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Filmmaker Brian De Palma Takes First Foray Into Crime Fiction With Sinewy Thriller 'Are Snakes Necessary?'

“It’s like having a new Brian De Palma picture,” blurbs Martin Scorsese on the cover of his old friend’s debut novel, “Are Snakes Necessary?” It may be even better than that. Written with his partner Susan Lehman, the 79-year-old filmmaker’s first foray into crime fiction is his most sinewy thriller in many moons. A tawdry tale of a political fixer playing whack-a-mole with the skeletons in an oversexed U.S. Senator’s closet, the book mixes and matches elements of the John Edwards pregnancy scandal with Rep. Gary Condit’s missing intern case much in the same way that De Palma’s 1980 masterpiece “Blow Out” fused Chappaquiddick and the JFK assassination into a paranoid hall of mirrors awash in awful ironies. I couldn’t put it down.

Susan Lehman and Brian De Palma (Courtesy Doug Kuntz)
Susan Lehman and Brian De Palma (Courtesy Doug Kuntz)

The director’s most recent cinematic effort, the 2019 espionage actioner “Domino” didn’t even get a Boston theatrical release. (De Palma hasn’t had a new film screen locally since his 2007 Iraq war drama “Redacted,” about which the less said the better.) Now streaming on Netflix, the threadbare production was visibly plagued by money problems and a labyrinthine conspiracy plot cut down to 88 minutes. But even the worst De Palma movies contain a couple of standout set-pieces, this one boasting a mass shooting at an international film festival livestreamed via the assassin’s gun-mounted iPhone, as well as a dizzying drone-attack during a bullfight that just might have been magnificent if they’d had the budget to bring it off.

Unencumbered by such monetary concerns, pushy producers or any boundaries of good taste, “Are Snakes Necessary?” jet-sets from Pennsylvania to Paris, with plenty of stops in Washington, D.C. in between as our priapic lawmaker Lee Rogers finds himself falling for Fanny Cours, an 18-year-old film student producing web content for his re-election campaign. She’s the daughter of an airline stewardess he used to fool around with decades ago, and yet another headache for his harried campaign manager Barton Block, who suffers from a botched vasectomy and a terminal shortage of scruples. Mixed up in all of this are also a bored Vegas trophy wife working as an advice columnist for kicks, and a young stud photographer who went from shooting hard news to taking glamour shots of movie stars on the set of a French “Vertigo” remake.

No, it wouldn’t be a De Palma project without a nod to that 1958 Hitchcock classic that’s long been the lodestar of his cinematic sensibility, and since the story takes place in Paris, you can probably guess which tower he’ll wind up using to pay proper homage. “Are Snakes Necessary?” is full of little in-jokes and asides for movie buffs like that  — the title is taken from a book Henry Fonda is seen reading in Preston Sturges’ “The Lady Eve” — and is written in terse, punchy chapters, some no longer than a page. It reads like a De Palma movie you’re watching in your head.

I kept seeing these characters as played by members of De Palma’s regular stock company, with roles for Nancy Allen, John Lithgow, Gregg Henry and Melanie Griffith, while imagining a swelling Pino Donaggio string score to exacerbate the tension. There’s a plot turn about halfway through that struck me as DePalma’s attempt to do a second take on a twist that had been elided by studio execs who wanted a PG rating for his 1976 “Obsession.” The penultimate chapter so resembles one of the director’s distended, crosscut, climactic montages that a character even says it feels like they’re seeing it in slow-motion.

(Courtesy Hard Cover Crime)
(Courtesy Hard Cover Crime)

A few years ago, I went to a Coolidge After Midnite 35mm screening of De Palma’s deliriously lurid “Dressed to Kill.” Before the show, their projectionist warned me that the print was really dirty. “That’s okay,” I told him. “So’s the movie.” As you might imagine, “Are Snakes Necessary?” takes tremendous interest in the female form, mimicking the gaze of De Palma’s tumescent camera as one character is unable to so much as stop for a fast-food hamburger without staring at the girl behind the counter and imagining “a wrestling match between her breasts and the tight seams of her Ronald McDonald wear.” To quote my friend the late, great Jim Ridley’s review of De Palma’s glorious 2002 “Femme Fatale,” it is “the work of a happy, horny man.”

We can probably credit co-writer Lehman for keeping him just barely on the right side of dirty old man territory, and being a former New York Times editor, she’s presumably responsible for keeping the prose so propulsive. Billed on the back cover as “a female revenge story,” the book falls into familiar De Palma archetypes of his male protagonists being incompetent buffoons who think they’re Prince Valiant, their grand plans to rescue damsels in distress backfiring in the cruelest ways imaginable. Meanwhile, the women turn out to have it all together, with the character you’d least expect here emerging as a heroine to rival Griffith’s street-savvy porn star in “Body Double” or Rebecca Romijn’s eponymous "Femme Fatale."

What the book’s fleet writing can’t do is fill in much soul for these figures as the authors so expertly move them around the story’s chessboard. You gain a deeper appreciation for De Palma’s actresses and how much extra dimension they bring to his sometimes schematic setups. Nevertheless, this swift page-turner left me cackling with delight right through to its epilogue, the final twist being one of those easily predicted developments that De Palma allows you to savor for the whole time you can see it coming. Maybe not exactly “Necessary,” but enormously enjoyable all the same.


“Are Snakes Necessary?” is available to order from Brookline Booksmith, Trident Booksellers, Harvard Book Store and other online retailers.

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Sean Burns Twitter Film Critic
Sean Burns is a film critic for The ARTery.

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