Snake Eyes – ace director Brian De Palma’s ‘love letter’ to Atlantic City
Sisters, Carrie, Dressed To Kill, Blow Out, Scarface, The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way, Mission: Impossible – if there’s one living director who can truly hold a candle to Alfred Hitchcock, it’s Brian De Palma. The modern-day master of suspense has been responsible for many of the most memorable pictures of the post-war period. And as even his less celebrated movies are worthy of consideration, so there’s one De Palma picture in particular that's of special interest to gambling fans.
Released in 1998, Snake Eyes takes place against the backdrop of Atlantic City where the world and his wife have gathered for a major boxing match. When the guest of honour, Secretary of Defence Charles Kirkland, is gunned down mid-bout, it falls to street cop Rick Santoro (a typically unrestrained Nicolas Cage) and his Navy bud Commander Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise) to crack the case before the night is out.
“Having done a lot of reading about Howard Hughes for another project, I found myself wondering what it would be like if a murder took place during a prize fight at a casino,” an unusually loquacious De Palma told Charley Rose ahead of Snake Eyes’ release. “Hughes was always inviting bigwigs to the fights in Las Vegas and talking business. And as I'd grown up in Philadelphia and had seen how the casinos had come to effect Atlantic City, I thought that environment was the perfect place to stage a murder.”
Borrowing liberally from Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo – in which a crime is viewed from a variety of different perspectives – and pretty much any Hitchcock movie you care to think of, De Palma fashioned a film that’s as big on style as it is small on substance. If the film is ultimately rather frivolous, it’s sure to fascinate anyone who’s either visited Atlantic City or harbours dreams of taking in the wretched hive of scum and villainy.
Of particular interest is the flamboyant Gilbert Powell. Played by John Heard of Cat People and Home Alone fame, Powell is very clearly the film’s equivalent of Donald Trump; The Donald being among the biggest names operating in Atlantic City around the time the movie was shot and set. Indeed, as the future president’s Historic Atlantic City Convention Center had played host to WrestleManias IV and V, so the man with the hypnotic hair had brought many a major box-office to the East Coast. Trump would also be instrumental in bringing MMA to Atlantic City, a bold move that led to UFC hefe Dana White being among the more unlikely speakers at the 2016 Republican Convention.
As a snapshot of Atlantic City in the late 1990s, then, Snake Eyes simply can’t be beaten. It’s just a shame that budgetary restraints prevented director De Palma from closing out the movie on his own apocalyptic terms. “I wanted to finish the movie with a tidal wave,” the filmmaker explains in the must-see documentary De Palma. “I thought that given the nature of Atlantic City and what goes on there, it might be interesting just to wipe the whole place off the map. So we shot that ending but then found that the effects budget wouldn't stretch to a tsunami. Because of that, we had to settle for the more conventional ending. Pity – I would've liked to see Atlantic City in ruins.”
Many a bust gambler has felt the same way.