Friday, September 24, 2010

Brian De Palma: The Fury

Though it never reaches the heights of De Palma's previous two features, The Fury combines the best aspects of both. It shares Obsession's convoluted plot and its brazen Romanticism, and it draws from Carrie's supernatural take on puberty. In a way, it resembles All the President's Men, if that movie were somehow turned into an X-Men comic.

Rarely have I seen a narrative more mangled and half-conceived, and never have I seen one that is so happy to point this out to the viewer. When the film opens on a coastal villa with the hilariously non-specific supertitle "Middle East," De Palma gives us fair warning that we'll never get the full details. In no time, the movie spirals into madness. Peter Sanza (Kirk Douglas, grayed but chiseled like a Greek god) lives a relaxed life with his young adult son, Robin (Andrew Stevens), who seems apprehensive about returning to the States after several years away. Vague mentions of some "gift" surface in their conversation, but the arrival of terrorists via dinghies interrupts the chat. In the middle of the firefight, Peter spots one of the supposed terrorists filming the shooting, and he lures attention and gunfire away by leaving Robin with his friend and associate, Childress (John Cassavetes), and grabbing a boat and heading out to sea. His plan takes a bit of a turn when the boat explodes.

This all happens in about seven minutes, mind you. It only gets crazier from here. Peter survives and discovers that Childress orchestrated the attack, sending the father into hiding so that he might reclaim his son and get revenge. Then, De Palma started piling on the craziness. Back in America, a young woman named Gillian Bellaver (Amy Irving) is trying, unsuccessfully, to deal with a talent like Robin's. She's psychic as well as telekinetic, and this causes a surprising amount of mocking and dismissal from the other girls in her school even when she proves herself.

Were any other director behind The Fury, it could not possibly have worked. It's all too silly, and the film finds itself in the nebulous area between conviction and irony, aware that it is absurd but not playing on that knowledge. The greatest running gag of the film involves the normalcy with which it treats some of its craziest elements. Everyone at school knows Gillian is psychic, but they act like she's just trying to get attention. When representatives of the "Paragon Institute" come and test the children for psychic powers, the nurse sent never once lies about why she's there, and everyone accepts this without comment.

Then, there's Douglas' character. Peter is so obstinately unkillable and singularly focused that he becomes an open parody of the individualistic hero of the cinema. He's a master of disguise, an eloquent speaker, an expert driver, a marksman, a lethal close combatant and, finally, sex on legs. Propelled by Douglas' swagger, Peter looks like he could drink James Bond under a table and then screw whatever woman Bond had been seducing previously. At one point, someone asks Peter about Childress and asks if he's afraid of the man. "He's afraid of me," comes Peter's response, and who could blame Childress for his fear?

A comic element always existed in Douglas' rogues gallery of assholes, but he is downright hysterical in the first half of the film. When Childress tracks Peter to a hotel, the man escapes in his underwear, leaping onto raised train tracks and crashing into the apartment of a slovenly couple, complete with harridan mother-in-law. Peter holds them up but is so gentlemanly that the old woman gladly helps him tie up the younger pair and even cooks the beleaguered father breakfast while he creates an old man disguise for himself.

De Palma uses the considerable talents of his leading man to springboard into some of his most audacious and boldly comic filmmaking yet. One of the best sequences in De Palma's early canon comes in the form of a ludicrous car chase between Childress' men and two off-duty cops that Peter threatens. Bob, the cop driving, laments that he only just bought his car that afternoon, but Peter guides them through stop lights, heavy fog and a construction zone, destroying every follower and not getting a scratch on the Cadillac. The sequence is littered with visual gags and ingenious direction, but De Palma reveals it all to be a setup, the punchline of which is Peter ultimately taking the car and driving it off an unfinished bridge in front of poor Bob. Why does he destroy the man's Caddy? I can't say. What else are you supposed to do with a shiny, new vehicle in a comic thriller?

Peter's efforts to find and save his son mirror and invert the murderous rage that the father in Obsession feels for the woman he does not recognize as his daughter. He sleeps with a nurse, Hester (Carrie Snodgress), at the Paragon Institute so he might get information on Robin, who stayed there after Childress abducted the boy. Peter also attempts to take Gillian, who displays a power to rival Robin's, in order to track down his son. His single-minded focus is fearsome, and Douglas' performance is surprisingly powerful even as he, more than anyone else in the cast (save perhaps Cassavetes, made to fake a dead arm the entire time), understands that the film is a lark.

His dedication to the role marks the core of the film's more touching side. Gillian hates her powers and fears the lack of control she has over them. She befriends Hester, who cannot abide by the pressure placed on the children of the Paragon Institute and helps Gillian escape. When the nurse dies in the attempt, however, both Gillian and Peter are crushed. Compared to Bond, who can so casually use women in every way possible until he finally uses them as his own bulletproof vest, Peter looks at his lover's body and understands how his quest for vengeance has gone. After spending more than an hour hunting Gillian to use her, he immediately tries to release the young woman, unwilling to risk her for his suicide mission. It's inevitable that she will still come to the final showdown in the hopes of learning to control her powers through Robin, but the sudden halt in momentum for a man to pause his righteous crusade to spare the innocent reveals a side of De Palma that he won't fully reveal at this time. He's like a flasher walking around a park in naught but an overcoat, stalking up to youths and popping open his coat to reveal a beating heart.

The ending only compounds this romantic side, with Robin, experimented upon to the point of insanity, killing his assigned lover in a mad rage when he senses Gillian coming and fears he's being replaced. He even attacks his father, who endured so much just to see his son again, only for the boy to be so far gone that Peter possibly lets the boy fall to his death, aware that his own love cannot justify keeping such a monster alive. Peter's grief is all-consuming, however, and he leaps to die by his son, reunited at last. After laughing for an hour and a half, I found suddenly that the chuckles caught in the throat.

De Palma does spin the mood right 'round for the finale, which outdoes Scanners a few years before Cronenberg's film even existed, but it's too late. After peeking out from behind the hedges in Obsession, the director's Romanticism enjoys an entire act of open, unabashed visibility, and this revelation raises The Fury above its somewhat plodding middle section. The middle showcases the most of De Palma's tricks, particularly focused around his way of visualizing Gillian's psychic flashbacks, which allow us to essentially watch a second movie within the already-tangled narrative, but he cannot yet find the right balance between his softer side and his more impish impulses. Nevertheless, The Fury boasts one of the finest performances in De Palma's filmography, and after making his reputation on so many wild satires, the sudden emergence of some tangible emotion hints at the humanity that would inform his best films.


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  2. I have so much trouble with De Palma. I'm a fairly well-versed cinephile, but his pictures just don't do a damn thing for me. I don't see what he's bringing to the table. They all just feel ridiculously silly and facile, with their absurd synthesized soundtracks making it an even more difficult pill to swallow.

  3. Anon: I can see why De Palma's films turn people off (especially these early ones, only a few of which have really, fully grabbed me), but I've found a lot to like about him. His films are indeed silly, but that's because he uses cinema as the target of parody and the weapon. But he doesn't really make genre parodies so much as travesties of film itself. It's bizarre as hell and I think it doesn't work a lot of the time (I only particularly enjoyed one of his first five films, though I do feel that the one is a masterpiece). But when he connects, his silliness is riotous. I think he brings a tremendous formalism to the table but also the knowledge of how to turn that formalism on its head in interesting ways. Granted, it's not that visible here, but I've seen some later De Palma films I think work much better, and I hope to come across some more as I visit most of his filmography for the first time.

  4. It might also be of interest to know that with this film, De Palma was sort of preparing to make his dream project, which was to be a film adaptation of Alfred Bester's THE DEMOLISHED MAN. De Palma and John Farris (who adapted THE FURY from his own novel) had written a screenplay, and Dino Delaurentis was going to produce it, but the project never quite came together. As recently as 3 or 4 years ago, when De Palma was asked what his dream project would be, if given unlimited financing, etc., he answered with THE DEMOLISHED MAN.

  5. I haven't read The Demolished Man, but I've heard that De Palma tried to adapt it and, from what basic summaries I've read, the story seemed right up his alley. Shame that he almost certainly has less clout now than he did then and won't likely be able to make it. Still, The Fury is enough of a step forward in De Palma's style that it stands as more as the lead-up to something that never came.