Review: The Fury

The Fury is the most crucial movie of all De Palma’s movies.

The Fury
Photo: 20th Century Fox

And so we come to The Fury. One of the very highest-rated De Palma films by those who claim the man as a personal favorite and clearly the lowest-rated “red period” De Palma film elsewhere (check for yourself). The movie that draws the deepest line in the sand between De Palma apologists and De Palma maniacs, whose attempts to revive the movie are usually characterized as self-aggrandizing test cases to see quite simply how far their role as arbiters of counter-taste can stretch. The movie that Armond White said is impossible not to completely, wholly love if you have any shred of understanding of the film medium and how it works. The movie that gave Pauline Kael occasion to paint a portrait of Orson Welles, Sam Peckinpah, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg choking to death with laughter (and, presumably, envy). The movie that David Thomson watched while sitting next to Kael during her (presumably only) viewing, and then oh so gallantly recalled her misguided appreciation thereof to eulogize her upon her death in 2001. To be generous, Thomson’s fussy, detached approach to movie appreciation is about as sensual as drying out homemade beef jerky, and we can have every reason to expect a critic of his type to feel a little embarrassed by the vocalizations of a critic who did all but receive head from her favorite movies.

In retrospect, Kael’s review of The Fury doesn’t quite pack the same sort of punch as some of her other famous raves (like Last Tango in Paris, Nashville, even Blow Out). But nonetheless, her afterglow is palpable. Appropriately, what most endures about The Fury is its vitality, by which I don’t so much mean the relevance of the film’s ideas (though reportedly its stutter-editing patterns were single-handedly responsible for Vertov-period Godard’s desire to return to the notion of popular art filmmaking) or that the film is a radical departure from a general reading on the work of De Palma, but rather that it has a higher sperm count than any of the director’s other films. I don’t say that lightly, considering his trio of gangster movies. Literally and figuratively, The Fury is a landmark, pile-driving, feature-length money shot of a film. On the figurative count, it’s a deliberately paced symphony of narrative tantrism, one whose crescendos and plateaus may arrive with the faint predictability of a writers’ workshop draft but certainly not to the detriment of the stultifying finale (the catalyst for Kael’s roll-call of choking filmmakers, which only goes to suggest a third rogue element they might have lodged in their laughing, envious throats). As a representation of De Palma’s formal potential, The Fury is killer kinema.

But, additionally, there’s a literally prurient element to The Fury that fascinates at a subconscious level, one which refutes claims that the incoherence of the script keep the film at a lower level than De Palma’s other masterworks. Certainly the film doesn’t overwhelm the endocrine system with the attractive distractions as in Dressed to Kill or Body Double, but it’s comparative chastity is a red herring. There is no moment in The Fury that spins as wickedly out of control as “Be Black Baby” or Winslow Leach’s hallucinatory “Faust” composition montage or Tommy and Carrie’s vertiginous prom waltz, but the tradeoff is a film with an insidious stamina. As Kael noted, The Fury is one of those rare films where even the passages of exposition and unnecessary dramatic clutter are filmed in the least boring manner possible. The plot is as square as anything De Palma ever adapted for the screen, but his cinematography has so many abstruse angles that it’s frequently disorienting. Which is exactly what adolescence feels like. Ultimately, The Fury is a film about pre-pubescence by a director whose work had finally reached the level of confidence reflecting a post-pubescent talent. The best of both worlds, baby, and barely legal.

The Fury, a film whose sexual dynamic metaphorically explores the point in adolescence where females hold a legitimate, mystic authority over males (even gay ones…especially gay ones), is a teasing riff on the sort of 16mm coming-of-age lyceums that kids were shown when the boys were sent to the gymnasium and the girls were sent to the cafeteria. Amy Irving (who even begins the film in a single-sex educational environment) and Andrew Stevens, the two young paragons of psychokinetic power being exploited at Paragon, are shown in parallel courses of development. Stevens’s progress is charted by kitschy displays of musculature such as slow-mo pole-vaulting while Fiona Lewis narrates, “His body is getting stronger.” (The clinically-proportioned musculature of Stevens is beautifully cast in this respect; he’s a bronzed bulldog without a leash.) Meanwhile, the more mature Irving (who was already the least credible of Carrie’s cast as a teenager) is repeatedly embarrassed by the inopportune appearance of blood. It may not be blood from her celestial orifice, but she must claim responsibility for it and thus the sick joke metaphor stands.

The Fury’s Sturm und Drang sides with the paired-off salt-and-pepper shakers of pent-up psychic-sexual bloom, but De Palma’s anarchic sense of humor and undercurrent of luxuriant, tragic mortality (unforced as in Obsession) belongs to Kirk Douglas as Stevens’s father, John Cassavetes as Stevens’s governmental kidnapper, and Eleanor Merriam as Mother Nuckells, the dotty old woman whose apartment Douglas crashes while escaping Cassavetes’s goons. They’re the flip side to the pertness of the two walking psychic genital diagrams. In fact, the one-scene-wonder that is Merriam’s performance, as a woman who’s delighted by Douglas’s intrusion because it inconveniences her adult children who consider her a burden, represents an anomaly in The Fury. When the old biddy, while fussing over Douglas and helping him prepare a disguise to escape surveillance, talks about life ending “when the old ticker gives out,” it is the indication of life terminating on a reasonable timetable. Everyone else who dies in the film does so in increasingly incorrect moments. This accounts for why De Palma stages each progressive death set piece more and more like an extended requiem, and bids John Williams to howl “Ases Tod.”

So even though Thomson’s own requiem for both The Fury and Kael as an apparent phase that cinema just had to go through but has now passed boils down to a remarkably condescending “it exists, trust me,” The Fury is the most crucial movie of all De Palma’s movies. When Paragon doctors come to Irving’s private girls’ school to “recruit” her under the guise of a paranormal sort of career day, one of the doctors tells her to achieve alpha state by picturing herself in an empty movie theater in front of an empty screen, to gradually let the screen fill her mind. Even so, the 360-degree rotation of the sequence indicates that Irving’s “screen” is a poster board with various paranormal definitions, finishing with “psychometry,” or the ability to sense and understand an object’s past, present, and future conditions just through physical contact. Defending a film like The Fury might run you the risk of understanding what it feels like to achieve alpha in a totally empty theater, but making contact with the movie will snap everything De Palma has to offer into clarity with the shuddering force of an orgasm.

 Cast: Kirk Douglas, John Cassavetes, Carrie Snodgress, Charles Durning, Amy Irving, Fiona Lewis, Andrew Stevens, Carol Eve Rossen, Rutanya Alda, Joyce Easton, William Finley  Director: Brian De Palma  Screenwriter: John Farris  Distributor: 20th Century Fox  Running Time: 118 min  Rating: R  Year: 1978  Buy: Video, Soundtrack

Eric Henderson

Eric Henderson is the web content manager for WCCO-TV. His writing has also appeared in City Pages.

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