Saturday, April 7, 2012

Director Spotlight #6.8: Brian De Palma's The Fury

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. April’s director is the self-proclaimed master of the macabre, Brian De Palma.

Grade: 76 (B+)

Brian De Palma’s Carrie was a box office success, but it wasn’t a monster-hit in the same fashion that the films of his friends Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were. Ostensibly De Palma’s big commercial movie, The Fury saw him working with a considerably larger budget than he had before. But lest ye think that De Palma made a quick cash-in film, let it be known: The Fury is a strange, unique blend of genres, and a De Palma film through and through.

Peter Sandza (Kirk Douglas) is a secret agent for an American agency that “you’ve never heard of”. His son Robin (Andrew Stevens) is a young man with psychic powers, and when Peter’s friend/fellow government operative Ben Childress (John Cassavetes) finds this out, he kidnaps Robin and tries to have Peter killed. Peter escapes and spends a year looking for any trace that his son might still be alive. His girlfriend Hester (Carrie Snodgress) works for the Paragon Clinic, a school that hosts and trains young psychics to better control their powers. When teenage girl Gillian Bellaver (Amy Irving) displays the same level of power Robin does (as well as a psychic connection to Robin), Hester and Peter plan to bust her out and find Robin before Childress takes her as well.

The Fury shows influences both old and young- De Palma designs several Hitchcockian set-pieces and suspense scenes throughout the film, and the Douglas plot feels like a supernatural version of Hitchcock in North by Northwest mode. The psychic power plotline feels like a cross between Carrie, Village of the Damned (complete with glowing eyes), and an X-Men comic book. De Palma also acknowledged more recent influences- one exciting car chase scene is clearly modeled after a scene in The French Connection, the shady government plotline was influenced by the conspiracy thriller Three Days of the Condor, and several sequences feel like they were influenced by De Palma’s friends George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, from scenes of inexplicable weirdness a la Close Encounters to the snappy pacing of Star Wars. There’s even a terrific John Williams score to boot that shows the composer in mysterious mode pre-Raiders of the Lost Ark.

De Palma’s obsession with voyeurism fits very nicely into a film that’s part conspiracy thriller. When Peter arranges a meeting with a psychic (William Finley), he’s being watched by Childress’ men. They follow his every move, and it’s only through ingenuity that he’s able to escape. We see both his perspective and the perspective of his pursuers- we’re on his side, but we can also watch every false move he makes. The film’s voyeurism meshes with the post-Watergate feeling that the government is always watching, and when we see the shady deals themselves, we can’t look away. That they’re able to make young people trust them so easily only makes it more unnerving. The other strong element of voyeurism? Psychic ability. After all, what’s more voyeuristic than being able to look into someone else’s mind?

Most of the actors acquit themselves well, from the stoic and charismatic Douglas as a hero with real warmth towards his son to Cassavetes as a sinister, deceptively warm villain to Snodgress as a maternal figure for Irving (she’s so similar to Betty Buckley in Carrie that I thought they were the same actress). There’s two standouts on polar sides of the acting spectrum- Andrew Stevens, who’s absolutely terrible as Robin (appropriately goofy in the beginning, but even goofier as the film goes on), and Irving, who brings vulnerability and intelligence to her role.

Sexuality plays a big role in Irving’s plot- she’s a confused adolescent girl learning things about herself that she never even considered. Her introduction shows Finley’s creepy psychic following her, with a POV-shot focused on her in a bathing suit. He’s looking for another psychic to help find Robin, but there’s more going on here. When the queen bee of the school picks on Gillian, Gillian reads her mind (she’s nervous because she’s pregnant) and shows a lack of control over her powers and her sexuality as opposed to the more experienced girls in her class. She feels alien, she makes everyone she touches bleed (in some of the freakier moments of the film), and she has no confidence. Contrast this to Robin, now trained by the government but out of control- he exudes confidence and false bravado (he’s a guy, after all), and he’s full of rage that he’s only physically (and sexually) adequate. Where Gillian is shy, Robin is aggressive. When Robin senses her near, he feels angry that there’s someone like him. Gillian is just scared.

De Palma’s craftsmanship is the biggest reason to see The Fury- the film shows his ability as a visual storyteller growing, and he uses the film’s relatively big budget to great effect. A tracking shot between Peter and Robin at a lunch table shows the strong, fun relationship between the two only for the camera to stop dead in its tracks when Childress arrives to talk with Peter. A similar tracking shot shows a strong relationship between Gillian and Hester. There’s a terrific car chase through the streets of Chicago. A scene without dialogue shows Gillian’s adeptness at telepathy and telekinesis. De Palma makes good use of split-diopter to show how Childress controls Charles Durning’s character while still showing Durning’s reluctance to let him take Gillian. The director even throws in some ridiculous but winking lines to show his sense of humor (“Ask Childress how his arm is.” “What happened to his arm, Peter?” “I KILLED IT. WITH A MACHINE GUN.”).

There’s three particularly bravura sequences in the film. The first involves rear-projection in a scene where Irving accidentally reads Durning’s mind and sees a past incident involving Robin. Everything seems a bit off as she experiences the past, and it’s an effectively creepy scene. The second sequence is Gillian’s escape from the Paragon Clinic- Hester is helping her bust out before Childress can take her so she can help Peter, and De Palma goes into slow-motion as Gillian runs to freedom, Hester looks thrilled that she’s getting away…and something terrible, devastating, and (it must be said) gory happens in one of De Palma’s best set-pieces. The final scene in the film, meanwhile, shows a more controlled Gillian rebuking Childress in a scene destined to make the squeamish wince and the horror-fan cheer.

The Fury isn’t quite one of De Palma’s best movies, in part because it’s two movies. One is a spy-thriller with exciting car chases and shady government organizations. The other is an even better horror story detailing a young woman’s self-discovery and how she’s manipulated by powerful men. They’re both effective films, but “films” is the key word here- when they inevitably come together, the film gets a bit goofy, the story starts to lose traction, and it doesn’t really regain footing until the final two scenes- one tragic, the next ecstatic.

Nonetheless, The Fury is a more than welcome addition to De Palma’s filmography. The film wasn’t a huge hit, but it’s a strong companion piece to Carrie, and it shows De Palma making a full-on De Palma movie even with a big-budget and the pressure to make blockbusters. He’d spent some time away from his pet projects.  He’d now spend his next three films- Home Movies, Dressed to Kill, and Blow Out- telling some of his most personal stories.

ORDER OF BUSINESS: Home Movies hasn't shown up as quickly as I'd hoped, so I'll likely write-up a few more De Palma films before backtracking to that one when it arrives.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

No comments:

Post a Comment