Monthly Archives: November 2012

Auteurs: The Cinema of Brian De Palma


“Two souls, alas, are housed within my breast.” – Faust

Throughout his career, Brian De Palma has been obsessed with the nature of duality in humanity. Whether it be expressed through the appearance of a character’s doppelganger (Femme Fatale), or disguises/personas taken on by a character for some nefarious purpose (Dressed to Kill, Body Double), or simply identical siblings (Sisters, Raising Cain), De Palma has frequently utilized “doubles” as a convenient plot device in film after film – a way of throwing the audience off track, or complicating a simple narrative, or even, as in Femme Fatale, to expand his horizons and delve further into the concept of duality, imbuing it with greater meaning than his work has known before.

In 1992, De Palma unleashed a fever dream of a cinematic experiment upon an unsuspecting test screening audience. The film was Raising Cain, and starred John Lithgow as Carter Nix, a suburban Mr. Mom type, a child psychologist who takes after his deceased Norwegian father (also Lithgow), who was once tried for “buying babies” for purposes of research. In the film’s original incarnation, Carter was revealed nearly halfway through the film’s scant 90-minute running time to have an evil “twin” brother, Cain (also Lithgow), who “takes over” and cleans up Carter’s messes with violent results. This comes into play in particular with Carter’s discovery of infidelity on the part of his wife Jenny (Lolita Davidovich) with an old flame, Jack (Steven Bauer). However, Carter has a secret. Cain is not truly his twin brother, but rather one of his multiple personalities, which are legion. Some are basically innocent, some do what is necessary to right wrongs, and some – such as Cain – are deeply disturbed, and for good reason.

What made Raising Cain a unique experience for its time and, indeed, ahead of it, was the film’s non-linear narrative structure. Beginning with Jenny’s dilemma, De Palma’s film originally commenced as a soap operatic romantic melodrama between Jenny and Jack, with Carter’s discovery and Cain’s murderous nature coming as a series of “shocking” reveals in the last two thirds. The issue was one of structure, involving flashbacks and dreams-within-dreams. By today’s standards, perhaps a film like Raising Cain could be accepted on its own terms, but the test audience wasn’t prepared for it, and for one of the first times in his career, coming off a would-be crowd-pleasing flop in The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), De Palma actually compromised his own artistic vision and released the film in August 1992 in a wholly chronological, re-edited format. The results are a muddle of awkward tone shifts and a middle third that isn’t nearly as involving as the rest of what comes before and after.

In early 2012, Peet Gelderblom, a Dutch director/editor/motion designer, posted his Raising Cain: “Re-Cut,” an attempt to restore De Palma’s misunderstood work back to something approaching his original intentions, based on a leaked Second Draft of the screenplay titled Father’s Day (Gelderblom). Indeed, in my opinion, this cut works quite a bit better than the original – which felt more like a lot of good parts that did not quite equal their full sum. However, that’s beside the point.

No matter which form you see it in, with Raising Cain De Palma took an interesting approach to multiple personalities, borrowing quite a bit stylistically and thematically from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), just the latest attempt at paying “homage”/ripping off the Master of Suspense. In Cain he finds the id of docile Carter, who is suffering from the “Crisis of Masculinity.” If Carter is a doting father, a loving husband and, until he finds out about Jenny cheating on him, a harmless individual, Cain is his (bi-)polar opposite – an over-the-top bad guy in black leather jacket and sunglasses who chain-smokes, kills babysitters and kidnaps their charges, and frames basically innocent citizens for his crimes. However, De Palma’s thirst for screwing with the audience wouldn’t be sated with something so “simple.”

There is the matter of something of a “red herring” with our discovery of the senior Dr. Nix, Carter’s father, long-believed the perpetrator/victim of a suicide in Norway while awaiting conviction for his crimes. This leads one to believe that Dr. Nix is himself a “multiple” – a further split personality of Carter’s. However, we discover eventually that he is in fact alive and actually just the mastermind, pulling Carter’s strings. These three performances by Lithgow alone make the film a complex and fascinating character study, with different notes to be played by this brilliant actor, and wholly different characters to be created by one man out of whole cloth on screen.

This is to say nothing of Josh, Carter’s inner-child who we get a brief glimpse of in the body of an actual child before Carter “turns into” him during an interrogation by a psychologist (Frances Sternhagen) and former colleague of the elder Dr. Nix. It turns out that Nix “traumatized his own son” and Josh is the form that traumatized child took within Carter. Then there’s Margo (also briefly glimpsed as played by Lithgow), a tall red wood of a woman who may represent the mother that Carter never really had.

This is hardly the first time that De Palma has borrowed from Psycho and shifted things around like specimens under a microscope, with Carter’s overbearing actual father believed dead replacing Norman Bates’ actually deceased and self-“preserved” mother and Margo, the protective “mother” figure replacing the vengeful “Bobby” (portrayed as a multiple personality by Michael Caine in De Palma’s own Dressed to Kill [1980]). However, this is rather the mere tip of the iceberg when it comes to the fascination with dual natures evident in De Palma’s oeuvre.

The very notion of an “evil twin” as a thriller plot device doesn’t begin and end with Raising Cain. Going all the way back to De Palma’s early attempt at a Hitchcockian narrative – Sisters (1973), one can see the filmmaker’s fascination with duality, multiple personalities, and how those elements can be manipulated for the purposes of a thriller. In Sisters, Margot Kidder is a French actress and game show contestant, Danielle Breton, who goes home with a fellow contestant on the show. The next morning, she has him go out to pick up her medication and he stops and grabs a cake for her “twin birthday” with an unseen identical sister called Dominique. When he returns, someone who looks a lot like Danielle but could be Dominique pops out from under the bed covers and stabs him to death, which is witnessed from across the street by a journalist (Jennifer Salt). Eventually, it’s revealed through a bizarre drug-induced dream sequence suffered by Salt’s Grace that Danielle was becoming enamoured with Emil, the sisters’ doctor in a mental hospital, and Dominique became violently jealous.

What is perplexing then is how after being separated from her twin, Danielle took on (the deceased) Dominique’s persona, rebuffing Emil’s advances, killing her fellow game show contestant, etc. If Cain is Carter’s wholly imagined “evil twin,” an excuse to do the bad things that his Mr. Mom in masculine crisis cannot, then by taking on Dominique’s persona, is Danielle not bridging the gap between what she can’t imagine herself capable of doing and what she is actually very capable of doing?

Identical women are not themselves relegated to imagined siblings on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum in De Palma’s work. In Obsession (1976), De Palma again uses identical women to deadly effect, although not in the same way. Working from a screenplay co-written by Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver), De Palma’s film involves a complex scheme to drive a New Orleans businessman (Cliff Robertson) insane after his wife (Genevieve Bujold) and daughter are kidnapped and seemingly killed. Years later, the businessman is on a trip to Venice and meets an art restoration student (Bujold) who looks uncannily like his wife. What he doesn’t know is that this is his daughter, who he marries and nearly sleeps with (!), found and traumatized by his business partner (John Lithgow again), who tries to prove to her that her father didn’t love her enough to pay the ransom back then and wouldn’t do it even now. Working above board, as it were, De Palma manages to eschew imagined killers and multiple personalities and still utilize a doppelganger for the purposes of a thriller plot – and one which involves childhood trauma, no less.

As in Raising Cain, De Palma again utilizes doppelgangers and a Psycho-esque twist with a twist in Dressed to Kill (1980), another of the psychosexual thrillers that he helped pioneer. Michael Caine is Dr. Robert Elliott, a psychiatrist to unfulfilled housewife Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson). While Miller goes to a museum, flirts with a stranger and then has an extramarital dalliance in first the back of a cab and then a hotel room, someone is following her. It turns out that Dr. Elliott was aroused by Miller and had a “split” personality of his own: “Bobby.” A tall-ish blonde in a black leather trenchcoat with dark sunglasses, “Bobby” followed Kate Miller and killed her in an elevator, all but completely witnessed by a call girl (Nancy Allen), who teams up with Kate’s son (Keith Gordon) to solve his mother’s murder.

Not unlike Raising Cain, “Bobby” seems to represents Dr. Elliott’s id just as Cain represented Dr. Carter Nix’s. However, more in keeping with Psycho, “Bobby” seems to act when fresh-faced, kind-voiced Dr. Elliott is aroused by women. It’s not really as simple as “he’s a transvestite who hates women” or “he dresses up in women’s clothing and kills women.” “Bobby,” it appears, is rather the jealous half of Dr. Elliott’s brain, acting “out” as it were just as Danielle began to take on Dominique’s jealous persona when she got too close to any man after her sister’s death (which she’d repressed). Further, such dry psychological explanations are another “lift” from Hitchcock that De Palma is not above stooping to (in Raising Cain, not once, but twice!).

One of the elements of duality that makes Dressed to Kill interesting is the way it uses disguises to not only mask a character from the audience – however obviously, which may be an intention of De Palma’s, so he can’t be accused of cheating – but also to mask one persona in the taking on of another. As far back as Phantom of the Paradise (1974), De Palma’s pre-Rocky Horror Picture Show rock musical composed by Paul Williams, he has utilized masks as a way of allowing characters to play roles in films that are about nothing if not voyeurism, perception and deception. In that film, Winslow (William Finley) is tossed out of Death Records, a music studio, and goes to jail after being framed for drugs. When he escapes jail, he is disfigured in a horrible accident after sneaking into Death Records again and getting caught in a record pressing machine. This leads to his donning a silver mask, his throat taking on a ghastly tenor (later aided and abetted by electronic voice modulation) and “haunting” the theater of nefarious music producer Swan (Williams) ala…wait for it…Phantom of the Opera!

Through this horrible accident, De Palma allows Winslow to take on another persona entirely to achieve his goals, not unlike the “Bobby” persona that takes over Dr. Elliott in Dressed to Kill or Lithgow’s final transformation to “Margo” (which itself involves the theft of a cancer patient’s wig) in Raising Cain. However, while the Phantom character is a truly transformative one for Winslow, “Bobby” (at least to this viewer) was quite obviously Michael Caine in drag and sunglasses in Dressed to Kill – if only part of the way through an initial viewing.

Furthermore, De Palma has had other instances of “transparent” disguises for characters, as in the “Native American biker/thief” and the violent husband across the way in Body Double (1984), a deliberate homage to Vertigo (1958). In that film, Craig Wasson is Jake Scully, a cuckolded small-time actor in Hollywood who meets a man outside an audition, Sam Bouchard (Gregg Henry). He lets him stay in a nice penthouse overlooking the city, and Scully sees a woman across the way (in silhouette) performing a striptease. Before long, Scully is obsessed with the woman, even nearly having sex with her adjacent to a public beach in broad daylight. However, Scully witnesses the woman’s violent murder at the hands of a “Native American biker” who stole her purse prior to Scully’s fling with her at the beach. This is to say nothing of her supposed husband beating her in plain view. Of course, due to bad makeup (intentional?) and some obvious framing, De Palma “rewards” attentive viewers with the knowledge that Gregg Henry himself is portraying all of these people for the “benefit” of Scully, whose attention he chose to attract in the first place.

Additionally, you have the eventual revelation that the striptease routine being done by the woman was not performed by who Scully first believed, but rather a hardcore porn actress called Holly Body (Melanie Griffith). Paid to play a part, Ms. Body was bait for Scully and he swallowed it whole. That being said, Scully did recognize the routine when, as often seems to occur in De Palma films, he “happened” to be watching a piece on Ms. Body on television and recognized her routine from her latest film. As a result, he goes “undercover” in a porn film playing first a near-Woody Allen type nerd who stumbles into a full-fledged sexually-infused musical number set to Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax (Don’t Do It),” and then the smooth, red-leather wearing, slick-haired “star” who tries to seduce Ms. Body as a means to find out how she got involved in the murder he witnessed – as contrived a plot as one can scarcely imagine.

Disguises and personae are nothing new to De Palma, with high-tech masks showing up in his big-budget summer blockbuster attempt Mission: Impossible (1996, a hit), as well as in his smaller-scale conspiracy follow-up Snake Eyes (1998), in which Nicolas Cage’s (comparably) mildly corrupt Atlantic City detective witnesses a conspiracy in action whilst ringside at a boxing event, only to spend the evening pursuing a platinum “blonde,” silver-dressed young woman (Carla Gugino), who may know more than she first appears to. If duplicity is a theme common to De Palma, then perhaps doppelgangers, disguises and multiple personalities are nothing more than means to an end.

Perhaps sensing that his own work was somewhat lacking in meaning, De Palma sought to create a film which dazzlingly involved so many elements of his previous work, while imbuing them with a new, hopeful (?) overarching theme. In Femme Fatale (2002), De Palma tells a heist story with a twist. Laure Ash (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) is a high-tech jewel thief who has set her eyes on a model appearing at the Cannes Film Festival. With help from her team, she seduces the model, replaces the jewels with glass replicas, and then betrays her team. Upon being mistaken for someone else at a funeral, icy blonde Laure (dark wig and all) is thrown from a hotel balcony by a former colleague and taken home by the parents of the deceased, who believe she’s their daughter. Now, mistaken for Lily (also the former Ms. Romijn-Stamos), the dark-haired French innocent who bears a striking resemblance to her, Laure wakes up in the bath tub only to find a bereaved Lily, alive and well, attempting to blow her own brains out. Rather than intercede, Laure allows (it’s implied) Lily to kill herself, resulting in a unique opportunity – she can continue taking on Lily’s persona and “disappear,” starting a new life. This is complicated a bit by numerous elements including falling for and marrying the American ambassador (Peter Coyote), a sleazy tabloid photographer for hire (Antonio Banderas) who begins stalking her and captures a quasi-candid snapshot at an inopportune moment, and of course Laure’s old gang who want revenge for her betrayal.

What makes Femme Fatale interesting as a twist on the typical De Palma thriller involving doppelgangers and mistaken identities and blackmail, robbery and murder, are the twists it takes in its second half. Rather than “simply” follow Laure’s “rotten to the heart bitch” through her latest long-con job, De Palma allows issues of fate and the future (and dreams) to play a large part in the unfolding of the plot. There is evidence throughout the first half or more of Femme Fatale that it is very much working as a dream movie in the quasi-nightmarish mode of film noir, but that alone would be a cop-out. Rather, De Palma takes this as an interesting opportunity.

After suffering a deadly fate, Laure is thrown into the Seine by her angry former colleagues, only to wake up back in that bathtub. The whole film since she woke up in that bathtub last time had been a dream. But wait, there’s more! Once again, Lily walks into the house, bereaved and broken, and again she takes the gun out and intends to do herself in. However, this time Laure intercedes, remembering everything she just dreamt and deducing that it must have been some kind of vision of Lily’s potential future and hers. Acting unselfishly for the first time since she let her partner (the robbed model) escape at Cannes, Laure seems to see consequences for her actions, and an opportunity to change her fate and Lily’s – for the better.

Arguably, there is a philosophy at work here. It’s not simply that people are rotten and will do unto others as they see fit, regardless of the consequences. Rather, it seems De Palma realizes that actions have consequences and that being aware of them and willing to change your own fate is the key to success and happiness. Is De Palma becoming less cynical in his old age? More of an optimist? Certainly this mercurial response in an interview done at the time of this film’s release suggests so:

Note: Written as a final essay Fall 2012 for Dustin Morrow’s Brian De Palma course at Portland State under the title: Mirror, Mirror: Dissecting Duality – Disguises, Doubles & Doppelgangers in De Palma.

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