A Suspenseful Look at De Palma’s Eclectic Career

[written by Harrison Thorne]

Brian De Palma is a strange director. He’s directed a lot of thrillers, a few comedies and some more fantastical films. He’s been criticized for being a misogynist, a Hitchcock copy and a hack and calling him these things might not be wrong.

The first feature film he had any involvement in, The Wedding Party, is a pretty bad comedy which is almost worth completely forgetting besides the fact it is Robert De Niro’s first film, William Finley‘s first film and De Palma’s first film as director, although he was one of three directing. It came out six years after filming and isn’t well remembered in his canon of films.

De Palma has made a few comedies, his first somewhat successful film being Greetings which got good reviews and is a genuinely, funny and interesting film, then he made a follow up focusing on De Niro’s character from the first called Hi Mom! It’s De Palma’s best comedy.

It’s incredibly funny, insightful and critiques the period of the time very well, blending fiction and nonfiction very effectively. It’s a film that is satirizing the time it came out almost half a century ago but still feels fresh and engaging. A remarkable achievement for one of the first films from any filmmaker.

His first studio film was Get To Know Your Rabbit, a baffling film about a businessman who leaves his job to become a magician. It’s not good. It’s confusing and it’s got Orson Welles in a brief but memorable role. Nobody remembers it for ample reason, but it does have the first use of a split screen in his fiction work.

In 1979 De Palma made a comedy called Home Movies which was semi-autobiographical, made mostly by film students and turned out to be absolutely terrible. He made Wise Guys, a cute little gangster comedy starring Danny DeVito that is completely inoffensive, after one of the biggest pushbacks to his previous film.Then De Palma went on to make Bonfire Of The Vanities. I haven’t read the book so I don’t have many of the same criticisms people who read the book have about the film but I can tell you the film was a mostly joyless experience.

In between these films De Palma was making much much better films.

He made Murder A La Mod in 1968, the first film you could call something distinctly De Palma. It features beautiful women being followed, a mysterious killer on the loose and voyeurism. These three tropes can be found in some form in every one of De Palma’s thrillers.

Sisters followed in ‘72. Although not his first film to feature the now synonymous split screen (that was Get to Know Your Rabbit and if you want to include non-narrative features it was Dionysus in ‘69),it was the first one to use it effectively, as a murder scene is being traveled to on one side of the screen and covered up on the other side of the screen with a line down the middle breaking up the action. This is also the first of his films to show his love of Hitchcock as some scenes in it are almost recreations of scenes from Rear Window. The film did well and now he had some good money-making films under his belt so he made the strangest and most bizarre film in his entire career Phantom Of The Paradise.

Phantom Of The Paradise is a rock opera, revenge, concert film, comedy, thriller that’s also kind of a retelling of Faust which is also a critique of the music industry and the creation of art. It’s a lot of things but one thing it is not is dull. This film is bright, wonderful, and captivating as you immediately get caught up in the characters with little to no effort as De Palma tells this strange story.

In 1976, the world got double De Palma, first with one of my favorites Obsession, a wonderful twisty turny film that feels like an inverse of Don’t Look Now and a pretty blatant rip off of Vertigo but De Palma still tells the story in his own way that only he can, pushing the story in many strange directions including incest and fake out murders being treated in the trashiest way. 

His most fondly remembered film, Carrie, also came out at this time. It’s the only De Palma film everyone seems to like and deservedly so. It tells a simple story in a very entertaining and engaging way that features one of the best suspense sequences ever put to film, featuring a fake out ending De Palma would go on to use in an almost identical manner in two other films. Both of these movies did well in every way and this was arguably when De Palma was at his most well-liked as his worst films were forgotten about and his best were all recent and did well (besides Phantom which you should watch right now) so, he made his schlockiest next with The Fury.

The Fury, featuring John Cassavetes and Kirk Douglas in a thriller mixing terrorism and X-Men-esque psychic school children into a story about Douglas trying to get back his kidnapped son. It’s De Palma’s schlockiest film but unfortunately one of his least memorable.

Dressed To Kill came out in 1980 and it’s definitely a film of its time. You could argue it’s his most misogynist film and his most problematic film and yes you would be right. I would recommend reading Hollywood’s Cringey Transgender Evolution by Keith Phipps for more on that, but the film is pure De Palma acting almost a remake of Psycho it pulls the viewer through a series of great suspense building scenes which he has rarely topped.

Blow Out is my favorite Brian De Palma film. A masterpiece and quite possibly the best American film of the 1980s. It is consistently tense, exciting and surprising and features John Travolta’s best performance and one of the best endings ever.

Scarface came next. A pastel coloured, morally dubious, gangster epic that was the first of De Palma’s gangster films. They are not his best films – his thrillers are – but this stands out amongst them. De Palma made a real effort to differentiate from other gangster films of the time like The Godfather and Once Upon A Time In America. Moving the crime from smokey dark rooms of the 1940s to coke fueled nightclubs of the 1980s. It’s De Palma adding his own flair to a genre which he initially may not seem best suited to, cranking up the violence, sex, and montages.

Body Double was De Palma’s last classic thriller and is also the most “De Palma” film he ever made. It’s not only Rear Window, it’s also Vertigo and it’s Psycho. Body Double is all about voyeurism as it features many scenes which are just the pervy protagonist spying on his neighbour doing a strip scene to slow erotic music and the scene goes on and on but it’s great and hilarious. This film has a lot of tailing of women, an ending which doesn’t necessarily make that much sense, and it’s a movie about movies. If you want a movie that is pure De Palma, there is not a better film. Plus this is the only De Palma film besides Phantom Of The Paradise to feature a musical scene.

I think The Untouchables is the first De Palma I watched as my dad really enjoys the film and even has some news clippings in his DVD box about it. It’s this bizarre mix of the gangster film tropes of the 70’s mixed in with an 80’s approach to black and white heroism, wrapped in a film that is technically well made and riveting from its Oscar winning performance by Sean Connery to its instantly iconic score from Ennio Morricone

Casualties Of War is a return to the Vietnam war which was avoided by the main characters in Greetings, as De Palma shows some of his anti-establishment and war views in a more palatable way. Releasing at a more topical time to dislike the Vietnam War, it didn’t do well financially despite starring Michael J. Fox. It is a rough film; the topic matter is vile, and the film doesn’t hold back from the vileness of it. De Palma went on to remake this film 20 years later in Iraq.

After Bonfire bombed, De Palma made another thriller, Raising Cain. It’s a refreshing film that is definitely De Palma, with many slow-mo murder scenes, lots of long takes and similarities to a few Hitchcock films. It’s a perfectly good thriller that feels too safe and too clean. It needs more sleaze, more nudity, and more violence to really be De Palma.

If you let Tony Montana live at the end of Scarface, move him up the coast to New York and somehow, only gave him a prison sentence of ten years, you get Carlito’s Way. A toned down post gangster boom film that acts as a swan song to De Palma’s gangster films and the gangster genre, with the ending acting as an ending to every film gangster, shooting down their chance of redemption as they are killed by a younger mirror image of themselves, ushering in the new era of crime films that followed Carlito’s Way.

Mission Impossible is a fun, tense, confusing film that is hard to follow but entertaining as hell. Watching this next to the more recent McQuarrie-helmed impossible missions brings into sharp focus just how controlled and laser focused De Palma is as a director who succeeds when he manages to reel in all the elements of a thriller scene to the perfect point which he does at several points in this film.

Nicolas Cage and De Palma. Snake Eyes. A great political thriller and I wish they did more films together. It’s Blow Out, but worse, but it’s got Nic Cage. It’s fairly basic in terms of theming and ideas but Cage delivers a great performance (as always) and the story unfolds in such an interesting way as new elements are constantly introduced to events that have already happened, it’s hard to not get gripped into it, even if it is quite ridiculous. 

De Palma went on to join the production of Mission To Mars not too long before shooting was meant to start. De Palma wanted to make a sci-fi film since he is a self-confessed science nerd and, at times, you can sense De Palmas enthusiasm for the subject matter as the film is bizarrely optimistic and uplifting. But De Palma did not like making it and went on to leave Hollywood after this, travelling to Paris to make his last good film (at the time of writing) Femme Fatale.

It has a great opening sequence that you can tell De Palma put the most effort into, a confusing plot, lots of women not wearing a lot, and a strange ending that has to be seen to be believed. It’s a terrible ending in many ways but because it’s so brazened, it’s hard not to admire De Palma for doing it.

I kind of liked The Black Dahlia, did I understand what was happening…no, was it dumb…yes, is Josh Hartnett underused in this film… sadly yes. It’s boring, confusing and strange but you can really tell De Palma enjoys the noir genre and the book he is adapting and even the author liked the film but it was another failure for De Palma; working with a 50 million dollar budget, the film barely made that back. So, De Palma did what De Palma does best and does something completely different after a failure.

He pretty much remakes Casualties Of War with Redacted. It is still about American soldiers raping a native young woman, this time in Iraq. The film doesn’t work but it’s the last time he made anything with substance.

Out of the 28 films he has directed (excluding Dionysus and The Wedding Party), Passion is possibly his worst. I was so angry, confused and saddened after watching this. It’s the worst script he has ever written, that has been made into a film. I don’t want to talk about it. It’s astonishingly bad and I watched all of his films before watching this. I don’t know what I am missing out on, but this film was just completely perplexing.

Domino is his latest film and it’s not the worst thing ever. It is quite dull but some of the set pieces, particularly the rooftop chase at the beginning and the ending assassination at a bullfight, got me excited like few other set pieces this year as they were directed with masterful precision and a sense of fun. But I can’t blame De Palma for a lot of the films shortcomings as at 90 minutes it is very clearly missing pieces and he did not have full control over the edit of the film and says it was the worst experience of his career. Hopefully one day we might get De Palma’s cut of the film (#releasethedepalmacut).

He is not a young man anymore, he is 79 (at the time of writing) but IMDb still has 2 films lined up for him and he has a book coming out this year. I hope he gets to keep on making movies and I do believe he still has one great film left in him. I just hope he just gets the chance to see it through.

If you’ve read all of this, first of all watch the documentary De Palma if you haven’t already. It’s this little thing but better and directly from De Palma and go watch some Brian De Palma movies, make up your own minds about them and him. He is one of the most underrated directors and deserves more recognition for the strange films he has made even if he is just a misogynistic Hitchcock copy hack director.

Essays

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