In Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s disarmingly forthright documentary, De Palma, its subject talks about the highs and lows of his career. In that one man and his camera documentary, there is one sentence that perfectly encapsulates how modest a man Brian De Palma is. He along with other directors do their best work between the age of 30 and 50 after which they go through a creative slowdown till the day they retire or the industry retires them. With this self-assessment in consideration, Carlito’s Way was his final hurrah before mediocrity and fans needing to defend his work more than celebrate it. His release before his biggest mainstream hit was Raising Cain, a return to his penchant for all things Hitchcock – specifically, Psycho.
The latest in Arrow Video’s celebration of De Palma’s filmography, Raising Cain stars John Lithgow is Carter, husband to Jenny (Lolita Davidovich) and father of an adorable little girl. Although a little unpredictable at first, Carter is a decent enough man, it’s only when trouble rears its head that Carter becomes a little stranger and a little more enigmatic. And, being a De Palma thriller, trouble is never too far away, so the more altercations Carter and his family are met by the more we meet his mysterious twin Cain who is more than happy to do what he thinks needs to be done. As the film motors on, it’s revealed that Cain isn’t a twin but a fractured personality and the more he appears the more things take a turn for the worse.
Unfortunately, the selling point of De Palma’s 21st film is its biggest issue. John Lithgow is both brilliant and silly in a role that demands him to characterise and embody multiple conflicting characters within the same film. It’s a charge that he takes to with a confident swagger, no personality ever truly needs introducing as Lithgow changes everything from his body language to his intonation to stress the differences in these fractures. Cain is much more aggressive than the placid and affable Carter, that being said, Lithgow also plays his Father the Danish Dr. Nix complete with aged makeup and overstated accent. Even the child-like personality doesn’t stick out when compared to the Father role. Therein lies the issue. At the center of this convoluted film is a massively colourful performance from its lead and by comparison, everyone else is a little inanimate and the plot never delivers on its histrionics promised by its lead.
The other bow by which a De Palma is measured is in the camera department where he collaborates with his Carlito’s Way and Untouchables DoP, Stephen H. Burum. Some of the touches are small, such as turning the camera on its side to turn walking down a flight of police station stairs into something more akin to a slalom. A neat touch, yes, but it doesn’t achieve anything of note beyond the passing warmth of acknowledging an interesting creative decision.
Like Burum’s previous collaborations, his work behind the camera has a single point of brilliance and here it is the climactic scene involving both the senior and junior characters played by Lithgow. The setup has three floors, countless people and the police closing in and in one seamless movement the camera tracks all of its major players, escalates the threat and communicates effortlessly actor positioning with an elegance that seems alien to modern Hollywood. Although, again, it doesn’t achieve a great deal its style is endlessly impressive and reminiscent of Argento’s Tenebrae and the showstopping camera movement that claws its way around the home the killer stalks his victims through. A scene that has since become one of the defining camera movements of genre cinema.
In its theatrical state, Raising Cain is a flashy performance housed in a conceptually and visually intriguing film – one for the De Palma completist rather than the casual fan. However, it’s here where the true value of Arrow Video’s release is found. The limited edition version of this release features a fan edit of the film that emphasises Lithgow’s growing mania and completely re-frames the piece with such a clarity that this fan-edit by Dutch filmmaker Peet Gelderblom, which according to De Palma himself, restored the true story of Raising Cain. An amazing story in which a fan edit became the directors cut. While that version doesn’t remove the film’s issues, it certainly makes them a lot less prominent and it is in that version that this Arrow Video title, along with its characteristic mass of interviews and extras, becomes near essential for De Palma fan’s large and small.