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Friday, June 25, 2021

With the paperback edition of Are Snakes Necessary? coming July 13th, Hard Case Crime set up an interview with co-authors Brian De Palma and Susan Lehman for the Light The Fuse podcast. Part one of that interview was posted Friday (YouTube version embedded below). The original discussion about Are Snakes Necessary? included spoilers, but at the request of Lehman, podcast hosts Charles Hood and Drew Taylor cut out the spoiler portions. Here's a partial transcript of the episode's discussion around the novel:
Drew: Well, I was going to ask if this was ever conceived as a movie, but it sounds like it was always a book.

De Palma: Well, you write a lot of scripts that never get done. Then you've got a lot of ideas that are sitting on a shelf somewhere, or in a computer. And you say, well, this movie never got made, but maybe we can use this idea in a book. And that's sort of how it evolved.

Drew: Okay. And what was the collaborative process like?

Lehman: A lot of fun.

Drew [laughter from Charles]: Really? Okay.

De Palma: Yeah, it was a lot of fun. I would basically write some stuff and send it off to Susan, and she would rewrite it and then send it back to me.

Lehman: Brian, as you can imagine, has a very visual imagination and a great eye for story structure. And so he put down the tent poles, and then we sent it back-and-forth. And we kind of played a game, which was send it back-and-forth and see if you can amuse the other person more than you were amused.

Charles: Did you have an ending from the start?

Lehman: No, we were a couple of pages short, so... [she laughs]

[some other laughter]

De Palma: What do you mean a couple of pages short?

Lehman: As I recall, [we were at this some time?]...

De Palma: And?

Lehman: I think there was a whole section that we just decided to add on after we'd sort of mapped everything out.

De Palma: Sounds good to me.

Charles: Was it the whole Paris section or something? Or was it one of the characters that you were following?

De Palma: Well, we had some broad ideas...

Lehman: It's that kind of attention to detail that makes Brian remiss.


De Palma: You know, we had the political story, and then when we got the deCarlo character involved, then we got into her doing the column.

Lehman: And I think the final revenge, I think we took the revenge up a notch there at the end.

Charles: What was the biggest challenge of writing together? Or I guess, in writing your first novel, in general?

De Palma: Well, as you can imagine, we had a lot of time together, and it sort of fills out the day. Because, I sort of wake up very early in the morning, I have all kinds of ideas, and I sort of go to the computer and write them down, and then I sort of confer with Susan, and... sometimes I'm either developing a screenplay, but then, I have all these other ideas from the other screenplays, and it's a kind of unique collaboration, because Susan kind of fits it to the things I don't have. You know, I'm a visual storyteller, and blah-di-blah-di-blah. And she's able to get the characters' meat on the bone. You know, in movies, you just say, "He...", "She...", "The reporter...", you know, and you're very... sketching things in, because when the actors come in, they give the body to the character. But Susan did a lot of this, filling in the characters and their backstories.

Drew: The book came out a year ago, and we're nearing the paperback release. Is there going to be a followup? Are there going to be more of these books?

Lehman: Many many more.

De Palma: Yes. We, in our confinement, came up with another idea for a book, and we've been working on that for quite a while. So...

Lehman: It's finished.

De Palma: Yes, it's finished.

Charles: That's great!

De Palma: When our public calls out to us, we will release it.


Charles: Well, we'd love to see this, for sure, I hope that happens.

Drew: Yeah, we're calling out for it.

Charles: I'm interested to know: the book feels so much like a Brian De Palma movie, but also has more... it feels like a lot of your movies are so laser-focused on the narrative of a singular character or a couple of characters. This is much more of an ensemble. It's almost like a Brian De Palma movie by way of, like, Robert Altman, almost, with all these different characters. Was that always...

Lehman: Who gets to be the Robert Altman character in this portrayal?


Charles: Was that always the idea? Or did it start... I know a lot of your movies are like sequences that you start from and then build around. Was it more like that? Or how did the whole thing begin?

De Palma: What happens when you can't answer these questions?


Lehman: You ask me for help.

De Palma: Okay.

Lehman: So Brian had a number of ideas. The book is built around set pieces that are easily recognizable as trademark De Palma moments. The Eiffel Tower is one, and there are others. And so, I think... Brian plots things... he's a really good plotter. Like, he knows exactly how things are going to be structured, and how different scenes are going to speak to other ones. So I think we started with his basic idea. Structural idea. And then we played around with it a lot. Is that accurate?

De Palma: Yeah. You have to explain "played around."

Lehman: Well, we made up new characters, and we complicated their stories, and we, you know, twisted...

De Palma: Washed them out...

Lehman: Twisted their pathways to one another.

De Palma: And had many laughs doing it.

Drew: Susan, would you agree with the laughs part?

Lehman: Yeah yeah yeah. Yeah. I mean, writing with somebody is, especially if the somebody is Brian, takes all the loneliness of writing alone, and removes that, and replaces it with, you know, a sense of mischief and play.

Charles: Right.

Lehman: I really recommend it.

De Palma: If you have the right partner.

Drew: Were any of these set pieces left over from projects that you either couldn't fit into projects that were already completed, or, you know, from abandoned projects as well?

De Palma: Well, that's hard to answer-- I'm trying to think...

Lehman: I think Brian operates with a ragtag bag of tricks and ideas. I mean, he's always working. He has a million ideas, a treasure trove of unproduced scripts, and some are filled with good ideas, and some probably are filled with less-good ideas.

De Palma: They're all filled with great ideas. [Susan laughs, then the others laugh, too]

Posted by Geoff at 12:01 AM CDT
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Wednesday, August 26, 2020
https://www.angelfire.com/de/palma/snakescrop.jpgAt Rain Taxi, Joseph Houlihan reviews Brian De Palma and Susan Lehman's novel, Are Snakes Necessary?...
De Palma has always been an obsessive stylist. His cinema pulls viewers through intricate long takes and plot machinations with a classical understanding of suspense. And he's always been fascinated with pulp fiction. Are Snakes Necessary? is pure pulp, with the trappings of political thriller. It's stupid, and as with some of the bad novels of Bret Easton Ellis, stupid is the message.

Are Snakes Necessary? follows the story of a fixer working for a womanizing Senator. There are plenty of clichés, with snarling casino magnates and icy blondes, and more than a few De Palma flourishes as well, such as a photographer sniffing out intrigue on the set of a remake of Vertigo. The style is bare, taking on some of the cadence of The West Wing or a Tom Clancy thriller, but there are also certain strange additions, including a subplot with a rural “Dear Abby” character.

De Palma is often mistakenly criticized for the content of his films: a film about pornography is called pornographic, a movie about rape during the Vietnam War is called misogynistic. Most recently De Palma made a film about the manufactured idea of international terrorism, and it was drubbed as anti-Muslim. Generally, it's been said that he suffers from the curse of people liking his movies for the wrong reasons—Scarface, a film about the shortcomings of the American dream more than a gangster flick, being the obvious example—and surely some people dislike his films for the wrong reasons as well.

Are Snakes Necessary? is obviously a silly experiment in pulp fantasia, and yet there are some indelible images, almost like the intricate set pieces of any De Palma film, that are breathtaking. This is part of the paradox of De Palma's enduring brilliance: He uses the language of trash to talk about trash, and finds an erotic excitement in the transgression, because sometimes it's necessary to roll that shit around in your mouth.

Likewise, De Palma twists genres to catch moments of realness. He deconstructs war pictures in Casualties of War, for example, about the kidnapping and rape of a young woman by American troops in Vietnam. He later revisited this material in Redacted; both pictures reject American militarism, and highlight the violence and venality of military occupation.

The realness of Are Snakes Necessary? comes out in overwhelming cynicism. As more “my years at the White House” books emerge from the past two administrations, it only becomes clearer how self-serious the public workers of the executive branch hold themselves to be—and that this self-seriousness, this acting, is also a violence wrought upon the public.

While De Palma has proven to be capable of epic work in cinema, Are Snakes Necessary? is not exactly another symphony—it's an exercise, a late quartet. But it's quick, and it’s fun. So don't take it too seriously.

Posted by Geoff at 11:49 PM CDT
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Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Last Friday, Armond White reviewed Are Snakes Necessary? for National Review. In the review, White erroneously refers to co-author Susan Lehman as Brian De Palma's wife, although they are not, in fact, married. Here's an excerpt:
Think of Brian De Palma’s first novel — Are Snakes Necessary? — as his COVID-19 movie. Produced under duress, during a period when De Palma was blocked from green-lighted big-budget Hollywood filmmaking, rather like shelter-in-place restrictions, it is as full of movie references as any De Palma film.

Are Snakes Necessary? is also politically charged, continuing the obsession with skullduggery and government suspicion that goes back to De Palma’s earliest films, the anti-draft satire Greetings, and the radical activist/media satire Hi, Mom! This time. modernist De Palma satirizes the very form he essays — the hard-boiled crime novel with its built-in plot twists and duplicitous femme fatales.

Lead character Elizabeth de Carlo follows such puckish De Palma heroines as Grace and Danielle in Sisters and Laure/Lilly in Femme Fatale, where identity folds, multiplies, contrasts, and mirrors. Elizabeth and a mother-daughter duo, Jenny and Fanny, are involved with untrustworthy males: a photographer, a politician, and his political consultant, who variously exploit the women sexually and politically. Elizabeth, de Palma writes, has “innate grace.” She goes by the rule that “knowing how to speak to the animal in the man is half the game.” (She’s like Rebecca De Mornay in Alex Cox’s The Winner, a sign of De Palma’s instinctive cinematic good taste).

Tension and humor, De Palma’s two best tricks, propel the narrative, which deliberately references specific Kennedy and Clinton scandals (although De Palma indulges typical liberal petulance when labeling the offenders “Republicans”). But the villain of the piece, with his gruesome comeuppance, reveals the true political intent of Are Snakes Necessary? It is an apologia for De Palma the (supposedly) sexist pop artist.

This would be unnecessary in a fairer, more erudite era that was not held hostage to #MeToo coercion but, instead, appreciated that De Palma created more memorable and sympathetic female characters in Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise, Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, and Femme Fatale than any female filmmaker. The sops to feminism in Are Snakes Necessary? might be the result of De Palma’s collaborating with his wife, Susan Lehman, a former New York Times editor.

In De Palma’s own field, where his virtuosity has no contemporary parallel, it isn’t likely that he would share the role of auteur with another byline. Lehman, credited as co-author, may be providing cover for De Palma’s usual misunderstood, bad-boy fantasies: “He never thought he could have everything — brains and beauty and sexy and sweet and light and hot — in one package.” Yet the novel’s strict adherence to female empowerment (“the one and only rescuer in Elizabeth’s story has been Elizabeth”) and revenge renders the novel trite. Its stock plotting lacks the larger, cosmic fate that ultimately made Carrie, Dressed to Kill, and Casualties of War so powerful and that lifted The Fury, Blow Out, and Femme Fatale into awe-inspiring, cosmic visions.

De Palma’s decision to write a novel supports his brave, hold-out position as a cinéaste who resists television. Before television conquered cinema, especially for the “golden age of cable-TV” generation and today’s streaming culture, there was a concept called “la caméra-stylo” (camera-pen), formulated by critic and filmmaker Alexandre Astruc to describe filmmaking that was as fluent and expressive as writing. The museum cruising scene of Dressed to Kill fits Astruc’s theory, as does the carefully built final sunlit tableau of Femme Fatale: pure cinema.

Although De Palma finds no literary equivalent to his famous split-screen device in Sisters or even the binocular sequence in Richard Quine’s Pushover that influenced De Palma’s voyeur fetish (which culminated in the noir extravagance of the nighttime sound-recording sequence in Blow Out), he tries writing such effects. Most of it is narrative wind-up. It takes a while before we get to the first movie moment of visual contradiction: “Rogers can’t see the paper, which if he could would stop his heart (not to mention his campaign): in clear bold print, the paper says Paternity Test Results: POSITIVE.” It’s a naughty joke, like Angie Dickinson discovering the venereal-disease health notice in Dressed to Kill combined with Obsession’s incest revelation.

Some moments show De Palma’s media sophistication (“videotaping has the potential to change how we campaign”) and his yearning to make cinema (“I need to feel the rush and shoot it”), especially his reference to The Great Gatsby’s Doctor T. J. Eckleburg, whose bespectacled eyes, on an old, faded billboard, stare down at Gatsby — an ideal De Palma image. He is a Hitchcock buff here: “Nick, crushed by the ending he has orchestrated, drops his camera to his side and looks over the railing” like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo. He pays secret homage to Fritz Lang’s Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. And he is his own best critic here: “It all happened in that funny slow-motion way events unfold in the heat of certain moments.”

There’s also some plain good writing:

Rogers has the same general regard for applause. He treats it the way porpoises regard the shiny red balls they balance on their noses, He chases it. He relishes it. He plays it for all it’s worth. Applause is his favorite toy.

Best of all are the last 15 chapters, mostly short, one-page action-filled accounts that evoke De Palma’s suspenseful, contrapuntal crosscut editing style.

In the final paragraph of his review, White writes that the novel's title "reveals a roué’s phallic embarrassment, which De Palma typically compounds with a film reference: Norman Taurog’s 1942 comedy Are Husbands Necessary? But this lockdown creation commands attention because it also evinces social and cultural change — the shift from De Palma’s counterculture Sixties origins to Millennial resignation. The liberal critique he delivered in his Iraq War movie Redacted was a shocking failure, so now, following the wonderfully perceptive but hardly seen Domino, De Palma is a cinema outsider, left spinning a handwritten tale about 'the world of politics — of smoke and mirrors and endless spin . . . lies.'"

Posted by Geoff at 7:29 PM CDT
Updated: Thursday, June 4, 2020 9:04 PM CDT
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Saturday, May 30, 2020

Thanks to Fabio for sending along this Brian De Palma interview from last Sunday's Robinson, a weekly cultural supplement included in Italy's La Repubblica newspaper. The interview by Silvia Bizio forcuses on Are Snakes Necessary?, and while the bulk of it is mainly with De Palma, the intro includes a couple of quotes from De Palma's co-author, Susan Lehman, who says, "Writing is a very lonely activity, but doing it with Brian was fun." Lehman adds, "Brian outlined the main themes, obviously with a visual image. And then we went back to fix them with characters, descriptions and humor. It was fun, almost a game. The goal was to make the other laugh."

Here is the bulk of the interview that follows then, with the help of Google translation:

De Palma, who turns 80 in September, speaks from his home in East Hampton. And in isolation with Susan, a dog and a cat: "What do I think of the American response to the virus? They are dealing with it badly and I hope this administration will end in November."

How was the book born?

"It is inspired by political events that were happening when the idea came to us. The scandal of Gary Condit, for example, when the intern with whom he had an adulterous relationship disappears: only later was she found dead in a park in Washington DC. Another episode was that of Senator John Edwards and the filmmaker who worked on his campaign. When I saw them it seemed to me that they were flirting, and in fact in the end he had an affair with her, and a girl was conceived. "

What makes a politician like him so interesting that you want him as the protagonist of this story?

"The fact that politicians are involved in sexual scandals is part of a cliche. The two I mentioned instead are rather unique in their kind. A flirtation with a girl who is filming episodes on the campaign ends with a pregnant girl. Amusing."

Do you believe that we will return to talk about morality in politics?

"It's not like we were sleeping, but in reality we wrote the book before Trump's election. We narrate two unique political situations, which involve the promiscuity of two great political figures. Politics and sex are two naturally compatible elements. And then in the book there is the idea of ​​finding the characters on a set in Paris. Taking advantage of my experience as a film director, I also wanted to bring this element into the story. For some reason, French critics took this very seriously ... "

There is a fun chapter on Arnold Schwarzenegger. Why him?

"Because he had a son with his housekeeper, more or less the same time he had a son with Maria, his wife. Very funny."

And you didn't even want to try to hide the name, you put it out in the open.

"Well, the story was in People magazine. Can't get more out in the open than that..."

How does writing a novel differ from writing a screenplay? Is it similar?

"I like writing scripts, because essentially they are made of dialogue, characters and places, you don't have to write descriptions. Writing descriptions is not my strength, but Susan is very good at that and also with writing the inner emotional life of the character. When you write a screenplay, you don't always consider the depth of a character, because depending on who will interpret it, it will be modeled on that specific actor. So it is much more similar to a draft, unlike a book, which instead is complete in the setting, the moods, the inner life of the characters."

In the final chapters the character of Nick, the photographer, finds himself on the set of "Vertigo". Again, a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock. Why do you see it so often in your works?

"I've been answering this question for 50 years! (Laughs) Okay, it seemed very funny. Vertigo is based on a French novel, and I thought it would be nice to set the climax of the book in a very high place. So I said, why not at the foot of the Eiffel Tower? It was the way to bring the characters from the book together in one big scene. It's fun. People keep comparing my works with those of Hitchcock and, as I've said numerous times, Hitchcock was a great master and pioneer of visual storytelling. I learned from what he did and at the same time I experimented with new ways of telling something visually; I think I am the last practitioner of this form."

Some women in the book are victims, the wife, the lover, the daughter, but in the end there is a redemption, they become protagonists, they are the ones who take the action in hand.

"We decided to write a story of female revenge, but to have a redemption, you must first put on the victim's clothes. And the dramatic positions they are in at the beginning, with treacherous husbands and liars, it seemed to us an effective summary of what happens to women. If you want to write a story of women's revenge, your bow will start from the opposite situation. You will start with some kind of abuse."

At the end of the interview, Bizio asks De Palma if he'd like a film based on Are Snakes Necessary? "It would be a lot of work," De Palma responds. "Many locations, it would be one of those $200 million films! Or a ten-part streaming series, I wouldn't know. Like many authors, I wouldn't want to be involved in the film adaptation, even if I'm a film director."

Posted by Geoff at 9:26 AM CDT
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Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Criterion announced today that it will release a new 4K digital restoration edition of Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve on July 14, with many special features, some old, some new. Of course, Sturges' film is where Brian De Palma and Susan Lehman take the title of their first novel from, and there are a handful of new reviews of the book from earlier this month:

Sam Tyler, SFBook

There is a certain flavour that a good pulp noir novel should provide and Are Snakes Necessary does this from the very start by introducing us to Brock. This is a self-centred man who starts the book thinking about is aching privates after an operation. So far, so pulp. Rather than stick with just the one character, this is an ensemble piece that shares the limelight equally among three or four characters. Other smaller roles are given time to shine as well.


This means that the characters are more rounded than in almost any other noir that I have read. You learn the motivations for a senator, his wife, his intern, his fixer, the women he hired for a con and that women’s lover. It is a potent mix but does lead to this being a slow burner. I found the sense of place and characters enthralling enough that I enjoyed the sedate pace. It has the feel of a Robert Altman film as you just followed interesting people around.


The noir elements don’t come to fore until the end. The various threads can play out and only come together as the tension rises. A remake of Vertigo plays a part in the end and it is that film that the book takes its style from. There is an enigmatic quality to the book as you follow characters who do not all seem to have a direction. The conclusion shows that De Palma and Lehman did have a destination in mind – the Eiffel Tower.

If you are used to your pulp noir being naked bodies and guns, then Snakes is not quite for you. The book does have these, but it is more about characterisation and story development. It feels like Wag the Dog written by Carl Hiaasen on one of his more acerbic days. To get the most from this book you must enjoy the journey. The duo of authors fills the pages with nice quips and asides that you would expect from the genre. It certainly lacks a little pace in places and perhaps there were one or two too many characters, but there is no denying that this is an accomplished read that will have fans of character development in good cheer.

Steve Taylor-Bryant, The Dreamcage
Whilst written within the Hard Case Crime kind of style, that 50’s – 70’s pulp detective novel, it is very much a modern story with iPhones, and vlogging, but it's also a timeless tale with its heart in the past books of the publisher. It's witty, it's tense, it's extraordinarily clever, and yet reads in short, snappy sentences, letting your imagination fill in any blanks. It's more of a film treatment or script overview than a traditional novel but having words on a page play out a De Palma cinematic gem in your minds eye is no bad thing. Some may not take to the succinct style and that’s fine, each to their own, but if you read Are Snakes Necessary? from cover to cover I guarantee your life will feel the richer for it.

So you can see where that’ll lead to too. Nick will ultimately end up in Paris working as a behind the scenes photographer on a remake of Vertigo, (which was based on the novel D’entre les morts by French crime duo Boileau-Narcejac). Paris is also where the novel will reach one of two climaxes – yes two!

So we have the fixer, the philanderer, the photographer, the ingenue and the woman scorned. Five well-fleshed out characters that intertwine more intensely as the novel goes on, although I was mostly interested in Elizabeth and, to a slightly lesser extent, Nick, than the others who were more stereotypical. I enjoyed the elements of political satire and the dark soap opera of the plot, done with tongue in cheek. De Palma and Lehman mainly let the characters drive the narrative for around two thirds of the book’s 240 pages before ramping things up in Paris, and then an extended coda. I enjoyed the more slowburn start and middle more than the latter stages of the book, especially the final chapters, which frankly, stretched the limits of plausibility a bit.

If you were expecting the more violent side of De Palma, this novel has its moments, but it’s not that kind of noir. There is moral ambiguity in abundance in the manipulation of and by key characters, and I sped through the pages. There was a cinematic feel to many of the scenes, but apart from the obvious Hitchcock homage and many possible influences at one key location which I shan’t reveal, I didn’t spot many other obvious references. (The title of the novel apparently comes from a book Henry Fonda is reading in the Preston Sturges film The Lady Eve.) In summary, this novel isn’t perfect, but it is definitely an engaging read. (7.5/10)

Posted by Geoff at 12:01 AM CDT
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Monday, April 13, 2020
https://www.angelfire.com/de/palma/biggoodbye.jpgA few days ago, CrimeReads posted a brief chat with Brian De Palma and Susan Lehman about their novel Are Snakes Necessary?. When asked what is currently on their nightstand, the pair replied: "The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood by Sam Wasson. The Blue Angel by Francine Prose."

Regarding the cover art for their novel, De Palma and Lehman told CrimeReads, "The publisher initially showed us cover art that featured a girl in a bikini. We objected. There are no bikinis in Are Snakes Necessary? We love the current cover."

Here's a bit more from the interview:

CR: The story and hardboiled themes of Are Snakes Necessary? seem to fit neatly in your diverse repertoire, but what made you decide to explore these themes in a book, instead of a film?

BD & SL: I have more ideas than I can ever make films from. It seemed like it would be fun to try this as a book—though the story would obviously make for a good movie too.

CR: Your films draw so much on rich cinematic lineages of Hitchcock, Godard, and Antonioni—how does your writing draw on your filmmaking inspirations?

BD & SL: I started as a writer, not a director. I wrote many screenplays before I directed any movies. So I tend to think in terms of structure and plot and dialogue. A book also requires description—of characters and locations—and cleverly constructed prose. A new challenge.

CR: What was the genesis of the novel? Was it inspired by anything in particular?

BD & SL: We wrote the book before Trump was elected. It was inspired by two political scandals, the John Edwards scandal and the Gary Condit scandal which involved a Congressman and an intern who mysteriously disappeared.

Posted by Geoff at 7:57 AM CDT
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Wednesday, April 1, 2020
https://www.angelfire.com/de/palma/snakescrop.jpg"A tawdry tale of a political fixer playing whack-a-mole with the skeletons in an oversexed U.S. Senator’s closet," WBUR's Sean Burns states in his review of Brian De Palma and Susan Lehman's Are Snakes Necessary?, "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."

Here's more from Burns' review:

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.

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.

Posted by Geoff at 7:50 AM CDT
Updated: Wednesday, April 1, 2020 7:51 AM CDT
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Friday, March 27, 2020
https://www.angelfire.com/de/palma/snakescrop.jpgToday, links to two more reviews of Are Snakes Necessary?

James Scott Byrnside, jamesscottbyrnside.com:
Let’s get a few things out of the way. From what I know about my readership, none of you would like this book. It contains nothing in the way of detection (although surprise and suspense abound). The tone could best be described as luridly trashy, but even that wouldn’t give you a sense of the plot’s sex-leads-to-death ethos. The men are uniformly piggish and the women uniformly naked. One plot thread (of the three) ends in such dreamlike fantasy (with huge stretches of character logic–a stranger told me to throw my laptop into the ocean? Sure.) that I cannot imagine GAD fanatics going along for the ride. Occasionally, the book makes a nod to its film-noir roots:

In another world, one before cancer and surgeon generals, he would light a cigarette, probably Marlboro, and slowly inhale.

But mostly it’s a book of bad people screwing, plotting, and killing. (The title of a future book!)

So now that I’ve told you why you’ll hate it, let’s find out why I liked it. ASN is a screenplay that has been novelized. The first-person POV and the chapter head hopping are not new, but the novel’s insistence on playing as a series of set pieces make it a remarkably visual experience. The scenes are short, the transitions quick, and the backstory terse. By the time you reach the Eiffel Tower (where a French remake of Vertigo is being filmed — oh yeah, it’s that kind of story) you may not even notice the jet-propelled narrative changing to an almost literal description of shots. The plot is suitably twisty.

Thread 1: A philandering Senator (Lee Rogers) begins an affair with a videographer (Fanny Cours) on the campaign trail. Twenty years prior, he had been involved with Fanny’s mother. His wife is currently suffering the initial stages of Parkinson’s. (Swell guy) His fixer Barton Brock is weary of the affair and more than willing to end it by any available means, especially after Fanny falls in love.

Thread 2: Elizabeth Diamond is a bombshell sexpot married to an abusive husband. One day, she meets Nick, a studly photographer who hit it big years ago but now finds himself struggling for inspiration. They carry on a torrid affair until she decides to leave her husband. He brings her to a casino to grab a few things and she vanishes. Despondant, he goes to Paris.

Thread 3: I can’t tell you about thread 3. The first rule of ASN Club is you don’t talk about thread 3.

So, why not film this instead of writing it? (I don’t mean to discount Susan Lehman’s contributions, but it’s almost certain he told her the story and she whipped it into readable shape) The answer sadly, involves the financial burdens of modern cinema. Because DePalma’s eclecticism doesn’t translate to huge box-office returns (or any in some cases), he has made very few films in the last twenty years. It’s a horrible loss for cinema. Here’s someone who actually knows how to put a film together writing a novel. It’s not right.

The final set-piece on the Tower, the controlled horror when the mother reveals her secret, and the (yes) naked swim in the ocean whilst planning murder are all wonderful sequences that should be on a big screen. I’d list all the DePalma hallmarks, but this review would go on far too long. I’ll just say the dreamy malevolence of his best films’ finales and his voyeuristic obsessions are well represented here.

As I focus my blog on detective fiction, I can’t in good faith recommend ASN. However, I think my review will tell you if you want to read it. Basically, if you like DePalma, you’ll like this. I do and did.

Justin Partridge, Rogues Portal
Though the extemporaneous writing style and somewhat dated language peppered throughout the novel might keep it from being an instant pulp classic, Are Snakes Necessary? is an appropriately nasty, page-turning new effort from De Palma and Hard Case Crime.

Senator Lee Rogers and his brutish fixer Barton Brock are powerful men. These men are so powerful that women like young videographer Fanny Cours and down-on-her-luck waitress Elizabeth deCarlo barely even register to them. But when all four are pulled into each other’s orbit, all in the shadow of back-to-back senatorial campaigns, what follows is a tension-packed tale of sex, betrayal, and murder. Working with a fairly lean cast and surprising scope of time, De Palma and Lehman hit the ground running in this debut novel.

The pair pounce from lead to lead, employing a sort of loose mix of first and third-person viewpoints, and establishes a quick pace from the jump. Each chapter is only a few pages long, which gives the novel overall a breezy, quicksmart pacing. This both works well for and against the novel. At its best, it keeps the action of the novel clipping along, injecting a real compulsory feeling into the prose as you barrel from scene to scene. In other sections, it comes across truncated and neglects certain main cast members. Elizabeth, in particular, drops out of the book for a stretch only to pop back up again later.

There is also the matter of De Palma and Lehman’s choice of language in certain parts. Though seemingly set in the “present” (though time is seldom concretely established outside of background information), the pair saddle some characters with jarring older turns of phrase or anachronistic pop culture references. This clash also extends to Fanny, who, being the youngest character of the cast at 18, is cursed with a slightly tone-deaf approximation of “youth speak.” She’s given a few “as ifs” and Valley Girl bubbliness undercutting her righteous anger at the men of this story.

But even these are just slight bumps in the lurid fun of the whole story. Armed with an almost curt tonality and constant twists, De Palma and Lehman deliver some grade-A choice pulpiness, quickly setting the table of the story only to upend the whole thing once they so. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the sections set in Las Vegas and Paris. Our tale of “dirty politics” takes a fun turn into film theory edged with the classic pulp set up of a mafia moll taking a younger, unsullied lover from outside of “The Life.” To spoil how these cities connect to our main narrative would be to give away the book’s best secrets. Trust me when I say, it’s all one hell of a read.

Posted by Geoff at 12:01 AM CDT
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Tuesday, March 24, 2020

The photo above was taken by Doug Kuntz, and accompanies Charles' Arrowsmith's Washington Post review of Are Snakes Necessary?:
Pitched in style somewhere between a film treatment and tabloid true crime, this debut novel is silly and uneven, sure, but it’s also fun, a pastiche of hard-boiled crime fiction that doesn’t scrimp on the lurid pleasures of the genre.

Sen. Lee Rogers, the “Hunk of the Hill,” a man gifted with “Columbia Law School dazzle” but compromised by a “zipper problem,” is running for reelection in Pennsylvania. Fanny Cours, an 18-year-old videographer “in the full flush of carnality” and the daughter of an old flame of Rogers, is determined to join the senator’s campaign. Beefing up the supporting cast are ruthless campaign heavy Barton Brock, who’ll do anything it takes to protect his candidate; Nick Sculley, a photographer always on the lookout for a story; and Elizabeth de Carlo (or is it Diamond? or Black?), a jailbird-turned-agony aunt who’ll play anyone for anything. There are also a $5 million Basquiat, a remake of “Vertigo” and some implausible coincidences in the mix.

Jean-Luc Godard maintains, perhaps waggishly, that film tells the truth 24 times a second. De Palma, though, believes the opposite, and “Are Snakes Necessary?” litigates the competing claims. De Palma has spent a lifetime exploring the metaphysics of recording technology and of scopophilia, showing us how observation can deceive as much as it reveals. He has shown us the gaze, the camera lens, the telescope as mediums not just of looking but of participating, of penetrating. Think of “Body Double,” De Palma’s “Rear Window”/“Vertigo” remix, in which Craig Wasson’s voyeur becomes an accidental stooge in a murder case. Or of “Blow Out,” whose central crime is exposed when John Travolta syncs an audio recording with film footage of an accident. In both cases, the passive observer becomes the active protagonist.

Likewise Fanny, who shoots webisodes for the Rogers campaign aimed at revealing the real senator, turns out to be “the antithesis of the fly on the wall.” Fanny comes straight from the Godard school: Through her video work, she says, “I want to see, really see, the truth behind things. The naked truth.” Her more jaded colleagues are skeptical. “The camera is a come-on,” she’s told. “People instinctively flirt with it.” And sure enough, Fanny’s soon involved with Rogers and the campaign videos are starting to tell the wrong story: “Every time he looks towards the camera he’s batting his eyelashes,” her friend points out. Before long, the sinister Brock decides that something must be done about the problem intern.

Many crime writers, notably Elmore Leonard, have found ways of updating the hard-boiled genre while retaining its vim and demotic panache. De Palma and Lehman, while giving their story a conspicuously contemporary setting (Twitter, iPhones, 9/11, Ferguson), have aimed less at modernizing than simply transplanting its styles and tropes to the 21st century. As pastiche, this partly works, but it may have a distancing effect on readers.

“Her stiff yellow apron barely contains her voluptuous curves,” we’re told when we first meet Elizabeth de Carlo, the most fatale of the book’s femmes — and while she may in fact turn out to be an agent of violent female empowerment, there’s something retrogressive about her presentation. Perhaps a hint of cool irony can be detected here that some readers will enjoy, but it feels more like an opportunity missed.

The book’s chauvinistic dialogue is another sticking point. While it’s obviously an intentional stylistic effect, it feels anachronistic to see women labeled “doll” and “kid,” and it’s hard for characters to breathe when corseted by lines like “Now, be a good girl and get dressed.” Elsewhere, melodramatic overtones threaten to tip some scenes into the absurd: “This is a problem for me, Senator,” says Fanny at one point. “It’s a problem because you are married — to someone else.” It certainly lacks Raymond Chandler’s combative dazzle or the stylish malevolence of a James Ellroy.

Still, the chapters zip by with the pace and economy of scenes in a movie, and there are enough good jokes — notably the Chekhovian use of a bottle of perfume named “Déjà Vu!” — and plot twists to pass the time guiltily enough.

Scott Adlerberg, Criminal Element
We are in prime De Palma territory here; the list of De Palma protagonists who work with film or video—with images—who engage with the world through a lens of some kind, is long. While they may think they fully understand what they are seeing through their lenses, appearances can be deceptive. What the artiste-technician captures in the end, more often than not, is disturbing—even devastating. The quest to discover something, to shed light on a mystery or dig deeper into a situation, almost never, in De Palma, works out as intended.

Are Snakes Necessary? has three plot strands. One follows a beautiful young woman named Elizabeth. She gets recruited by a political operative named Barton Brock to help him conduct a dirty trick against a senatorial candidate. After that, she reinvents herself as the wife of a Las Vegas mogul, and then she reinvents herself again as something entirely different.

A second strand involves the photographer, Nick Sculley, who has dreams of publishing a photo essay book that will chronicle, in a way he imagines masterful, the progression of a couple’s relationship. He crosses paths with Elizabeth and they have an intense fling.

Last we have the videographer, 18-year-old Fanny Cours, who is idealistic and impressionable. Through a connection her mother had to the senator Barton Brock once devised a dirty trick against, she talks herself into becoming the senator’s official video chronicler for his newest reelection campaign. A series of webisodes she shoots will be posted on the senator’s Facebook page and will aim to show the public a side of Senator Lee Rogers that it has never seen before.

Things get complicated when the senator, a long-time philanderer, starts sweet-talking Fanny. She begins to fall in love with him and thinks his proclamations of affection for her are genuine. He happens to have a wife of many years, though, a woman suffering from Parkinson’s disease, and none of what transpires between Fanny and Rogers sits well with the senator’s fixer, the aforementioned Barton Brock.

Wasn’t Brock working against Senator Rogers earlier? He was, but this is politics, after all. Allegiances are mutable, and loyalty can be bought. Barton is nothing if not professional, and when he decides the senator must be protected if Rogers is to maintain his public reputation and win the election race he’s in, Fanny finds herself in danger.

De Palma and Lehman tell the story in the present tense, keeping the language tight but casual. The book does read something like a cross between a novel and a movie script, complete with short scenes and quick transitions. Backstory on the characters is supplied as needed, tersely, and the novel’s continual forward momentum carries you along.

De Palma’s films, the thrillers in particular, frequently have a dreamlike quality that embraces the absurd and the ludicrous, to most enjoyable effect, and Are Snakes Necessary? is no different. Through a chance meeting, Elizabeth winds up living in a place you’d never expect, doing a somewhat ridiculous job, but that plot development has a wonderful payoff in the end. What starts for Lee Rogers as a mere dalliance with a staffer turns into lurid melodrama at its finest. And when subterfuge is needed by someone, as we’ve seen in more than one De Palma film, what does the trick better than a skin-clinging mask? As explained, it’s “Some sort of rubber thing, the kind you pull over your whole head, like on Halloween. In the half-light it looks almost real.”

And, a brief Twitter post from Michael Pereira:
Finished reading Brian De Palma’s first novel Are Snakes Necessary (co-written by Susan Lehman) & it was a hell of a pulpy page-turner! Pure De Palma. A must-read for fans. Best thing he’s done since Femme Fatale.

Posted by Geoff at 12:01 AM CDT
Updated: Wednesday, March 25, 2020 8:14 AM CDT
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Thursday, March 19, 2020
https://www.angelfire.com/de/palma/snakescrop.jpgTwo more reviews of Are Snakes Necessary today from the U.K. --

Geoffrey Wansell, The Daily Mail
Legendary film director De Palma (The Untouchables and Dressed To Kill) joins forces with a New York Times editor to write this engaging debut.

It’s pure pulp fiction, with a cast of characters who wouldn’t be out of place in a Quentin Tarantino movie.

Lee Rogers, a U.S. Senator, is cheating on his wife with a young videographer who is covering his campaign. Inevitably, rumours start and he asks his ‘fixer’ to sort out the mess.

The videographer flees to Paris, where she meets a photographer who is working on a new version of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and who has been having an affair with the wife of one of Las Vegas’s richest men.

The stories quickly coalesce, with justice handed out in ever more lurid forms.

Told with great panache, it is richly entertaining, and the title is a homage to Preston Sturges’s film The Lady Eve, where Henry Fonda reads a book with this same title.

Jeff Noon, The Spectator
Brian De Palma brings his film director’s eye to Are Snakes Necessary? (Hard Case, £16.99), written in collaboration with the author Susan Lehman. The novel merges fierce political satire with the tale of a corrupt senator happy to cheat on his wife, despite her suffering from Parkinson’s disease. The latest object of his lust is a young videographer hired to record his campaign. Of course, things go from bad to worse and the senator is forced to call in a fixer to sort out the trouble. Terrible consequences ensue, all the way from Washington to Las Vegas to Paris. A globe-trotting sleaze-fest.

The story is pushed forward by the three drives of classic noir — sex, money and power, with the first two only seen as stepping stones on the way to the third. Everyone is either corrupt or on their way to being so. The book is giddy on its own pastiche. Yes, this is a film-maker’s novel, with the many short chapters acting like scenes in a movie and the characters painted in deft strokes, one or two emotions at a time. In truth, there is only one goal: to survive in the swamp pit. In which case, this might well be the best ever user’s manual on swamp survival.

Posted by Geoff at 6:48 PM CDT
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