“Snake Eyes. The House Wins.” Brian De Palma Auteur Signature on Snake Eyes

Peter Wollen writes “what the auteur theory does is to take a group of films–the work of one director–and analyze their structure” (374). With previous releases such as Sisters, Dressed to KillThe Untouchables, and Body Double, Brian De Palma has certainly established his auteur status with particular trademarks that, with no surprise, also appear in his later film Snake Eyes. While De Palma himself explicitly states some trademarks such as his drive to make his films highly self-conscious, Andrew Sarris writes “…a director’s formal utterances (his films) tell us more about his artistic personality than do his informal utterances (his conversations)” (357). By being able to analyze the structures of his previous films, the De Palma trademarks in Snake Eyes include his signature usage of long takes with excessive camera movement, point of view and voyeur camera, split screen editing and his drive for the highly artificial and self-conscious film. 

Right at the beginning of Snake Eyes, De Palma’s long take trademark is utilized as the camera follows Detective Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage) walking around the arena where a boxing match is taking place. Throughout the long take, the viewer is following Santoro engage in sleazy behavior such as gambling on the match, having an affair, and getting his hands dirty (which comes with a skew camera angle to indicate this “bad cop” behavior) as he beats Cyrus (Luis Guzmán). Sarris points out “American movies are often discriminated against in America because the ear takes precedence over the eye” (359). Due to Cage’s maniacal performance of Santoro, it is easy for the viewer to pay attention to the ridiculous dialogue Santoro spews. But as the film’s tagline mentions, “Watch Closely” because a trademark of De Palma is that he loves to manipulate. If the viewer were to only use their ear, then they’d be as naïve as Santoro was before he found out Dunne was the culprit behind the attack. The technique of the eye is crucial to De Palma films as the auteur theory has “a greater emphasis on the tantalizing mystery of style than on the romantic agony of the artists” (Sarris 357). His usages of not only the long take, but also trademark of the point of view cameras contribute to the De Palma style. 

In the film, there are three point of view sequences: Commander Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise), the boxer Lincoln Tyler (Stan Shaw), and the mysterious woman Julia Costello (Carla Gugino). Each point of view shot has other characters speak and look directly at the camera, which brings a level of awareness to the film. For example, the first point of view camera is Tyler’s. At first, his manager Mickey (Chip Zien) is talking directly at the camera almost like he is also talking to the audience before De Palma establishes it is Tyler with the mirror shot. And for that second before it is revealed it’s Tyler, the audience is aware that they are watching a movie that wants to them to engage with what is put before them. In this way, the viewer is also a detective like Santoro similar to De Palma’s message in Body Double that we too engage in voyeurism with Jake Scully (Craig Wasson). Not to mention that Snake Eyesalso includes De Palma’s trademark of the voyeur cam with the birdseye view of different guests staying in different hotel rooms. Its as Astruc writes, this is “a new awareness, a desire to transform the cinema and hasten the advent of an exciting future” (354). This awareness can once again be lost if the viewer uses their ears rather than their eyes. 

Astruc also points out “cinema is now moving towards a form which is making it such a precise language…” (352). De Palma carefully, yet brilliantly constructs this language of cinema right at the beginning of the film with his auteur stylo. Before Santoro’s appearance, there are three different television monitors and each are broadcasting the same thing but in different news channels, in other words, different point of views. It’s also artificial as De Palma is making commentary that everything we watch on television is not the truth as shown with the weather woman Anthea (Tamara Tunie). While she clearly states the truth that the storm is a hurricane, she is immediately stopped and forced to say tropical storm instead. And while it is also commentary, it also cleverly placed at the beginning because once all suspects tell Santoro their stories, the question of who is telling the truth and who is being forced not to emerges. In doing so, De Palma is using “a form in which and by which an artist can express his thoughts, however abstract they maybe be…” (Astruc 352). This not only brings artificiality, which is the formalist touch, but it also foreshadows the incoming events. 

Lastly, one of the biggest trademarks is De Palma’s usage of the split screen. As seen in Sisters andDressed to KillSnake Eyes also includes a phenomenal use of split screen. The split screen appears during the Julia story. On the left side, it shows Dunne’s elaborate plan working in place (as Santoro later tells Julia) while the right side is what Julia was doing prior to the shooting. Yet within the split screen, there are more trademarks also involved during Dunne’s sequence in just two minutes. There is the binoculars point of view cam (which can also be the voyeur cam as Dunne is purposely watching Julia) and established manipulation as the previous point of view that we saw was Dunne being distracted by the red hair woman (which Santoro and the viewers believed). 

Sarris mentions a director’s attitude toward his subject as “takes in cutting, camera movement, the direction of players and their placement in the décor, the angle and the distance camera, and even the content of the shot” (359). Long takes with excessive camera movement, point of view and voyeur camera, and split screen editing are just a few of De Palma’s trademarks. De Palma label as an auteur shines through in Snake Eyesand as we know––the house wins. 

Word Count: 1024

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