Problematic and protested against upon its release in 1980, and remaining so today, Dressed to Kill is nonetheless stylish and engrossing, showing off some truly great filmmaking. We talk Psycho and cinema’s transgender villains, why Nancy Allen should have been a star, Brian De Palma’s greatest deaths, and the version of Michael Caine that José doesn’t like.
FI saw Blow Out again this week, and what I noticed was the skill evident in even the relatively ‘minor’ shots. This is a visual illustration of an instance (It might have been quicker to read and more precise had I written it. But it was quicker to do this way and hopefully the point will be more vividly and accurately illustrated):
We are joined by Celia Nicholls, film wiz extraordinaire, for a discussion of Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, a careful drama following a Protestant minster’s personal crises and relationships with his parishioners and community. Comparisons with Robert Bresson, informed by Schrader’s Transcendental Style in Film, are drawn; we consider how trite or meaningful we find the film’s moral questions; and we pick apart the film’s flat aesthetic and occasional flights of fancy.
The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.
The image above is from one of Scarface‘s most iconic moments: ‘say hello to my little friend’. Practically everyone knows or has heard the line either in the movie or cited or imitated elsewhere. Pacino’s performance is galvanising and his reading of that line unforgettable: we now have over 35 years’ evidence that this is so. But what caught my eye in my most recent viewing is how the film’s set, costume and colour design — not to mention all other elements of mise-en-scène — also build up to this moment.
The red-carpet is like a pathway of blood, leading up to that oh-so-white and oh-so-deadly — ‘don’t get high on your own supply’ — little mountain of coke on the desk, all the darkness of the furniture showing edges of gold, including those two big bars that seem to frame the desk itself. It’s like the colour of killing leads to the whiteness of the coke, which is nonetheless enshrouded in the darkness one has accept and travel through to get to the gold. It’s patterned, meaningful, great use of colour and set design. Note also that foot and the patch of purple or violet on the lower right-hand side of the frame. Most of this post will be about that.
But before that let’s just establish how the colour is designed and patterned. Note below, Tony Montana’s phone call after the chainsaw scene with the Columbians were he manages to obtain both the coke and the money in spite of the suspicion that he’s been set up by by Omar (F. Murray Abraham). It’s what leads to his first contact with Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia) The image is almost the inverse one of the scene where Lopez himself decides to off Tony Montana and which will instead lead to his own demise. See images below. It’s like the colours of the shirt in the picture on the left have been rendered onto the landscape that’s a backdrop and then combined so that the landscape is painted in the colours of the shirt and then transposed as the wallpaper that is a backdrop to a newly endangered Tony in Frank Lopez’s office. The first is a ‘Hello Frank’ moment. The latter is a ‘Goodbye Tony Montana that ends up being Goodby Frank Lopez’ moment. And the link between them, how one is the result but opposite of the other is partly communicated through a similar inversion and transposition of colour.
Another example of this consistent, patterned and expressive use of colour is the use of red. The first frame-grab below on the left is the two pillars of red that frames the entrance of Tony and Manny (Steven Bauer) into Frank’s house. In the second we see that the house is meant to evoke rich Miami moderne, so the red remains an accent if vibrantly evident. In the third as they sit down to discuss business with Frank, the red occupies the bottom third, but now the black predominates in the leather sofas, and Frank is wearing the colour of his merchandise, cocaine. Then compare this again to the final shootout at Tony’s mansion on the last frame, where the red predominates, the black, gold is evident and carried through, and the the sculpture that ironically proclaims the world is yours is in gold and dead centre.
To return to the ‘say hello to my little friend’ image from the beginning and the peek of purple at the bottom right of the frame, the colour of the nightgown Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), the person Tony loved most was wearing when he killed the second person he loved the most, Manny. She’s still wearing it after being killed in his own office. When I saw it I wrote a note to myself:
‘Colours converge at the end, sister wearing husband’s mauve which he’s been associated throughout, the carpet of red, leading to the gold, the black and the cocaine, all the dominant colours of the last set-pice in the house with the world is yours fountain at the end, borrowed wholesale from the neon sign in the original film.
‘The World is Yours’ appears often in the film, sometimes written onto airborn Zeppelins, sometimes as a sculpture outside the new Montana headquarters,, sometimes in Tony’s own office, and at the end as the centrepiece in the middle of the dual staircase (see below).
I had a theory about the colour purple based on this image below:
It’s the moment where Tony kills Manny. Manny has been dressed in or surrounded by the spectrum of colours between red and blue that generally centres on violet. Manny is newly married and robed in white (and, after Tony, shoots him splattered in red). As you can see below there is hardly a scene in the film (I noted two important but brief exception) where Manny is not wearing some form of violet. My theory was that marriage had transferred his colour onto that of his wife.
However, looking back on the film I see that this is not quite the case. Gina has also been wearing that colour throughout the film and in fact in their first proper meeting where he takes her home, they’re both wearing slightly different shades of the same colour.
If violet/purple can be seen as the colour of Tony’s loves, then that little peek of purple by the foot in lower right hand corner of the image that began this post signifies all that his striving to make the world his has cost Tony. The darkness, the coke, the blood is still there with more intensity to come albeit only for a brief time. But that which was love is now dead, barely there and receding fast. It’s great and expressive use of colour throughout the film and this is only but a brief example.
Patricia Norris deserves credit for the costume design; Bruce Weintraub for the set decoration, Edward Richardson for the Art Direction, and Brian De Palma for drawing on Ferdinando Scarfiotti as visual consultant and co-ordinating all of it.
Chris McNicolls has brought to my attention the following: ‘Along with black, violet/mauve are colours of death and mourning in many cultures, so in a way its use seem to foreshadow how things are going to end with Manny and Tony’s sister. But in Cuban culture in particular, especially in its African inflected influences, mauve/violet are the colours of the goddess Oya, that imperious lady who rules the cemetery. And in that frame where Tony emerges from his office on that red carpet with his little friend. The entire setting is dominated by violet/purple and that raging red which, not surprising, is the colour of Oya’s one-time consort, Chango/Shango the lord of fire, lightning, and destruction. And let me tell you, his manly prowess is far from little, hence Tony’s ironic description.’
Andrew Griffin has noted that, ‘I assume that De Palma has a Roman Catholic heritage, as do some of the others on the design team for this film, and knew the Liturgical Colour Code, sort of a Handkerchief Code for Catholics. Purple/Violet is the colour of sacrifice; red the colour of the passion of the Christ.
Brian De Palma’s Scarface was released in December 1983. I was then an undergraduate at McGill trying to earn a few bucks during the holiday season by working as an usher at the Place du Canada cinema in Montreal, an 815 seater with one screen that opened in ’67 with Expo and closed in 1989, after the multiplex boom made such theatres impractical.
I got fired eventually, ostensibly for reading on the job but really because the holiday season was over. Scarface was Universal Pictures’ big Christmas release that season. During the whole time I worked at Cinema Place du Canada, which must have been just over a month, it was the only film we screened, and we could only show it twice weekdays as the film was so long (2h50). Despite mixed reviews, we got good crowds, and queues were common at almost every screening.
I have many fond memories of working there; the sound of kernels of corn popping steadily away, the smell of the newly melted butter. I thought that’s the way all cinemas all over the world made their popcorn until I moved to England. Here I found the popcorn on sale popped who knows when, looking forlorn and strewn behind big glass windows, usually sweet instead of salty. Why is that? It’s so inexpensive to pop corn fresh and the melting butter makes the whole cinema smell enticing and delicious. What an alienating way to cut corners, especially at the prices they charge.
I’ve never forgotten the way guys with their dates leaned up to the box-office and said ‘Two for Al’ at the Place du Canada cinema screenings of Scarface. It was almost always ‘Two for Al’ instead of ‘Two for Scarface.’ That’s how big a star Al Pacino was then. If the guys were Italian, they’d purr a ‘Hey’ up front with that extra relish, musicality and élan so typical of East Coast North Americans of Italian descent wanting to present ‘la bella figura’ and taking particular pride in Al Pacino’s accomplishments: ‘Hey! Two for Al’. Remember John Travolta aspiring to Al-ness in Saturday Night Fever?
Pacino then was every immigrant’s Al. That Scarface has since found a central place in hip hop culture in particular and black cultures in general is no surprise. One can point to how the cocaine, the guns and the gold might have a particular appeal to hip hop ‘pimp’ culture. But of greater significance in Scarface is how it presents the gangsterism of the system itself, the lawlessness of the cops, the muderousness of the privileged and the constant exclusionary practices put in place against any kind of other. Scarface spoke — sang really — not only in operatic style but with operatic range and depth to immigrants and outsiders of all kinds.
At Place du Canada I wore a tux; a cheap, scratchy and ill-fitting one, which probably made me uncomfortable wearing any kind of suit for life. I repetitively took and tore up tickets. I had a flashlight and sometimes lit the way and led the last stragglers to their seats.
But hey, there wasn’t much to do, which meant I was already in place in the dark to delight in the audience’s reaction to the chainsaw scene in the shower, probably the most graphic and violent bit of cinema your average filmgoer had seen to then — the not so average had probably already revelled in Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) — and one which has surely shaped my taste.
I also got to see the rest of the film, over and over again, maybe 70 times in all, which surely also shaped the way I understand and think about cinema now. In between shows, I was reading Pauline Kael in short bursts, which I imagine must also share some of the blame, and not just for getting me fired.
There will be more on De Palma’s Scarface in later posts.
Visually disappointing but narratively enthralling film about a Looper, an executioner who kills people from the future in the present. Time travel doesn’t exist in the present but it does in the future, thus people from the future get shipped back to the film’s present, the looper shoots them as they appear, disposes of the body and gets paid. No one is looking for the bodies in the present and nobody can find them in the future. But who is disposing of these bodies and why? That’s what the rest of the story tries to tell in this dystopian futuristic thriller in which one can detect elements of The Omen (Richard Donner, USA, 1976) and The Fury (Brian de Palman, USA, 1978). The story lacks tension and feels a bit long but it does fascinate. The drugs, the want, the sense of a failed state with no law and order, with hungry people rummaging the countryside and those prairies full of rotting fields are a subtle critique of America now and, like many contemporary films, Looper deals with current anxieties by depicting, denouncing and somewhat resolving the most hateful aspects of this new Depression we’re living in, albeit tangentially. Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a subtle imitation of a young Bruce Willis, it’s mostly the nose, but with a few mannerisms thrown in; then he shows what a truly brilliant actor he is because he can let go of the disguise; it’s not straightforward imitation. Emily Blunt disappoints; sadly, because she’s so sympathetic one wants her to be good. Looper is intelligent and enjoyable sci-fi thriller that offers well-executed action and also leaves audiences with an interesting set of ideas to think about and discuss.