De Niro & De Palma – Three Early Comedies

Brian De Palma is a director best known for this work in the crime, psycho thriller and horror genres, frequently (and unfairly) accused of being a slavish imitator of Hitchcock who favours style over substance. Robert De Niro is a hugely successful actor best known for his roles in the crime genre and his extensive body of work with Martin Scorsese. And yet between 1966 and 1970, at the beginning of each of their careers and years before being reunited on The Untouchables (1987), these two collaborated on a run of three counterculture comedies.

The Wedding Party (1969) was De Palma’s first feature length film but the third to be released. It doesn’t really have a plot as such, following Charlie (Charles Pfluger) through a loosely connected series of incidents as he arrives at a Long Island estate the day before his wedding to Josephine (Jill Clayburgh). His groomsmen Alistair (William Finley) and Cecil (Robert De Niro, credited as “Robert Denero”) initially try to talk him out of the marriage, pressing on him the keys to a hidden escape vehicle, but Charlie remains adamant in his intent and refuses to join them on their planned stag night festivities. By the next morning, Charlie has begun to have second thoughts. Each new “reassuring” interaction with Josephine, her family, her ex-boyfriends and the priest just reinforces his doubts (although what on earth the priest thinks he is conveying through his obscure bicycle and minigolf metaphors is anyone’s guess). Even his friends have suddenly changed their tune, arguing in favour of marriage against the same arguments they had previously proposed.

Filmed in black & white, it has something of the feel of a 1930s comedy, broken into chapters by stylised intertitles featuring quotes from the (presumably fictional) text The Compleat Bridegroom and making strategic use of undercranking to accelerate the action for comic effect. The whole opening sequence is played at this accelerated speed, as Charlie and his friends arrive on the island and are driven frantically all over the place by the bride’s mother (Valda Setterfield) while her servant (John Quinn) – hired as a chauffeur but never allowed to drive – tries desperately to salvage falling luggage and keep them from crashing. The pace keeps up until they arrive at the house, at which point the film shifts suddenly into slow motion as Charlie goes through a seemingly endless procession of meeting the bride’s elderly female relatives, their slurred voices overdubbed. The other significant use of undercranking occurs during the feast on the night before the wedding. The babble of conversation plays at normal speed over the accelerated footage, jarring disjointedly with the visuals as De Palma begins to cut more and more quickly between shots, conveying Charlie’s disorientation as he attempts to process his whirling doubts in the face of his rapidly approaching nuptials.

The story was loosely inspired by De Palma’s experience as a groomsman for the 1963 marriage of his college roommate Jared Martin in a similar setting. Robert De Niro (in his first professional screen role) was cast to play a version of De Palma, while the other groomsman William Finley played a version of himself. Originally planned as one of three segments of an anthology movie to be co-directed with Wilford Leach (a Theatre Studies teacher) and Cynthia Munroe (a wealthy student who provided the money), the other segments were dropped and Munroe’s script (based on De Palma’s anecdotes) was expanded to feature length. Leach was put in charge of directing the actors while De Palma was responsible for all other aspects of filming. Appearing in cameo roles were Cynthia Munroe as one of the bridesmaids and original groom Jared Martin as one of the wedding guests. Sadly, Cynthia is reported to have died before De Palma finished editing the film in 1966.

The Wedding Party was eventually released for a brief run in 1969 but made little impact and vanished into obscurity, before the advent of home video caused it to be revived and deceptively marketed as a star vehicle for Robert De Niro, whose relatively minor role plays second fiddle to Finley’s character. Finley would continue his association with Brian De Palma, appearing in seven more films for him between 1968 and 1980 – most notably his starring role as the titular Phantom of the Paradise (1974). After a significant gap, he would reunite with de Palma for his final film role in The Black Dahlia (2006). Although Wilford Leach’s blocking of the actors was reportedly unsuitable for De Palma’s filmic sensibilities (requiring some intervention), he went on to became a Tony Award-winning theatrical director, translating his talents to film more successfully for the Kevin Kline vehicle The Pirates of Penzance (1983).

De Palma’s first film to hit the cinemas was the obscure thriller Murder à la Mod (1968), followed in short order by his return to comedy with Greetings (1968), a loosely structured ramble through various revolutionary 1960s concerns connected by the central trio of Paul (Jonathan Warden), Jon (Robert de Niro) and Lloyd (Gerrit Graham). Rather than writing a script, De Palma and co-writer/producer Charles Hirsch concocted a series of scenarios as a rough guide and encouraged the actors to improvise their scenes. Opening and closing with footage of Lyndon Johnson on television talking about sending troops to Vietnam before telling the American public that they’ve never had it better, the movie latches onto the Vietnam draft as a potential motivating force for the three men. After receiving his draft letter, Paul provokes a bar fight in the hope he’ll be pronounced medically unfit, causing his two friends to roleplay various scenarios which they claim are guaranteed to cause him to be rejected. This thread is quickly dropped – after being told to wait to weeks for a verdict, it’s roughly an hour until Vietnam is mentioned again. Two contrasting takes on the war are delivered to camera (a sober reflection from an ex-GI followed by an anecdote about the rampant drug use by soldiers) before another character’s attempt to portray himself as too psychotically right wing for the army backfires.

Each of the three characters follows their own thematic strand. After a seduction scene staged next to an “Abolish HUAC” poster, Paul spends the rest of the film going on a series of computer dating encounters. A “Bronx secretary” (Ashley Oliver) dressed to the nines berates him for not making an effort and expecting to jump straight into bed; a “gay divorcee” (Cynthia Peltz) turns out to have a baby, causing him to bail immediately; a “mystic” (Mona Feit) proves to embody all the sexist stereotypes of the intense New Age flake. Paul is very much the straight man and this is the least interesting part of the film – possibly because it was an afterthought on the part of writers who had two strong concepts but needed three.

Each of the other characters follows a particular obsession of one of the two writers. Lloyd’s obsession with the JFK assassination comes courtesy of Charles Hirsch. Every situation Lloyd finds himself in is an excuse to spout facts and theories about the secrets behind the assassination, to the point where rather than sleeping with a naked woman he scribbles diagrams on her body and triumphantly concludes that the entry and exit wounds of the bullet don’t match. At his bookstore workplace he meets a fellow conspiracy enthusiast (Peter Maloney) who claims to be a relative of one of the dead witnesses. The enthusiast ultimately fails to show up to their rendezvous point, leading to Lloyd’s assassination as witness #18. Gerrit Graham is the most talented comic actor of the three and, although it could be argued his performance is a little too large, his scenes are the most entertaining to watch – even his exaggerated death scene.

De Palma’s particular enthusiasm is for voyeurism – not simply sexual voyeurism (although that’s certainly present), but also in the broader sense which sees cinema as a whole as an act of voyeurism. Just as he played a fictional version of the director in The Wedding Party, Robert De Niro once again acts as his proxy here. Peering through a bookstand at a woman who’s shoplifting (Rutanya Alda), Jon extricates her from an awkward situation with the store’s manager (Ted Lescault). We next see him reading to the camera from a book about voyeurism before meeting up with her again. Standing next to a window through which a woman can be seen taking off her coat and brushing her hair as she prepares for bed, he tells the shoplifter that she’d caught his eye as the perfect casting for a film role. Back at his place, we watch through his camera as he instructs her to perform the same actions he saw the woman in the window performing before encouraging her to remove more and more clothing (a situation left unresolved when the film runs out). In a later scene, his attempt to get a passport photo ends up flipping the scenario on him, as the tapdancing photographer (Roz Kelly) talks him out of his own clothes. Both scenes are played for comedy, but they’re not the exact equivalents the filmmakers appear to believe they are. The first scene comes across as uncomfortably exploitative, with the male in control and his subject’s own views on what she’s experiencing never entirely clear. Although he’s not in control in the second scene, he’s clearly a willing participant. Despite the more active female role in the second scenario, both scenes are straightforwardly male-inflected sexual fantasies. In between these scenes, Jon follows a pretty woman from a party and ends up talking to a man credited as “Smut Peddler” (Allen Garfield) who sells him a stag film reel hidden inside a Coca Cola box, which turns out to depict Paul’s fourth and final computer dating experience (in which we are apparently intended to conclude that he dies from sexual exhaustion – not that it’s at all clear from the scene). Jon ends the film in Vietnam, attempting to recreate his voyeuristic fancy yet again while being interviewed by real life TV news correspondent Ray Tuttle, presumably intended to be a comment on the nation’s experience of the conflict as the first televised war.

De Palma selects his shots to explore the more technical aspects of cinematic voyeurism, ensuring that there’s always something else going on in the background of otherwise static conversation scenes. His decision to film some street scenes from above creates a sense of covert surveillance, perhaps intended to evoke the perspective of Lee Harvey Oswald peering down from the Texas School Book Depository with his rifle ready. Characters demonstrate their awareness of being watched, frequently turning to deliver their dialogue to the camera. De Palma has also developed techniques first used in The Wedding Party, in particular a subversion of the standard shot-reverse shot switch depicting two sides of a conversation. Rather than shift the camera around to shoot from one person’s perspective and then the other, he has the characters swap places, so that the scenery remains static while the people flicker backwards and forwards. He draws attention to the technique by switching the customer and shopkeeper in the foreground each time he switches perspectives. It might well be a consciously artificial technique which serves no real narrative purpose, but a) I don’t care because I liked it and b) it’s arguably thematically appropriate.

De Palma & Hirsch described the film in its press book as an “overground sex-protest film”, which might have sounded clever at the time (it was splashed all over the promotional material) but comes across now as self-consciously provocative. In interviews, they talked about the film as their tribute to Godard’s Masculin féminin: 15 faits précis (1966), which similarly follows a group of men in the shadow of military service. It’s not one I’ve seen, but Chris Dumas points out in his essay “Before the Revolution” (1968) that the film’s viewpoint is distinctly male, rather than the more equal perspective suggested by its title – a criticism which applies equally to Greetings. While I have a soft spot for the rambling shambolic cinematic mishmashes of this era, I’m not sure I’d agree that Greetings is one of the better ones. It’s an interesting reflection of its era and its creators, but as a whole it’s less successful than its better parts.

De Palma & Hirsch followed up on the critical success of Greetings with a sequel, Hi, Mom! (1970), which was to be their final collaboration. In contrast to their first film, the sequel actively engages with politics rather than simply being informed by them. Significantly, in the gap between making these two films, De Palma had collaborated on a documentary about African America social housing, To Bridge This Gap (1969), before filming an experimental theatre production of Euripides’ The Bacchae as Dionysus in ’69 (1970). Both of these experiences have clearly informed the techniques and subject matter on display in Hi, Mom!

Jon (Robert De Niro), the sole survivor of the original trio of characters, returns from Vietnam and secures a shitty over-priced apartment. Its sole saving grace (pointed out to him by a leering superintendent played by perennial supporting actor Charles Durning) is its clear view through the windows of the apartment building opposite. The first section of the film riffs on Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) as Jon sets up a telescope and convinces Joe Banner (a returning role for Allen Garfield’s pornographer from Greetings) to finance his concept of Peep Art (as opposed to Pop Art). Drawn to one window in particular, through which can be seen two young women perpetually dressing or undressing as they prepare for their endless parade of dates, Jon zeroes in on Judy (Jennifer Salt), the third tenant who always ends up alone and sighing. Pretending to have been sent to her apartment by an incompetent computer dating agency, he convinces her to go out with him and constructs a fake persona to play into her cues. His ultimate goal is to arrange a second date in her apartment, putting his camera on a timer to film them having sex. After various comic mishaps caused by his underestimation of her eagerness, the camera droops on its stand at the crucial moment, drifting to the apartment below where radical activist Gerrit (a returning Gerrit Graham in a new role) has painted his entire body black – except for his penis.

In the midst of all this De Palma introduces two other strands. In one, a middle class housewife (soap actress Lara Parker on a break from her recurring villain role as a witch in Dark Shadows) buys a camera and begins to create her own film diary. Based on interviews from around the time the film was being made, this segment was originally intended to be more significant, but it takes up barely any screen time and is dropped entirely after the first 30 minutes. Far more important are the intrusions of 16mm black & white footage from the N.I.T. (National Intellectual Television) Journal production “The Black Revolution”. This starts off as a series of vox pop interviews in which a couple of African American radicals (Hector Valentin Lino, Jr. & Carole Leverett) ask random white people whether they’d like to experience what it is to be black rather than pretending to understand. The interviewees are encouraged to come to their play “Be Black Baby”, posters for which Gerrit has been plastering all over the city. Jon, freshly fired from his unsuccessful flirtation with pornography, answers an ad looking for white men with a military background to play policemen.

At this point the N.I.T. footage takes over entirely and the film becomes a documentary presentation of radical situationist theatre. The white intellectual audience are eased into the performance, being allowed to touch the black performers’ afros (surprised at their softness) and taught to dance “like a black person”. They are then fed stereotypical “black food” before having their faces painted black. Meanwhile the actors have painted their own faces white and begin to patronisingly ask the audience probing personal details about their lives. This gradually transforms into a gruelling experience in which the audience are subjected to increasingly dehumanising behaviour escalating almost to the level of assault, at which point Jon bursts in as a policeman and harasses the innocent audience, ignoring the real (whiteface) perpetrators. Suddenly the audience are outside again, gushingly recommending the play to their friends and spouting off about how they now understand racial oppression. The actors disgustedly realise that the audience haven’t really learned anything – and Jon suddenly incites them to attack the apartment building! Their armed invasion ends tragically and farcically as the surprisingly well-armed tenants massacre them with machine guns and garrottes. Returning to colour footage for the final 15 minutes, Jon (who has watched the massacre on TV) swears revenge. Three months later, having set up a cover identity as a happily domestic insurance salesman living with the pregnant Judy, he goes downstairs to do his laundry and blows up the building.

Hirsch’s take on the film is that Jon returns from the war a disillusioned radical who becomes increasingly radicalised throughout the film before declaring war on middle America, but this requires a great deal of special pleading – Jon’s character lacks the psychological reality for this to be at all believable. This supposedly simmering radical just waiting for a trigger point is completely absent from the first section of the film. What we have instead is a logical development of his character from Greetings if he’d never been off to war in the first place. The trigger point that begins his radicalisation is his involvement with the theatre group – but he only joins them because he’d lost his job and his attention was snagged by the sight of a naked breast adorning the “Be Black Baby” poster. He appears to enjoy the thuggery of his role as a policeman a little too much, and is happy to incite the group to violence when he’s hopped up on adrenalin without joining their assault himself. His abandonment of his middle class “cover identity” is triggered by Judy’s complaint that he bought her a secondhand white dishwasher rather than a new yellow model which would match her kitchen décor. There are glimmerings of distaste for middle class complacency in both instances, but it’s hard to buy into the idea that he’s actively embraced radical values. It feels instead as if De Palma has subverted Hirsch’s idea of the story by satirising the emptiness behind white pseudo-radicals who attempt to create meaning for themselves by emulating the actions taken by those who are more politically committed. Whether this is what De Palma truly intended I don’t really know – but regardless of whether the film works as a whole, the middle section of the film stands out as a viscerally effective representation of the rage felt by African Americans in the face of societal oppression and misguided claims to understand their lived experience.

After a disastrous experience making another comedy – the creatively compromised Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972) – De Palma returned to his love of the thriller genre with Sisters (1972), setting the path for much of his future work. Jennifer Salt, having had minor roles in De Palma’s first two films before playing De Niro’s love interest, would receive second billing in Sisters before establishing a career in TV, most notably a recurring role as Eunice Tate in the popular sitcom Soap (1977-1981). Charles Durning also found himself cast in a larger role in Sisters and would work with De Palma again on The Fury (1978). Gerrit Graham, having given a more sober performance in Hi, Mom! than in Greetings, would pull out all the stops for his performance as the camp rock musician Beef in Phantom of the Paradise (1974) before returning for one more stab at comedy in De Palma’s Home Movies (1979).

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