To celebrate TIFF’s ongoing Bangkok Dangerous: The Cinema Of Nicolas Cage series, Alan Jones has resurrected his retrospective of the actor’s work entitled The Nic Cage Project. In this edition, Jones takes a look at Brian De Palma’s Hitchcockian opus Snake Eyes – playing tonight at the Lightbox.
In the exquisitely choreographed 13-minute steadicam shot that kicks off Brian De Palma’s Snake Eyes, we hear Nic Cage’s character refer to himself, on a few occasions, as “Rick, Rick Santoro!” Of course, he’s shouting the name in his Nic Cage way, so the last syllable of “Santoro” becomes muddled, and it becomes easy to imagine him saying his name is “Rick Santorum”, which would be too damn good to be true.
But in an odd way, Rick Santorum and Rick Santoro share more than a similar name (and, quite frankly, a similar face). Whereas Rick Santorum is a remnant of the white America of yesteryear, dredging up hinterland fury over cultural issues many thought had died years ago, Rick Santoro is also a remnant of old America – where dirty Italian cops could be corrupt without the interference of “bitchin’” surveillance technology or intrusive media coverage. Rick Santoro wants to be the guy that dresses flashy, drives a nice car, has a nice wife and a family, but also a girlfriend and an apartment on the side. Basically, in Scorsese terms, he wants to be a wiseguy (despite being a cop). Rick Santoro is the flip side of Rick Santorum’s America, where WASPs spend their time engaging in pleasant conversations in Pensylvanian mansions, corruption and vice run deep in immigrant-populated communities like Atlantic City.
Like almost all of De Palma’s films, Snake Eyes is heavily indebted to the work of Alfred Hitchcock. The Bernard Herrman-esque score, the gauzy filters used in scenes of high emotion, as well as the emphasis on a couple of strikingly beautiful women as key plot points, one of which is wearing an icy-blonde wig. But Nic Cage acts, in a strange way, as the modern flipside to a typical Hitchcock hero. Hitchcock’s lead actors, specifically Cary Grant and James Stewart, were broadly charismatic and honourable, at least until Hitchcock delved deeper into their psyche. Cage is wound up and spastic, his vices and flaws are highly visible. Cage is also one of those other things that Hitchcock despised: a method actor.
Rick Santorum, in his campaign, seems to want to return America to the image presented by Hitchcock in North by Northwest or Rear Window or Vertigo, where gender roles were defined and heros were unambiguously good. But when you peer under the surface of these films, you find a deep misogyny in these heros of which they are generally unaware. Cage’s Santoro, on the other hand, represents the other side. Is he a womanizer? Yes, but everyone knows except his wife. Is he corrupt? Yes, but everyone knows except his boss. Is he honourable? He would be the first to tell you that he isn’t, but maybe, just maybe, there’s something there.
But back to the film. In the aforementioned steadicam shot – one of the finest long takes to ever grace mainstream cinema – we watch Santoro walk through the stadium in the minutes leading up to a heavyweight championship fight in Atlantic City. The shot establishes that Santoro is a cop, despite his wearing a gaudy gold-hued jacket with a tacky patterned yellow shirt. The shot establishes that he’s dirty, because he beats up Luis Guzman and takes his money. Then it establishes that Santoro’s good friend in the Department of Defense, Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise), got him a seat in the front row right in front of the Secretary of Defense. Then, without ever turning to the fight, the camera follows Gary Sinise as he chases a suspicious woman, leaving the seat in front of the Secretary open. Another woman (Carla Gugino) sits down in front of the Secretary and beside Cage. She says some suspicious things to him, and then two things happen. The favourite in the fight, Lincoln Taylor (Stan Shaw), goes down. The crowd stands up, and then the Secretary gets shot.
This moment in time is returned to over and over again. A conspiracy is suggested. Red Herrings arise, and Rick Santoro’s honour is challenged. The identities of both the girl chased down by Dunne and the girl who talked to the Secretary of Defense are questioned. The possibility that Lucas Tyler, heavyweight champion of the world, threw the fight, is explored. Much of this is done with incredible technical skill. Like in Body Double and Femme Fatale, De Palma proves himself to be a formal master of cinema, using a variety of long take and POV techniques. Considering how Snake Eyes is often either forgotten or disdained, watching it 14 years after its release is jarring, as certain parts of it are obvious predecessors to later acclaimed works by Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men) and Gaspar Noe (Enter the Void). Even if the film’s ending is poorly executed, and it is, the journey contained within the movie is one full of cinematic wizardy and is entirely satisfactory to a nerds like me. You know, nerds who prefer formalism to character development. Those kinds of nerds.