Deconstructing Cinema: Snake Eyes

Deconstructing Cinema: Snake Eyes

Paramount Pictures

Original release: November 6th, 1998
Running time: 98 minutes

Director and producer: Brian De Palma
Writer: David Koepp
Composer: Ryuichi Sakamoto

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Gary Sinise, Carla Gugino

Opening sequence: 00:00:00 to 00:15:10

Deconstructing Cinema: One Scene At A Time, the complete series so far

At the end of the 90s I more or less knew who Brian De Palma was, but I had no idea he would later become my favourite film director. I’ve loved movies ever since I can remember, but at that point I was less thoughtful about cinema than these days.

When I saw a movie that I liked I couldn’t really figure out why I liked it; why exactly was this film good while that other one was so awful? In no way I feel today that I have all the answers, but it’s starting to feel like I’ve now got a set of keys with the doors in sight. However, I would like to flatter myself and think that even in those days, in my late teens I had a sophisticated eye for cinematic gems.

Deconstructing Cinema: Snake Eyes

When it comes to De Palma, he isn’t just my favourite director; he is the man who I feel uses cinema as a visual art form with the strongest possible emphasis being on the word visual. This can be measured quite scientifically by comparing a film to its script. The more visual a film is, the more it has to depart from written words. Brian De Palma is an exceptional talent in conveying information through the mise-en-scène and the opening sequence of his 1998 thriller Snake Eyes is a magnificently crafted example of that.

Upon first viewing, Snake Eyes caught me completely off my guard. Without knowing what was about to hit me, I sat down on one evening to watch a movie on HBO that looked kind of interesting. I soon found myself sinking into my sofa deeper and deeper.

The opening sequence begins with what is a recurring motif in the film: a television screen. A disgruntled news reporter is going live on TV outside the Atlantic City Arena to tell us that in spite of Hurricane Jezebel’s arrival to the city shores, it’s an important night in the arena: a long anticipated heavyweight boxing match is about to take place with several high profile guests in attendance, amongst them the United States Secretary of Defence.

Deconstructing Cinema: Snake Eyes

The frustrated and soaked news reporter is left behind when the camera begins to pan to the left to reveal two other television screens and we realise that we are already inside arena in a TV studio. On the third screen another reporter is getting ready for yet another live report on the boxing match when our protagonist shows up behind him.

Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage) teases the reporter – evidently his friend played by Kevin Dunn – by looking directly into the camera with a mere few seconds left until live broadcast, saying: “I’m on TV? I’m on TV???” The many layers of the meaning in Ricky’s first line of dialogue alone is worth an entire essay – but let’s not get ahead of ourselves – we’re just one minute into the 15 minutes opening scene at this point and television has already been established to play its own pivotal role in Snake Eyes.

Deconstructing Cinema: Snake Eyes

The opening sequence was shot as a continuous steadicam long take with 8 carefully placed hidden cuts mostly in camera panning or when something crosses the frame.

Using the great flexibility of the steadicam, De Palma follows Ricky as he wonders into the casino area, speaking on his cell phone to his girlfriend and later his wife. In a fast paced character introduction, we learn that Rick Santoro is an Atlantic City cop and far from a likable person. He confiscates money from a drug dealer to fund his gambling habit, he implies on the phone that he is a cocaine user and although already cheating on his wife, he takes every opportunity to pick up women. In a nutshell, Rick Santoro is as corrupt as a cop can be.

All of this is established by the most skilful use of steadicam I have ever seen on the screen, but it isn’t just a case of a camera beautifully dancing around, it’s also remarkably practical.

Deconstructing Cinema: Snake Eyes

We travel along with Ricky from one situation to another; we see his dishonest and arrogant ways dealing with several people and in a matter of few minutes: we know the man. I can’t think of another scene in a movie when I knew so much about a character in such a short period of time. The introduction of Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) could compete, but it doesn’t quite make it close to the information De Palma managed to assemble in the first 6 minutes of Snake Eyes.

At this point, De Palma has already started to do what later in the scene becomes more and more intense: filling the frame with information. For instance, the bodyguards of the heavyweight boxing champion Lincoln Tyler get into a fight with an overzealous fan in the background while Ricky is talking to his bookie about betting on the fight. Later Tyler himself becomes visible in the reflection of a mirror only for a fraction of a second when Ricky starts to go after a petty criminal. All of this is carefully planned by De Palma, but what is relevant and what isn’t is unknown to us at this point.

Deconstructing Cinema: Snake Eyes

As the opening sequence progresses into its second half, the mise en scene becomes overwhelming. Ricky enters the boxing arena and we often see several hundreds of extras all at once on the screen. He’s here to meet his childhood friend US Navy Commander Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise) who has the job of running the security of the US Secretary of Defence himself. They take their seats in the front row and the Secretary of Defence is in the center as the most high profile guest of the evening.

This is where the opening will come to its climax.

A number of things happen in the following minutes. While we watch Kevin trying to talk Ricky into changing his corrupt ways, a beautiful woman in red dress with red hair takes her seat in the front row nearby. Kevin finds her behaviour suspicious. Ricky is in his element as he claims to be the king of the sewer that is Atlantic City at the precise moment the fight begins. The camera stays on them; we don’t see the match at this point, but we overhear a few words from the radio of Tyler’s manager who is seated next to Ricky.

Deconstructing Cinema: Snake Eyes

Tyler’s opponent is working up the crowd while Kevin leaves his seat to question the woman in red. She runs away, with Kevin chasing her. A beautiful blonde arrives in white dress, she takes Kevin’s seat. She turns to the Secretary of Defence while a drunken man shouts insults at the boxers – he’s restrained by security.

Ricky is angry as Tyler is knocked out by his opponent (still unseen). The blonde raises her voice at the Secretary of Defence, she sounds threatening. Ricky takes another phone call from a woman. Scream. Blood. A blonde wig falls. Dark hair underneath. Chaos.

Deconstructing Cinema: Snake Eyes

In the last minute of the opening scene, we come to realise that the Secretary of Defence has been assassinated, with heavy gun fight taking place at the other side of the arena soon after. The “grand old” Atlantic City Arena is shut down, no one gets in, no one gets out.

As Hurricane Jezebel rages outside, we are left with fourteen thousand people and a mystery for Rick Santoro, our unlikable hero who is about to have a tough night.

I started by saying that the more visual a film is, the more it has to depart from written words. Written words really fail me when trying to do justice to the opening of Snake Eyes. For once, the taglines for the movie might be somewhat helpful. One says “Seeing is deceiving”, another “Believe everything except your eyes”. I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen Snake Eyes, but the number goes into the obsessive and nerdy territory.

Even now that Deconstructing Cinema gave me another excuse to see it again; I noticed new things that once again fascinated me. I wonder how many more times I can see this movie and its exceptional opening sequence with that sense of surprise and awe – I’m not sure but I’m certainly ready to find it out.

About Arpad Lukacs

Arpad Lukacs

Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.

Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.

Have a look at Arpad's photography site, and you can follow him on Twitter @arpadlukacs.