel blade providing a reflection – just as Elliott looks into mirrors contemplating himself, Bobbi forces her victim to look at herself and make her reflect on what she’s done. This blade is very much an instrument of vengeance, confronting the victim with their guilt before they are killed – and what is Kate guilty of? Breaking her marriage vows.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

A note: that Kate’s sleeping with this man invites her death is explicitly stated by detective Marino later on; that Kate, in fact, does not want to sate some physical lust, but actually wants to die, because her act is so morally dangerous:

MARINO
Was she looking to get killed?

ELLIOTT
You mean was she suicidal?

MARINO
Yeah.

ELLIOTT
No.

MARINO
No? So why did she pick up this Lockman character, huh? He could’ve been a killer.

ELLIOTT
But he wasn’t.

MARINO
Yeah, but the next guy might’ve been. You know, if at first you don’t succeed…

ELLIOTT
You think she wanted to get killed?

MARINO
Don’t you? Hmmmm? Look, we got some hot pants broad cruising around for some action? That guy she picked up went down on her in the cab, for christ’s sake. I got a blow by blow description from the cabbie, huh. After she finishes with him, she comes on to some weirdo in the elevator? Hey, there’s all kinds of ways to get killed in this city: if you’re looking for it.

Now the second woman, Liz Blake, enters the movie. She has just seen a client and waits for the elevator to arrive. The link between these two women, both dealing with sex in very different ways, is made. Kate looks out and meets Liz’s eyes. Note: in this supposedly misogynistic movie, it is Liz’s client who scurries away in fear, while she’s held fast and tries to help the woman. The connection between these two women is made as they lock eyes:

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

The two women almost almost touch: Kate desperately reaches out her hand, while Liz reaches her hand out in turn, but before their hands meet, the door closes.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Another note: where Kate is transfixed by the image in the knife, the guilt felt over the sex that took place, Liz feels no such thing. The knife passes before her eyes, the light flashes, and rather than focusing on it, she looks away and above to the mirror, clearly seeing Bobbi.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

After the doors close, she picks up the knife, and the crime of this murder is placed on her – she is a woman who freely has sex, so she must be guilty of something, and even if she is guilty of nothing, this wantonness destroys any legal protections she has.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

This sequence ends with Bobbi escaping, and the elevator doors slamming shut over and over again, on Kate’s arm. It calls to mind the numb drilling of her husband, but, for me, it implies again that this character is simply an element in the horror machine, her hurt and her death created for our pleasure, this machine as entirely indifferent to her as this thudding door is to her tender body – the unexpected element, the humanity given her, that so few characters in horror possess, causing us to recoil from what happens to her, and question our own appetites.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

THE LACKNESSES

It is in this middle section of Dressed that the strangeness of its structure really comes through – why I liken it to french new wave movies concentrating on some noir elements, while abandoning so much of noir itself. The most prominent example I can think of is this: both Warren Lockman and Kate’s husband would be given some time now in a more traditional thriller – instead they disappear altogether. This is a movie about women’s desires, and these men are only important as they relate to her desire. With her life extinguished, they now vanish. It might also give more focus to the investigation, narrowing down various suspects, one by one, the way one might in a police procedural or an Agatha Christie. Instead the focus remains almost entirely on Liz, with a few moments of Peter’s detective work thrown in. The various scenes in the middle all serve the movie’s purpose of women and sexuality, though they might seem jarring to those expecting the traditional rhythms of a suspense picture.

We have lengthy interrogations of both Elliott and Liz. What’s interesting is the way Marino, with his indifference to the privacy of doctor’s patients and his bullying of the prostitute, is on the side of the viewer in achieving the viewer’s ends: to find out who the killer is. Kay’s sense of dignity and Elliott’s propriety are the proper stance, and yet we are in opposition to them. It is these same principles that are opposed to the voyeurism that the movie grants us, where nothing is private, where the plot manipulates and moves women around for our pleasure – the film makes clear that the very pleasures we demand from this film and others like it, is antithetical to those ideals we value highly outside this movie.

There follows a scene that might seem unusual given the incredible economy with which the movie tells the rest of its story, a phone call between Liz and her procurer over the name of her client. I think the importance of this moment lies in the utter asymmetry of Liz’s position – she is granted no privacy at all, either by the police, or even by us at the end, in the bathroom, while her client is given full protection, with her agency head unwilling to give out the name to the woman who’d had sex with him.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

There is a split screen sequence where we see both Elliott and Liz at their respective homes. A virgin viewer gets one of many hints that all is not as it seems with Elliott – if he is married, and it is a weeknight, why is his wife absent without a hint of where she might be? Elliott often breaks away from the action to look at a mirror – in the session with Kate, the session with Liz, when he first hears of Kate’s murder – and we now see him watching a talk show episode about transsexuals, the TV flanked by mirrors – he, as a man wanting to transition genders, watching this TV show is a little like Kate looking at “West Interior”, contemplating oneself while looking at someone very much like oneself.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

While this takes place, Liz sets up another client on one phone while arranging a stock deal with another, again establishing Liz not as someone who is prostitute due to stupidity or psychological dysfunction, but simple practical sense – sometimes sex is great, sometimes it’s lousy, but it’s not something she’ll ever feel guilty over. There is also, I think, a clever joke being made here, for it is on the phone colored black, the color of inferno and damnation, that the stock deal is transacted, and on the phone colored white, the color of purity and sanctity, that the sex deal is conducted: the sort of gag a post-catholic post-marxist might make.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

She finishes her phone call and puts on make-up for her date in front of a mirror; Kate and Elliott look at mirrors and pictures for purposes of contemplation about their sexual issues, while for Liz, the mirror has only utility – you put make-up on. Her use of the mirror is analogous to her attitude towards sex: sex is sex, nothing to get hung up over.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

After meeting with her client, Liz is chased, first by the undercover police officer, then by Bobbi. That these two are interchangeable, points, I think, to the movie taking apart what is the focus of any horror movie – placing a woman in a state of fear, the actual circumstances which incite this state of no consequence. In a movie where the men are almost entirely malicious, deceptive, weak, or manipulative, the cabdriver is not without his good qualities, but: he is self-impressed, despite not doing much, and his heroic achievement, stopping the woman chasing Liz, doesn’t actually deter a potential killer, but instead, stops the very woman who might protect Liz.

The stock racial types on the subway serve a similar purpose as Elliott – a judas that allows us, those who have turned on this movie to watch women get naked and killed, the comfort that we are not them. They are cartoonishly ridiculous sexual predators – within seconds they want to rape this woman in a public place.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

HOOD #1
Hey lady, what you looking for?

LIZ
A train. They still stop here, don’t they?

HOOD #1
Yeah, yeah. They stop here. They stop down there too.

LIZ
Am I bothering you?

HOOD #1
Nah, you ain’t bothering me.

LIZ
Good.

HOOD #2
But you’re bothering me.

HOOD #1
She’s bothering you, Sonny?

HOOD #2
Yeah, that’s right, this bitch is bothering me.

HOOD #1
What are you gonna do?

HOOD #2
I’m gonna break her fucking ass.

HOOD #1
Why break it when we can fuck it first, huh?

The music from their boom box may or may not be intended for comic effect.

There may be some aspect of examining racial anxieties here, but for me, the overwhelming theme is assigning a character who can be considered alien, not the audience, and making them the more sexually perverse. This is done with these black men, but also with the british Elliott. A later example of this can be found in Body Double where the voyeur is mirrored by a man, “the Indian”, who watches alongside as a neighbor strips.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Later, when he stalks her through a mall, this same man follows his motions.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

A detective interrogating the voyeur, refers to “the Indian” as “your blood brother”. In this dialogue, the voyeur is accused of being an equally guilty party as “the Indian”, but he then redeems himself by cracking the case and discovering the real murder – we and the hero are both voyeurs, but we know that we contain heroic virtue, while this other man, this alien man, “the Indian” carries only villainy.

DETECTIVE MCLEAN
As far as I’m concerned, you’re the real reason Gloria Revelle got murdered. If you hadn’t been so busy getting off by peeping on her, if you had called the police about your blood brother, the Indian, Gloria Revelle would still be alive.

Pauline Kael, said of Double that it had one of the worst make-up jobs in recent memory in this character. That, I think, somewhat misses the point – the make-up is supposed to look artificial, primarily for the surreal feeling that the voyeur, who acts in an exploitation movie, suddenly finds himself living in an actual cheap cable horror movie. The other reason for this obviously ersatz disguise ties into this point of a double that is not us, not an actual native american, or anyone who looks anything like one, but a vision of horror, someone on whom one can assign blame, someone who is the animal and who cannot be us. In another time, this might have been someone of a different race, now perhaps it would be an arab, muslim, or anything else that movies conveniently use to distinguish (the majority) of the audience from those outside it.

The middle sequence ends with Peter and Liz joining forces to get the name of Elliott’s last patient, who they believe is Kate’s killer. This leads to the final sequence, and its dream aftermath. A few other notes before I get to that.

THE OFFICER IS IN CHARGE

I’m never quite sure how contemptible I’m supposed to find officer Marino – he works in the interest of the audience to have this case resolved, while acting entirely in opposition to the best liberal values. The privacy rights of Elliott’s patients are of no consequence; those who seek Elliott’s help are weirdos and deviants; he simplemindedly believes that Kate Miller’s lust is not a desire for life, but a desire for death. What keeps me from seeing him as loathsome is the skill of the actor playing him, Dennis Franz. In an interview with the A.V. Club, Dabney Coleman speaks of actors like Henry Fonda who have an unschooled ease at doing their work; Franz hints at something of the same, a man who can hit his marks as easily as others breathe.

There is another, crucial, way in which Marino serves the audience – it is he who forces Liz, threatening her with jail, to get the records from the doctor’s office any way she can. This leads to Liz seducing the doctor, undressing down to her bra and undies, in order to distract him while she looks for the patient that might be Bobbi. In this way, Marino is something like a pimp, and, appropriately, he dresses something like a pimp as well – gold chains, a tacky wide lapel shirt, and a short leather jacket.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

In Blow Out, the two actors playing Marino and Liz, Franz and Allen, would have parts with this same relation, explicitly: Allen would be a part-time prostitute, and Franz would be her pimp.

A DIGRESSION: IT’S ALL IN HOW YOU SAY IT

One of my favorite scenes in the movie, and a moment which I love for the way it’s written, as Marino moves from playful to angry, while Liz goes from demure ingenue to sophisticated lady in the bat of a lash. The scene’s effectiveness lies equally with the talents of two great actors, Nancy Allen and Dennis Franz, who are able to take the now banal two words of the near ending, and work magic with them.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

MARINO
Tell me: how did you happen to be in that building that Ms. Miller was killed in?

LIZ
I was visiting a friend.

MARINO
And who was that?

LIZ
Well, it’s sort of embarrassing, I’d really rather not say.

MARINO
Why?

LIZ
He’s married.

MARINO
Woah! What kind of building is this? Everybody’s getting laid, after lunch.

LIZ
Well…I didn’t say I was getting laid…to use your expression.

MARINO
What’s the matter, huh? I’m a little crude for you, huh?

LIZ
That’s right.

MARINO tosses down his cigar.

MARINO
Ah, look, Ms. Blake, let’s cut this shit. I got all the dope on you right here.

Marino opens a folder and moves his chair towards her.

MARINO
Uh, does this look familiar, huh? Let me see here. March fifth, charged: disorderly conduct. Solicitation for the purpose of prostitution.

LIZ’s demeanour suddenly becomes much less prissy. She takes a cigarette out of her purse and lights it up.

MARINO
Arresting officer Durham, apprehended at the Park Avenue Hotel…oooooooooh, classy arrest.

LIZ (faux sweetly)
Thank you.

MARINO
Let’s face it, you’re a whore. A Park Avenue whore, but you’re still a whore. Now. Who’re you fucking?

LIZ moves a little forward to say the next line.

LIZ
Fuck you.

MARINO
No! Fuck you!

FOREVER BOY

In a movie where almost all the characters are defined by their attitudes towards sex – Kate’s guilt over it, Liz’s practical approach, Marino’s contemptful attitude toward the prostitute, Elliott’s conflicts – there is the notable absence of anything like it in Kate Miller’s son, Peter (Keith Gordon). He is a teenager in high school, not that far off in years from Liz (Allen, four years before Dressed, played a high school student in Carrie), so we expect him to be hormonal, with an attraction, even if supressed by shyness, towards this woman he spends so much time with – yet there is nothing, their relationship is that of siblings, unconflicted by sex. When Liz has a few double entendre lines with him,

LIZ
Well, your friend’s covering you for you tonight, right? Well, I’m your friend too. I’ll be the best cover you ever had.

PETER
Look, Liz, uh: I gotta go home and get to work.

LIZ
I’m gonna miss having you on my tail.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

they are funny because the double sense seems to go unheard by both – he feels nothing like desire for this woman, and she does not conceive of him forming any for her. During the final scene in the doctor’s office, full of erotic tension as Liz tells dirty stories and takes off her clothes, Peter is outside in the rain, hearing none of it, barely able to see anything – where before he was distinguished by being able to hear and see so much more than other characters through his electronic equipment.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Peter feels like a new type, not simply someone obsessed with computers, but a man with no connection to the sensual world, a boy who exists entirely in a world of numbers and data. No doubt such a type existed before our new industrial era – but the conditions of our era, in which a disconnect from the sensual is no impediment but might even be helpful in existing and thriving in this ethereal numeric world, has perhaps encouraged their number, and where before they may have been exiled to the dusty corners of this life, they are now given wealth and prominence – it is no difficulty to imagine Peter Miller a few years after this movie as a man made very wealthy through some software he wrote.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

“You go back to playing with your Peter,” says Kate, the last thing she says to her son. Peter’s extension is mechanical, his self-involvement entirely computational. Kate’s masturbation pushes her out into the world to find something that might equal her fantasies; Peter re-makes the world into engineering problems, whether they be transsexuality or solving his mother’s murder – another absence in the film: no time is spent on the child dwelling on the sexual life of the mother, some of which he hears about at the police station. It is not something kept under a lid, but something not there at all. There is, unsettlingly, nothing unfinished about Peter – this is not a young man whose sexuality will eventually mature, but one without any sexual sense at all. If one imagines the eventual Peter Miller who might become a software titan, one imagines entirely the same man – someone self-possessed, determined, very intelligent, with no interest or urges in the sexual world – a kind of forever boy.

There may also be a small rebuke in this character, by De Palma, to his critics. This boy studiously notes the exit times of various patients, without noting any of the other details – the old man so angry he is barely able to close the gate, or the woman so upset she seems to be on the verge of tears, with only the numbers of consequence.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

When I see this, I can only think of those writers who dutifully note the various influences in a De Palma scene, Vertigo, Rear Window, etc. a diligently collecting such data and nothing else, their reviews made up only of these notes, the write-ups missing entirely the color and life of his movies.

PUSSY CONTROL / STATE OF FEAR

The final sequences serve as mirroring bookends for the movie, with Liz at Elliott’s office, then Liz taking a shower in the very bathroom that opened the movie. Much of what takes place in Elliott’s office has already been discussed – how Marino acts almost as a pimp to force Liz into this position where she must take off her clothes in order to get what Marino wants; that while Peter is able to hear the clinical descriptions of sex given by Elliott in the interrogation room, he is now barely able to see or hear what takes place in the office, perhaps the most erotic scene of the movie. The over-the-top baroque lightning reinforces the idea tha this is a film which skews and salutes the form, much like a post-noir film with a scene where everyone might show up at a fog-filled meeting in a trenchcoat and a fedora, rather than being anything like a sincere, ingenuous take.

What’s given too little mention in this scene is the story Liz tells Elliott to turn him on, before she takes off her clothes:

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

LIZ
I have horrible nightmares.

ELLIOTT
What were they about?

LIZ
Well…I have to get a cigarette. I’m in this house I’ve never been too before, visiting a friend. He’s not there. I’m watching TV, and the doorbell rings. It’s a man. He’s big…dark. He says his car broke down and he needs to use the phone. I believe it and let him in, although I know something’s wrong. He closes the door, locks it, and takes out a razor. He says he’s not going to hurt me. Then he tells me, what he’s going to do to me. And how much I’m going to like it. All the time he’s talking, I can see the bulge in his pants. He orders me to strip. I do it, keeping one eye on the razor. He drops his pants, and forces me down…on my stomach. And he spreads my legs, kneels down behind me, and lifts the cold blade…forcing it…I’m sorry.

It contains many details of the later dream sequence, of being in a friend’s house alone and vulnerable. It’s entirely a fantasy of a woman being forced to take off her clothes and have sex under the threat of a weapon. This recurring nightmare is very much a rape fantasy and it’s unclear why she tells it to Elliott – there’s nothing to show that she suspects him of being Bobbi, or anything that might make her think that he gets off on violent sex. The only possibility I can think of is that this is a tweaking of what the male viewer expects from this movie – women, forced, outside of control, to take off their clothes, then at knife point, put into the same vulnerable position of a woman about to be raped. Why does she tell this story? Because she knows what turns men on, and she wants to turn them on: when she is well-paid for it, she can pretend to be the object they want.

LIZ
I’ve done most of the bad things you just read about.

ELLIOTT
Do you like doing these things?

LIZ
Sometimes.

ELLIOTT
What do you like doing about it?

LIZ
I like to turn men on. I must do a pretty good job because they pay me a lot.

Liz goes to search for the records. Elliott looks, for the final time, into a mirror. There is the tumult after he transforms into Bobbi, and in this movie so often accused of misogyny, it is female officer Betty Luce who takes down the villain. We learn after that Marino was manipulating Liz all along, and never believed she had anything to do with the murder. Liz and Peter have their conversation on transsexuality, one that is clinical, but also firmly establishes Elliott as something alien, and his obsessions not our own.

It is in the dream that this is all given a nasty twist, one directed entirely towards us. We find ourselves in an asylum, dark except for spooky blue light. A busty nurse in a short white outfit appears – like many of the women in a horror movie she seems there to incite a desire to see her nude, and her very outfit makes us expect that this will happen.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

The nurse walks along the beds till she reaches Elliott’s, where she starts tucking his bed until she’s suddenly choked to death by the psychiatrist. Now, Elliott starts slowly, erotically to remove the nurse’s outfit, ostensibly for a disguise, but really: to have this woman unclothed.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

In this movie where Elliott confronts his reflection, the men in the audience finally see themselves reflected – the camera rises up as a horde of men, in rows and rows just like in a movie theater, look down in eager anticipation as the doctor takes the nurse’s clothes off. They are howling, gibbering, primitive slobs, as much lunatic animals as the men who keep being cast as judas, and they are neither sane nor good, but in the very same asylum as Elliott.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

We then move to the Millers’ house, where Liz takes her shower. The house’s exterior lights break out into the same sharp points as those of the asylum. We see Liz start her shower; the asylum scene ended in a bravura camera movement of the inmates looking down on the nurse being unclothed, and this scene begins with us, the audience, looking down on the woman in the shower.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Liz’s moves in the shower are, again, like those of Kate before her, exhibitionistic. This deeply practical woman now moves unnaturally, for the eyes of others, as if someone is watching her, and of course, we are.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

She moves out of the shower, the blue light outside the window exactly like that of the asylum and she sights Bobbi’s shoes. Liz, who has dealt with a number of adversities as best she can, now moves to open the cabinet to get the razor, the very one Kate’s husband shaved with at the beginning. We are given the same clear information that Liz is given, that Bobbi is to Liz’s left, right outside the door. As the camera lifts up, we see the empty shoes and Bobbi reflected in the mirror, and we realize she’s inside the bathroom, but still to Liz’s left, against the towel cupboard.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

We are now thinking as Liz might, about where Bobbi is in the room in relation to her, but: it doesn’t matter that Liz is more of a fighter than Kate, that she feels none of Kate’s guilt that she deserves this death, it doesn’t matter where Liz thinks Bobbi is, or where we think Bobbi is – this is a rigged game anyway. Just as Bobbi somehow knows that Kate must return in order to be killed, it doesn’t matter what Liz does here – the arm comes out of the medicine cabinet with the razor she was going to use, and slices her throat.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

We see her wake up, and she is suddenly more afraid than she has ever been in this movie.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

All the control she has ever had in the movie has gone, disappeared, in this dream of others, where she was under control of others, in order to go through the horror movie ritual of a sexually active young woman – to be seen naked and then killed off. She is so frightened that when Peter appears, she is afraid even of him, this harmless, soft boy. We notice another detail: just like Kate, Liz now finally wears white. Something in her has been tamed, reshaped, so she’ll be made less fearless and more in the control of others.

A last note: many compare the ending of this movie to Carrie‘s, but for me, it reminds me very much of the closing of Sisters. The intrepid reporter Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt) has been through a lot, and been reduced to something of the state of a girl, taken care of by her mother, resting in the bedroom she had as a child, surrounded by a girl’s playthings. She has throughout the movie shown a fervent quest for the truth, in particular the details of the murder near her house, and now, in the most disturbing moment of the film, we realize that she has somehow been re-formed permanently under hypnosis, that she carries no memory of the case, does not even realize she has lost the memory, or the ways she has been changed.

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill

GRACE COLLIER
It was all a ridiculous mistake. There was no body, because there was no murder.

This character has been made into something else in ways she cannot fight, and she doesn’t even realize it.

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Brian De Palma’s Snake Eyes

(The title of this post gives whole credit, unjustly, to a great director for the entire creation of this movie; whatever agreements or disagreements I have with auteur theory, lack of creditation for David Koepp’s work as co-writer on the movie has been omitted in the heading for simple reasons of limited text space, rather than any intentional slight.)

A movie that may not fully work, but that has an underestimated density: if its hoof is to be given the damning tag of “failure”, it is a branded creature that I find more compelling than the movies other people enjoy so much, their enjoyment estranging me further from them. One might point to the bravura sequence of a staggeringly long near uninterrupted shot (there are a few discrete cuts), which is unbookended by any virtuoso piece at the end. We also might want a more direct confrontation between the hero and villain, like the shoot-out in Carlito’s Way, etc. Both of these, however, are a result of the movie’s deliberate intent, which is more subtle and intricate than might first be realized, an examination and re-examination of what the audience wants in such a movie. If there is one overriding theme, it is the distance between the inherent morality of divine vision, and the amorality of a vision that approximates the divine, our contemporary observational technology, that allows us to see near anywhere, yet carries no moral ideal, except that which we ourselves bring. The various surveillance and tracking equipment shown in this film, now nearly fifteen years old, is quaintly antique: yet no one would assert that the more deeply peering eyes of our time have made us better men and women, only that they may have given us one more tool of cruelty.

We open in the restricted frame of TV, a single camera, before finding ourselves shifting out and away to the larger scale of the movie, giving us a freedom of movement unlike anything of the stationary camera outside the stadium. There is a horrific, random storm outside, yet the audience has chosen for refuge the staged chaos inside. That it is staged is to be expected, what only changes is what chaos ends up being staged. It is the last fight at this arena, to be replaced by the Powell Millennium casino. Gilbert Powell (John Heard) has made his money in defense contracts for weapons, which gives him the money to build casinos. The merger of these two economies, state funded weapon building and get-rich circuses, are to be merged in the design of the new casino, a gambling den inside a missile:

Snake Eyes

Powell, of course, is the man behind two rigged games, the fixed missile test and the fixed fight which gives cover for the killing.

In the opening outside sequence, we are shown the poster for the fight, dominated entirely by the picture and name of the champion, Lincoln Tyler (Stan Shaw).

Snake Eyes

What gives this man his prominence is entirely his fighting skill, which is devastating: his nick is “the Executioner”. He has the strength of an epic hero, without any heroic ideals; despite misgivings, he is entirely a mercenary, first throwing the fight, then giving out a brutal beating to detective Ric Santoro (Nicolas Cage). The fight at the beginning mirrors what takes place in the film itself, and the fact of that the man on the poster is expected to be heroic is paralleled with Santoro’s character. Nicolas Cage is the man on the movie’s poster, so there is the expectation that he must be heroic, yet what we see of him for much of the movie is entirely the opposite. He is a corrupt cop, an infidelitous husband, a man who shakes down drug dealers, an expert in the pay-off and the cover-up, who without compunction helps his friend in covering up what takes place during the assassination. This is not to say he is not without sympathetic qualities, or that he is uncharismatic. The men and women of life, outside any dramatic structure, are of the same difficult mix, their best details not making the venality and callousness of the rapacious any less repellent. It is a simple question of how we choose to see this man who has been placed in this role, played by a movie star, who is expected to be a hero without being a hero at all. That he does perform a heroic act is not to be taken as expected or assumed, an action that is heroic not because it is performed by a man in a heroic role, but because of the action itself.

That the audience wants a clear division between heroes and villains is played on in one of the movie’s first lines, delivered enthusiastically and very well by Cage.

Snake Eyes

SANTORO
THERE HE IS!

Snake Eyes

This makes me think of a point in Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution, which Donato Totaro’s “Time, Bergson, and the Cinematographical Mechanism” reminded me of: in theory, it should take a child no time at all to solve a picture puzzle because it has already been conceived before the puzzle has even been opened. Santoro can implicitly identify the villain for us already because a villain has already been decided for us. The flux of deeds which make any judgement of a life in progress a difficult task is avoided, and not wanted, in most entertainments, and we are given an evil adversary, pre-conceived.

That the actions of Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise) are villainous is beyond dispute; that we are necessarily good because we are not this man is an open question. For we accept without difficulty that Santoro must be good, must be heroic, because he is the lead, played by a movie star, and we ignore all his cruelties. This is very much the way Dunne might be seen as well, and certainly how he sees himself: he must be good because he is a decorated Navy commander, because he has acted virtuously in the past. The very tautology an audience might make of any movie lead, that his actions must be heroic because he is a hero, might be made by Dunne. Yet where the audience grants this liberty because the character is played by a star, and due to his position in the narrative, Dunne believes this for substantial reasons: he has in fact performed heroic deeds, has no doubt saved the lives of many men and women. That he has done so does not prevent him from committing heinous acts as well.

So, this movie is about a conflict of two men, who are almost doubles of each other, best friends since their childhood in Atlantic City. The movie audience arrives to watch this pre-arranged conflict, just as the spectators come to the stadium to watch the fight. This is a movie full of characters who reflect each other, and the fighters, Lincoln Tyler and Jose Pacifico Ruiz, mirror Dunne and Santoro.

Tyler is an expert, efficient professional who has contempt for the show-boating of Ruiz. Tyler must be seen to lose this fight, a fight he can easily win, so he can achieve the larger goal of a pay-off. Ruiz must simply play the part he’s expected to, and Ruiz fails at that. He gets knocked out by an easy punch, and his own knock-out punch doesn’t connect. Dunne has contempt for showboater Santoro, looking upon him as corrupt and incompetent.

SANTORO
Why did it have to be me? Why’d you want me next to you?

DUNNE
One, I needed a cop to back up my alibi. Two, I knew you could be bought if anything went wrong. No offence, pal, but I never thought
you’d get as far as you did.

Dunne must appear to lose his own game, allowing the defense minister to be killed, for his own goal, the AirGuard system spared from defense cuts. Dunne fails to play his part as well, not because of any lack of skill, but because, for once, he acts virtuously.

Dunne and Santoro mirror each other as well. Though the movie opens with Santoro as a man with a flamboyant, ostentatious persona, this is only one aspect of the man. He changes from his gaudy, now blood spattered, shirt, into a more spare white one, then shifts into finding the girl and we see him as someone different. He is a corrupt cop, but also a diligent, cool-headed investigator, more of a kindred spirit to Dunne than the naval officer expects him to be. Where Santoro begins the movie in a guise of hopped up lunacy and moves to the firm devotion of an ideal, saving one woman’s life, Dunne is a man who holds to a particular code that becomes more and more lunatic as the film progresses, where any life can be expended for future lives saved.

I won’t go into the aesthetic details of the lead-up to the assassination and the assassination itself; suffice to say, it’s very well put together. I make the small note, possible overlooked, that the key members of the security detail are the ones involved in the conspiracy. The man with the beacon who Donne runs down for his lack of attention, and the man sitting right behind the secretary.

Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes

This is a movie about finding a moral vision equal to our colossal technical sight, and so it’s intended irony that the most heroic character whose moral compass remains unshaken throughout, is rendered near blind from the near beginning.

Snake Eyes

We arrive now at the issue of the momentum and pace of the movie, which slows down after this sequence. This, I believe, is not due to any lack of skill of the creators, but inherent in the structural constraints of their goals. The audience storms out of the arena to leave the arena, just as we, watching, expect to move on to another distraction.

Snake Eyes

But, no: the audience is kept inside, to be identified and questioned. The arena is now a crime scene. Rather than move on to more mayhem, we will be placed in stasis, forced to examine the very details of the sequence.

Snake Eyes

The rest of the movie now mostly takes place in what feels like the backstage of a theater, empty of the color and motion filling the assassination sequence, that scene now played over and over in the participants’ memories. The closest to spectacle are the moments in the casino and hotel, yet here the major players are now intruders. Where before they were enraptured by the fight, now they are indifferent to the frenzy of the gambling floor and the dionysian possibilities of a hotel suite, their focus only on the past, the killing in the arena.

A good place to continue this analysis is with the character of the whistle-blower. It is she, more than Santoro, who is the true hero of the movie. That the hero is a she and almost nameless, are intertwined details, of which the movie is very well aware. They are crucial in terms of what the audience expects from this genre, and what the movie gives us instead. Unlike the other two leads, Rick Santoro and Kevin Dunne, we are never given her full name until the very end in the concluding newscast, but her heroism should require us to speak of her by name, rather than a more anonymous label, and so we do so.

JULIA COSTELLO

This is a movie where women are given roles either as sexual supplicants or domestics. There is the wife and mistress Santoro talks to on the phone, and afterwards talks about with Dunne.

DUNNE
How’s Angela?

SANTORO
Fat, fantastic. I love her.

DUNNE
What about the other one? What’s her name? Candy?

SANTORO
Monique. Skinny, mean, expensive. I love her.

There is the ring girl who Santoro feigns interest in, then ignores almost immediately afterwards, and has forgotten about by the time of the shooting.

Snake Eyes

SANTORO
My lucky number seven.

RING GIRL
Gee, that’s a new one, mister.

SANTORO
You are sunshine on a stormy day. You should work in the casino.

RING GIRL
Oh, I’m gonna. I mean, I wanna.

SANTORO
Do you know how to deal blackjack?

RING GIRL
No.

SANTORO
All right. Call me. I’m Rick.

SANTORO
Hello. What? Who are you? Where? My lucky number?

Two women in similar sensual dress, but only as a guise for their true missions in the arena. There is the redhead (Jayne Heitmeyer) who serves as an object of distraction, a bosomy long legged beauty, who the camera pores over as nothing but a sexual being, but: she is something more, a well-trained soldier and co-conspirator. When we see her after the tumult, she is out of costume, in the same sexless, genderless uniform of her fellow male military member.

Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes

Julia Costello is similarly in disguise, in a blonde wig and a low-cut white outfit. She is there for a specific and important objective, yet she is immediately approached by Santoro as another sexual figure, like the ring girl.

Snake Eyes

SANTORO
Hey, I dig affection, baby, but not while I’m driving.

COSTELLO
Oh, I’m sorry.

SANTORO
That seat’s taken. (sees her face) Oh, but you can sit here.

COSTELLO
Well, I’ll just need one minute.

SANTORO
Me too.

After the defense minister’s death, Costello flees to the bathroom to change. The camera drifts up to the bathroom sign, and I don’t think this is a simple need for beat in a cinematic rhythm, but to make clear what designates Costello’s position more than anything else: her gender.

Snake Eyes

We next see her, above like gods, as she washes herself of blood. There is some symbolic importance in this, as blood recurs over and over in this movie, with Costello able to wash the blood from herself – it is not her who had any party in this killing, it was caused by others. However, there is no material importance in this shot; we do not drift into the bathroom when Santoro changes his shirt, but we intrude here. The audience is granted the ability to drift into the ladies’ and float above her as she changes, and here is the asymmetry of the power of divine vision without divine purpose. Able to look anywhere, we expect to be able to look at this bosomy woman when she takes her shirt off.

Snake Eyes

This same moment recurs, in the suite bathroom, again with us positioned looking down on this character as she changes, again to no purpose, except for the sating of our own appetites.

Snake Eyes

This erotic perspective is absent anything in this woman, other than her body itself, compelling it. She is insistently an anti-erotic figure, first seized by her mission, then in fear of her life, a woman whose broad gestures of opening her blouse and fanning herself I read as those of someone unfamiliar in the arts of flirtation, now forced into this role to save herself.

Snake Eyes

COSTELLO
Um, who’s, uh–who’s winning?

GUEST
Looks like the number four horse, Daddy’s Hobby.

COSTELLO
Yeah? Ooh, God, I’m hot. Do you have air conditioning?

GUEST
Huh?

COSTELLO
In your room, air conditioning.

GUEST
Oh, yeah. Yeah.

Costello ends up in this man’s hotel room and, again, she is approached sexually.

Snake Eyes

When she rejects this, and speaks of the danger she is in, the man asks her to leave. If she has no sexual purpose, she has none at all. Her progression in dress, I think, is not trivial. She begins in an all white outfit, a figure of purity, then she is forced to put on a sexier dark blouse as we gawk at her, in a room clearly labeling her as female, then, finally, she ends up in a light colored men’s shirt: it is she who will be taking on the traditional role of the male hero in this movie, even if she isn’t allowed to fully play it. For even after all this, she is not given full freedom of movement. What she most dearly wants is to leave the arena, but instead is confined by Santoro, when she would be far safer if she were let out.

That this character goes nameless for almost the entire movie is a counterpoint to what her true role: she is the nameless, disposable beautiful woman, just like the ring girl, but nothing like the ring girl, because ultimately she is a better, braver woman than either of the two men at the movie’s fore, a combination of their best qualities without their sins. She shares the same devotion to the well-being of the navy as Dunne, but without his lunatic solipsism, unable to see anything other than his own devotion to the cause. She has Santoro’s deductive skills, able to see that the test is fake, without his venality. She doesn’t want a pay-off, she just doesn’t want men and women to die.

She is, to borrow a phrase from H.G. Wells’ autobiography, “a solid rock of ethical resolution”* and this necessary fact may encumber the movie. Costello is played by the very good Carla Gugino, but that she must embody an idea, virtue continually mis-seen as carnal vice, limits her from being a more interesting character. Again, this impediment is not a flaw linked to the writing or the actress, but an unavoidable outcome of Costello as almost a mythic figure. She is a snow white virgin, but also, intentionally or not, a variation on Tiresias, the ancient prophet. Tiresias was blind and Costello is near-blind without her glasses; Tiresias combined equally the male and female, while Costello has a female body any man might covet, but her haircut is boyish and she plays the heroic male role; Tiresias truthfully told Oedipus his future, yet Oedipus refused to believe him, just as Santoro does not want to hear the horrific truth that Costello offer.

Seeing and this refusal to see are dealt with in the next part.

SEMI-DIVINE INFORMATION

This is a movie where amoral figures are given extraordinary powers of observation, visual gifts that would be considered magical or god-like in a more metaphysical era. Dunne has a tracking device which allows him to follow a beacon wherever it travels.

Snake Eyes

Santoro can see the fight from any angle, with the camera giving a god’s eye view down revealing that the knockout has been faked.

Snake Eyes

Later, Santoro can use the multitude of cameras in the casino to find Costello. Here, we also have the great disconnect between these great technologies and anything like a moral compass: the only issue of whether people steal or there are prostitutes is that this is detrimental to the business of the casino. Of course there are prostitutes, they simply need to keep their solicitations discrete; as for theft, this is the casino’s business. If the casino isn’t winning against you, you must be cheating.

Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes

Though such tools are fractional in power in terms of any hand-held device now, they remain an epochal step beyond anything before. Santoro’s associates must discover which room this man is going to – they do so by going to their database of past footage, and find the name flashed on his driver’s license, which they are then able to look up.

Snake Eyes

The story is about a conspiracy surrounding a missile system to deal with threats from nations like Iran, and the assassination is pinned on a palestinian. The middle east is once again playing the part of “the other”, yet now we encounter the usual paradox: the orient is without, the orient is within. This hotel is designed entirely in a faux Arabian Nights theme, with the halls and suites made up like an imitation sheik’s palace. It also allows for a surreal moment, where this synthetic castle suddenly takes on a genuine magical quality: the halls appear to reach out infinitely, each one entirely like the other, the powers of observation which have served so well till now entirely useless.

Snake Eyes

This may be a good place to mention that the viewer’s powers of observation match or exceed that of any of the characters. They travel with Santoro, who, as a cop is able to move almost anywhere by simply showing his badge.

Snake Eyes

This has nothing to do with Santoro being a good man; Costello is more virtuous, yet can travel nowhere near the places he can, and is ultimately sealed off in a room by Santoro. Yet our powers exceed even this. When Costello moves into a room, we pass through its walls.

Snake Eyes

As already said, we are able to move into a bathroom with ease, and look down on a half-naked woman. We also hear of information that is never revealed to Santoro or Costello, the key role of Gilbert Powell in the assassination plot. By the last scene, Santoro, Costello, and the media still think Powell is uninvolved in the conspiracy, and he remains unindicted, at the head of the company.

Snake Eyes

POWELL
In the plan I bought, that prairie populist…who was criminally dismantling the entire armed forces, goes down! The disloyal employee, she goes down with him. The fanatical terrorist, he takes the rap. The AirGuard missile contract is approved, and l, I get enough money to finish the goddam Millennium! It was a good plan! No humiliation, no scandal, no prison!

REPORTER V.O.
Meanwhile, the AirGuard investigation continued in Washington, and Gilbert Powell announced more firings at Powell Aircraft as he cleans house in the wake of the assassination.

Where Santoro and Dunne move about lost in the maze of hotel passages, we impossibly drift, like a divine spirit, across room after room, until we reach the suite we are searching for.

Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes

This movie is about the insufficiency of simply seeing, that this ability contains no moral power in and of itself. The film is about Santoro making proper judgement of what he has seen, and the movie ends with the open question of whether we have been properly discerning in what we too have gazed on.

An illustrative sequence of this is when Santoro is told by Costello what she herself has seen in the moments up to the killing. A notable detail which reveals the small gap between everybody’s memories – the dialogue we overhear when the secretary and Costello start talking to each other in the opening scene is this:

COSTELLO
It’s in the pocket.

SECRETARY
Have you been writing to me?

COSTELLO
Listen to me, Mr Secretary. I am telling you, you are the one that’s gonna be sorry.

It is now slightly different:

COSTELLO
It’s in the pocket.

SECRETARY
Excuse me. Did you say something?

COSTELLO
It’s in the pocket.

SECRETARY
Pocket? So you’ve been writing to me.

COSTELLO
But I am telling you, you’re the one that’s gonna be sorry.

A more important point of the split screen is that we are shown two sets of images, on the right, what Costello personally has witnessed and now recalls, and images on the left – Dunne observing the arena through binoculars, giving orders by microphone, planting the papers on Rabat’s body – that she could not possibly have witnessed, that are entirely the creation of Santoro, imagining what actually took place. Though one set of images has a reasonable basis in the recall of an eyewitness, the left-hand set is entirely hypothetical, a reasonable hypothesis, but a hypothesis nonetheless, yet: both sets of images are presented as if they are equal, till we are given solely the images, Dunne planting the papers, which Santoro imagines.

Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes

Though this is valuable information, information he has been searching for, it is information he does not want. Again, it is not simply enough to have access to what others have seen, if we are unwilling to consider our own assumptions to be very wrong.

I think there is some resistance to how venal a character Rick Santoro is, and how close he is to Dunne in utter ruthlessness. This moment, Santoro right at the precipice, goes unmentioned in discussions of the movie, though I think it is crucial:

SANTORO
You decided to have this problem, not me! My world would’ve gone on turning just fine, but now either way I look, I have to do something I don’t want to do. Do you understand what I’m saying? I do not want to do this!

COSTELLO
Do what?

Snake Eyes

The question of what it is Santoro has to do next goes without answer, but I think it is a simple one: he has to kill this woman. We move suddenly away from the two in conversation at this point, and cut to a shot of the stairwell they’re in, and again, we’re in the fantastic dimensions of the endless corridors of the hotel as these stairs swirl away infinitely while ominous thunder rumbles outside.

Snake Eyes

That these stairs seem to move away in both directions endlessly is not empty cinematic bravura, but done for a specific point. Santoro can now choose whether to go to heaven or hell, based on what he’ll do next. The world is one of post-catholic iconography, where the powers of divine sight have been gifted to us, where the elysian heights are entirely synthetic, luxury hotel suites, but there are still deeds that can damn us to the flames. When Dunne kills his fellow soldiers, he does so only after descending a staircase to the bowels of the arena. Obviously, he passes through a red light.

Snake Eyes

It is this same place, descending these same stairs that he has Santoro beaten.

Snake Eyes

Of course, the other images that suggest catholic imagery in a post-catholic world is the taint of blood which touches those involved in the conspiracy. Costello is able to wash the blood from herself, Santoro changes his bloody shirt, but Gilbert Powell stays in the same blood-stained clothes.

Snake Eyes

Of course, the blood spat on the medals, which Dunne cannot clean off as easily as he thinks.

Snake Eyes

And the blood-stained bill reminds Santoro of his past sins, and warns him of his future ones.

Snake Eyes

Right after the fantastic shot of the stairwell, Santoro asks Costello certain defining details to fix her as an image, a woman with a family, someone alive and not simply statistic. It is this vision which keeps him from killing her. He says as much in the movie’s conclusion:

SANTORO
Don’t try to make a hero out of me. It won’t fit. If I hadn’t put a face to you, things probably would’ve gone a whole lot different.

Having been given the information, he first tries to persuade her that she has not seen this. He does this with no counter-information, only through the sheer force of his will. It is inconvenient for these events to have occurred, so they cannot have occurred. That Costello is a moral actor, that her actions are the right actions, that the effects of her actions are to have an overall beneficial effect, is irrelevant; if there are sufficient corrupt actors, who benefit from the corruption, than the moral actor must be discouraged, or killed. Santoro now nearly enters into the conspiracy, not with the portent of any sinister music, but simply because it is easier to be part of this conspiracy than outside of it. On this basis we may examine our own lives, and ask how many networks are we part of, which would never be given so ominous a name as a conspiracy, but which have an ultimate detrimental effect, yet which we are party to because it is easier to belong than be an outside skeptic?

Then we have another shocking moment, for Santoro does successfully intimidate her into changing her story. That the conspiracy succeeds or fails is not because she cannot be bent, it is only due to something in Santoro not allowing himself to do this.

SANTORO
You could be wrong. Isn’t it possible?

COSTELLO
Yes. Yes.

SANTORO
Isn’t it so?

COSTELLO
Yeah, now that I think about it, I think I could be wrong. Um, you remember I told you that my glasses, they had fallen off, and I couldn’t quite focus. I don’t think it was him.

SANTORO
Shit. Your glasses didn’t fall off till after the gunshots–

Santoro then locks her up, rather than simply let her go, for reasons that go unsaid. A sanguine viewer might believe it is simply that the detective still doesn’t know if he believes her, and whether she was party to the murder. A pessimist might think that Santoro still considers the possibility of killing this insignificant woman.

The detective returns to the arena, and finds a camera, a god’s eye view of the stage high in the ceiling, a recurrence of the theme of the divine vision. This camera is also a reprise of the “The false mirror” by René Magritte, an eye isolated from the body, but dense with a cloud-filled sky, an eye connected with the metaphysical substance of the soul. Santoro sees this vision, and realizes that his friend is chief party to the assassination.

Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes

After, both Dunne and Tyler descend from a great height, down the stairs to the control room. There may be a hell for ill-doers and murderers, but the aeries of real estate are filled with those whose hands may well be blood spattered. Elysium is a state of grace, found only in good, brave deeds.

Santoro is given a terrible beating, before being let go in order that he may be tracked to where he’s hidden Costello. As he wanders along the corridor, badly disoriented, he is followed by Dunne, who looks down on his tracking device, again, like a god gazing on a helpless bughill, a divine vision in the hands of a demon.

Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes

Santoro’s travel to the sealed room plays off of earlier scenes, important for this detecive’s position in the narrative, and how he serves, and does not serve, as a vehicle for what the audience wants. The next, brief, section is devoted to this.

WHAT MAKES YOU THINK YOU’RE BETTER THAN ME?

A key line, early on in the extended shot, after Santoro beats Cyrus (the great Luis Guzman), the dealer, and busts up his supply:

Snake Eyes

CYRUS
You got a bad attitude, you hear, my friend? What makes you think you’re better than me?

SANTORO
Friends, Cyrus. Everybody loves Rick Santoro.

There is nothing distinguishing this low level dealer and this corrupt cop, the cop himself admits. He humiliates, beats, then extorts this dealer, all things he is able to do because he has the right friends. Santoro then watches the fight, a celebration of a rigged game, the boxing ring flanked by the weapons of Gilbert Powell, another example of a rigged game. Both are exhibits of vicarious violence, allowing a man to take the role of the champion, or military commander: did not many take vicarious martial satisfaction in the conquests of Iraq and Afghanistan, until such conquests turned sour and difficult? Just as the audience of the fight wishes to participate vicariously as Tyler, the movie viewer might wish Santoro to be their proxy, defeating the villains at the end through a vicious physical fight. Yet just as Tyler’s throwing the fight defeats the possibility of one vicarious pleasure, I think the film-makers deliberately choose to avoid giving the viewing audience their own satisfaction through violent proxy. To provide such a satiation for blood-thirst would be to play the same manipulative game that Gilbert Powell plays, making money through the pleasure of remote death.

It would also further the lie that superior force is necessarily accorded to the most virtuous, that whoever can beat the other man must necessarily be the creature of greater decency. The brave choice of Santoro should not be secondary to providing a context for an action scene involving his vengeance, but rather the focus should remain on the choice itself.

Instead, Santoro is beaten without mercy. Where before his connections allowed him to interrogate Tyler fearlessly, now that network is entirely gone, over-ridden by Dunne and his greater power. Rather than giving the viewer the satisfaction of him fighting back, we experience something very different for a movie like this: we watch him suffer. And not simply watch, for we are given his point of view when he wakes up, becoming him in this moment of greatest weakness. Where before he gave out a beating to a man of no consequence, now he has become a vulnerable man himself, who, just like Cyrus, can be destroyed without after-effect. The role he saw at a distance, a man savagely beaten, he has taken on himself.

The very wounds Tyler and Santoro suffer have a similar pattern.

Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes

Santoro manages to make it up the stairs, and we see him move through the very area where he beat Cyrus hours before, each step now filled with pain.

Snake Eyes

The audience is forced to see themselves in this man, beaten, weak, and vulnerable, the very opposite of the kinetic fantasy that they expected at this point. Just as we might wish to see ourselves in an action hero, we do not wish at all to see ourselves in Santoro now, yet we are forced to imagine ourselves in his condition, hurt and frightened. This should be a counterpoint to the earlier scene where Dunne kills his fellow soldier (Chip Chuipka). This man bears an uncanny physical similarity to Dunne; he looks strikingly similar to Gary Sinise in Reindeer Games, yet Dunne sees this mirror of himself, this fellow soldier, and feels nothing, killing him. This soldier may have taken part in the conspiracy, yet this moment of him begging for his life connects with us, the anguish of a dying man pleading for mercy affecting us no matter what he has done before, yet it touches Dunne not at all.

Snake Eyes Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes

A DIGRESSION: GILBERT POWELL, MAN OF THE FUTURE

Among the valuable pieces on Snake Eyes on-line is Brian Eggert’s writing for Deep Focus Review, which I enjoyed, though I differed with the following line: “When viewed as a political thriller, its lack of last-minute twist or plausibility operate against it, while the conspiracy itself is questionable.” The conspiracy is also dismissed in the equally well-written segment by John H. Semley of the A.V. Club’s Caged Wisdom devoted to the film: “The political murder-mystery plotting borrows heavily from De Palma’s own Blow Out“.

My mind does not run to conspiratorial thinking, but I find this movie from 1998 remarkably prescient in its head of the conspiracy, Gilbert Powell, a man whose business is entirely made up of gambling and defense contracts. This, it would seem to me, in the wake of two bloody wars and the mortgage crisis, an excellent description of the bulk of the economy of the Bush epoch, with the contractor employing any weaselly subterfuge possible to advance his own interests, his construction of a casino jerry-rigged around a deception, his pious invocations of the military dead for financial gain, this movie seems to be not a re-hashing or an implausibility at all, but a startling metaphor of the era we just lived through before the era took place.

I end with a speech by Powell, that to me, expertly captures the oily mix of lachrymose and belligerence, the cheap cover for the squalid interests of too many, that passionately, negligently, led so many good men and women to their deaths.

Snake Eyes

POWELL
At this time I’d like to extend my deepest sympathies…to the secretary’s family…and to the nation…and to the people that he so faithfully and proudly served. And, uh…I have something else to say. To those that would try to bully us or to terrorize us, to divert us from the causes of peace and justice, I want you to know that in spite of what’s happened here tonight, we are not deterred. Production of the AirGuard missile system will go ahead in accordance with Secretary Kirkland’s wishes.

ONE MORE DIGRESSION: MOMENTS WITH NICOLAS CAGE

When he goes to interview Tyler in his dressing room:

Snake Eyes

SANTORO
And you sign my kid’s autograph!

Refusing to co-operate:

Snake Eyes

DUNNE
Snake eyes. The house wins. Now, where is she?

SANTORO
Fuck. You.

The difficult art of looking relaxed:

Snake Eyes

A DIVINE INVASION / YOU ARE THE QUARRY

Santoro arrives at the sealed room, Dunne right behind him. The lightning flashes, and Santoro sees Dunne’s shadow, the man who has given in to killing, just as Santoro might have.

Snake Eyes

It is here that Santoro, weaponless, a gun pointed at him, is given something of a divine reprieve. Just as the light falls out of the sky at just the right angle in De Palma’s Femme Fatale, now Santoro is granted a god-given escape. Just as the camera eye provided a vision from the heavens confirming Costello’s story, now another vision gives him the possibility of survival. Santoro looks up and sees the television showing a police truck speeding towards their location, then moves quickly to the door, going into the sealed room which suddenly breaks apart like a stage set opened up, the police sliding to a stop inches from them, a longed for divine invasion into this world.

Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes

Before it was “snake’s eyes”, the house wins, Dunne can call on greater power than Santoro. Now, they are in a different rigged game; the audience requires a happy ending, and Dunne must lose.

Snake Eyes

DUNNE
No, wait! Wait a minute! Wait! I’m with D.O.D.!

COP
Put it down now!

DUNNE
Listen to me! Listen!

COP
Put the gun down!

DUNNE
This– This woman is a suspect!

COP
We’ll be forced to fire.

DUNNE
No, she’s a suspect, goddam it! I am Commander Kevin Dunne,

COP
I suggest you drop it now!

DUNNE
…and this woman is a threat to the security of the United States. Rick, tell ‘em! Please, for God’s sake, tell ‘em what we got here!

SANTORO
There’s no “we,” Kevin! You got snake eyes!

Dunne finds himself before the camera, then kills himself.

Snake Eyes

It should be asked at this point, what exactly is Dunne caught doing? He is simply holding a gun, in an agitated state, while chasing suspects. He has the appearance of guilt, this is enough, and Dunne is sufficiently savvy to know that this is enough. It is he who understands how such coverage works, who predicts exactly what will eventually happen to Santoro after the press makes him into a hero.

DUNNE
What is this, a heroic stand? You’re the wrong guy for it, Rick. You’ll be all alone in the spotlight, and guys like you can’t stand up to that light. You’ll burn up under it. The press starts looking for dirt on you, and they will, it’ll be a mud slide. Forget about your job, your sweet life in Margate. Start thinkin’ about jail! Your girlfriend will be gone, too, at the first sign of trouble, but not before she has a little chat with Angela! So say goodbye to your wife too! Twice a month with Michael won’t be so bad if you can get him to spend a night…in your shitty apartment! You’ll lose it all, my friend! Everything! And your whole connected life will fall the hell apart. Is that what you want? All you gotta do is be consistent, for Christ’s sake.

There is nothing just in this result, it is solely an outcome that this form demands, the end of the villain, though such methods could well condemn an innocent man. Dunne’s killing himself, while it satisfies the need for the villain’s destruction, is something else, which makes it so valuable in our time of exploitation media, indifferent to who the victim is: it is a snuff film, someone committing suicide on camera.

The movie now becomes a tabloid news format, a stark difference from what took place before. The narrative we’ve just left has been a movement from distance, Santoro and the women around him, Santoro and the violence of the fighters, towards empathy, Santoro and Costello, Santoro knowing now what it is to be powerless, what it is to suffer such a beating. Here, in these tabloid stories, there is always distance from the subject, either giving in to worship, Santoro as a hero, or desecration, Santoro as a corrupt cop. The reporter who covers the unfolding scandal is, of course, his old friend Lou, who bribed Santoro for the job.

Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes

LOU
Hey, if you’re gonna be on TV, who better asking you the questions, than your old pal Lou, huh? Plus, I can have two grand cash in an hour and a half.

SANTORO
You are a disgusting human being.

LOU
Hey, five grand in an hour.

SANTORO
Congratulations, Lou. You’re the guy!

LOU
Hey, Rick, I gotta tell you, I will always be there for you, my friend.

LOU V.O.
There have been allegations of bribery coming out of the mayor’s office. Could you comment on those? What about the cocaine–

SANTORO
Cocaine, my ass!

The same line that Santoro used, announcing the pre-conceived villain, is now used on him. He has been selected as the enemy, not a man of many acts, but now only a corrupt cop.

PHOTOGRAPHER V.O.
There he is.

REPORTER V.O.
Richard Santoro’s moment in the public eye produced an unexpected backlash this week as allegations of corruption swirled around him.

His complexities are irrelevant to this form, just as irrelevant as whatever made Dunne “look” guilty. The importance is the footage of Dunne killing himself, of Santoro running in flight, of Santoro in decline. The coverage given is no different than that given to the life of a tumultous actress. Shots of her beautiful, shots of her drunk, shots of her with a new boyfriend, her with a new girlfriend, her with no panties, her with a needle in her arm, her back from re-hab, her now beautiful again, her now no longer alive. What underlies the shots is irrelvant, the value lies in the shots themselves. We are now returned to the same asymmetry as we had in the arena, the possibility to see almost everything, and the amorality of that sight.

We return after this to Costello and Santoro. Santoro, as Dunne predicted, has lost everything and will spend some time in jail. In this last scene, there may or may not be a greater significance in a small gesture. As Santoro lists all that he has lost, it is crushing to us, and we wish for some relief for this man, just as we wanted these two to escape, and were granted this relief. Costello tells of her own achievements, the congressional hearings, and the possibility of reform. She then either does something that is in preparation for a kiss, or a signal that what follows is entirely given as a comfort to the audience. This movie, whose themes revolve around sight, now takes off her glasses. A major point of the film is that Costello is almost blind without them. Yet she removes them, gives Costello a deep kiss, then walks off, among the crowded boardwalk, keeping them off. Given her near lack of sight, how is she able to do this? Again, one may read this as part of a larger romantic gesture, or as a sign that what takes place after she removes the glasses is entirely false, allowing us a return to our own lives. Costello now has a curvaceous, form-fitting top, different from the loose men’s shirt of before. Throughout the movie, she resisted being viewed as sexual, now she initiates intimacies.

Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes

I do not imply that she does not do so on her terms, or that there is no basis for it, only that it is a moment that the audience wants, and that the audience gets, a chosen sight, a milder variation of what Santoro wants and does not want to see, where we too may choose not to see the detail signaling that it’s false. That the final line, “At least I got to be on TV”, is said without regret or bitterness, might be seen as equally false, returning us to the comfortable lie that there is something equitable and just in what is seen, and what is not, and that this man exposed only for the purpose of desecration, is some rare and occasional exception.

* It is actually from a book by Grant Allen, with Wells excerpting his review of the book in his memoir. The criticism is somewhat apt for this character as well, and somewhat not. Julia Costello is less real than a character in a book which might be low or high mimetic, but this movie is very much of the heightened notes of the thriller genre. I include an excerpt of Wells’ excerpt:

“We have endeavoured to piece this character together, and we cannot conceive the living woman. She is, he assures us with a certain pathos, a ‘real woman.’ But one doubts it from the outset. ‘A living proof of the doctrine of heredity’ is her own idea, but that is scarcely the right effect of her. Mr. Grant Allen seems nearer the truth when he describes her as ‘a solid rock of ethical resolution.” Her solidity is witnessed to by allusions to her ‘opulent form’ and the ‘lissom grace of her rounded figure.’ Fancy a girl with an ‘opulent’ form! Her ‘face was, above all things, the face of a free woman,’ a ‘statuesque’ face, and upon this Mr. Grant Allen has[464] chiselled certain inappropriate ‘dimples,’ which mar but do not modify that statuesque quality.”

“Clearly this is not a human being. No more a human being than the women twelve hands tall of the fashion magazines. Had her author respected her less he might have drawn her better. Surely Mr. Grant Allen has lived long enough to know that real women do not have spotless souls and a physical beauty that is invariably overpowering. Real women are things of dietary and secretions, of subtle desires and mental intricacy; even the purest among them have at least beauty spots upon their souls.”

The entire autobiography can be found here

(Images and screenplay excerpts copyright Buena Vista and Touchstone Pictures)

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Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale: The Only Thing Missing Is The Woman Part Two

Part One Part Two

(SPOILERS for FEMME FATALE and BLOW OUT)

THE ETERNAL RETURN

The middle episode of Femme Fatale is commonly described as a “dream” though it is more complicated than that.

As a preface to discussing this, we may look first at the preceding scenes. The Femme Fatale moves through an airport hotel, whose images and characters will recur in the middle episode.

She passes Shiff and Stansfield Phillips, Watts’ lawyer; however, here they appear as business associates, perhaps even a couple, rather than in their position as assistant to Shiff.

Shiff and Stansfield at elevator

She ascends in the elevator, with the maid, carrying champagne. This maid and the champagne, of course, re-appear.

maid with champagne

champagne bucket

Finally, as she walks along the passage, she passes Watts. Two details. The first,

Watts with wedding ring

is that he is wearing a wedding ring. He is married. On the plane, he no longer is.

The second:

Femme Fatale turns around

Femme Fatale keeps walking

Femme Fatale turns around again

The Femme Fatale looks back, twice, at this man. I do not believe this is a look of attraction, but recognition. She has seen him somewhere before, but where?

As she passes to her room, she sees Lily’s parents:

Femme Fatale looks down

Looking down on Lily's parents

This shot is echoed later on, as Nicolas Bardo sees her walk above him along the corridor:

Bardo looks up at Lily

Shot of Bardo looking up

She arrives at the room for her passport, the same room where later she and Bardo meet:

Lily at room 214

Bardo at room 214

She is thrown from the passage, where we get a close-up of her eyes. They have no tears, but we dissolve to a room where rain passes down over the windows.

Eyes of Femme Fatale

rain flowing down

This is a pastoral refuge, filled with flowers of mourning and pictures of animals. Lily is named after a flower, and she wears flower covered dresses. It might be considered a place of traditional feminine poses, female fecundity, the house where Laure is re-born as Lily is surrounded with rain, like the water of the embryo.

Laure picks up one of Lily’s flower print dresses. She hates it. The dress is for the Good Daughter archetype, not her.

Femme Fatale looks at dress

Lily kills herself. Laure looks on, like a voyeur, like Nicolas later on – she is framed by the drapes, as Nicolas is framed by the door when he watches her dance.

Laure looks on at suicide

Bardo looks on at Femme Fatale's lap dance

The scene begins with water streaming down the windows. It is bookended with what looks like a tear on a plane engine. Like this story, it seems to spin endlessly.

close up of plane rotor

Laure boards the plane. She wears an outfit whose color blends in with the color of the surrounding plane; she does not wish to stand out, she wants to blend in.

Femme Fatale on plane

Throughout this episode, the sound of pouring water is always highlighted on the soundtrack. This episode was born in water, the rain about the house, and it will end in water with Laure’s drowning.

On the plane,

water poured on plane

In the cafe with Bardo,

water poured in cafe

At the police station:

water poured at police station

Sitting with Watts. The wedding ring is now gone.

Femme Fatale sitting with Watts on plane

Femme Fatale sitting with Watts on plane no ring now

So, we have the possibility that the people witnessed by Laure become re-animated in this dream, playing slightly different roles, with Shiff and Stansfield Phillips now working for Watts, Watts a single man, etc., the location of the hotel now being re-played in her dream.

There are two obstacles to this hypothesis. A small one is the re-appearance of Pierre, the security guard from the heist sequence in the bar. He, like Shiff and Phillips, has now been placed in a different role. However, based on what we’ve seen, the Femme Fatale never meets or sees Pierre. So, why does he re-appear in this dream?

Pierre at the bar

A more obvious point is Watts as a married man. When Laure first passes him in the hotel, he wears a wedding ring. On the plane, he no longer wears it. This would fit a dream where he is now re-imagined as a single man.

However, after Laure drowns and returns to the pastoral house, we have Laure say the following to Lily, trying to get her to continue living:

LAURE
But if you don’t end it here and you get your ass on that plane to America your future will be sitting right next to you. His name is Bruce and he’s a really good guy and he’s gonna look into your eyes and he’s gonna fall in love.

Watts, outside Laure’s dream, is still single in this future. And, of course, after he meets Lily they are married:

JOHNNY
You know who Bruce Hewitt Watts is?

BARDO
The new American ambassador?

JOHNNY
Bingo. He’s got this wife and three kids but no one seems to have a picture of them.

There is this other point that sticks out in the middle of the movie. Bardo tells Laure about his photo collages:

BARDO
But…there is a square here in Paris full of coffee shops, beautiful, and there is one in particular in a corner, you know, with these light reflections and I saw something that changed my life…

LAURE
It’s a great story, Nicolas.

BARDO
This is the best part!

LAURE
I know. I know. Maybe another time.

We are never told at this juncture what it is that changed Bardo’s life. There is nothing in Bardo’s collage from the middle sequence that shows it, it’s simply the square, almost entirely absent of people, with an overcast sky. We can, however, guess at what he might see that had such an extraordinary effect on him – the image of Laure, in front of the truck reflecting the light, that becomes the center of his collage, but, of course, only in the future.

So, there’s another possibility. That the movie is about the eternal return, the idea of characters and events playing out in infinite variations, the various events in time not one after the other, but actually alongside each other.

I make a quick crib of the idea of the eternal return from Borges’ essay, “Theory of Cycles”:

[The doctrine of cycles] (whose most recent inventor called it the doctrine of the Eternal Return) may be formulatd in the following manner:

The number of all the atoms that compose the world is immense but finite, and as such only capable of a finite (though also immense) number of permutations. In an infinite stretch of time, the number of possible permutations must be run through, and the universe has to repeat itself. Once again you will be born from a belly, once again your skeleton will grow, once again this same page will reach your identical hands, once again you will follow the course of all the hours of your life until that of your incredible death.

Such is the customary order of this argument, from its insipid preliminaries to its enormous and threatening outcome. It is commonly attributed to Nietzsche.

The most well-known variation of this might be Groundhog Day, though it is a variation where the person experiencing the Return is conscious of all past events, and finds the recurrence to be a prison. Here, the characters may only have a vague memory of other lives, a “deja vu”, just like the movie that Laure appears to star in, “Deja Vue”. When Laure turns back and looks at Watts, it is because of this remembrance of having been this man’s wife in another life. The compulsion that causes Bardo to take picture after picture of the square arises from something he remembers from the past, but which he experiences again at the end of the movie.

A clue to the way time exists for the characters in the movie is in the final collage, where the truck reflects the light while by Laure, yet the truck is also in the photo where it is involved in the accident, a few feet from Laure, and at another point, again a few feet distance, Laure receives her passport from Veronica, though this took place years before the other events. Another clue is in the child’s room, where we have a collage of her house, and below, a collage of her at various ages. The photos are of the child at various ages, side by side, just as the photos of her house, taken at various times, lie next to each other.

Collage photos in room of Laure's daughter

Collage photos in room of Laure's daughter

Collage photos in room of Laure's daughter

The characters in the movie are constantly trying to evaluate what will take place through the evidence visible to them. An attempt could be made to deduce the organization of the story of Femme Fatale, but it would fail, since the organization is left ambiguous enough that it remains at the level of the mystic, like the foresight talked about by the TV psychic at Lily’s house.

The archetypes here have been seen in movie after movie, involved in similar actions, voyeurism, theft, blackmail, betrayal, again and again. They have also been in this movie, again and again, variations on a theme, just like Ravel’s Bolero.

THE ONLY THING MISSING IS THE WOMAN

SERRA
What happened, Mr. Bardo was a car belonging to Ambassador Watts was found in your possession.

BARDO
I know, I know that…

SERRA
On the front seat was a gun, bullets, blouse and dress. The only thing missing is the woman.

The Femme Fatale first shows as a transparent, shadowy image projected on the TV screen. She is someone on whom others project an idea, what they wish to believe. Some fault Rebecca Romijn’s french accent as not credible for a french speaker; it should not be credible, because it is not her accent that causes someone like Watts to believe that she’s french, but her beauty.

On the plane, when she meets Watts she is pretending to be the Good Daughter. The Femme Fatale’s chief trait is deception; she plays a few other roles.

She is a princess, living in a castle.

ambassaor's residence

A woman in trouble (here, her reflection also falls on the movie poster of herself drowning).

poster for Deja Vue

The Marilyn Monroesque child-woman unaware of the power of her own sexuality.

Femme Fatale in her underwear

In the middle section, Bardo never connects with her as a woman. She is first an image to be captured, then a figure to be spied on, a tragic figure to be saved. He does not notice, or does not care, how little what he says is of interest to her. This inability to connect is not heroic, and might even be considered by the movie’s author as anti-heroic. This is shown in the most obvious way in the movie’s dress codes, which I believe are the traditional black and white to mark its heroes and villains.

Black Tie and Racine, for instance,

Black Tie and Racine

During the heist, Laure’s in black,

Laure at heist

When she returns to France and must persuade Bardo that she’s being driven to suicide by her husband’s beatings, she tries to disguise her nature, and dresses in white,

Femme Fatale in white

When it’s revealed that she’s behind the hostage plot, she goes back to black. Bardo, however, is not a hero. He might be a proxy for the audience, but for almost the entire movie, he dresses in black as well:

Femme Fatale and Bardo in black clothes

When Laure does her strip tease, both Napoleon and Bardo are voyeurs. First, Napoleon forces himself on Laure, then Bardo. Bardo has sex with equal contempt for Laure as Napoleon might have. Napoleon, however, serves as the scapegoat for this, first as voyeur (though Bardo looks on as well),

Bardo as voyeur

then for the assault,

Napoleon assaults the Femme Fatale

which allows Bardo to play the role of hero, though he then does the same thing Napoleon was about to:

Bardo assaults Femme Fatale

The only thing missing, underneath it all, is the woman. The men project onto her images they want to believe of her, yet the veil never falls of what’s beneath, though in this case it cannot fall – she is this archetype, and there cannot be anything underneath, only the illusion that there is something underneath, a mystery finally revealed to the right man.

The mystery may be simpler and more obvious; that this is a woman not attracted to men. Her sexual intimacy with Veronica seems very sincere, as intimate as anything she does with the men later. There is a quick shot of friendly intimacy between the two I never see in the movie between Laure and any man.

Laure and Veronica

The movie at the beginning is Double Indemnity with Barbara Stanwyck, an actress who always had a strongly hinted attraction to other women, without ever being fully out*. If we can speak of symbols linking characters, we have the hats of both Veronica and Laure bent in the very same way:

Femme Fatale with bent hat

Veronica with bent hat

That “bent” is sometimes slang for someone attracted to their own sex I leave out there, though make no definite conclusions.

From some of the last lines between the women:

LAURE
Not bad for a night’s work, huh?

VERONICA
You call that work?

Her dialogue with Bardo during the seduction scene is entirely unsubtle, without the possibility of attraction between a man and a woman, simple flattery of a man who is childish and she is not interested in any way,

BARDO
Are you flirting?

LAURE
Was I?

BARDO
I believe so, yeah.

LAURE
I didn’t mean to…

LAURE
It’s just that all your boyhood stories make you so damn lovable.

She passes off Watts to Lily without any regret. If he is such a good guy, you would think there would be at least the sense of sacrifice, that she is losing the possibility of a good man in her own life, but there is nothing of the kind.

That there are these cues of the Femme Fatale’s sexual orientation which are ignored, might be echoed in the scene in the bar at the bridge. It is a bar entirely filled with men, and only men, with the exception of Laure, with all the men dressed in leather.

Femme Fatale at leather bar

This, one would think, is almost a stereotypical gay bar. Yet despite the appearances, it is assumed that all the men want to have sex with this woman. This may be an unintended effect, but I don’t believe it is.

After falling from the bridge, the Femme Fatale is naked, though not the sensual nudity that a man might want, but almost a return to a pure state. She is outside her costume, in effect, outside her archetype. It is after this point that she helps Lily, and their lives diverge again.

Femme Fatale underwater

The movie ends now with the deaths of Racine and Black Tie, rather than Laure being drowned. A note on scapegoats from Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism is appropriate,

The fact that we are now in an ironic phase of literature largely accounts for the popularity of the detective story, the formula of how a man-hunter locates a pharmakos [scapegoat] and gets rid of him. The detective story begins in the Sherlock Holmes period as an intensification of low mimetic [realistic tradition], in the sharpening of attention to details that makes the dullest and most neglected trivia of daily living leap into mysterious and fateful significance. But as we move further away from this we move toward a ritual drama around a corpse in which a wavering finger of social condemnation passes over a group of “suspects” and finally settles on one. The sense of a victim chosen by lot is very strong, for the case against him is only plausibly manipulated. If it were really inevitable, we should have tragic irony, as in Crime and Punishment, where Raskolnikov’s crime is so interwoven with his character that there can be no question of any “whodunit” mystery. In the growing brutality of the crime story (a brutality protected by the convention of the form, as it is conventionally impossible that the man-hunter can be mistaken in believing that one of his suspects is a murderer), detection begins to merge with the thriller as one of the forms of melodrama. In melodrama two themes are important: the triumph of moral virtue over villainy, and the consequent idealizing of the moral views assumed to be held by the audience. In the melodrama of the brutal thriller we come as close as it is normally possible for art to come to the pure self-righteousness of the lynching mob.

I don’t think we can speak of Black Tie or Racine as bad in the way of Raskolnikov; Raskolnikov must choose to commit evil. The Femme Fatale, Black Tie, Racine are archetypes conceived to only perform evil.

Racine and Black Tie are skewered in public,

Black Tie and Racine dead

an elaborate, exhibitionist death which suggests sacrifice, just as throwing a woman to the waters suggests a sacrifice, a ritual sacrifice for sin. That these men are killed does not, I think, imply a more just or karmic moral order than if a double crossing woman who kills two men is in turn killed by her old crime partners – it would not be difficult to conceive of a movie ending that way, and there may well be movies that end such a way. That the characters who die are stand-ins for racial or gender types that the audience wishes to see hurt or humiliated, is an obvious point, but one that I won’t go into here.

The last question is whether, by movie’s end, Laure is still the Femme Fatale archetype. In terms of the color codes just mentioned, she now dresses in white. Bardo, for the first time in the movie, now dresses in white, rather than black,

Bardo in white on balcony

When seeing the accident, she places her hand to her mouth in shock, a gesture she never makes before, a gesture of an innocent rather than a hardened criminal. It is a gesture that Lily makes as well.

Lily hand over mouth

Femme Fatale hand over mouth

Laure wears white with some dirt on it – the slightly soiled virgin.

Femme Fatale and Bardo

A hint that this is just another pose is the bra that lies underneath the clothes – it’s black. Another might be the last shot, where Bardo remains in frame, a look of puzzlement, while she is already off-screen, the space next to Bardo empty except for the distant background. Bardo remains the patsy. The woman is missing again.

Bardo confused

The final dialogue:

BARDO
You look so familiar. Haven’t we met before somewhere?

THE FEMME FATALE
Only in my dreams.

Bardo’s line, however stale, is truly meant – he has seen her before, in the sequences he’s been in, again and again. Her line, I believe, is ironic. The images we have seen of her, are not her own dreams, but dreams of others where she plays an intended role. That she now be a redeemed innocent, though a gorgeous one, who can now fall in love with a man, is another role asked of her, not one she asks for. The movie ends with some melancholy piano that resolves itself into Ravel’s “Bolero”.


* An interview late in her life for the book Hollywood Lesbians by Boze Hadleigh gives some insight on this. The interview itself is fitting for this movie and this post, as it itself has the dramatic quality of a film noir.

[Boze Hadleigh]: Since you mention it…There’s a list – I did not compile it – that came out in 1981 in a paper called the Hollywood Star, of seventy bisexual Hollywood actresses.
[Barbara Stanwyck]: [Slowly.] I never saw it.
BH: If you wanted to see it, I have the half page with the headline, and the full page, from inside, with the list of seventy.
BS: You may show it to me. [I do, she unfolds the headline, then the full page list; the name on the top left is Barbara Stanwyck, but I don't dare congratulate her on her top billing. She studies the list, eyes opening wider a few times, then hands it back to me impassively.]
BH: This followed a list they’d published of bisexual actors. Did you see on the top right? It says, “Although many of the listed actresses prefer both men and women, it has no bearing on their talent as actresses.”
BS: [Pause.] It’s a star studded list, isn’t it?
BH: Not in alphabetical order…
BS: [Sharply.] I’d like you to give me the list. You don’t mind [reaches for it; I yield it up].

Part One Part Two

Femme Fatale script and images copyright Warner Bros; Blow Out images copyright MGM.

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Brian De Palma’s Black Dahlia, James Ellroy’s Black Dahlia Part Five

PART ONE PART TWO PART THREE PART FOUR PART FIVE

(This post contains spoilers for the movie The Black Dahlia, as well as the novel by James Ellroy. On March 26th, 2014, the pictures on this series of posts were updated with richer, larger images that were also, unfortunately, no longer theatrical widescreen, due to the cropping on the DVD.)

THE UPSIDE OF CAMP

The tropes of Black Dahlia are those of noir, a genre native to american film and Los Angeles, with such standards as vertical blinds, smoking, a femme fatale, the rich sisters of The Big Sleep, a love triangle, no doubt others. These are all ritual elements, as recognizable as aspects of a christian painting, and they are supposed to be given proper veneration, homage to mystic relics. De Palma does something different, not openly desecrating for cheap laughs, but bending them through camp elements. The noir elements do not make a film great any more than a 19th century sitting room makes for a serious film, anymore than anything that features a harpsichord is “serious” music. The movie Dahlia takes in noir elements and upends each of them.

Consider the possibility that the hypotheses of the previous posts are true. Then this film is about an alpha male, Lee Blanchard, who is actually gay; Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert, a bisexual man attracted to both Blanchard and his appearances only girlfriend, Kay Lake; she is a woman of moral purity who tries to make sure that her male rival for Bleichert’s affections is killed, so they can both live happily after together on his stolen money. The story also features the classic trope of a femme fatale, Madeleine Linscott, as well as another classic trope (around since Laura), the girl who is a double for a dead woman. In this movie, however, Madeleine looks nothing like her double, but she does seem like a double for Bleichert, and shares his bisexuality. The dead woman, the Dahlia of the title, is an afterthought to the whole story, which is eventually solved through a baroque solution, and given a baroque presentation. This dead woman, a brutalized victim, is supposed to be the centerpiece of the plot, but she’s overshadowed by Kay and Madeleine, who seem to be smarter than almost all of the men of the story, and are very good at manipulating them. Madeleine sees very clearly the corruption of Kay and Blanchard, as well as the sexual identity of Bleichert. The detective, threatened by all this, kills her. So, the expected noir story, though outwardly little different and carrying all the identifying details, is turned entirely on its head.

Probably the best, most obvious place to start this discussion is near the ending, when Ramona Linscott confesses to the murder. From here on I rely, and perhaps overrely, on Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” for reference. Sontag throws a very wide net over what she considers camp, including Caravaggio and The Maltese Falcon, but her essay is very useful for the expected thoughtfulness, but also for being so well-known that it serves as an easy touchstone on what is broadly considered camp, even if we disagree with some of its inclusions and exclusions. The essay warns against intentional attempts at camp, and here, I think De Palma is very effective, because the camp effects of the film prompted reviewers to ask the wanted question: “was that done on purpose?”

The Ramona Linscott scene is helped with this “Camp” quote on high art, which I think is important here as a counterpoint for what the movie tries to avoid:

35. Ordinarily we value a work of art because of the seriousness and dignity of what it achieves. We value it because it succeeds – in being what it is and, presumably, in fulfilling the intention that lies behind it. We assume a proper, that is to say, straightforward relation between intention and performance. By such standards, we appraise The Iliad, Aristophanes’ plays, The Art of the Fugue, Middlemarch, the paintings of Rembrandt, Chartres, the poetry of Donne, The Divine Comedy, Beethoven’s quartets, and – among people – Socrates, Jesus, St. Francis, Napoleon, Savonarola. In short, the pantheon of high culture: truth, beauty, and seriousness.

The Linscott confession scene starts out like most such scenes in a conventional noir: the detective has the suspects at the point of a gun, and he threatens them to confess. In the book, Bleichert starts destroying works of art by shooting some of them as a way of getting answers. The novel, as it treats many things, treats this very seriously. In the film, it is given such a ridiculous, heightened quality that it’s laughable. Various high art objects are destroyed, valued not for their qualities themselves, but their “seriousness”, and most important for a family whose fortune was built on firetraps, for their “respectability”. So, Bleichert shoots these various pieces, the movie defiantly avoiding formal seriousness. A chandelier falls to the ground, the high art is destroyed, and the camp really starts.

The novel’s confession contains many of the same elements as Ramona’s, but even more elaborate and morbid. It is all given in a sober tone, an inquiry into the darkness of the soul, very much serious art. I enjoyed most of the book, but found the final revelation to be so complex and gory I kept trying to reshuffle things in my head to make it more effective. De Palma seems to have found it unworkably baroque, and given it an appropriate delivery. Rather than a serious monologue, it’s delivered from the top of the stairs like an aria without music. Various pieces of high culture lie smashed about the players, and only camp remains. I have no doubt that some review made reference to Goebbels’ line about “when I hear the word culture”, and, hopefully, gave credit to someone other than Goebbels, since the intent here is not against high culture, only an opposition to the idea that certain forms or tropes are inherently great or serious. The destruction of the serious art and the lurid monologue are about this movie’s sensibility, but also a manifesto for De Palma’s career, a non-deference for respectable stories, the nineteenth century romance, someone or other dying of cancer etc., in favor of work in “trashy” popular genres.

Moving on, this “Notes on Camp” point, I think, is very relevant to this film:

15. [...] To camp is a mode of seduction — one which employs flamboyant mannerisms susceptible of a double interpretation; gestures full of duplicity, with a witty meaning for cognoscenti and another, more impersonal, for outsiders. Equally and by extension, when the word becomes a noun, when a person or a thing is “a camp,” a duplicity is involved. Behind the “straight” public sense in which something can be taken, one has found a private zany experience of the thing.

But most importantly, this:

The androgyne is certainly one of the great images of Camp sensibility. Examples: the swooning, slim, sinuous figures of pre-Raphaelite painting and poetry; the thin, flowing, sexless bodies in Art Nouveau prints and posters, presented in relief on lamps and ashtrays; the haunting androgynous vacancy behind the perfect beauty of Greta Garbo. Here, Camp taste draws on a mostly unacknowledged truth of taste: the most refined form of sexual attractiveness (as well as the most refined form of sexual pleasure) consists in going against the grain of one’s sex. What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine. . . . Allied to the Camp taste for the androgynous is something that seems quite different but isn’t: a relish for the exaggeration of sexual characteristics and personality mannerisms. For obvious reasons, the best examples that can be cited are movie stars. The corny flamboyant female-ness of Jayne Mansfield, Gina Lollobrigida, Jane Russell, Virginia Mayo; the exaggerated he-man-ness of Steve Reeves, Victor Mature. The great stylists of temperament and mannerism, like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Tallulah Bankhead, Edwige Feuillière.

This idea, I think, dominates the film, and we are given a quick image which embodies the way the film’s camp undermines the seriousness of the noir form in a crucial scene.

There is the bust of a man which, frankly I can’t identify (my only guess is Thomas Jefferson), but no doubt a possible member of the group of serious individuals (Socrates, Jesus, St. Francis, Napoleon, Savonarola, etc.) mentioned in the previous “Camp” note, in the sequence at the Olympic:

Then, from behind this piece of serious art, appears the androgyne, “one of the great images of Camp sensibility”, Madeleine in her man’s suit.

Two other moments where the picture clearly tips its hand. Bleichert walks into a room after showing off his behind to the camera, and looks at the audience, as if aware he’s in a movie and they’re looking at him.

He goes about the business of exposition in the scene, necessary for the later confession, before arriving at a picture that catches his attention. It’s a picture of The Man Who Laughs, laughing at whoever looks at it.

In this case, it is, literally, laughing at these characters and the noir ritual of exposition. “I don’t get modern art,” says Bleichert. “I doubt modern art gets you either,” replies Madeleine.

The last, and my favorite, wink would be the scene at the dinner table. In the book, Martha, Madeleine’s sister, is an unattractive, malicious girl who is silent during dinner while she sketches Bleichert. Martha of the movie is a bright, vital, attractive woman (the excellent Rachel Miner) who carries on a normal conversation, one might call it a small investigation, with Bleichert.

On the surface, it is entirely an ordinary conversation. At the same time, Bleichert and Madeleine are being rendered into parody figures.

The characters of the movie are not parodies, and if they were, camp wouldn’t be possible. Yet they all have an exaggerated note to them, that may not entirely be noticed, since noir is full of these exaggerated notes.

THE DOWNSIDE OF CAMP

By treating his characters as surfaces, individuals who correspond outwardly to noir types but are very different underneath, De Palma makes a fascinating movie, but by doing so, something compelling is lost from the book.

I struggled to put what this is into words, but this fragment from “The Dragon’s Egg”, by Adam Gopnik, which discusses the compelling qualities of young adult fiction, is a good starting point:

Books win their audiences for a reason. Most popular books wear their artlessness on their sleeve: Stephenie Meyer, the author of the “Twilight” series, is an awkward writer with little feeling for construction, but the intensity of emotion with which she imbues her characters is enviable. You never doubt her commitment to the material, which is half the battle won.

Ellroy is a better writer than Meyer, though not, despite his claims, as good as Tolstoy. Whatever the weaknesses of his books, his commitment to the Dahlia is complete and unfeigned, his belief in the writing of books as a penitence through which damned individuals expose the authors own damnations, and redeem themselves through heroic acts the author himself wishes for, is complete, a quality of extraordinary importance in a writer, one unlearned and unlearnable. The obsessions of Bleichert and Madeleine are either Ellroy’s own, or felt to be Ellroy’s own, and like Meyer this gives Dahlia an intensity of emotion that is enviable. De Palma has had no difficulty with commitment to characters of similar obsessions, whether in Blow Out or Casualties of War, but in this case, he does not connect with these men and women. It may be because that there is something inherent in the material that does not allow him this commitment, that in his movies he always skeptically questioned his own obsessions, while in Ellroy’s Dahlia one is given nothing but the man’s obsession, unquestioned. Such examination of the motives of those who make movies and books is always an unreliable business, I like to avoid it, and I end it here.

What is best examined are the effects of books and movies, what they attempt to achieve, and how they do so. On those terms, I think the approach of both is very different. De Palma’s Dahlia is ostensibly about a man possessed by a woman, with every element subverting this very story, with the movie ultimately about the false aspects of these heroic fantasies, the roles it forces women to play, the roles men dearly want to play in these fantasies, and makes camp of both. Ellroy is so deep inside his obsessions in Dahlia that he has no possibility of skepticism, and his belief in this world allows for our belief as well, locating our obsessions, however different, in Bleichert and Madeleine. The distance of camp does not allow this, and this is what causes some to despise the camp and ironic approaches. In some contexts, camp and irony are seen as a diminishment of possibility, the empathy any reader or viewer has with some characters. It is possible to cherish the characters of Jane Austen; I’m unsure if it’s possible to cherish the characters of John Barth. De Palma’s Dahlia has such sympathy for one character only, looked at entirely without any bend or slant, and that’s Elizabeth Short, a troubled young woman of luminescent beauty who conveniently dies, allowing her image to persist for the machineries of obsession, fantasies of the characters and our own. Again, the quote from Ellroy’s The Big Nowhere is apt: “Downtown came and went; the woman stayed.”

PART ONE PART TWO PART THREE PART FOUR PART FIVE

Images and Screenplay Copyright Universal Pictures, Millennium Films, Equity Pictures, and associated producers.

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Brian De Palma’s Black Dahlia, James Ellroy’s Black Dahlia Part Four

PART ONE PART TWO PART THREE PART FOUR PART FIVE

(This post contains spoilers for the movie The Black Dahlia, as well as the novel by James Ellroy. On March 26th, 2014, the pictures on this series of posts were updated with richer, larger images that were also, unfortunately, no longer theatrical widescreen, due to the cropping on the DVD.)

THE AMBIGUITIES OF KAY LAKE

An auburn haired beauty of the novel is now a blonde. A character of the book that is thin all over, waiflike – as Blanchard likes them – is now bodacious. This last is not, I think, due to any low appetites, but fits with the movie’s schematic. Blanchard loathes himself for what he is, so he seeks a woman who exudes feminity, a buxom, rather than a reedy figure. She should also embody fertility, the wealth and bounty of the food on her dinner table and her pristine house. That there may be an ugliness underlying all this, migrant labor and stolen water for the California agriculture, secret bargains and blood money for the house, are all things that can be thought about later.

She is a wounded woman, branded with scars by her former pimp, Bobby De Witt, and still shaped by her experiences with this man. She is also very, very smart, “always the smarter of the two of us”, says Bleichert in the book, and this, despite appearances, is true in the movie, all the way through. In the book, her major switches from pre-med, psychology, English lit, and then history; in the movie she has a masters in history.

I’ll start with a succinct outline of the movie’s Kay as I see it. She is a woman who has gone through horrific experiences, found a protector, Blanchard, but one who she is deeply unhappy with. She wants to abandon this man, for another protector, Bleichert, but he refuses to betray his partner. She is either directly complicit in having the first man killed, or tries to make sure that it is more likely that he will die. It is convenient that this man die for another reason: he is her romantic rival for Bleichert’s affections.

When this new man takes over, she must make sure that they are bound together, first through sex, then by a secret, that the beautiful home they live in was bought with stolen money. She is throughout this, like I said, very smart, and simply plays stupid in order for her schemes to work, this stupidity accepted without question by Bleichert, but also by the audience, who don’t consider the possibility that a blonde might just be playing at dullheadedness. Kay does not act out of pointless malice, but because she knows first-hand the viciousness of this life. In her audition tape, Betty Short plays on the line from Gone With The Wind: “As god as my witness, I’ll never go hungry again…even if I have to lie…or cheat…or steal…I’ll never go hungry again.” This is something like Kay’s credo. It should also be said that this theory goes entirely against Kay’s image in the film, which is, essentially, a passive victim.

I show here a series of images of Kay from the film, from beginning to end. They give a sense, I think, of a woman who is saucy, witty, with a piercing look, slowly hiding herself, giving herself an exterior of a dull-minded, passive, child-like figure, occasionally a hysteric. This is an exterior society prefers, but it’s also necessary for her own ends.

Our introduction:

At the gym. This is when Kay reveals that she and Lee don’t sleep together:

A brief glimpse of the image Kay will become. The night of the shoot-out with Baxter Fitch and associates, and when Bleichert tells her about the return of Bobby De Witt. She freezes up, and her face becomes a mask:

This is the last scene where we see this old Kay. Her eyes are probing. It’s the moment when she asks Bleichert, “what about us?”, wanting to be with him, and he refuses to betray his partner:

Now, it starts. We, the audience are almost always with Bleichert, moving with him. One of the few exceptions is when the camera pulls away from the detectives prior to the Baxter Fitch shoot-out. The other times are with Kay. Here, we are in the house with Kay for a few seconds before Bleichert arrives. When she hears the door, she arranges her character, touching her eyes, lighting her cigarette.

During this scene, Bleichert presses her on where Blanchard is. She may have a nervous tic about her mouth, it may be a tell. I don’t think this tic ever shows up again:

The night they have sex for the first time:

She asks Dwight to repair the kitchen tile. While he’s there, again, for one of the only times in the film, we are away from Bleichert, and with her. What does she do, after the man who protected and rescued her dies? She pours drinks. Why does she do this at this point, when Bleichert’s removing the tile? Because she knows what he’ll find. Her old protector is dead. She now has a new one, and she wants to celebrate: the money and sex will now make them partners. This makes me think of nothing other than when a femme fatale celebrates after they kill her husband together. She pours the drinks, and ascends the staircase, going up, as characters do in this movie, to damnation:

But Bleichert surprises her. He is still connected with a very sentimental image of Blanchard. She plays this very stupid:

This causes Bleichert to bolt from the house, to return to Madeleine. When Kay arrives at the mansion and confronts them, she is a shrieky harridan. Again, she plays the facts about the money very stupid:

Bleichert kills Madeleine and returns to Kay. This is the last image of her, and it is a very different Kay than the one of the beginning:

I go now through the movie’s scenes that feature only Kay and Bleichert, contrast it with its equivalent in the book, and point how the intent each time has subtly been changed.

The meeting with Kay where she first prompts him about having an affair:

I found Kay in her usual weeknight posture–reading on the living room couch. She didn’t look up when I walked in, she just blew a lazy smoke ring and said, “Hi, Dwight.”

I took a chair across the coffee table from her. “How’d you know it was me?”

Kay circled a passage in the book. “Lee stomps, you tread cautiously.”

I laughed. “It’s symbolic, but don’t tell anybody.” Kay stubbed out her cigarette and put the book down.

“You sound worried.”

I said, “Lee’s all bent out of shape on the dead girl. He got us detached to work the investigation when we should be going after a priority warrantee, and he’s taking Benzedrine and starting to go a little squirrely. Has he told you about her?”

Kay nodded. “A little.”

“Have you read the papers?”

“I’ve avoided them.”

“Well, the girl is being played up as the hottest number since the atom bomb. There’s a hundred men working a single homicide, Ellis Loew’s looking to get fat off of it, Lee’s cuckoo on the subject–” Kay disarmed my tirade with a smile. “And you were front page news on Monday, but you’re stale bread today. And you want to go after your big bad robber man and get yourself another headline.”

“Touché, but that’s only part of it.”

“I know. Once you got the headline, you’d hide out and not read the papers.”

I sighed. “Jesus, I wish you weren’t so much smarter than me.”

“And I wish you weren’t so cautious and complicated. Dwight, what is going to happen with us?”

“The three of us?”

“No, us.”

I looked around the living room, all wood and leather and Deco chromium. There was a glass-fronted mahogany cabinet; it was filled with Kay’s cashmere sweaters, all the shades of the rainbow at forty dollars a pop. The woman herself, South Dakota white trash molded by a cop’s love, sat across from me, and for once I said exactly what was on my mind. “You’d never leave him. You’d never leave this. Maybe if you did, maybe if Lee and I were quits as partners, maybe then we’d have a chance together. But you’d never give it all up.”

Kay took her time lighting a cigarette. Exhaling a breath of smoke, she said, “You know what he’s done for me?”

I said, “And for me.”

The scene in the movie:

KAY
Hello Dwight.

DWIGHT
How’d you know it was me?

KAY
Lee stomps. Is Lee working late? What’s wrong?

DWIGHT
He’s all bent out of shape over this dead girl. He’s getting all squirrely. Benzedrine, I think. Did you read the papers? She’s been played up as the hottest number since the atom bomb. Ellis Loew’s gonna make a career out of this, and Lee’s not far behind.

KAY
What about you?

DWIGHT
What about me?

KAY
What’s gonna happen to us, Dwight?

DWIGHT
The three of us…

KAY
No, us. Just the two of us.

DWIGHT
Kay, there is no two of us. He’s my partner.

KAY
That’s everything.

DWIGHT
He’s done a lot for me.

KAY
He’s done even more for me. There’s food in the fridge. Good night.

In the book, the relationship wouldn’t be possible because of Kay. She wouldn’t leave this man or this life. The movie shifts the choice entirely to Bleichert who won’t betray this man. “He’s my partner”, and I think we should read a secondary meaning to that, of a union that rivals what he has with Kay.

It is right after this scene that she tries to tempt him in her nightdress. He refuses, and she slams the door on him:

Next, a scene whose small changes give an entirely different light to the relationship between Blanchard, Bleichert, Lake.

Blanchard has taken Dahlia case files home, Kay is very upset and throws them out, Bleichert comes along in the middle of the action.

Pulling up, I saw Kay storming out the door and down the steps, hurling an armful of paper onto the lawn, then storming back while Lee stormed beside her, shouting and waving his arms. I walked over and knelt beside the discarded pile; the papers were carbons of LAPD report forms. Sifting through them, I saw FIs, evidence indexes, questioning reports, tip lists and a complete autopsy protocol–all with “E. Short, W.F. D.O.D. 1/15/47″ typed at the top. They were obviously bootlegged from University Station–and the very possession of them was enough to guarantee Lee a suspension from duty.

Kay came back with another load, shouting, “After all that’s happened, all that might happen, how can you do this? It’s sick and it’s insane!” She dumped the papers beside the other pile; 39th and Norton glossies glinted up at me. Lee grabbed her by the arms and held her while she squirmed. “Goddamnit, you know what this is to me. You _know_. Now I’ll rent a room to keep the stuff in, but babe, you stick by me on this. It’s _mine_, and I need you . . . and you _know_.”

They noticed me then. Lee said, “Bucky, you tell her. You reason with her.”

It was the funniest Dahlia circus line I’d heard so far. “Kay’s right. You’ve pulled at least three misdemeanors on this thing, and it’s getting out–” I stopped, thinking of what _I’d_ pulled, and where I was going at midnight. Looking at Kay, I shifted gears. “I promised him a week on it. That means four more days. On Wednesday it’s over.”

Kay sighed, “Dwight, you can be so gutless sometimes,” then walked into the house. Lee opened his mouth to say something funny. I kicked a path through official LAPD paper to my car.

Almost entirely the same scene.

KAY
I’m not having this in my house anymore. It is sick and insane. After all that’s happened, all that might happen…

BLANCHARD
Talk to her Bucky, reason with her.

BUCKY (WHISPER)
Jesus.

This is where it departs from the book. The visual aspect is crucial.

BUCKY
Lee, she’s right. There’s at least three misdemeanours, here. You can’t…

BLANCHARD stares pleadingly at him.

BUCKY
I promised him a week on this, four more days, and then it’s over.

KAY
Bucky, you can be so gutless some time, you know that?

In the novel, Bleichert holds himself back from rebuking Blanchard because of the impropriety of his liaison with Madeleine, and that he’s arranged sex with her in return for not bringing her name into the investigation. Bleichert hasn’t spoken to Madeleine yet at this point in the movie, so that isn’t what holds him back. It’s entirely his connection with Blanchard, and his movement back and forth between the man and the woman is about the rivalry the two have for his feelings.

The scene ends with Bucky’s voiceover. I bold a part that might have a double meaning.

BUCKY V.O.
Three days since we killed four men. Three days till Bobby De Witt got out. I tried to tell myself that I was the straight leg in this triangle. I was worried it was true.

Now, perhaps the most important moment between Kay and Bleichert. There is no equivalent in the book. Blanchard has gone to meet De Witt.

KAY
You’re famous, Dwight. [about a newspaper headline on the failure of the two cops to capture Raymond Nash]

DWIGHT
Notorious. Where’s Lee?

KAY doesn’t answer.

DWIGHT
Bobby De Witt’s probably in LA right now.

KAY
Lee always said I’d be safe.

DWIGHT
You will be. You will be.

DWIGHT reaches out and holds KAY’s hand.

KAY
He had a sister.

DWIGHT
What?

KAY
He had a little sister. She was killed when he was fifteen and they never caught the guy.

DWIGHT
What? Why didn’t you tell me this before?

KAY
He made me promise never to tell you. He thought it made him too easy to figure.

DWIGHT
Well, that explains some things.

KAY
No, it doesn’t.

DWIGHT
Kay, where’s Lee?

KAY doesn’t answer.

DWIGHT
If you know, you should tell me.

KAY doesn’t answer.

DWIGHT
Kay…Bobby De Witt just got out. Lee’s all hopped up on Benzedrines, what do you think’s gonna happen?

KAY doesn’t answer.

DWIGHT
Where is he?

KAY
Morrie Friedman called a couple of hours ago.

DWIGHT
The guy from New Year’s?

KAY
Bobby’s got a drug deal somewhere…a building Friedman owns, the Olympic I think.

DWIGHT
When?

KAY
Now.

DWIGHT rushes up to leave.

KAY
Dwight.

Kay knows that Lee is going to meet De Witt. She knows that Lee might be in danger. If she wants De Witt killed, it would seem she would have no difficulty telling Bleichert right away about the deal so he can get there immediately to help his partner. But she holds out on the information, delaying as much and as long as possible. My belief is that she does this so Bleichert is not there to help Blanchard. In order that Blanchard be killed.

A contrast now between how the novel treats Bleichert’s return to Kay after he finds out about the death of Blanchard. The novel has Blanchard dying off-scene in Mexico:

Dawn was pushing up over the Hollywood Hills when I knocked on Kay’s door. I stood on the porch shivering, storm clouds and streaks of sunlight looming as strange things I didn’t want to see. I heard “Dwight?” inside, followed by the sound of bolts being unlatched. Then the other remaining partner in the Blanchard/Bleichert/Lake triad was there, saying, “And all that.”

It was an epitaph I didn’t want to hear.

I walked inside, stunned at how strange and pretty the living room was. Kay said, “Lee’s dead?” I sat down in his favorite chair for the first time. “The Rurales or some Mexican woman or her friends killed him. Oh, babe, I–“

Using Lee’s endearment jarred me. I looked at Kay, standing by the door, backlighted by the weird sunstreaks. “He hired the Rurales to kill DeWitt, but that doesn’t mean shit. We’ve got to get Russ Millard and some decent Mexican cops on it . .

I stopped, noticing the phone on the coffee table. I started dialing the padre’s home number. Kay’s hand halted me. “No. I want to talk to you first.”

The scene in the movie is almost entirely non-verbal, has a different reaction from Bleichert, perhaps a response to a different, more intimate, though not physically intimate, bond between the men. Bleichert simply starts sobbing and can’t stop, even after Kay comes out and asks him what’s wrong.

Later, they try to have dinner, without Blanchard. Bleichert blames himself for his partner’s death, that his immobility at a crucial point doomed his friend.

BLEICHERT
I couldn’t move…I couldn’t move. I didn’t move. I never move. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Kay, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. (under his breath) I could’ve saved him. I could’ve saved him.

This, strikes a strange note for me: Bleichert is almost in constant motion on the stairs, trying to save his friend until he’s knocked unconscious. It isn’t Bleichert whose immobility may have led to Blanchard’s death but Kay’s; she is the one who stayed silent, not answering his questions about where Blanchard was, perhaps keeping him from reaching the Olympic till it was too late.

After Bleichert returns from Mexico, the novel has Kay tell him the full story of Blanchard’s involvement in the robbery. That it was he who did the robbery, blaming it on her pimp, De Witt. A lengthy excerpt:

I moved from the chair to the couch; Kay sat beside me. She said, “You’ll hurt Lee if you go crazy with this.”

That was when I knew she’d been expecting it; that was when I knew she knew more than I did. “You can’t hurt something dead.”

“Oh, yes you can, babe.”

“Don’t call me that! That’s his!”

Kay moved closer and touched my cheek. “You can hurt him and you can hurt us.”

I pulled away from the caress. “You tell me why, _babe_.”

Kay cinched the belt on her robe and fixed me with a cold look. “I didn’t meet Lee at Bobby’s trial,” she said. “I met him before. We became friends, and I lied about where I was staying so Lee wouldn’t know about Bobby. Then he found out on his own, and I told him how bad it was, and he told me about a business opportunity he had coming up. He wouldn’t tell me the details, and then Bobby was arrested for bank robbery and everything was chaos.

“Lee planned the robbery and got three men to help him. He’d bought his way out of his contract with Ben Siegel [Blanchard's boxing contract], and it cost him every cent he’d made as a boxer. Two of the men were killed during the robbery, one escaped to Canada, and Lee was the fourth. Lee framed Bobby because he hated him for what he did to me. Bobby didn’t know we were seeing each other, and we made it look like we met at the trial. Bobby knew it was a frame, but he didn’t suspect Lee, just the LAPD in general.

“Lee wanted to give me a home, and he did. He was very cautious with his part of the robbery money, and he always talked up his boxing savings and his gambling so the brass wouldn’t think he was living above his means. He hurt his career by living with a woman, even though we weren’t together that way. It was like a happy fairy tale until last fall, right after you and Lee became partners.”

I moved toward Kay, awed by Lee as the most audacious rogue cop in history. “I knew he had it in him.”

Kay drew away from me. “Let me finish before you get sentimental. When Lee heard about Bobby getting an early parole date, he went to Ben Siegel to try to get him killed. He was afraid of Bobby talking about me, upsetting our fairy tale with all the ugly things he knew about yours truly. Siegel wouldn’t do it, and I told Lee it didn’t matter, that there were three of us now and the truth couldn’t hurt us. Then, right before New Year’s, the third man from the robbery showed up. He knew that Bobby De Witt was getting out on parole, and he made a blackmail demand: Lee was to pay him ten thousand dollars, or he would tell Bobby that Lee masterminded the robbery and framed him.

“The man said Lee’s deadline was Bobby’s release date. Lee put him off, then went to Ben Siegel to try to borrow the money. Siegel wouldn’t do it, and Lee begged him to have the man killed. He wouldn’t do that either. Lee learned that the man hung out with some Negroes who sold marijuana, and he–“

I saw it coming, huge and black like the headlines it got me, Kay’s words the new fine print: “That man’s name was Baxter Fitch. Siegel wouldn’t help Lee, so he got you. The men were armed, so I guess you were legally justified, and I guess you were damn lucky that no one looked into it. It’s the one thing I can’t forgive him for, the one thing I hate myself for tolerating. Still feeling sentimental, triggerman?”

I couldn’t answer; Kay did it for me. “I didn’t think so. I’ll finish up, and you tell me if you still want revenge.

“The Short thing happened then, and Lee latched on to it for his little sister and who knows what else. He was terrified that Fitch had already talked to Bobby, that Bobby knew about the frame. He wanted to kill him or have him killed, and I begged and pleaded with him to just let it be, no one would believe Bobby, so just don’t hurt anybody else. If it wasn’t for that fucking dead girl I might have convinced him. But the case went down to Mexico, and so did Bobby and Lee and you. I knew that the fairy tale was over. And it is.”

This information, some of this information, is not freely given by Kay in the movie. She only tells it when angrily prompted by Bleichert after he discovers the money in the bathroom:

KAY
I always wondered where he kept it.

BUCKY
Were you ever gonna tell me?

KAY
He’d given all his money to Ben Siegel…he wanted to buy us a home, I didn’t know there was any left.

BUCKY
Were you ever gonna tell me?

KAY
Something’s burning.

KAY rushes down to the kitchen, BUCKY follows.

KAY
Bobby did do the bank job, Bucky, don’t get the wrong idea.

BUCKY
I don’t know what kinda idea I got right now.

BUCKY throws money down on counter with a violent gesture.

KAY moves away and starts putting candles in candle holder.

KAY
Things were getting really bad between me and Bobby and I had to get out. I knew this guy that…Bobby made me be with once. It was a hophead who sometimes snitched to cops for dope money.

BUCKY
And that’s how you met Lee.

KAY
I told him what Bobby was doing, about how he cut me and pimped me to his friends. I told him about the bank job and where Bobby was hiding the money. And then last year…the guy…

BUCKY
The hophead.

KAY
Yeah. Lee had given him a thousand dollars for introducing us. He found that Bobby was getting out, he threatened to tell that we stole from him. He wanted money that we didn’t have, Dwight. He wanted ten thousand dollars. What were we going to do? Promise me, promise me, you’ll forgive him for DeWitt, forgive him for the bank. Please. It doesn’t matter to us.

BUCKY
What’s the guy’s name?

KAY
It doesn’t matter.

The first thing obvious is that Kay, a very intelligent woman in both versions, is cool-headed and smart in her presentation in the book. The movie has this intelligent woman as a hysteric (my word choice is not arbitrary), who avoids Bleichert’s questions with the ridiculous evasion of “Something’s burning!” It is not an intelligent woman doing stupid things, it is an intelligent woman playing at being stupid. How much Kay is lying in this scene is never resolved, as it’s the last time these details are brought up. If we take Kay’s version in the book as the true version, then she is lying about the major fact that Blanchard was behind the robbery. A further tip-off is the way she mentions this: “Bobby did do the bank job, Bucky, don’t get the wrong idea.” Why expect that Bleichert would immediately get this idea?

I bold part of Bucky’s line that I think can have a double reading:

BUCKY
Kay, tell me the guy’s name…was it Baxter Fitch?

BUCKY V.O.
Baxter Fitch…and then DeWitt. Lee killed them both, and took the bank money. Making me witness. Stooge. Weak point. In a fairy tale triangle.

KAY O.S.
You’re so good at some things.

BUCKY rushes out.

The line “You’re so good at some things” is referenced at the end, and I think both times there’s an irony to it.

KAY
Dwight, he loved you, he loved both of us, so much. This has nothing to do with us, Dwight. DON’T RUN OUT ON US!

This line is important for the reference to love, and what immediately follows this scene. Bleichert returns to Madeleine, and gives us the voiceover.

BUCKY V.O.
Lee and Kay had lived in sin. Not because their shack job was against department regs, but because the ghosts of their past had forced them to choose love over passion. A veneer of a fairy tale. Only a band-aid to cover a fractured life. I didn’t believe in fairy tales. It was a reunion of avowed tramps. Old rutters who knew they would never have it as good with anyone else.

Bleichert never tells us what those ghosts are that force this choice of love over passion. Kay has already said that it’s not the death of his sister that’s behind Blanchard’s chastity. I read Kay’s line, “Dwight, he loved you, he loved both of us, so much”, in juxtaposition with Dwight’s voiceover, and it seems a good fit. Blanchard had to choose love over passion for both points of this triangle, one for whom he could feel no sexual attraction, and the other, for whom he was not allowed to show an attraction.

While at Madeleine’s, Bleichert is confronted by Kay. This is how the scene plays out in the book, the entire focus on the morbid aspect of his sexual obsession with a woman who’s a twin for the Dahlia:

Kay was wearing her Eisenhower jacket and tweed skirt, just like when I’d first met her. I said, “Babe,” and started to ask “Why?” My wife counterpunched: “Did you think I’d let my husband vanish for three weeks and do nothing about it? [in the book, Kay and Bleichert get married after Blanchard's death] I’ve had detectives following you, Dwight. She looks like that fucking dead girl, so you can have _her_–not me.”

Kay’s dry eyes and calm voice were worse than what she was saying. I felt shakes coming on, bad heebie-jeebies. “Babe, goddamn it–“

Kay backed out of grabbing range. “Whoremonger. Coward. _Necrophile_.”

The movie changes the nature of the confrontation, with Bleichert angry at Kay for her deceptions, all the things she hid, all the things she might still be hiding. She first evades this charge by saying that she did not lie out of her own interest, but for his benefit, their benefit. When he refuses to accept this, only then does she bring up Madeleine, “She looks like that dead girl!”

BUCKY
Kay. The hell are you doing here?

KAY
What am I doing here? How could you, how could you Dwight?

BUCKY
You followed me here after what you’ve done?

KAY
What have I done? Nothing.

BUCKY
You lied to me.

KAY
I lied for you. I lied for us. What could I do, but lie, Dwight?

BUCKY
You could have told me the truth.

KAY
She looks like that dead girl! How sick are you! You’re gonna end up like Lee, you will. But I will not.

This last line pushes him away from Madeleine and he resumes his investigation. There is, I think, a very important hidden significance to this line, which echoes in voice over as Bleichert resumes work on the Dahlia case.

KAY V.O.
She looks like that dead girl! How sick are you! You’re gonna end up like Lee.

Madeleine, as already said, isn’t the Dahlia’s double, but Bleichert’s. The line implies that his relationship with Madeleine over Kay is a choice of a sexual netherworld, one that will lead him to an entirely different sexual orientation: “You’re gonna end up like Lee.” This frightens Bleichert, just as his first sense of Madeleine as his twin deeply frightened him, and pushes him back onto the case.

After solving the murder, Bleichert kills Madeleine, the end of an actual life, but also the end of a virtual one, the closing of certain possibilities for the man. He does a deep inhale in his car, echoing the same deep inhale he made during the credit sequence, in the locker room before the boxing match with Blanchard, the first a preface to a substitute for “passion”, the second a regret over a “passion” that will never be fulfilled.

He is overwhelmed with sadness, returning to a woman who helped kill a man he loved, a man he himself wanted killed so he could have Kay, but also to end the frightening inconvenience of the love he felt.

He re-unites with Kay in a last, very strange scene.

This is the book’s conclusion, Bleichert heading to Massachusetts where he’ll meet Kay.

On the plane I thought of all the things I’d have to explain to Kay, evidence to keep a new foundation of lies from destroying the two–or three–of us.

She would have to know that I was a detective without a badge, that for one month in the year 1949 I possessed brilliance and courage and the will to make sacrifices. She would have to know that the heat of that time would always make me vulnerable, prey to dark curiosities. She would have to believe that my strongest resolve was not to let any of it hurt her.

The last paragraph is a simple description of what took place in the last month of his investigation of the Dahlia murder, with him discovering the killer, then covering it up so that Madeleine’s mother would not be the one indicted, then having to turn in Madeleine, despite his obsession with her, and knowing that what haunted him then would always haunt him. I don’t think there is anything obscure that makes it difficult to connect with the recent events of the novel that have taken place. Despite this past darkness, the future holds the possibility of great happiness for the man, and it’s about the only upbeat ending for any lead character, ever, in Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet.

Contrast this with the voice over in the film, Bleichert’s last lines:

BUCKY V.O.
Madeleine was wrong. I had others. Ones I’d loved, ones who’d loved me. People I betrayed, and people I needed to protect. And for the first time in my life, I knew that for the briefest of times, in the darkest of places, I had been so so good at some things.

My reaction to this, on first seeing the film was, “What the hell is he talking about?” I’ll just quote the last part of the dialogue with Madeleine to make clear what Bleichert is responding to. It’s in the hotel right before he kills her:

MADELEINE
You chose me over her. You’ll choose me over him. He was going to take Daddy’s money and leave. Leave all of you.

BUCKY points gun at MADELEINE.

MADELEINE
You’ll never shoot me. Don’t forget who I look like.

CLOSE UP of BUCKY.

MADELEINE
Because that girl, that sad, dead, bitch. She’s all you have.

BUCKY
No.

BUCKY shoots MADELEINE.

Visually, Bleichert’s return to the house suggests that he has found an alternative to this dead woman, the Dahlia, and her living incarnation, Madeleine, in his love with Kay. Then the voiceover completely flummoxes this assumption. Bleichert speaks in the plural. More importantly, he speaks in the past tense, except for needing to protect. Bleichert mentions his skills in the last paragraphs of the book because they were crucial for putting the Dahlia case to rest and being able to re-unite with Kay, but why is it important for him to be so good at some things in this context?

My only resolution for this is that Bleichert returns to nothing in the present, that what he loves, protects, and betrays, are only memories now. He loved Blanchard and Kay (“Ones I’d loved”), both loved him back (“ones who’d loved me”). He betrayed Blanchard, by wanting him to die, so he could have Kay and so their inconvenient love could end (“People I betrayed”). The “people”, plural, he needs to protect are the Kay and Blanchard of his memories (“You don’t talk about them, okay?”, he says to Madeleine), a heroic cop and his loyal, pure woman. The “so good at some things”, is a reprisal of something Kay says to him when he asks her about Baxter Fitch (him: “Kay, tell me the guy’s name…was it Baxter Fitch?” her: “You’re so good at some things”). As I said, I think there’s an irony to this line both times. What’s remarkable is not what Blanchard sees, but how much he doesn’t see, such as the fact that a cop with such an expensive house must be corrupt in some way or other. Bleichert is good, not at seeing, but at not seeing. The brief time he turns to, are the memories of Kay and Blanchard, when he was so good at not seeing them as they are, but as he wanted to see them.

Bleichert ascends the steps to the house, ascending to hell. We then arrive at a brief shot, possibly the most striking in the movie, Kay behind the door, only her lips visible in the strip of glass.

There are a multiplicity of ideas in this image: an isolated part of a woman to be pecked at, of pornography and the voyeur; the woman trapped in a seraglio, as Kay remakes herself, outwardly, into a passive female; soft lips, soft like Bleichert’s, apart from any body of either gender; an inversion of The Man Who Laughs, whose monstrous mouth is hidden while his eyes are exposed, while it is Kay’s eyes, which grow duller and duller through the film, which make her monstrous.

The door opens, the house is filled with a hot, ungentle light.

Suddenly, Bleichert turns round, and behind him it’s the body of the Dahlia; a crow that is feasting on her turns to look back.

The viewer, as I said before, sometimes glides through the air with this bird’s freedom. Viewers may have come to feed on the carrion of nude women and gore of this film, evil without, and their attention has been mis-directed. They have stayed fixated on this plot, when the true story, the true evil, has already been here in this triangle of Kay, Buckey and Lee. Bleichert turns, briefly, to see the bird, as he turned to look into the camera at the Linscott mansion, and then the image is gone. The hot artificial light disappears, but Kay remains the same cold child self she’s been for half the movie. “Come inside”, she says, but the invitation carries no comfort. The door closes, and for the last time in the film, we, the voyeurs, are left outside.

PART ONE PART TWO PART THREE PART FOUR PART FIVE

Images and Screenplay Copyright Universal Pictures, Millennium Films, Equity Pictures, and associated producers.

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