Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Virgin Vintage Viewings: Blow Out and The Fury

Virgin Vintage Viewings is a new series in which we view older well-known/classic films for the first time.

I'm pleased to kick off our new Virgin Vintage Viewings series with a Brian DePalma double-header: Blow Out and The Fury. Despite having a shaky resume of films, I've been a long time fan of DePalma's. I still consider Mission: Impossible to be his best film, with Carlito's Way and Casualties of War running close behind. I'd place The Untouchables, Carrie and the highly underrated camp masterpiece, Raising Cain, in the very good category, while Dressed To Kill is simply good fun. His weaker entries - The Bonfire of the Vanities, Femme Fatale, The Black Dahlia, Body Double (his most overrated film) -- aren't necessarily bad but are simply not memorable. The less said about Snake Eyes and Wise Guys, the better.

I'm not interested in Mission to Mars or Redacted, but Scarface, Obsession and Sisters are resting comfortably in my Netflix queue and I shall get to them eventually. However, I'm happy to report I've finally gotten my hands on the Criterion DVD of Blow Out (1981) and I would like to know what the hell took me so long to see it. Easily, I'd rank it as one of his very best.

In Blow Out, John Travolta delivers his best early-career performance as Jack Terry, a movie soundman who witnesses a car crash that resulted in the death of a presidential candidate. Was the crash accidental, or was it intentional? He pieces together what little evidence he has, including an audio track of the crash, and uncovers an unsettling truth that gets him in hot water. Sally (Nancy Allen), a call girl who was in the car at the time of the crash, denies any involvement of a set up, though she is clearly hiding something.

On top of the fact that Blow Out is a crackling murder mystery with a handful of shady characters (including a terrific Dennis Franz as a sleazy photographer), it is filmed with great precision and care. The suspense builds up tremendously, especially when John Lithgow arrives as a hired gun set out to eliminate the evidence and put a lid on the conspiracy. I love how DePalma employs his favorite actors over the years. Lithgow, baby-faced and chilling here, is ruthless and determined.

DePalma's trademarks are present here, all of which elevate the film in so many ways. In the film's best scene, Travolta rushes back to his sound lab only to discover that all of his reels have been erased. The camera slowly spins around the room as we see and hear Travolta frantically searching for a reel that has not been destroyed. Sure, it's a showy sequence, but it works tremendously. The emotions are heightened and we are on edge just as much as our hero is. It's effective, vintage DePalma.

I also loved the sequence in the train station in which Lithgow follows a prostitute from the phone booths to the ladies room where he finally murders her. DePalma's camera is all over the action, easily giving us a great sense of place as the two characters inch closer together. We see through the mirror that Lithgow is behind the stall door, just waiting for the right moment to strike, and the suspense is almost unbearable. One of DePalma's greatest gifts as a director is making us feel like we are there.

I'm glad I saw this on a Criterion edition; it's a great looking film loaded with indelible images and hypnotizing sound effects and music. Of all of his films, I'd rank Blow Out right next to Mission: Impossible as a full-blown aesthetically satisfying motion picture.

So where does that leave The Fury (1978)? Probably alongside Dressed to Kill in the good, campy fun category. It rests squarely in the middle of DePalma's flashy, trashy canon of Hitchcockian thrillers.

About a half hour into The Fury, I had a stunning realization. This is the first movie I had ever seen Kirk Douglas in a leading role where he didn't play an old guy (Tough Guys, Greedy, etc). Wow, does he look like his son or what? (I seriously need to see Paths of Glory and Spartacus. Future Virgin Vintage Viewing posts, perhaps?)

Anyway, The Fury is a highly engaging thriller clearly inspired by Carrie, his previous film. Douglas plays an ex-CIA agent who searches for his missing son. The boy was kidnapped by Douglas's former partner (John Cassavetes) who wanted to utilize the kid's special gift (he has parapsychological abilities) and train him to become a killer. A therapist (Carrie Snodgress), who happens to be Douglas's girlfriend, tracks him down thanks to her patient Gillian (Amy Irving).

DePalma merges suspense, science fiction and horror with mixed results here. The reason it doesn't quite gel together is because of too many plot strands. You've got the kids with the special gifts, one of which is a trained killer sleeping with his therapist, while the other is being poked and prodded by a team of doctors (after being ridiculed by a gaggle of school girls, no less); a CIA agent on the run, not only searching for his boy killer but also snuggling up with one of the girl's doctors. There's good material here but everything comes together in a very dense, convoluted way. It's too bad because with some editing of the screenplay, this could have been a great thriller.

Amy Irving, for example, is completely wasted here. The first half of the movie follows her ordeal as a young woman unable to control her psychic powers. Once she finally gets a handle on it, her character gets shoved aside as Douglas and Snodgress investigate the whereabouts of the boy killer. Even Douglas disappears during a bulk of the film's midsection which thereby loses momentum for his character's plight.

I'm probably too hard on the film, but I guess when you realize its potential, it is disappointing because it could have been so much better if more time was spent on the screenplay. All that said, it's still an engaging drama with terrific set pieces and strong camerawork. There are a few flashes of DePalma's brilliance sprinkled throughout the film. The shootout towards the end, resulting in a surprising and shocking death, was wonderfully executed utilizing the director's favorite cinematic elements: long tracking shots, heavily dramatic music (courtesy of John Williams) and slow motion. I also loved the scene when Irving participates in a psychic exercise in her classroom and the camera follows the toy train around the room (not unlike the 360 degree camera in Blow Out). The climax was pretty weak and run-of-the-mill, I'm sorry to say, though I did get a good smile out the final, explosive scene.

Overall, I had a great time looking back at DePalma's earlier work. I know he has a polarizing fan base -- he's equally revered as he is reviled -- but I think he's a fascinating director, a man who always makes the camera an invisible character of his films. Whether if he's got a bird's eye shot, or a spinning camera, or long tracking view... he's clearly having fun with it. I love that he uses Hitchcock as a guide in almost all of his movies. People claim that he rips him off, but that's not true. When you're ripping off someone else's work, you don't admit to it. DePalma proudly displays his affection for Hitch; he honors him with his work. DePalma's whole career is essentially a tribute to one of the most influential filmmakers of all time.

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