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De Niro & De Palma The Early Films

by Glenn Erickson Dec 11, 2018

No 1960s film student had more on the ball than Brian De Palma, who enlisted a smart group of collaborators to pull together his voyeuristic student-filmmaking, Alfred Hitchcock-worshiping early experimental pictures. In these three early features we can feel the director being influenced in multiple directions — do ensemble comedy and Godard-esque minimalism have a future?


De Niro & De Palma The Early Films
The Wedding Party, Greetings and
Hi, Mom!
Blu-ray
Arrow Video
1966-1970 / B&W & Color / 1:37 & 1:85 widescreen / 92, 88, 87 min. / Street Date December 11, 2018 / Available from Arrow Video
Directed by Brian De Palma

 

Brian De Palma fans tend to love his later overdone exercises in Hitchcockian excess and voyeurism, whereas I tend to enjoy his creative student work, his hit & run, improvise-and-hope enterprises. The man certainly had the drive. By 1964 he was co-directing a film on Long Island with the money of a rich student friend. De Palma’s lopsided but amusingly experimental Murder à la Mod fell a little short of a real release, but it showed him manipulating time sequence and POV like a genuine innovator, and indulging the voyeurism that became his hallmark.

De Niro & De Palma The Early Films packages an early De Palma’s B&W show with his two New York improvisation films made with producer Charles Hirsch. All three feature Robert De Niro, although we almost don’t recognize him in the first — at age twenty he could pass for an over-fed sixteen.


 

The Wedding Party
1966/1969 / B&W / 1:37 full frame / 92 min.
Starring: Charles Pfluger, Jill Clayburgh, William Finley, Robert De Niro, Judy Thomas, Jennifer Salt, Valda Setterfield, John Braswell, Jared Martin.
Cinematography: Peter Powell
Original Music: John Herbert McDowell
Written, Edited and Produced by Brian DePalma, Wilford Leach, Cynthia Munroe
A film by
Brian DePalma, Wilford Leach, Cynthia Munroe

 

An ‘Ondine Productions’ logo fades up, reminding us of the joke ‘It’s a Gazotskie Film’ logo used by John Landis. What follows is a comedy that might have remained obscure if its co-director didn’t bloom into the famed Brian De Palma. Its previous distributor on home video was Troma films, which billboarded Robert De Niro even though he plays a secondary character. Although amusing, The Wedding Party is a hit and miss comedy, with a lot of weak filmic slapstick — a sped-up camera, plenty of jump cuts — but not a lot of wit. Charles Pfluger’s groom alights on a Long Island estate to be married to Jill Clayburgh’s bride. He meets her 101 annoying relatives and is almost seduced by a mousy organist. Meanwhile, his two buddies (William Finley and Robert De Niro (aka Denero) try to talk him into bailing.

The comedy centers on extended, mostly one-shot scenes of the three men half-improvising scenes. Otherwise we get some mild satire of the Rich as clueless eccentrics. A number of Jokes are dragged out too far. A nosy aunt keeps coming into the bride’s bedroom to ‘drop hints’ that the groom needs to stop making out with her and get back with the other young men. Other scenes that imitate a Keystone Kops comedy are simply not funny. The best actor is Valda Setterfield, who puts a nice polish on the mother of the bride, ignoring the servants’ complaints and fussing around like she belongs in Gosford Park. Some scenes around the dinner table, cutting between goofy characters’ non-sequitur dialogue, do work up some charm.

 

The fun is seeing the lovely Jill Clayburgh and Robert De Niro in an almost pupal state; Clayburgh is heartbreakingly fresh. De Palma seems to have been closely connected with various New York artists, actors and liberal film folk. College connection Jennifer Salt filmed a short subject with De Palma (and future notable Bruce Joel Rubin) at the same time. This is her earliest feature but she’s not on screen very long. De Palma’s co-directors clearly had access to the impressive Shelter Island estate, and it looks as if fifty local friends and relatives were pressed to fill out group scenes in the wedding party.

We wonder how much of The Wedding Party was an editorial rescue. De Palma likely always planned to use jump-cuts, as in a Godard picture, bridging dead gaps in the improvisations and picking up the pace. But were the sped-up opticals and insistently agitated music score attempts to enliven a film that seemed too dull? Even with its deficiencies, Wedding Party is far more interesting than the average movie that spent time on the shelf. In a way it can be categorized with two other ‘delayed’ features that weren’t released until their actors were noticed elsewhere, Jon Voight’s Fearless Frank and Dustin Hoffman’s Madigan’s Millions.

Another interesting Robert De Niro ‘pre-salad days’ movie from this time is Jordan Leondopoulos’ Sam’s Song (1969), opposite a young Jennifer Warren. The odd, open-ended film was a real mystery item when it showed briefly on TV in the wake of Taxi Driver. Cannon Films unfortunately performed a major vandalization job by filming ‘present day’ material with a new cast, making the De Niro footage into an extended flashback and retitling the murky result as The Swap.


 

Greetings
1968 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 88 min.
Starring: Jonathan Warden, Robert De Niro, Gerrit Graham, Richard Hamilton, Bettina Kugel, Peter Maloney, Rutanya Alda, Allen Garfield, Tisa Chiang.
Cinematography: Robert Fiore
Film Editor: Brian De Palma
Original Music: Eric Kaz, Stephen Soles, Artie Traum
Written by Brian De Palma, Charles Hirsch
Produced by Charles Hirsch

 

De Palma and De Niro’s first meaningful theatrical release, reportedly a success in distribution through Sigma III, is the engagingly free-form Greetings, a mostly improvised exercise in irresponsibility about three friends that chase women and avoid the draft. The title word is what draftees first read in their dreaded Selective Service letters. Robert De Niro’s Jon Rubin pretends to be an ultra right-wing crazoid to secure an exemption, but the Army interviewer simply calls him enthusiastic. Gerrit Graham’s Lloyd coaches their quiet friend Paul (Jonathan Warden) in how to behave fey, so as to be rejected as a homosexual.

But most of the picture is caught up in various female-seduction schemes — male lust blooms in all directions, without regard for feminine sensitivity. Paul goes to a computer dating service (cue the Godard-like inter-titles, but with an IBM typeface), which links him up with various neurotics and crypto-nymphomaniacs. He hands one nutcase off to Lloyd, who uses her to indulge his favorite pasttime — obsessing over JFK assassination conspiracy theories. The movie’s most creatively excessive scene is a one-shot riff that shows Lloyd using the nude body of his ‘date’ like a piece of meat — with a marking pencil, he charts entrance and exit wounds that PROVE that the Warren commission was lying. It’s a perfect amalgam of De Palma ideas — goofy improvisation, paranoid politics, and the voyeuristic use of a naked woman.

 

But Robert De Niro’s Jon is the film’s authentic voyeur. He reads from a helpful guidebook for aspiring Peeping Toms, and buys a dirty movie from an incredibly slimy Allen Garfield (in his first movie). Jon talks shoplifter Rutanya Alda into disrobing by pretending to be a modern artist making ‘Peep Art’, as opposed to Pop art. A final absurd, deadpan skit is pointedly irreverent. Now in combat in Vietnam, Jon captures a Vietnamese woman. Reverting to character, Jon immediately works his Peep Art routine on her too, to get her to disrobe as well.

Charles Hirsch writes and produces; his brother Paul and his spouse Tina would both become acclaimed film editors. Tina appears in one scene billed as Bettina Kugel, and is quite charming. Filmed without permits, the show steals shots off the street in New York, in the zoo and outside the draft office. De Palma’s direction sometimes seems random but he just as often finds the perfect place for his camera, as with that high angle on the fast-talking Gerrit Graham working up a sexual lather as he sketches his conspiracy theory on that passive nude. Although not overloaded with filmic references, we cannot help but notice when somebody pulls a hardbound copy of the Truffaut/Hitchcock book from a shelf — De Palma wasn’t in the least afraid to billboard his obsessions.


 

Hi, Mom!
1970 / Color + B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 87 min.
Starring: Robert De Niro, Allen Garfield, Charles Durning, Lara Parker, Jennifer Salt, Paul Bartel, Garrit Wood, Bettina Kugel, Rutanya Alda, Carolyn Craven, Peter Maloney, Paul Hirsch.
Cinematography: Robert Elfstrom
Film Editor: Paul Hirsch
Assistant Director: Bruce Joel Rubin
Original Music: Eric Kaz
Written by Brian De Palmas & Charles Hirsch
Produced by Charles Hirsch

 

A direct sequel to Greetings,  Hi, Mom! continues the adventures of the mischievous Jon Rubin. Having returned intact from molesting women in Indochina, Jon now pursues his ‘Peep Art’ concept full-time. The show isn’t as goofball-random as Greetings,, as the scenes chart Jon path toward becoming radicalized. This may be the first film in which De Palma’s cinematic indulgences bear fruit — the film is greater than its parts. Besides the scattershot satire, it makes some surprisingly challenging, radical statements about the American scene in 1969, particularly the theater scene.

 

With his pals from the previous show killed off, Robert De Niro alone carries Hi, Mom!, which is a good thing. Various scenes make the film now seem like a comedy prequel to Taxi Driver. He even wears his army fatigue jacket at one point. Jon Rubin finds a crummy apartment that happens to have an excellent Rear Window relationship with an adjoining apartment building, for Jon’s peeping telephoto lenses. Allen Garfield comes back as an ultra-sleazy porn producer, which gives us a peek into a X-rated theater; he thinks he’s getting a sex movie from Jon, while Jon really wants to advance his personal Peep Art crusade. This puts him into a funny situation of seducing the ‘Miss Lonelyhearts’ correlative in the building opposite, Judy Bishop (Jennifer Salt). Salt is great as a man-hungry wallflower, who on a comic date regales Jon with her take on the psychology of the movie David and Lisa. Jon sets out to seduce her on a strict schedule, because the peep art telephoto camera back in his own apartment, is set to start rolling at a pre-set time.

The second half of the picture gets into some heavy-duty satire that will probably still makes average white audiences cringe. Jon auditions to play the ‘pig cop’ in a revolutionary play. “Be Black Baby” turns out to be a hilarious lampoon of living theater experiments in which actors draw the audience into the performance. The cast of blacks (and the white Gerrit Graham) put on whiteface and subject the paying audience to several hours of terror, so they can share in the black experience. ‘Being black’ is to have greasepaint smeared on one’s face, to be verbally and physically abused, and finally to be robbed, beaten and in one case raped. Filmed handheld in grainy B&W, the sequence is uncomfortably convincing, even frightening. The final sardonic joke is that, when they are finally released, the terrorized upscale white audience gives the play high marks.

 

The play is covered by a B&W documentary-within-the film called ‘N.I.T. Journal,’ a program on a satire of public television. N.I.T. stands for National Intellectual Television. When Jon watches, we hear an N.I.T. announcer say, “This concludes our program of ‘music to write checks by.’ Thank you for your generous contributions.” It’s the best satire-redux of PBS I’ve ever heard.

‘Be Black Baby’ is pretty rough, as it’s filmed in a guerilla cinema style that’s suddenly quite convincing, and even scary. The movie has already played the ‘how far will you go?’ game once or twice, with surprising results — full frontal Gerrit Graham, anyone? — but the rape is frighteningly staged. The black satire continues as N.I.T.’s cameras cover the machine gun- toting revolutionaries as they invade an apartment block, like the Marxist radicals in Robert Kramer’s Ice. De Palma and Charles Hirsch even manage a satisfying conclusion to their off-balance black comedy, with Jon Rubin settling into a bourgeois home life with Judy Bishop — but not really. Jon’s conversion to committed radicalism happens while he watches N.I.T.. Almost as in Taxi Driver, he knocks his TV over and shoots it with a pistol. With its use of taboos to provoke the audience, Hi, Mom! expresses the creative anarchy of filmmaking in the late 1960s.

 

De Palma’s direction is more adept and flexible here, and he even pulls off some good special effects. Scenes are no longer flat-minimalist, even those scenes covered in just one angle. The improvisation is also less apparent. Allen Garfield and Jennifer Salt are marvelous when verbally sparring with De Niro, and Ms. Salt’s love-crazy performance is so funny and charming, it disarms the sick-o aspects of Jon Rubin’s peep art deception. Some of the dialogue is inspired: “You know, tragedy is a funny thing.”

Hi, Mom! simply hangs together better than De Palma’s other early films. It goes beyond the influence of the New Wave, and it certainly has more on the ball than most youth comedies attempting imitations of Richard Lester. It engages with its revolution theme with more wit than anything produced in Hollywood, and it plays brilliant games with its genuinely dangerous content. I reject some of Brian De Palma’s later exercises in exploitative misogyny, but here it seems liberating.


 

Arrow Video’s Blu-ray set of De Niro & De Palma The Early Films places the first two films on one disc and Hi, Mom! on a second. The transfers are impeccable. I presume that the video rights for The Wedding Party have been been dislodged from Troma, and I know that Hi, Mom! was liberated from MGM quite a while ago — I saw it there in the 1990s, when they more or less were doing nothing with it. Where Greetings has been hanging out all these years, I can’t say.

All three pictures are in excellent condition, with great transfers and strong sound. Arrow Films commissioned their own 2K scans of all three features. Hi, Mom! looks much better in widescreen here than on old flat MGM transfers. Jennifer Salt looks so young!

I finally can say that I have a partial understanding where these pictures came from and what they’re all about. De Palma’s ‘gang’ of filmmakers began at Sarah Lawrence and moved to NYU; his associates included Jim McBride of David Holzman’s Diary.

 

The disc comes with good new Daniel Griffith/Ballyhoo video material: interviews with actors Gerrit Graham and Peter Maloney (‘Bennings’ in The Thing) and great input from Charles Hirsch, whose account of writing and producing two of these off-the-wall wonders is almost inspiring.

The capper is a pair of insert booklets with good essays by Brad Stevens, Chris Dumas and Christina Newland, that underscore the significance of what are often dismissed as disposable early work. Maybe Murder &aagrave; la Mod fits that description, but it’s still fascinating.

I also discovered that Greetings was the very first feature film to be assigned an “X” rating by the Motion Picture Code and Rating Administration. The minimal censorable content is so carefree that we never feel we’re watching a dirty movie — it’s a different experience than an exploitative skin flick like The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart, which critic William Bayer described as playing directly to the raincoat audience.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


De Niro & De Palma The Early Films
Blu-ray rates:
Movies: Very Good and Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary on Greetings by author Glenn Kenny; Appreciation of Brian De Palma and Robert De Niro by Howard S. Berger; New interviews with Charles Hirsch and actors Gerrit Graham and Peter Maloney. Trailer for Hi, Mom! Illustrated insert booklets with new writing by Brad Stevens, Chris Dumas and Christina Newland, plus an archive interview with Brian De Palma and Charles Hirsch.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Two Blu-rays in two Keep cases in card sleeve
Reviewed: December 9, 2018
(5879niro)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.