If the Internet has proven anything it is that ideas repeat endlessly, that life imitates art, and that the opinion of the masses only proves what is popular, not what is right. Almost twenty five years after completion, Brian De Palma’s Raising Cain, a tale of split personalities rejected by the test audience and substantially re-edited before release, has once more ventured into the light, this time wearing both its public and its forgotten faces in a new edition from Arrow.
As explored extensively in the supporting features of Arrow’s edition of De Palma’s 1973 thriller Sisters, the director has always been an admirer and follower of the work of Alfred Hitchcock, Rear Window echoed in that film, Vertigo in 1976’s Obsession, both of those templates in 1984’s Body Double and 1980’s Dressed to Kill wearing the clothes of Psycho, a fashion back in style in the experience of raising Cain, troubled brother of the apparently respectable child psychologist and devoted husband and father Doctor Carter Nix (Interstellar’s John Lithgow).
The genial man in the playpark with his daughter Amy, he is known by the other mothers who wish their own husbands had opted to take time off work to help with the children, but in fact it is those children in whom Carter is interested; seeing a mother and her twins he is unable to resist but almost bungles the snatch and it is only the arrival of the less inhibited Cain which saves Carter’s crumbling plan and takes care of the evidence: “the cat’s in the bag, the bag is in the river.”
What is out of the bag is that Carter’s wife Jenny (Kill Your Darlings’ Lolita Davidovich) has been spending time with handsome widower Jack Dante (Ray Donovan‘s Steven Bauer) whom she met several years before when she was treating his terminally ill wife; increasingly unstable, Carter is wide open to persuasion by Cain to eliminate the obstacles to his research…
It’s impossible to go into Raising Cain without knowing the central conceit and De Palma makes little effort to conceal it, all of Lithgow’s characters conspicuously framed individually as in Robert Mulligan’s The Other where the brothers are only seen together when they are alone, though in the original edit the events unfolded in a substantially different order, the first appearance of Cain conspicuously later in the film.
“Brian loves a film with a villain who you would never know is the villain,” Lithgow comments in his recently conducted interview, warm, funny and open in a way that the more reserved De Palma himself would never be, while Bauer’s somewhat meandering interview does offer insight into the motivation behind one of the film’s more incomprehensible moments where Jack and Jenny kiss in the hospital room where his wife lies dying.
Positing that even if it wasn’t conscious they both already sensed the danger from Carter, a fear which pushed them together, it is not an entirely convincing justification. “Tension results almost entirely from the feeling that time is running out” editor Paul Hirsch comments, and while De Palma is an expert on the thriller genre it is the lifeless romance between Jenny and Jack where the film stumbles, flailing helplessly on a bed of leaves as Carter watches from behind a tree.
Their supposed warmth very much out in the cold, what is left is an analytical film, always observing and dissecting the moments, the other characters as compulsive in their own ways as Carter but the plotting is clumsy, the too convenient visit of a retired police officer who recalls the investigation into the suspicious behaviour of Doctor Nix senior just as Carter is being questioned in the station, the failure of Jenny to immediately alert the police when Carter attempts to kill her, her unfeasible calm following the abduction of Amy.
Where the film does run more smoothly is in the scenes featuring Doctor Lynn Waldheim (Frances Sternhagen, a veteran performer possibly best known to genre fans as the defiant Doctor Lazarus of mining outpost Con-Am 27 in Outland) who takes an extended scene of exposition told across a technically complex tracking shot descending into the basement below the station which took a day to rehearse and film and somehow makes it a pleasure to hear.
A long-time friend of Lithgow’s, he had first seen performing onstage when he was in high school and describes her as “a joy to work with her, of course,” and several of those interviewed praise De Palma’s comprehensive technical preparation and storyboarding and dedication to the rehearsal process where all the actors are invited to offer input, allowing the time on set to be spent efficiently with minimal direction.
“The two most important rules of editing are pace and clarity,” Hirsch states, but shrouded in layers of dream and nightmare Raising Cain was conceived by De Palma as a twisted riddle which might demand multiple viewings to unravel but was ultimately released with a linear timeline enforced upon it, and amongst the Blu-ray special features is Peet Belder Gelderblom’s “ghost version,” reinstated according to draft scripts without any involvement from De Palma though with his later endorsement.
Also included are interviews with composer Pino Donaggio and actors Tom Bower, Mel Harris and Gregg Henry who accepted a one line role in Scarface simply for the privilege of working with Al Pacino and De Palma which led first to Body Double then investigating officer Lieutenant Terri in Raising Cain, in addition to De Palma expert Chris Dumas’ video essay examining the alternative edits of the film and Gelderblom’s own video essay on his work.
As much as the recently released Split is a showcase for the talents of James McAvoy in a film whose plot mirrors much of Raising Cain, so this film undeniably belongs to John Lithgow, a friend of De Palma’s since their university days whose supporting roles in Obsession and 1980’s Blow Out led to the director writing the roles of Carter Nix and friends with the versatile Lithgow in fractured mind.
“I have often played parts for deadly seriousness only to realise at the premiere screening that I am the comic relief,” Lithgow comments, and certainly with his long running role in Third Rock from the Sun and his recent turn as The Magistrate at the National Theatre that might be expected, but other than Doctor Nix senior’s Norwegian accent straying too closely to that of Buckaroo Banzai’s Doctor Emilio Lizardo, Raising Cain with its “dizzyingly complex plot,” the only laugh is on those who dismissed the film on original release as incomprehensible.
Raising Cain is available now from Arrow Films and Video