Classic Film Review: MURDER à la MOD (1968)

By Anthony Moretta

Brian De Palma writes and directs his debut feature, working with pennies and passion. This is some real sinful shit right here.

I'm not going to waste much time with the story, or as much of it that I can make out. Karen (Margo Norton) is messing around with struggling porn director Christopher (Jared Martin), who's too broke to leave his wife and too full of artistic bullshit to make any real dough from shooting tits and ass. He uses personal morality and meandering to justify keeping his dick out of the inexperienced Karen, even though she begs for it. As her friend Tracy (Andra Akers) asks, "Don't you find that purity all a little dull?" Some things happen, like Otto the prop guy and part-time actor (William Finley) flipping about the set, wielding scissors and ice picks (trick and true ones), being reprimanded by the producer, Wiley (Ken Burrows). This all leads to some people being stabbed to death, by Otto or Chris, I'm not really sure.

Most of this flick is farm-fresh film school junk: asinine jump cuts, hokey fast-motion and point-of-view shots, negative images, meaty music and shoddy audio. It's also a dated relic of '60s experimental, in which story and character take a backseat to ultra-stylized nonsense. But, it's not all bad.

I'm a De Palma fan, not a fanatic. I acknowledge some of the great films he has made, including Blow Out (1981) and The Untouchables (1987), and I understand his place as a pioneer of American giallo, with movies like Sisters (1973) and Obsession (1976). Body Double (1984), Carlito's Way (1993) and Femme Fatale (2002) are all worthy mentions, too. The best of his work is skimmed in Murder à la Mod with extreme long takes and moody mash-ups. Check out the casting sessions at the beginning of the film. The birds or broads - there's no sexist squabbling here - are all great and De Palma's steady hand gives the whole thing an uneasy, creepy feel. The so-called "photo biographies" that Chris makes mirror the same in-your-face, emotional strip jobs that De Palma excels at. The actresses whine and whimper, wince and wobble. He ties them up and drags them loose in bras and panties. There's assault and battery, and sex for sale. If there's a point to all this, it might be the new art form of the live-free decade reflected in the new art form of spiritual porn. Again, nothing forgives the deliberate, junky, indulgent, pseudo-sophistication of it all. A possible result of self-genuflection promulgated by expensive film schools, which good filmmakers eventually learn to leave behind. (I'll argue to depleted lungs that film school should be a non-starter for directors; you can't learn 'how' to make a good movie. The only lessons you need are on the screen itself.)

Anyway ... the real jackpot scenes take place at the cemetery, book-ending the flick's final sequence. Complete with snippets of the killer and whistling wind. And De Palma adds genuine desperation by setting them in daylight. Nothing is more sickeningly scary then trying to outrun the dark under the bright sun. But, De Palma failed to further this. To craft his first full-length movie around its most effective bits. The genre choice isn't the issue. It's all New York City bad news and bad ass, like Kubrick's Killer's Kiss (1955). Unlike Kubrick's knockout picture, however, De Palma opted for peripheral camera playfulness instead of
sticking to staining the streets with more grim and grime.

Anthony Moretta is from Brooklyn, NY and writes about '70s crime films at Goodbye Like A Bullet. His writing has appeared in Out of the Gutter Online and will be featured in the upcoming anthology, Unfashioned Creatures. His independent film project, Travels, is currently in post-production and he's also developing an original comic book series.