Thursday, 12 December 2013

Brian de Palma’s Murder à la Mod (1968)

Made in 1967, Murder à la Mod was not Brian de Palma’s first film but it was his first feature film to get a theatrical release (albeit on a very limited scale). This movie then more or less disappeared from view until the folks at Something Weird Video resurrected it on a double-feature DVD. It’s not a very good movie by any means but de Palma fans will find it to be of some interest.

An arty avant-garde movie-maker named Chris (Jared Martin) has been manipulated into making sexploitation movies. Since he’s a Serious Young Film-Maker he finds this to be terribly degrading. He needs $10,000 to get out of his contract but he has no money at all. His girlfriend Karen (Margo Norton) is willing to appear in his movie in order to help him out.

Also involved in the movie is a strange guy named Otto (William Finley, who would go on to appear in many of de Palma’s later movies), and a sleazy producer.

There’s a murder and there’s also a sub-plot involving Karen’s rich friend Tracy (Andra Akers).

This is in many ways classic de Palma stuff with endless homages to other directors like Kubrick and Hitchcock. The homages are so blatant that if anybody else did them they’d be considered outright thefts but somehow de Palma could always get way with such things.

This is very much film student stuff with de Palma using every avant-garde trick in the book - non-linear narrative, jump cuts, handheld camera shots, you name it.  Despite this it could have been great fun but in true film student style it’s outrageously overdone. The biggest problem though is the excessively jokey tone. Making a murder thriller that is also a comedy requires great lightness of touch but at this stage of his career de Palma lack the experience to carry it off.

It’s also much too 1960s, and not in a good way. It has a kind of acid trip psychedelic vibe. Combining silly hippie psychedelic claptrap with murder could have been amusing but the comedy here has all the subtlety of a train wreck.

That’s not to say it’s a complete loss. The graveyard scene is a very impressive visual set-piece that gets the surreal tone right, something the director was obviously striving for in the rest of the movie. In fact there are quite a few excellent visual moments.

The voiceovers could have been effective but they’re done in too relentlessly comic style so that they fail to be disturbing, and they need to be disturbing for the movie to work.

The acting is film student standard, in other words excruciatingly bad.

The movie was filmed in black-and-white and the location shooting in New York has a nice time capsule feel.

The most frustrating thing about the movie is that it almost works. The comedy didn’t need to be eliminated. The director was aiming for a surreal comedy thriller and if that’s what he wanted to do it’s a perfectly valid choice. The comedy did need to be toned down a little.

For all its faults it’s clearly a Brian de Palma movie. Nobody else in 1967 would have made a movie quite like this. The cinematic self-reflexiveness, the disturbingly perverse quality of the erotic element, the combination of models and ice-picks, the touches of black comedy, the voyeurism, all these things are distinctively de Palma and they’re done in distinctively de Palma style.

Something Weird have managed to find a surprisingly good print of this cinematic obscurity. It actually looks quite superb. Murder à la Mod is paired with an even more obscure 1963 thriller called The Moving Finger (which I haven’t yet had a chance to watch) on the two-movie DVD.

Murder à la Mod tries too hard, throws too many ideas into the mix and is too undisciplined but it’s an interesting glimpse of de Palma’s style and technique in embryonic form. If you’re a fan of his work you’ll certainly want to see this one.

1 comment:

Alex B. said...

This movie sounds like my cup of tea. I enjoy pretentious, over-ambitious B/W films that don't really deliver. They often unintentionally result in a really spaced -out, unique experience.