A Buried Treasure: Snake Eyes

“Buried Treasures” is a bi-weekly film series highlighting beloved films that have been either underseen or underappreciated. Every other week, one 25YL columnist will choose a film they think is deserving of additional praise and shine a spotlight on that film. The film chosen may be one that few have heard of, or maybe it will be one that was panned by critics. Either way, their spirited defense of the film will hopefully encourage more people to give it a chance and maybe even find a new favorite film. In a seemingly endless sea of negativity on the internet, “Buried Treasures” provides a space where positivity reigns.

“You got Snake Eyes!”

Brian De Palma has always had the touch for noir. His supremely stylish, bleak, often cynical approach and serious attachment to the anti-hero made Snake Eyes a perfect outing for the legendary director. Throw in Nicolas Cage—perhaps the most gifted actor of his generation—who is also perfectly suited to the conspiracy-driven noir, and you have a brilliant thing. A watch of Cage’s work in the brilliant noir, Red Rock West, established his credentials in the genre, as did his role in the beautiful and pitch-black Martin Scorsese picture, Bringing Out the Dead. Nicolas Cage is an actor who is often disrespected. In 2018, people are more fixated on his bombastic personality rather than giving him due credit for unarguably some of the finest performances of the last 30 years. Even in bad movies, Cage is always entertaining. When he is in a good movie he is as powerful as De Niro in his prime, and in my opinion superior to that admittedly brilliant actor because unlike De Niro, Cage is never boring. His heart is always in it.

Snake Eyes wasn’t received particularly well upon release, and even after nearly 20 years, it is still overlooked by viewers far too often. This is a great shame, as it is one of my favourite noirs of the 1990s, and holds up to repeated viewings. It runs at a tight 98 minutes and has no superfluous scenes. Recalling De Palma’s other conspiracy-based movies like the exquisite Body Double, the paranoid but compelling Blow Out, and of course the first Mission: Impossible movie, Snake Eyes tells a story where everyone has something to hide. Noir is not a genre that is as easily categorized as other more durable genre definitions, so much so that some people question whether it really is a genre at all. I believe that it is, but it is true that it is sometimes difficult to pin down exactly what makes a work of art noir.

I would say that Snake Eyes should be considered noir for the following reasons:

1) The character Rick Santoro is corrupt, out for himself, and a reluctant hero.

2) The fated destruction of Santoro, and how his doing the right thing for the first time in his life lead to that downfall, make Snake Eyes noir through and through.

3) The set-up, the con, and the conspiracy are all well-known tropes of noir.

4) The setting, the storm-ravaged city, and the sinners and gamblers who populate the story is all very noir.

Snake Eyes is quite similar to the classic film noir, Key Largo, with much of its setting, tone and insight reflecting that great John Huston picture. Both take place during a storm, where nature is hostile towards the characters, both feature heroes who don’t want to be heroes, and both are about the struggle to do good, even if you are scared of what will happen if you try. I am surprised that more hasn’t been written of the similarities between these two excellent movies. Noir is often about the struggle to play life straight when the temptations found in corruption and self-interested cowardice lead you to take the easy way out. I am a huge fan of Humphrey Bogart—he is probably my favourite actor of all-time—so I don’t say lightly that Nicolas Cage is just as suited to noir.

That look from Nicolas Cage as he says, “You got Snake Eyes!” His face battered, bruised and swollen. No-one believed that he would do the right thing. In fact, they counted that he wouldn’t. For most actors, the electrifying, complex and incredibly entertaining performance of Cage in Snake Eyes would be career-defining. It is a testament to Cage’s amazing versatility and the depth and brilliance of his filmography that Snake Eyes is considered a minor role. Nicolas Cage reminds me of Jack Nicholson in the manic and innovative way he approaches jobs, and how he blends comedy with terror and intensity that is off the charts. While Nicolas Cage saw himself more as a contender for Superman, he would make an incredible Joker. Cage is also just as good at small subtle roles, and you can see how deftly he switches from 100 miles an hour to moments that are gentle and moving in Snake Eyes. The conflict apparent in his character when he is offered more money than he has ever had before, to simply be himself and take the cash and shut his mouth. There is so much going on behind the eyes, that few actors can compare with.

I love Snake Eyes because of its style and bombast, yes, but most of all I love it because of how it examines a bad man trying to do good for perhaps the first time in his life. This is what noir is so good at—taking seemingly irredeemable people and giving them one last shot at doing the right thing. As in many noirs, there isn’t a particularly happy ending. The day of reckoning comes for all. For a genre that typically deals in grey areas of morality and action, noir is not morally relative. Noir is the home of justice dealt from on high. To achieve that justice, it is necessary for bad men to do good. Few characters in noir are without sin or guilt. There is a lot in Snake Eyes that led Nicolas Cage to his performance in Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant—another brilliant, savage noir, where the depths and darkness of the soul are explored with stunning precision and brutality. Snake Eyes isn’t quite in the same league as that film in terms of bleakness and darkness of the story, but it is an interesting companion piece, and in its own right just as vital and creative a thing.

If you haven’t seen Snake Eyes, please consider doing so. It is a wildly entertaining picture, which should rightly be considered one of the great modern noirs. It is interesting to note that Brian De Palma would go on to direct the adaptation of James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia, a similarly underrated noir—maybe we’ll talk about that someday soon! De Palma just has the touch for noir, for the secrets behind closed doors, and the shadows that threaten to consume us all. Snake Eyes may go down in history as a minor hit—if a hit at all—but to those in the know it is a thoroughly entertaining, emotionally complex and riveting noir about the last gasp salvation of a bad man.

Written by Paul Casey

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