60 Seconds from a De Palma Film

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Brian De Palma is famous and rightly so for his set piece sequences, from the bucket of blood sequence in Carrie (De Palma, 1976) to the Grand Central Station chase in Carlito’s Way (De Palma, 1993) to the rope through the vault sequence in Mission: Impossible (De Palma, 1996). I would argue that whilst his scripts are often Hitchcockian, his film style is unique to him. I don’t recall Hitchcock using slow motion often if at all apart maybe in the shower scene from Psycho. The sequence I have chosen is the elevator scene from Dressed to Kill (De Palma, 1980). In his book Mise en Scene and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art Adrian Martin (2014) focuses on how De Palma pumps up Pino Donaggio’s score on the first part of the scene in which Angie Dickinson is brutally murdered. I have chosen 60 seconds in which Nancy Allen discovers Dickinson dying and slowly but surely she notices the murderer through a mirror. De Palma (2015) has stated that the set up and details of these sequences ‘go on forever’. De Palma takes 6 minutes to tell the sequence. These crucial 60 seconds I speak of are spellbinding on repeated views and definitely sum up De Palma’s style.

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The sequence is done in slow motion in roughly 40 shots. Michel Chion has written that a film’s sound cannot studied without its image and film’s image cannot be studied without its sound. I believe it is a certain ambient sound like a helicopter on the soundtrack at the climax of the 60 seconds; this is what still stuns me after so many viewings. This sound bridged with De Palma’s rhythmic and artful images deliver a film style that pulls absolutely no punches. To begin with the first shot Allen sees Dickinson as she lies bleeding in the lift, Donaggio’s strings rise to the occasion of her shock. Dickinson starts to reach out her arm but before she can De Palma cuts to Allen in distress as the camera zooms in a manner that might have impressed Rainer Werner Fassbinder. De Palma is interested in the quick flash of detail as Allen’s forehead disappears from the frame to focus on her hands clenched to her face. I cannot but help be reminded of the way Nic Roeg films the eyes of the witches in his Roald Dahl adaptation from 1990 from the way De Palma sets up a reaction of a slow zoom into Dickinson’s blood pouring eyes. Donaggio’s score builds as the murderess in reaction gestures her hand forward moving the razor blade up, the audience holds its breath. Allen’s hands shake in reaction, Dickinson’s raised hand towards her murderer (who of course Allen cannot see) is almost biblical. Donaggio’s score and De Palma’s cuts align with the closing of the elevator door before Allen stops it, De Palma crucial cuts as Allen’s hand of goodwill gestures out to hold the door. De Palma then settles on Dickinson’s bracelet and the blade each reflecting light in turn. This is when De Palma really uses slow motion to full effect as the film almost stops for Allen to gesture her eyes and faces up towards the elevator mirror above, this is when De Palma’s stunning use of ambient sound kicks in and the sequence begins to unwind with rhythmic precision. Allen’s stunning facial numbness in the moment holds the scene in all of its crystal glory as one of greatest moments in cinema history.

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