Murder à la Mod, Brian De Palma's first proper feature following his 1963 student film The Wedding Party, shows the director further utilizing silent film techniques and New Wave stylistic innovations. Indeed, at times it plays like some mad combination of Buster Keaton and Jean-Luc Godard. A sleazy, post-sexual revolution take on Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, Murder à la Mod shows the director still reliant (perhaps overly so) on film school techniques over any of his own innovation, yet it proves a major step up for the budding filmmaker.
Like the protagonist of Peeping Tom, Chris (Jared Martin) is an aspiring filmmaker and avid photographer. Where Mark released his sexual hangups and child abuse through gynocide, however, Chris works as a pornographer to deal with his own issues. He needs the money to pay for a divorce so that he might move in with his girlfriend, Karen (Margo Norton). Yet Chris does not sleep with Karen and makes neurotic references to his relationship with her as an artist-muse, suggesting he does not love Karen so much as the idea of her, having outgrown the idea of the first model he married. There's a bit of Psycho in such scenes (to say nothing of the violent content), as Karen's friend makes a huge withdrawal from the bank, some of which Karen pockets in an attempt to help her chaste lover break away from his marriage as soon as possible.
Soon, everything goes mad. De Palma may be using film school formalism and post-New Wave faux-verité, but he does so to highlight the artifice of the cinema. The first dialogue of the film, a disembodied conversation between Karen and Chris, is mirrored later in a radio soap opera with similar lines that De Palma plays over a repeat of an earlier scene. We get some of the first exposition through screen tests of actresses Chris must audition for his skin flick. the crosshairs of the camera viewfinder breaking up the image and revealing it to be fake. Long shots are distorted, warping the dimensions of those who wander into the background. Even the opening credits throw us off our game, presenting still photographs that are then juked out of place, showing the edges of their frames.
He employs various techniques to build suspense, only to undermine them with zeal. The scene of Tracy making her withdrawal stretches on for a ludicrous amount of time until we fear, as the bank manager does, that she will be mugged immediately after stepping outside. A cop threatens Karen with a parking ticket if she doesn't move Tracy's car, sending her on a chase for her friend that goes awry. Stories reach conclusions, then De Palma doubles back and shows the timeline from a different POV. He employs sped-up, silent film slapstick that isn't funny, but its extreme violence is. Nothing is concrete, everything you think you know about the story is but a lie conjured up by its creator, and De Palma won't stop until he drills this into our heads.
The only limitation here appears to be the nonexistent budget, as the director manages an admirable array of in-camera effects that suggest bigger potential. Some scenes drag on too long (particularly that bank manager bit), and the only actor worth his or her salt is William Finley as Otto, a deranged assistant in the amateur porno production who has lost grip on reality and lives as if a character in a movie. He carries with him two ice picks, one real and one prop, and De Palma even undermines a confusion between the two as he juggles them between his hands by freezing the frame and inserting titles with arrows pointing out which is which. Finley brings a manic creepiness to the character, who serves as De Palma's greatest piece of misdirection in the film.
Perhaps the most telling moment of the film comes early, as Chris angrily demonstrates his real line of work to Karen. He plays a disturbing tape of the porn shoot, as one of the filmmakers lashes out in some misogynistic frenzy and taping stops to throw him out. Chris then walks over to what appears to be the wall and tugs, revealing it to be a pull-down screen masking the set for the final scene of the skin flick behind it. It's almost like the reveal of the Wizard of Oz, but with violent pornography. The sexualized violence of the film seems more a lift from Hitchcock than a commentary in its own right, but it's interesting to see the way De Palma portrays most of the men as savage animals driven mad by the nudity they love so much.
Not much makes sense by the end of Murder à la Mod, though we get definitive answers. It plays the Brechtian card with as much glee as Godard, and there's something more decadently enjoyable about it here than in some placed of JLG's early career, the existential musing swapped out for a cheeky look at the filmmaking process. It's heavily flawed, but there's a can-do attitude here, supported by De Palma's rapidly developing style, that makes for easy digestion for fans of exploitation pictures and even a few surprises along the way.