Unrated - Cinema of the Extreme


For decades, MURDER A LA MOD was impossible to see, and studies of director Brian DePalma had to skip over his 1968 feature debut. Now available on a Something Weird Video DVD double bill with THE MOVING FINGER, it slots into place as a key work. Given that it was barely a step up from a student film, MURDER A LA MOD is an astonishingly confident effort which points the way to the freewheeling, politically-engaged, crazy-comedy DePalma of GREETINGS, HI MOM! and HOME MOVIES but also the icy, tricksy slasher movie DePalma of SISTERS, DRESSED TO KILL and BODY DOUBLE. An early ‘screen test’ sequence, in which girls (including Jennifer Salt, later of SISTERS) are nagged by an offscreen director to disrobe but also to give some undefinable reaction they are incapable of understanding is repeated exactly three decades on in THE BLACK DAHLIA, down to DePalma doing the voice of the unseen director; even more strangely, William Finley – who gets special billing in MURDER A LA MOD – plays an equivalent role in DAHLIA, suggesting how deep the roots go for even the most seemingly commercial DePalma projects. The theme which unites his underground comedies and his overground thrillers – and even ‘serious’ films like REDACTED – is voyeurism, which turns out to be central to his debut. This tricksy piece owes debts to film student set texts like RASHOMON, PSYCHO and PEEPING TOM (and early Kubrick pictures KILLER’S KISS and THE KILLING) but also forms its own spiky identity. I’ve personally blown hot and cold about DePalma over the years, in the light of seemingly impersonal slogs like CASUALTIES OF WAR and MISSION TO MARS, but MURDER A LA MOD makes me want to look at the whole oeuvre again in the light of where he started out. I think FEMME FATALE and REDACTED, for instance, have been undervalued, and am even wondering if I should give THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES or WISE GUYS another chance.

MURDER A LA MOD plays and replays a sequence of events that take place in a brief period of time, giving radically different points of view on a set of circumstances which include the seeming and/or real death by icepick of young actress/model Karen (Margo Norton). She is involved with Christopher (Jared Martin, later a TV regular and star of Lucio Fulci films), a self-involved film student making a skinflick at the behest of cigar-puffing, sunglasses-sporting producer Wiley (Ken Burrows), an early incarnation of the hustlers played by Allen Garfield and Paul Williams in GREETINGS and PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE. Christopher tells Karen he needs her to take her clothes off so he can pay for his divorce and be with her, but this dialogue later turns up in the script for his porn movie and – in a variation – in a soap opera which is playing from a wireless in his New York loft studio. We never see the wife, or find out the truth of the situation – though it’s apparent that, in what we might interpret as DePalma’s insightful self-criticism, Christopher is callous and ambitious enough to exploit his girlfriend for his movie, whether it be showing her naked or using footage of her genuine death. This bit of business recurs in BLOW OUT, where John Travolta’s sound man uses Nancy Allen’s death scream on a cheap horror film; the version in MURDER A LA MOD suggests DePalma was already aware that he was prone to subjecting his own girlfriends (he was married to Allen at the time he cast her as hookers and had her menaced or slashed in DRESSED TO KILL and BLOW OUT) to staged indignities ‘for the good of the film’. There’s even a moment when Karen, bloody and wrapped in plastic, lurches into frame in a manner which prefigures Sissy Spacek’s appearance in CARRIE – and Stefania Sandrelli’s in Argento’s SUSPIRIA, come to that.

But MURDER A LA MOD isn’t just a psycho-horror film: it’s NYC student nouvelle vaguerie, with an anarchic comedy twist and a catchy, campy theme tune sung by Finley (later the mad composer/crooner of PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE). Otto (Finley) loons about in leather trousers, multiple layers of clothes and a weird moustache – looking like Harpo Marx impersonating Groucho in the mirror routine, and getting a fake icepick used as a film prop mixed up with a real one, despite the frame freezing and onscreen tags identifying which is which. Seemingly mute, Otto has his muttered interior monologue on the soundtrack when his viewpoint takes over and is a combination holy fool and imp of the perverse. When he first attacks Karen, she finds herself smeared with ketchup and is irritated; the next time, she’s gruesomely stabbed in the eye in the first of the shock murders which will litter DePalma’s films. In all the looping back, the film goes off on tangents – following Karen’s stylish friend Tracy (Andra Akers) to shops and the bank, and then into a cemetery where she has her own strange encounter with Otto, who is wheeling something in a trunk through the graverows before it trundles up to Karen on its own and Otto himself turns out to be inside. This is an eerie/funny bit of business, later shown from Otto’s POV in what seems to be verité as Finley does multiple takes while trying to get into the moving trunk to pull off the surprise. As you might expect from the circumstances, not all the supporting performances are professional – but DePalma is already working hard on getting the best from his actresses, and Norton (who never acted again) is fresh, natural and engaging enough to ground the film between Martin’s unsympathetic cool and Finley’s crazy contortions.

Kim Newman

 

Directed by Brian DePalma

English language / USA / 1968 / 80 minutes / Black and White / Mono / Aspect Ratio 1.33:1 / Region 1 NTSC

DVD Extras
"The Moving Finger" (dir Larry Moyer, 1963)
"An Eye for the Girls"

Something Weird Video

MURDER A LA MOD

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