Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Shower Scenes of Brian De Palma

By Miriam Paschal

Soaps, suds, running water, wet boobs, and… murder! Who doesn’t love a good shower scene? Did you know that for many years, Brian De Palma included a shower scene in his movies as an homage to Alfred Hitchcock? In an October 1984 interview, De Palma was asked, “What's the attraction of the shower scene?” He replied, “Hitchcock discovered that people feel safe in the bathroom with the door shut… It's a place that when someone comes in, you really feel violated. To me it's almost a genre convention at this point… I don't particularly want to chop up women but it seems to work.”

So here is my study of the shower scenes of Brian De Palma. Let's start with the one that inspired them all by The Man himself, Alfred Hitchcock...


(length 3:18)

Every single shot in this scene is done from a stationary camera. There are a couple of shots that go tighter or wider within the shot and a few more with pans or tilts, but no tracking shots or other kinds of shots where the camera would have to move from one position to another.

Except for the last one, but I'll get to that.

1. Marion closes the door and takes off her robe.
2. Her feet as she drops the robe, steps into the tub, and draws the curtain.
3. Her silhouette behind the curtain from outside the shower.
4. Head and shoulders facing the camera. POV would be the shower wall under the shower head. She unwraps the soap and turns on the water.
5. The famous shot of the shower head as the water falls around the camera.
6. Same as #4. She lathers up.
7. Side view from inside shower POV curtain. She washes her arm.
8. The same shot as #7, but slightly closer, and it's a cut to this shot from the last one, not a zoom in. She washes her neck.
9. A shot of the shower head from the side.
10. Same shot as #8, except it's a full 180 degrees different POV. We can see the curtain on her left side.
11. Same kind of cut as from #7 to #8, except this shot is wider than #10. Outside the curtain we see the shadow of the door opening. She's in the bottom right corner of the screen. Now the lens moves for the first time. It zooms in on the figure behind the curtain as it pulls it back.
12. POV the figure. Marion screams. Water falls across her face.
13. The classic Hitchcock close-up. Marion's open mouth as she screams.
14. This shot is POV of about the water taps. It's the figure in silhouette with the knife raised above its head. We can see the bun in the hair, but that's about it. It holds the knife in its right hand and the shot is on its left side looking up, so the knife is somewhat hidden by the figure.
15. POV the figure. A medium shot of Marion back against the wall, thrashing her head from side to side.
16. Marion's POV, so we're looking straight at the figure. It's still in silhouette. The knife comes towards the camera.
17. Her arm comes up.
18. Shot over the curtain rod. If I had to guess, I'd say the cameraman is standing on the toilet for this one. Marion's left hand grabs the figure's right wrist. The knife is NOT in the frame.
19. Close up of her screaming: just her face.
20. Same as #18, only closer. The knife is in this shot, but it's coming back.
21. Same as #19.
22. Same as #20. The knife darts halfway forward and then comes back. It's not even close to her.
23. Same as #16.
24. Same as #15, but closer: kind of between #15 and #19.
25. Same as #16.
26. Same as #19, but lower down, on her neck.
27. Same as #16.
28. Same as #19.
29. Same as #16.
30. Same as #19.
31. Same as #16.

One sound here is the music, which we all know and love, by Bernard Herrmann. The strings hitting the same note over and over, what De Palma called the stabbing violins. The other sound is the knife hitting flesh. The rhythm of the knife matches the rhythm of the music.

32. The tip of the knife moving in front of her belly button. There has been no blood so far and no actual stabbing in any of the visuals.
33. Same as #19.
34. Same as #14, but this time the knife comes forward.
35. This is from below her right side. Part of her right breast is clearly visible, as is part of the figure's dress. This is an example of how quick these shots are. Most of them have to be less than 24 frames. I never knew Hitchcock got a shot of Janet Leigh's breast in the scene until I went through the DVD with my pause button.
36. Same as #19.
37. Shot of her feet moving with blood spilling into the water. This is the first we see the blood and we never see any wounds on her body.
38. Same as #19.
39. Same as #15. She turns around with her arms up.
40. Same as #37, but from slightly higher up as she turns around. There is more blood in the water.
41. Shadow on the tile of her hand waving.
42. Same as #19, but she's turned around, so now it's the back of her head we see.
43. Back of the female figure with the bun leaving through the open door. This is shot from way back in the shower because we can see the water falling from right to left across the front of the screen.
44. Close on Marion's hand sliding down as she tries to clutch the slick tile.
45. Starts off same as #15, but she's facing the wall and sliding down. Then she turns around and her wet hair sticks to the tile as she slides further down. As she reaches with her right hand to grab the curtain, the shot widens a bit so we see the edge of the curtain come into frame.
46. Close up of her hand as it clutches the curtain.
47. Shot from the ceiling looking down. She's crouched in the tub holding the curtain and she leans forward.
48. Shot of the hooks on the curtain rod as the curtain comes off them one by one.
49. She falls forward out of the tub with the curtain crumpled beside her.
50. The second shot straight up into the shower head with the water falling around the camera. Same as #5.
51. Another famous shot and one in which the camera moves. It starts with her feet in the tub and blood running from underneath her shins. The camera tilts to follow the blood to the drain and then zooms in on the drain as the water swirls down. It zooms until the drain fills the screen. We all know what comes next.
52. Fade from the drain to her staring eye. The camera rotates as it pulls back so that the bottom of the screen is parallel with the floor. He face is smushed into the tiles.
53. Shot of the shower head from the side. Same as #9.
54. This is the moving camera shot. It starts on her face, then widens as it pans across the floor. It zooms in on the table across the room and might actually move forward a bit at the same time. It lingers on the newspaper on the table, then pans to the window beside the table. Outside the window is the Bates house sitting up on the hill. Norman runs out.

Here is where it ends. Some could argue that it actually ends when Norman rushes in and cries, "Mother, what have you done?" For the purposes of this study, the scene is over here.

Hitchcock created terror not with a lot of gore and violence, but through psychological terror. Professors at film schools are quick to point out the fact that the knife never touches her body, let alone enters it. Yet thousands of people, men and women alike, professed their terror of getting into the shower for months after they saw Psycho. It was a seminal moment in a seminal movie: a moment in which the demons in the dark were clearly visible for three minutes and eighteen seconds.

Here is how that one scene influenced the work of Brian De Palma over the years. We'll study them in chronological order.


Phantom of the Paradise
(length 1:15)

De Palma started his film-making career making satirical comedies. His favorite leading man during this early part of his career was William Finley, whom he cast as the Phantom. Phantom of the Paradise is a satire, but it has the seeds of horror that would mark some of his more famous films. This is the only shower scene with a man in danger, instead of a woman. But this man is gay, and this movie is part spoof. It's obviously an homage to Hitchcock, so the fact that he's gay must be part of the spoof.

On to the scene: Beef has been trying to pop pills and snort cocaine to calm his nerves because he's sure the Paradise is possessed. Philbin has sent him to take a shower and cool down. The scene starts as he comes into the bathroom with his cocaine. He's distracted by fear, but there's a camera above the door and, when he sees it, he smiles in a relaxed pose, like the professional performer he is. As he closes the door, he allows the smile to drop off his face. He tosses aside the coke and his towel and enters the shower through the plastic curtain. The wall is cut away so the camera can track him into the shower. It ends up where the taps should be, their POV for a medium front shot of Beef as he soaps his chest and pits. He tries to forget his fear by practicing his big number, "Life at Last." He flips the soap over his shoulder and catches it behind him.

Cut to a shot of Beef through the curtain, POV the bathroom door. The camera moves around the cut away wall to end up where the previous shot was, POV the non-existent taps, then continues to move inside the shower to look out through the curtain to the door, ending one hundred and eighty degrees from where it started. Now we can see the Phantom coming through the door with his arm raised over his head.

These shots are almost exact duplicates of the original shots in Psycho through the shower curtain from both sides. But De Palma's camera moves all over the set so that the movement is fluid. This scene is both a campy parody and a sinister homage to the original scene. The Phantom creeps to the curtain and slices through it with a huge knife. As he raises the knife, it reflects both the light and the angle of the original knife in Psycho.

Beef finally turns and sees the Phantom and his knife. Or maybe he just sees the knife. He shrieks, but the Phantom is ready and darts his other arm forward to cover Beef's mouth with a toilet plunger, pinning him to the wall. Beef stares at him, horrorstruck, over the plunger. The Phantom delivers his ominous warning not to sing his music, now or ever. His music is only for Phoenix. Anyone else who tries, dies.

Warning delivered, he pops the plunger off of Beef's face. With a squeak of fear, Beef slides down the slick tiles and out of frame, much like Janet Leigh in Psycho, only the scene ends here. He doesn't pull the curtain off the rings.


(length 5:34)

Carrie was De Palma's break-out movie. It has elements of the absurd, but it evokes the same kind of seminal terror that characterizes Hitchcock's films.

The shower scene is a longer scene that incorporates a shower section. Pino Donaggio, who also worked with De Palma on Body Double and Dressed to Kill, composed the soundtrack. De Palma had wanted to get Bernard Herrmann, who was the genius behind many of Hitchcock's classic films (including Psycho), but Mr. Herrmann had recently died after completing the music for Taxi Driver. Pino Donaggio was a fan of Herrmann's work and used some of his themes in the various soundtracks he did for De Palma. In Carrie, he used what De Palma called the "stabbing violins" from the shower scene in Psycho.

It starts in the girls' locker room. The air is full of steam and the girls are getting dressed after their shower. De Palma used a camera technique in this film that split the screen in half within the lens so that both the background on one side and the foreground on the other side could be in focus. In this scene the girls at the ends of the rows are as much in focus as the girls in front. A lot of them are naked. This scene was famous for having lots of full-frontal female nudity.

The music is lilting, haunting. The action is slo-mo. There is no natural sound. Amy Irving, interviewed 25 years later for the anniversary edition DVD, said it was amazing "…to be in a horror film with such eroticism and beauty and grace…"

The first scene established that Carrie is the outsider, and not well liked. In the opening sequence to this scene, we see the girls laughing together and playing with each other as they get dressed. The camera travels through the locker room and the final two girls pass to reveal Carrie alone in the shower. She's stick-thin with hardly any hips: not like the other girls. The music continues. This is Carrie's time. She enjoys the water, and being alone. There is one shot of the shower head from the side, just like shot #9 from the Psycho shower scene, except this shower head is the classic high school shower head, and it looks phallic.

Carrie soaps up and caresses herself, then the soap falls to the tiles and the blood runs down her leg. In De Palma's world, influenced so much by Hitchcock, there can never be running water in a shower without blood to swirl around in it. Carrie stares at the blood in her hand and the music stops.

Suddenly, we hear the girls in the locker room as well as see them: nothing but natural sound now. They have all finished dressing, so Carrie's naked wet body is a stark contrast to them. She staggers out with her bloody hand held out, and there is something primal in her body language that is disturbing. The girls shriek and scatter back. Then Chris (Nancy Allen) realizes what's wrong and dangles a tampon at her. In the next instant, the girls have become a mob. Even Sue Snell's normally sweet disposition is overtaken by the mob mentality. Nancy Allen, interviewed for the anniversary DVD, said that playing that scene was disturbing. Their behavior is also primal. The scene has gone from erotic and beautiful to rabid and animalistic.

Carrie stumbles back into the shower and clutches the slick tiles as horror and fear mingle on her face. There is one second where her look is just gripping. She's like a trapped animal. Then she slides into the corner under a hail of feminine hygiene products and underwear.

Miss Collins comes to break it up and has to slap Carrie to get her under control. At this point Pino Donaggio's score comes back in with the "stabbing (Psycho) violins" and the light above them shatters. As the glass breaks, so does their mood, and they suddenly see that Carrie is naked and sobbing on the bottom of the shower, with blood on her hand.


Dressed to Kill
(length 2:42)

Pino Donaggio's haunting, ethereal, music starts over the opening titles. The scene starts as the final title (written and directed by Brian De Palma) fades. The camera tracks through a bedroom and into a bathroom. Whoever owns this house is fairly wealthy. The shower is revealed as the cameras tracks around and through the doorway. In the foreground, a man shaves with a straight razor. In the background, Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) is clearly visible through the glass shower door.

The camera tracks closer and zooms in on her face, through the door. She watches the shaving man, who concentrates on his reflection. He wears only a low-slung towel around his waist and she eyes his handsome face and muscular body. But he is oblivious to her lust.

The steam from the hot water rises around her. She soaps her breasts – caresses them – and drops her hand below her waits. The camera takes in her naturally blonde pubic hair as her hand plays between her legs. She watches the man and caresses her body with the soap.

The camera looks through the glass door from inside the shower, her POV. The big mirror he faces is lined with theatrical lights, and we can see both him and his reflection. De Palma is playing with mirrors again.

Kate is lost in lust, but the man on the other side of the door doesn't notice. A shadow moves behind her and another man, this one bigger and more muscular, grabs her from behind. He clamps his hand over her mouth. The soap drops to the floor. One of her hands is still between her legs. He covers it with his other hand and lifts her off her feet.

She kicks and struggles and claws at the hand over her mouth. The shaving man seems farther away, as if the bathroom has gotten bigger. The steam rises up, obscuring her vision of him. Just before he disappears into the steam, he looks around.

Kate manages to claw the one hand away from her mouth and screams. But the steam is rising around her and the sound fades away even as she fades away behind it.

For anybody who isn't familiar with this movie, this scene turns out to be a powerful and recurring dream that haunts Kate Miller.


Blow Out
(length 2:56)

This is a cheesy movie within a better movie, just like Body Double. The studio logo fades to the opening scene. It's a moving camera shot that's obviously the POV of the KILLER. He creeps up to some college building, either a dorm or a sorority, and passes the door to go around to the windows.

Disco music blasts out of a window in time to a pulsing red light and the KILLER sees two girls inside, dancing in their tiny nighties. The girl next door pounds on the wall and we can see her too in a double shot of both rooms. She stalks out of her room and the dancing girls open their door to her. She threatens to "get Sue."

The KILLER moves to the next window, where a couple is having sex on the floor. The girl is on top and the KILLER gets too close. The girl spots him and jumps off her boyfriend. "There's somebody out there." The camera (KILLER) moves away from the window.

Cut to inside and a shot of a long hallway with many doors on either side. Now there are more people and fewer places to hide. The KILLER peeks around corners and sneaks behind people's backs as they move away from him.

He passes the communal bathroom and then a room where a girl masturbates and moans on her bed. He returns to the bathroom.

All this time there has been only one cut: from outside to inside. Everything else is the fluid moving camera, which gives us the KILLER'S POV.

Through the steam on the mirrors we get a glimpse of the KILLER, who is just a man. Then we (HE) see(s) a girl in the shower. He pulls the plastic curtain aside and raises his knife, which dominates the screen. She cringes back and screams. At least I think it's a scream.

This is the scream that John Travolta has to find a replacement for during the movie. His quest leads him to uncover a murder that was supposed to look like an accident.

In just under three minutes, De Palma has given us all the major themes of his "female" movies: sex, conflict, more sex, moving camera, tricks with mirrors, and a girl in a shower menaced by a big knife. He has also done it as a movie within a movie.


Body Double
(length 3:44)

It's the last scene of the movie. The hero has saved the day and come to a deeper understanding of himself. Now he's even gotten his old job back playing a vampire in a cheesy B-horror movie. As they shoot the scene and worry about lighting and where his hand should be, a few bits of relevant dialogue tie a neat bow on the story. The content of the scene they're shooting is that the vampire attacks a beautiful girl in the shower and bites her neck so the audience can see blood running over her breasts. Since De Palma just finished showing us a really well-structured story that had both blood and breasts, he seems to be saying that some people think they can substitute blood and breasts for story, but the most important thing is story, not the blood and breasts.


Other Shower Scenes

De Palma can't include a shower scene in every one of his movies. It wouldn't fit in some of them. When the main character is a man, or men dominate the story, it doesn't make much sense to place a man in danger in the shower. The knife menacing the naked woman is obviously symbolic of rape, so when you have a story about men, a shower scene would be very out of place.

But there is a water theme that runs throughout his movies, including such male-dominated stories as Carlito's Way, The Untouchables, and Casualties of War. In these movies, there is a scene set in the rain, which shows the main character at an emotionally vulnerable moment, and possibly in physical danger.

I didn't time these scenes. They are easy to find, but they're more like a shadow of the shower scenes. The only common factors are rain and the character being in emotional and/or physical crisis.

In Carlito's Way, Carlito stands outside in the rain with a trashcan lid over his head while he watches Gail dance inside and longs for the way things were.

In The Untouchables Jim Malone (Sean Connery) fights his boss, Police Chief Mike Dorsett in an alley in the pouring rain. It's a violent scene, but it's a pivotal emotional point for Jim, who is declaring his allegiance with Elliott Ness, not his fellow cops.

In Bonfire of the Vanities, Sherman McCoy arrives at the Bronx courthouse for his arrest and arraignment during a rainstorm. Because of the media frenzy, the detectives in charge cuff him to show that he is no better than the black criminals. It's a hard fall for Sherman.

In Casualties of War, PFC Eriksson (Michael J. Fox) is ordered to guard the hooch while the other four men rape the Vietnamese farm girl. During the long day and evening, it starts to rain. Sgt Tony Meserve (Sean Penn) comes out to make more verbal threats and to try and shame Eriksson into raping the girl. Eriksson's biggest regret at this point is that he isn't brave enough to actually prevent the gang rape by killing his fellow soldiers.

Interestingly enough, there's an actual shower scene in Casualties of War which takes place during a moment of emotional crisis for the whole unit. Corporal Brown (who ended up becoming Sgt Doakes on Dexter) has just been killed, literally in their arms, and they have only a few hours before their next mission. They go to take a shower and just stand under the water, staring off into space. It underscores the point that, for De Palma, falling water symbolizes emotional crisis and loss for men, and danger for women.

In Black Dahlia, there are two rain scenes. Since the story is set in Los Angeles, the scenes in the rain are anomalies. The first occurs when Bucky realizes that he has allowed his partner's obsession with the Black Dahlia to distract him from their primary assignment, and innocents have died as a result. In this scene, Bucky runs from his car to the store, and not much of the rain falls on him.

In the second scene, Bucky stands out in the rain after his partner's death and watches the mansion where his crazy girlfriend lives with her crazy family. The rain is his penance. It washes over him like rancid jealousy.

In Mission Impossible Ethan runs through the rain from the safe house to the terminal where he calls Kittridge. He has just learned that his mother and uncle have been arrested for drug trafficking, a charge trumped up by Kittridge to smoke Ethan into the open. Ethan's mother and uncle are his one emotional weakness and Kittridge has capitalized on it.

I have not included every De Palma film in this study, but I think these films make it clear that not only has he used the shower scene as an homage to Hitchcock, he has extrapolated the fear evoked by falling water and nakedness to study how water can be a powerful symbol in film. Women feel vulnerable when they are physically naked, and men feel vulnerable when they are emotionally naked.

Click here for more of Miriam's Movie Breakdowns.


Mystery Man said...

Miriam, I just want to be the first to say that I love this article. It's as fascinating as it is hilarious. I'll lay odds no one has ever written 4500 words on shower scenes with almost 80 photos! This might be my favorite of your studies. And what artsy photos you created! Turned out well, don't you think? I love it. Great job, honey.

Someone give Miriam a WEB AWARD!



Mim said...

They look a lot better in this format than when I took them. If you want to write 4500 words, it helps to have fast fingers and no internal filter.

Mystery Man said...

The very words I live by.



Thomas Rufer said...

Thanks for this article. DePalma is my favourite director and he's the best!

Anonymous said...

loved the article, just to nitpick however you forgot to mention in scarface where he is threatened with a chainsaw while tied to the shower, it would be interesting to look at how de palma plays with the horror there