De Palma is one of those filmmakers that I don’t particularly like, but I can’t stop watching his films. I love to gripe about him, and yet I keep coming back for more. I think that’s part me wanting to know what the hell everyone else sees in his films and part the fact that they are pretty intriguing on some level. Mostly stylistically. I won’t argue that DePalma is a downright fantastic visual filmmaker, but it’s pretty rare that the story he’s telling lives up to the visuals. In the case of Blow Out, I find parts of the story just plain sloppy and that makes it hard to take the suspense seriously through the finish.
I first saw Blow Out years ago on DVD and remember being none too impressed with the very blatant mashup of Antonioni’s Blowup and Coppola’s The Conversation, albeit with a bit of a giallo twist. But when I saw the Denver Film Center was screening a 35mm print for a DePalma series I jumped at the chance to see in on the big screen. My mind had been changed before by the theatrical experience, maybe here was my chance to see what’s so great about DePalma. While I may not be a believer just yet, I did come out with a bit more of an appreciation for what may very well be De Palma’s best film. It’s not my favorite mind you, that will always be The Untouchables, but from a technical perspective I think Blow Out is the epitome of De Palma the auteur.
Dial ‘M’ for Murder (1954)
Dir. Alfred Hitchcock
I grew up watching Dial ‘M’ for Murder and it’s long been one of my favorites from the “Master of Suspense”. For a film that takes place solely (with two small exceptions) inside an apartment, it’s amazing how he maneuvers through the plot. Even with these limitations Hitchcock utilizes magnificent staging and camera work so you never once feel claustrophobic. As he’d proven with Lifeboat and Rope, he has a knack for creating suspense in tight spaces. Everything in the film has these subtle nuances that add to the experience, from the cinematography to the music to the facial expressions of the characters. To this day it gives me chills when Grace Kelly screams out “I saw his eyes!”.
As a whole the film plays out like an elegantly choreographed dance. The characters waltz around each other in each scene, which is particularly noticeable in the scene between Wendice and Swann. We spend the latter part of the film watching Wendice and Chief Inspector Hubbard in a mental tango as one tries to outsmart the other. Even after seeing it so many times it continues to grip me because it’s so intellectually and visually stimulating. The film was shot specifically for 3-D (and it helps to know this fact), so everything in the frame is deliberately placed so that you feel like you’re in the room. And man what I would give to have a chance to see this in 3-D on the big screen, I would imagine it’s pretty spectacular (albeit headache inducing). With or without that extra dimension, it’s just a wonderful film that showcases Hitchcock’s mastery as a filmmaker.
The 39 Steps (1935)
Dir. Alfred Hitchcock
I love me some Hitchcock espionage; he does some of his best work when people are on the run, criss crossing each other, and doing other spy-like things. The 39 Steps is no exception and it’s definitely near the top of my favorite Hitchcock films. Hell, if it’s any indication how much I like this film, my online handle is thethirtyninesteps whenever sprouticus is taken. But to be fair, that can also be chalked up to pretension.
Pretentiousness aside, The 39 Steps is a truly enjoyable thriller. It’s smart and suspenseful with just enough comedy thrown in for good measure. Robert Donat is great as Richard Hannay, the unsuspecting hero that is suddenly thrown into the world of espionage after a woman claiming to be a spy is murdered. Hannay’s search for the mysterious “thirty-nine steps” takes him to the Scottish countryside and into the life of Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) where things really get interesting. Hannay really gets to let the charm fly when they spend the night in a cabin together. I think the scene where she takes off her wet stockings while they’re handcuffed together is just about as ris`que´ as it was 75 years ago. In addition to being witty and sexy, it really does keep you guessing right up until the end.
If you’re a Hitchcock fan this is a must see.
Directed by Christopher Nolan
For breakfast: Egg n’ a holes w/ bacon
I’m beginning to realize that Christopher Nolan is a much better writer than he is a director. He is incredibly clever and has a knack for characters and stories, but visually he leaves much to be desired. I realize that Following was his first film and that it was made for virtually no money, but so was Pi and it is far more interesting to watch. That being said, it’s the story of Following that really makes it stand out. You already see Nolan’s keenness for interweaving timelines and his use of temporal structure to create suspense. He understands how to use what you know in combination with that the characters know to keep you guessing (Hitchcock anyone?). A technique he still uses quite a bit in his Batman films. Although, his shortcomings visually have also carried over into his recent work as he still seems to have problems staging scenes and making them, you know, coherant. Minor qualms aside, Following is a smart thriller and I like to revisit a director’s first film every once in a while to see how far they’ve come.