Murder à la Mod / The Moving Finger (1986)

[29 October 2006]

By Brian Holcomb

Timed perfectly to coincide with the publicity surrounding the release of The Black Dahlia, Something Weird video has released Brian De Palma’s rarely screened 1968 New York underground film Murder A La Mod to DVD. While not among the director’s greatest works, the movie is perhaps best viewed as a kind of primer to his complex and unique approach to filmmaking. An approach he would refine over the years into a more commercial style without sacrificing the avant garde concerns of his early work. Murder A La Mod  is clearly compromised by the strains of it’s low budget, but it is still filled with enough suspense, shock, offbeat humor and visual experimentation to fill several films.

Ostensibly the tale of a porn film director (Jared Martin) who is having an affair with someone named “Karen” and needs money in order to divorce his wife, the film doesn’t unfold in an A-B-C fashion. Rather, it tells its story through the multi-media veils of screen tests, Photo-biographies, Radio Soap operas, and it utilizes an anthology of cinematic forms such as silent film-styled fast motion, a pair of Psycho-inspired murder sequences, and even a Roger Corman-like Edgar Allan Poe resurrection. The viewer is never asked to “believe” in anything past the surface reality of the image projected on the screen. Since time and space can be broken by the filmmaker at will, the narrative is designed as a kind of Mobius strip in which time continually doubles back onto itself in a manner similar to Stanley Kubrick’s race track robbery in The Killing. Time doubles back to start again from a different character’s point of view, each time revealing something that changes the context of what we have just witnessed.

In his first solo feature film, De Palma discovered a cinematic intersection where Jean-Luc Godard, Tex Avary, and Buster Keaton could meet. Keaton, in particular, often mined the humor within these “shock effects”. In Sherlock, Jr., for example, the cinematic fourth wall is continually broken to reveal the gears turning within. He magically crosses the threshold of a movie screen and into the movie itself, discovering something actors have always known, that he is at the mercy of the director who can reconstruct his world at will.

Daffy Duck also realizes that he is not exactly the master of his own destiny in the very influential Chuck Jones short Duck Amuck, where Bugs Bunny is revealed to be the anarchic animator who can transform Daffy’s world, his body, and situation to his cruel and mischievous delight. This is clearly the director-as-God concept laid bare as everything that appears onscreen is revealed to be nothing more than a trick.

De Palma updates these shock effects through the juxtaposition of intentionally unfunny slapstick with intentionally hilarious gory violence to also demonstrate the ease with which film can be manipulated and can manipulate. These techniques would be developed into the sly, mischievous wit that accompanies the classic scenes in his later, more infamous, films: Sissy Spacek’s bloody arm emerging from the grave in Carrie, John Cassevetes exploding over and over again to the point of hysteria in The Fury, Nancy Allen’s throat slashing at the end of Dressed to Kill, and of course, Tony Montana facing his enemies at the end of Scarface, challenging them to take him down as bullet after bullet penetrates his body . All are scenes that play on the very plastic reality of film and the ways in which it can be rearranged for effect.                                                                                                                                                 

While not perfect by any means, Murder A La Mod should be essential viewing for fans of the director. Besides the fun cinematics, there is a hilarious pop song over the opening credits written and most likely performed by cult actor William Finley, who also made his film debut here.

The extras included on the DVD are an excerpt from the never- before-released nudie pic, An Eye for the Girls and a second feature, The Moving Finger, written and directed by Larry Moyer. A low budget film set in Greenwich village involving a beatnik criminal who survives a heist gone awry, this was seemingly included because it acts as a time capsule of the same location and period as the De Palma film. Although Lionel Stander has some good moments in The Moving Finger, the movie just tries too hard to catch the vibe of the beat era. As such, it doesn’t hold a candle to the Roger Corman/Charles B. Griffith classic, A Bucket of Blood which, with it’s satirical approach to horror, it’s crazy performances and black comedy script, would make the perfect companion feature to Murder a’La Mod.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/murder/