In his feature film debut, Brian De Palma is working with some great ideas but has a hard time making them all come together. His Hitchcockian subversion of expectations and understanding of perspective prove to be foretelling of what’s to come throughout the rest of his career, and in this case draws a direct line between Murder à la Mod and his 1981 classic Blow Out.
1968’s Murder à la Mod revolves around a director of porn films and his girlfriend, Karen, who’s been told that he’s only doing these projects in order to help him pay for his divorce so that the two of them can finally be together. The writer/director uses perspectives from each character to build his elaborate story (similarly to his own 1998 film Snake Eyes). In fact, it’s almost too elaborate at times and hinges on precise coincidence for it to make sense. Fortunately, the director builds the suspense firmly enough that we’re able to see past the mechanically-scripted exposition and wonky editing to the gold underneath. It would be interesting to see another director’s take on this premise.
De Palma utilizes techniques other than nonlinear storytelling. In an early scene, we see a conversation take place between Karen and her friend Tracy as they go shopping. The dialogue smoothly continues between settings and locations as though it’s just one long scene. Karen and Tracy switch outfits, switch stores, even just places in the frame—all while maintaining the same discussion. At first I thought this was an editing mistake, but eventually realized that it was an artistic choice. It might not serve a purpose other than art for art’s sake, but it works to draw us into the dialogue and listen to the important information being presented.
Here De Palma’s conventions feel experimental, but many of them would soon become more commonplace in cinema, an observation on how quickly the medium expanded its palette during the American New Wave.
Murder à la Mod actually presents us with quite an intriguing mystery. However, it not only becomes too wacky, but actually depends on the outlandishness of one particular character in order for the twists to work. The foil of the story is some slapstick prankster named Otto who’s barely sentient. It’s absolutely absurd to expect any audience to buy into the plausibility of this man having an important role in the making of any film, let alone any job at all. And so De Palma’s beautifully set up story slowly unravels before our very eyes.
And still the film almost works, if it weren’t for a confusing series of twists that it ultimately can’t recover from. However, the brilliance behind the camera is still there as we get glimpses of what would become a several decades-long run of absolutely masterful filmmaking.