Never thought I’d get to meet the Devil
Never thought I’d meet him face to face
Heard he always worked from home
That he seldom wrote or used the phone
So I walked right up to see him at his place
I love this old picture. Which is odd, because I usually don’t have much time for Brian de Palma, and this is usually considered one of his lesser works. But it’s very early de Palma, and I think shows a sort of verve, a sort of nervous energy, a glee in the possibilities of filmmaking that you don’t get in his later, slicker work.
We are in 1974, and boy is it obvious it’s 1974. Struggling singer-songwriter Winslow Leach (Bill Finley, playing a thinly-disguised Warren Zevon) is approached by sleazy record industry man Philbin (a wonderfully world-weary George Memmoli). Philbin, it turns out, is representing legendary musician-producer-impresario Swan (legendary singer-songwriter Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams, of Bugsy Malone fame, playing a thinly-disguised Phil Spector), who is interested in Winslow’s work. Winslow, who scrapes a living doing support gigs, banging away on a brown piano while working on his magnum opus – an insanely ambitious musical version of Faust – is obviously overjoyed. Then, of course, things go badly pear-shaped.
Swan rips off Winslow, gets him imprisoned on a drugs frame-up and gives Faust to his pet boy band to sing. This will be the big spectacular performance for the grand opening of the Paradise, Swan’s gaudy rock palace. (Although possibly less gaudy than the Clarence Hotel once Bono’s finished with it.) An enraged Winslow escapes Sing Sing, is mutilated in a bizarre accident at Swan’s record plant, dons a cape and mask (as you do) and proceeds to terrorise the Paradise.
This is where we get into the Faustian pacts. Swan offers to produce Faust just the way Winslow wants it, and all Winslow needs to do is sign a contract in his own blood. But this doesn’t quite work out the way Winslow thinks. He assumes that the production will star his choice of singer, warbling ingénue Phoenix (Jessica Harper, of Suspiria fame). Swan, on the other hand, and purely to wind up Winslow, has drafted in effete glam rocker Beef (the criminally underrated Gerrit Graham, of Police Academy 6: City Under Siege fame, doing a brilliant pisstake of Alice Cooper). Swan, meanwhile has his own plans for Phoenix… and why can’t Winslow kill him?
It’s Phantom of the Opera, of course, crossed with Faust. But it’s also The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. It’s all of these things, set against a 1970s background that would be far too intense for Life on Mars, with a wickedly dark streak of humour, and a rather good Paul Williams soundtrack. Could you possibly ask for more?
Actually, there is more. It isn’t just in terms of the story that de Palma throws in the kitchen sink. This being a de Palma film, the obligatory Hitchcock quotes abound, but there’s more wit and style than you would expect, including easily the funniest parody of the Psycho shower scene ever made. There are plenty of other quotes from the classics. There is some of the best use of split screens I’ve yet seen. And a great atmosphere that blends humour with tension without the one swamping the other.
The question is not why doesn’t de Palma make films this inventive any more. After all, he’s 33 years older and has been working in the Hollywood mainstream most of that time. What’s perhaps more worth asking is why the young, thrusting directors of today aren’t making films like this, combining invention and style with a bit of fun, instead of just doing retreads. Still, we live in hope.