Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: a guide to watching Brian De Palma's movies about watching.
101: The Thrillers
Before Brian De Palma dedicated himself to making movies, he was a teenage science whiz, which may explain how he became such a peerless technician. Like his fellow “film school brats” Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, De Palma is a filmmaker who thinks cinematically, using visual quotes from other movies and the grammar of cinema itself as his way of expressing something more personal than just what’s in the script. Frequently derided as an Alfred Hitchcock imitator, De Palma actually uses the trappings of Hitchcockian suspense as a cage in which to hold his pet themes: the thrill of voyeurism, the fear of helplessness, and a motion picture’s paradoxical power to explicate the real world through blatant artificiality. At his best, De Palma constructs movies that have the surface of crowd-pleasing entertainment but the guts of high art, filled with bravura sequences that don’t so much pay off as let go.
De Palma first impressed critics with his documentary shorts and shaggy underground comedies, then made his first unmitigated foray into the genre that would define him with 1973’s Sisters, a wacko Psycho/Rear Window homage starring Margot Kidder in a dual role as a Quebecois model and her detached Siamese twin sister. Kidder murders a man while neighbor Jennifer Salt watches from the building across the street, which leads Salt—a crusading journalist with a radical streak—to hire private detective Charles Durning to help her investigate both the crime and Kidder’s association with creepy doctor William Finley. A tense Bernard Herrmann score and scenes of graphic violence make Sisters pretty harrowing, but the movie displays the puckish wit that would also become a De Palma hallmark. For example, the opening scene of a man spying on a disrobing woman turns out to be part of a game show; and later, a shot of a cake being decorated with pink frosting looks more disgustingly suggestive than any of Sisters’ sex scenes or stabbings. And throughout, De Palma makes ingenious use of split-screens, revealing information expediently, with minimal expository dialogue. The result is a genuinely scary movie with a sense of playfulness, rendered with astonishing skill.
De Palma re-teamed with Herrmann (along with screenwriter Paul Schrader and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond) for the even more Hitchcock-y Obsession. The rewrite/analysis of Vertigo stars Cliff Robertson as a New Orleans businessman who sees his wife Geneviève Bujold kidnapped and murdered, then decades later falls for a woman who looks just like her, whom he tries to remake in her image. Obsession has a hazy look and a ridiculous plot, and plays more like a fever-dream version of Hitchcock than a straight-ahead thriller—which may explain why Columbia Pictures kept the film on the shelf for a year before dumping it into theaters in the late summer of 1976, where it became a surprise hit. Obsession also marks the beginning of De Palma’s long association with John Lithgow, who here plays Robertson’s partner with an unctuousness that becomes more purposeful as the movie plays on. This is also the first De Palma movie to show off his skill at extended, dialogue-free setpieces. (He’d done shorter ones before, but in Obsession he really goes for the gusto.) Those big action/suspense sequences come off as over-the-top, but for a reason: The heightened melodrama is an expression of Robertson’s worldview, wordlessly articulating how in some ways this hero’s more comfortable memorializing women than living with them.
Gender relations are also at the heart of 1980’s decidedly nasty Dressed To Kill, another overt Hitchcock riff—Psycho again—that at the time struck some critics as a sign of creative bankruptcy. (The ad campaign cast De Palma as “the master of the macabre,” which didn’t help allay the perception that he was cashing in on another director’s work and reputation.) Audiences flocked to Dressed To Kill, though, making it one of De Palma’s biggest hits, and the years have been kind to the movie’s layered exploration of the area where sexual fantasy and violent compulsion intersect. Angie Dickinson plays a horny socialite, Keith Gordon plays her geeky teenage son, Michael Caine plays her therapist, and Nancy Allen plays a prostitute. It’s impossible to talk about the plot of Dressed To Kill or the relationships of the characters without spoiling the movie, but suffice to say that it’s full of surprises—some sick, some silly—and that De Palma goes further than he ever had before in playing games with the audience. Case in point: a seduction scene at a museum that turns flirtation into sublime suspense, using music and background images to comment on the action and heighten the anxiety, leading us to anticipate something more dreadful than just two people sniffing each other out for a quickie. The film has a dense visual structure too, using mirrors and windows to emphasize the way people look at themselves and each other, and using split-screens to underscore fragmented personalities. In short: This is a far more complicated film—thematically and stylistically—then many gave it credit for being back in 1980.
De Palma went deeper and more self-referential with his next project. Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 classic Blowup is about a photographer who believes he’s captured a murder while shooting in the park, while Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film The Conversation applies Antonioni’s ideas to sound, following a paranoid surveillance expert who believes he hears evidence of a plot against the couple on whom he’s spying. Brian De Palma’s 1981 magnum opus, Blow Out, completes the equation: Photography plus sound equals cinema. Part political thriller, part satire, part reflection on the movies—in all their power to reveal, obscure, and turn us into helpless voyeurs—Blow Out stars John Travolta as a B-movie sound-man who inadvertently records the sound of an “accident” involving a politician. When he gets his hands on filmed footage of the event, sound and image come together to reveal a conspiracy that threatens to overwhelm him. With conspicuous nods to Watergate and Chappaquiddick, placed against the grand backdrop of Philadelphia’s Bicentennial celebration, De Palma’s political allusions are plain. But Blow Out resonates strongest as a witty and mind-blowing examination of how films are constructed and how the truth gets lost in the process.
Frequently throughout De Palma’s career, he’s followed up a big hit with something quirkier and less profitable. Dressed To Kill gave De Palma the license to make the even-trickier Blow Out, and then the success of 1983’s modern gangster epic Scarface allowed De Palma to return to Hitchcockville with 1984’s Body Double, a movie that bombed at the box office and with the critics, though in retrospect is far more entertaining and rich than its reputation. (Just don’t think too hard about the plot.) Craig Wasson plays an anxiety-ridden actor who agrees to housesit for a rich acquaintance and becomes embroiled in a murder-mystery involving a woman (played by Melanie Griffith) whom he watches dance naked through the window. Body Double nods to Rear Window of course, but also to film noir, where “innocent” men discover that they’re as stained with sin as anyone. Wasson in particular is tempted by the smoldering sexuality of Griffith, a dim porn star and De Palma’s snotty deconstruction of noir’s “femme fatale” archetype. Wasson also provides the eyes for De Palma’s “voyeur’s paradise” tour of Los Angeles, which swerves from Tail Of The Pup hot-dog stands to Beverly Hills shopping malls (complete with glass elevators, perfect for spying), from B-movie sets to adult bookstores, and from beachfront motels to architect John Lautner’s remarkable house-on-a-stick, the “Chemosphere.” That house has such a great view of the Valley—and, for those with the right equipment, an even better view of Melanie Griffith masturbating. On one level, Body Double reinforces the “sex equals death” paranoia of the ’80s, but on a higher level, it sends a message to those who can’t see past their own humdrum lives: Get a telescope.
The designation “for fans only” applies to Body Double and a handful of other De Palma projects, but none more so than the 1992 film Raising Cain, a wonky riff on Hitchcock’s Psycho (again) that seems designed more to entertain film theorists than audiences. (Even the title can be read as an obscure film buff reference to Pauline Kael’s book on the making of Citizen Kane.) But entertain the movie does, so long as you’re attuned to its hysterical wavelength. John Lithgow plays five different roles, but only three that matter: An ineffectual child psychologist who’s trying to convince mothers to allow their kids to be submitted for experiments (or, barring that, simply snatching them); a chain-smoking, sunglasses-wearing evil “twin” who does the dirty work for him; and the heavily accented Swedish father who’s behind the scheme. A hero/villain with multiple personalities isn’t the only nod to Psycho: There’s also a killer in drag and a hilarious, single-shot exposition scene that’s like a Steadicam version of the famously talky coda of Hitchcock’s film. And it all leads to a dazzling climactic setpiece at a motel that coordinates action on three different tiers at once. Best to see it after a dozen or two De Palmas, when he seems more like a friend than a cinematic sadist.
De Palma endured another of his periodic commercial slumps in the first half of the ’90s, then played the work-for-hire game again with Mission: Impossible, the biggest hit of his career. The director immediately re-teamed with his M:I and Carlito’s Way screenwriter David Koepp for Snake Eyes, a big-budget spin on his own thriller style, with Nicolas Cage playing a flashy, crooked Atlantic City cop who gets embroiled in a political conspiracy on the night that his town is hosting a heavyweight championship fight and battening down for an approaching tropical storm. Snake Eyes is a crazily kinetic movie, befitting a city where life is scored to the jingle of slot machines and the punch-and-roar of a boxing match. The Rashomon-like plot—involving an assassination that different witnesses experience in different ways—is ultimately as implausible as Body Double’s and Raising Cain’s, but then plausibility has never been one of De Palma’s core goals. He’s all about energy and style, and Snake Eyes has both in spades. The complicated tracking shots, the nifty use of surveillance footage as a narrative device, the overhead shots of hotel rooms… they all make the mundane seem exotic, and make the world of the movies look way more fun than the real world. (Though “fun” is a relative term for a story full of stone-cold bastards who can’t win even when they try to live right.)
Snake Eyes whiffed at the domestic box office, as did De Palma’s next film, Mission To Mars, which chilled the always hot-and-cold relationship between De Palma and Hollywood. But both those films did well overseas—especially Mission To Mars, which was hailed in France—so De Palma took his business to French producers for 2002’s Femme Fatale, a thriller that honored its financiers with a bravura opening heist sequence at the Cannes Film Festival and a fragrant air of cosmopolitan trash. As if the movie-movie title weren’t enough, Femme Fatale introduces Rebecca Romijn watching Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, as if she were an athlete studying game tape. From there, Romijn uses her body and her wiles to seduce and double-cross the men responsible for planning the heist. Things get much stickier when she changes identities and flees to the States, only to be discovered by a freelance photographer (Antonio Banderas) who endangers her life. Much of the fun in Femme Fatale comes from Romijn duping the easily dupable Banderas, and the playful ways De Palma fiddles with Hitchcockian doppelgangers and voyeurs, orchestrating suspense elements like the maestro he is. Yes, we’re deep into homage country—Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score could charitably be described as a loving appropriation of Ravel’s “Bolero”—but De Palma seems more liberated here than he had been in years. Vive le France!
Intermediate: The Genre Exercises
Though known primarily for his thrillers, De Palma has dabbled in a variety of genres throughout his career, including war movies, gangster pictures, sci-fi, comedies and musicals. Adapted from Stephen King’s bestseller about a misfit teenager with telekinetic powers, 1976’s Carrie is a coming-of-age film that manifests itself as a pulpy shocker, channeling the stresses and indignities of growing up into white-knuckle horror. As the eponymous character—the repressed offspring of a Bible-thumping monster played by Piper Laurie—Sissy Spacek lives out the ultimate adolescent nightmare. She’s a late bloomer, confused and alarmed by changes in her body, and she finds no comfort in school, where she’s shunned and alienated by her peers, or at home, where her mother treats the onset of puberty like a visitation from Satan. De Palma and Spacek align our sympathies with Carrie from the start, when she’s initiated into womanhood in the cruelest way imaginable, and they hold us close even when her anguish turns to bloody rage. De Palma brings the full force of his style—split-screens, agonizingly suspenseful slow motion, a perfumed sensuality—to bear on a story that’s more about an inflicted psyche than a psyche that inflicts.
Bolstered by the success of the supernaturally inclined Carrie, De Palma collaborated with novelist John Farris on a deeply strange adaptation of Farris’ novel The Fury, about a shadowy government agency that’s trying to weaponize psychics. Kirk Douglas plays an ex-soldier who’s ambushed on the beach by operatives deployed by his “friend” John Cassavetes. Left for dead, Douglas goes underground to search for his psychic teenage son in Chicago, where he encounters another young psychic played by Amy Irving. Part cloak-and-dagger movie, part horror gore-fest, part high school melodrama, and part backdoor X-Men movie, The Fury is above all another golden opportunity for De Palma to play. Working with his biggest budget to that point, De Palma stages commando raids, chase sequences in bustling downtown locations, and an eye-popping disaster in an indoor amusement park, all allowing multiple showcases for his super-slow-mo skills. The plot’s too fitful, but a stirring John Williams score ties a lot of the pieces together, and De Palma and Farris’ emphasis on children’s misplaced trust in authority figures helps The Fury resonate even when the story peters out.
It took the guts of a gambler for De Palma and screenwriter Oliver Stone to remake Howard Hawks’ 1932 classic Scarface, the gold standard of stylish gangster movies and the source of much of their iconography. But De Palma’s spectacularly garish 1983 epic raises the stakes even higher. Even if you love the remake, its closing dedication to Hawks and screenwriter Ben Hecht’s original is bound to elicit a guffaw, given how thoroughly De Palma debases its source material. Though critics largely dismissed Scarface at the time as gratuitously violent trash, the movie has enjoyed a long second life as a touchstone of hip-hop culture. While the rise and fall of nouveau riche Cuban drug lord Tony Montana (Al Pacino) could be considered a monument to gangsta excess—the trappings of Montana’s cocaine palace would make the titans of Wall Street blush—the film (and hip-hop’s relationship to it) is more complicated than it appears on the surface. Pacino’s larger-than-life antihero makes his name as a pugnacious entrepreneur who abides by street codes of honor and loyalty, even as he breaks every law in the book. He loses his way the moment he stops adhering to those codes. There are lessons to be drawn from this brazen, vulgar, gleefully excessive moral fable, which De Palma renders in stark opposition to the stately, burnished classism of The Godfather.
After Scarface, De Palma suffered back-to-back flops with Body Double and Wise Guys, then took on a purely commercial assignment: a David Mamet-penned big-screen adaptation of G-man Eliot Ness’ memoir The Untouchables. Costner plays Ness as a righteous hero who needs to be taught how to be rough, with the help of a grizzled old Chicago cop played by Sean Connery (who won an Oscar for the role), while De Palma’s old pal Robert De Niro chews the scenery (and looks oddly like James Gandolfini) as mob boss Al Capone. The Untouchables was as straightforward a movie as De Palma had ever delivered, and was, justifiably, an enormous hit. But it’s not completely impersonal. De Palma may have kept his hands off Mamet’s script, but he provides plenty of his own visual snap, including a magnificently staged showdown around a railroad bridge on the Canadian border, and a train station shootout that quotes Sergei Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps sequence from The Battleship Potemkin.
In typical De Palma fashion, he used the Hollywood clout that The Untouchables brought to push through a project he’d wanted to make for years: Casualties Of War, a Vietnam drama based on a true story. Michael J. Fox plays an idealistic private who protests his sergeant Sean Penn’s plan to kidnap a local girl for some recreational rape. Given the seriousness of the subject matter, it’s surprising—and, frankly, ballsy—that De Palma makes Casualties Of War a full-on De Palma movie, with stylishly suspenseful action scenes, heightened performances, and plenty of moments where Fox takes on the role of a typically impotent De Palma voyeur. Fox gets overly whiny at times, and the movie is too blunt about the moral vagaries of combat zones, but regardless, De Palma says most of what he means to say in fluid compositions that hold in a single frame everything the audience needs to see—even if we don’t want to. The movie bombed at the box office largely because of post-Platoon Vietnam fatigue, but today it stands as a pulp classic, with echoes of The Untouchables in a big action sequence shot near a bridge, and echoes of Blow Out in an opening combat scene that climaxes with Fox lodged in a Viet Cong tunnel, his legs dangling like ant-bait.
A decade after Scarface, De Palma teamed up with Al Pacino for another crime film in Carlito’s Way, and though the two films have no overlapping characters or stories—Pacino transfers his suspect accent from a Cuban gangster to a Puerto Rican ex-con—it nonetheless feels like the de facto sequel. Had Tony Montana simply been arrested rather than going out in a blaze of glory, he might have become someone like Carlito Brigante, a crook who gets sprung from jail five years into a 30-year sentence due to a technicality. He owes his cokehead lawyer (a never-better Sean Penn) for those precious years, but the trouble for Carlito is that the payment is due, not only with his lawyer, but with his girlfriend (Penelope Ann Miller) and every two-bit gangster who wants a piece of him. While sacrificing none of his bravura style—an early shootout at a bar, where Carlito’s instincts are tested, is particularly masterful—De Palma adopts a more muted tone that synchs with his hero’s increasingly strained efforts to ease into his twilight years. So many “mature” crime films are ossified and dull, but Carlito’s Way gains supreme tension from an old hand whose narrowing set of choices squeeze him like a hangman’s noose. This was the film that The Godfather, Part III should have been.
Many of the charges leveled against De Palma’s 1996 hit Mission: Impossible are true: It feels like the work of a director-for-hire, with all of the style but little of the idiosyncrasy of his more personal and distinctive films. And yes, its conspiracy plot is needlessly convoluted and nearly incomprehensible, even by the standards of the television show on which it’s based. But Mission: Impossible delivers when it matters, particularly in its jewel of a centerpiece: An audacious break-in at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Given the absurdity of such a mission—a mission impossible, if you will—De Palma has to execute a plan complex enough to seem plausible, and do it in a way that’s clear and suspenseful. Using the blueprint from the great burglary sequence in Jules Dassin’s Rififi, De Palma patiently lays out and coordinates everyone’s roles in the heist, with the understanding that seemingly mundane details can pay off down the line. When they do, De Palma leaves us hanging breathlessly by a thin thread—a loose bolt or a drop of sweat away from catastrophe—and justifies a film that’s more craft than art.
De Palma has never shied away from treating any genre with a strong dose of his sensibility: all heightened emotions, florid style, and tongue-in-cheek humor. As a result, he’s always evoked hostile reactions from those who don’t care for his take on mainstream moviemaking, although the reaction was unusually vicious to Mission To Mars, a mash-up of high-minded 2001: A Space Odyssey-style sci-fi and countless Rocketship X-M-esque ’50s B-movies. Yes, Mission To Mars is goofy at times, with its squeaky-clean story of a yeoman crew of astronauts racing through space to rescue stranded colleagues and investigate possible extraterrestrial contact. But it’s no goofier than De Palma’s over-the-top thrillers, and is every bit as bravura—in some ways more bravura, since the weightlessness of outer space allows De Palma to move the camera on x, y, and z axes. It’s simple, really: Either you roll your eyes at the scene where the heroes are aided in their desperate search for a leak in their ship’s hull by a handy squeeze-pouch of Dr. Pepper, or you smile at the sublime silliness of it, and appreciate how De Palma pivots from that moment to a scene steeped in real tragedy, as a daring rescue effort leads to a husband and wife having to say goodbye to each other forever. It makes sense that people who don’t know De Palma might not enjoy the abrupt tonal shifts and overt artificiality, but veteran critics should’ve known better. Mission To Mars is one the director’s most entertaining and emotionally powerful films: a salute to modern mythology that understands how rockets can fizzle and crash, and how awesome they can look before they do.
Advanced: The Experiments
From the first scene of his first solo feature film, 1968’s Murder A La Mod, De Palma served notice of what kind of artist he intended to be. Beginning with distorted, worm’s-eye-view footage of a woman leaping at the camera in a variety of snazzy outfits, Murder A La Mod takes a turn when the man behind the camera asks the model to disrobe, and then slits her throat. A rambling muddle set in the art, fashion, and smut scenes of late-’60s New York, Murder A La Mod alternates among an absurdly square perils-of-pornography cautionary tale, prolonged Warhol-esque first-person cine-portraits, and post-modern film-within-a-film head games. De Palma has more ideas here than he knows how to convey, but he already understands one basic principle: Tease the viewer with the possibility that the person in front of the camera will either get naked or get killed, and audiences will sit still for all manner of directorial self-indulgence.
De Palma began to command the attention of critics—including his earliest rave notices from lifelong supporter Pauline Kael—with a pair of radicalized comedies starring Robert De Niro: 1968’s Greetings and 1970’s Hi, Mom! In both films, De Niro plays Jon Rubin, a young counterculture type navigating the violence and rot of New York City in the era of Vietnam and thick racial tension. Greetings uses a variety of seamy-looking NYC locations as the backdrop for De Niro and his two pals to improvise ways to dodge the draft, make some bread, and score with chicks, all while laying down a line of vulgar patter like something out of an underground comic book or a Lenny Bruce routine. Hi, Mom! is much rawer and more episodic, following De Niro as he tries to launch his career as a pornographer by shooting candid footage of the people in the apartment complex across the street. (Any resemblance to Rear Window is purely intentional.) The big centerpiece of Hi, Mom! is a scene set at a guerrilla theater performance where black actors assault and rob their white audiences. The scene has little to do with the actual “plot” of the film, but everything to do with where De Palma’s head is at. In both Greetings and Hi, Mom!, De Palma explores the way people constantly perform for each other, and how fakery helps them express what they’re really feeling. He also begins his experiments with staging action simultaneously in the foreground and background, and toys with the idea of how images can be manipulated in scenes where characters examine pictures that have been blown up until they become abstract. (Also worth noting: both Greetings and Hi, Mom! were co-written with Charles Hirsch and edited by his brother Paul, who’d go on to be one of De Palma’s go-to editors for decades to come.)
Having proved that he was ridiculously talented, De Palma was hired by Warner Brothers to helm the very odd Tommy Smothers vehicle Get To Know Your Rabbit, a satire of the corporate rat race that has Smothers playing a young go-getter who follows a whim and pursues a career in magic (under the tutelage of an old master played by Orson Welles), only to find that traveling off the beaten path brings him greater success than he could’ve expected. Screenwriter Jordan Crittenden’s humor is self-consciously absurdist—and nowhere near as funny as De Palma’s previous comedies—and because the studio lost faith in the project early and cut the funding, the movie feels unfinished. But De Palma’s astonishing visual imagination is evident throughout, as in a scene where Smothers fights with his girlfriend while identically dressed couples in the apartments outside their window go through similar motions. De Palma also continues his interest in sexual frankness, particularly in a legitimately funny scene where Allen Garfield shows Smothers his line of bras by trying them on a live model while ranting about the importance of “L&S” (lifting and separating) and “DPC” (deep plunge cups).
De Palma fared much better with his next comedy: the satirical 1974 horror musical Phantom Of The Paradise. William Finley—a gawky-looking actor-musician who’d been a staple of De Palma’s projects since his film-student days—got the biggest role of his short career as a super-sensitive singer-songwriter who’s exploited by a rock impresario played by Paul Williams. (Williams also wrote the movie’s eclectic, catchy soundtrack). An enraged Finley has an accident that turns him into a monster, and then he proceeds to haunt Williams’ new theater, working behind the scenes to make sure that his magnum opus—a rock opera version of Faust—gets performed properly. Ripping (hilariously) on rock ’n’ roll excess while considering (poignantly) how hard it is to maintain creative control in show business, Phantom Of The Paradise is unlike any other film in the De Palma catalogue, though it contains all his usual stylistic touches: split-screens, shots with action happing in the foreground and background simultaneously, and characters so unaware of how ridiculous they look that they earn the audience’s sympathy… or at least our pity.
In 1979, De Palma returned to his alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College, to teach a class on independent filmmaking, and employed his students as a crew on the “class project” Home Movies, a return to the loosey-goosey comedies he’d made a decade earlier. The film’s origins need to be kept in mind—this is one ragged movie, and clearly not intended as anything more than coursework—but in some significant ways, Home Movies is De Palma’s most personal film. If nothing else, it offers two distinctly De Palma-like figures: one a life-lesson-spouting film professor known as “The Maestro” (played by Kirk Douglas) and the other a voyeuristic film student (played by Keith Gordon) who dedicates his free time to trying to document his father’s infidelities, something that the young De Palma allegedly did with his own father. The “Where does life end and art begin?” philosophizing isn’t all that profound, but De Palma and his charges do frame the discussion well, using camera moves and blocking to express the idea of a kid trying to learn to be “the star of his own life.”
When the history of films about the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is written, De Palma’s 2007 multimedia experiment Redacted won’t likely be remembered as one of the greatest, though it may be the angriest. In the lead-up to the film’s première, De Palma blasted the mainstream media both for denying people images of the real horrors of war and for being complicit with the government in covering up stories of U.S. atrocities. In his effort to reconfigure Casualties Of War into a raw, explicit, New Media-inspired provocation on the Iraq War, De Palma lets his anger get the better of him, and the result is crude and clunky when it means to hum with immediacy. Still, as with Casualties, Redacted is the rare American war film that doesn’t bother attacking the rationale behind a specific war so much as the appalling realities of how all wars are fought. A major studio would never touch a movie like it in a million years—it fell to the indie label Magnolia Pictures after others passed—but it’s a shame De Palma’s fury overwhelmed his ability to articulate it.
In 1963, while De Palma was still a grad student at Sarah Lawrence, he collaborated with his fellow students and his professor Wilford Leach on The Wedding Party, a strained comedy about rich twits hosting a wedding on Long Island. Notable primarily for a cast that includes a very young Robert De Niro and Jill Clayburgh, as well as for its dizzying array of cinematic trickery—including slow-motion, fast-motion, layered voice-overs, and a constantly roving camera—The Wedding Party effectively masks its low budget with arthouse trappings. But the clumsy slapstick and lack of any kind of a plot makes it a tough sit even for die-hard De Palma-ites. It’s primarily worth fast-forwarding through to catch De Niro and William Finley, who are very funny together in their few scenes, presaging the off-the-cuff humor of Greetings.
In fact, before he became “master of the macabre,” De Palma was known as the most promising comedy director of his generation, and though there’s humor running through even his most horrifying films, his few outright comedies in the late ’70s and ’80s don’t have anything like the nimble touch of Greetings and Hi, Mom!. Some of them are interesting even though they’re unfunny, like Home Movies and the 1986 mob comedy Wise Guys. The latter features only a few good laughs and is often oppressively kooky, but it’s still notable as a parody of the mob movies made by De Palma’s buddies Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. Well before The Sopranos, De Palma and screenwriter George Gallo (who’d later write Midnight Run) explored the world of the low-level mob grunts, here played by Danny DeVito and Joe Piscopo. Devito has the right style for Wise Guys’ mix of low-key buddy-patter and excessive apoplexy, while the constantly mugging Piscopo is way out of his depth. The movie has flashes of cleverness, and the plot—which sees the two best friends secretly ordered to whack each other, while their cohorts take bets on who will kill whom first—is engaging enough to keep Wise Guys afloat. If anything, the moments that work only make Wise Guys more frustrating. A few tweaks here and there—and maybe a less heavy-handed approach by the director—and this might’ve been a nice little sleeper.
On the other hand, there’s nothing redeeming about The Bonfire Of The Vanities, a movie so colossally, unfixably awful that it spawned a tell-all book. As outlined in Julie Salamon’s essential piece of Hollywood reportage The Devil’s Candy, it took a volatile cocktail of directorial hubris and studio interference to retch up a truth that should’ve been obvious from the start: Tom Wolfe’s bestseller is practically unfilmable. Tom Hanks and Bruce Willis are woefully miscast as, respectively, a Wall Street power-player who gets involved with a hit-and-run accident in a black neighborhood and the tabloid reporter who pursues the story; and Melanie Griffith doesn’t fare much better as the mistress who ruins Hanks’ life. What makes the novel’s analysis of New York City class politics work are Wolfe’s from-the-inside-out descriptions of stockbrokers, social activists, journalists, and civil servants, but even with Bruce Willis providing occasional pieces of sub-Wolfe narration, De Palma had an impossible task before him when it came to replicating Wolfe’s deadpan sketches of the likably unsympathetic and the sympathetically unlikeable. It didn’t help that Warner Bros. pegged Bonfire as their holiday tentpole movie and thus requested changes that compromised the integrity of the narrative. But De Palma didn’t do himself any favors either by focusing so much on the technical flourishes—like the movie’s impressively long opening tracking shot—that he lost track of the characters and the story, and had to cobble together a lot of Bonfire in post-production through ADR and voice-over narration. The result is the only De Palma failure that can’t even be tagged an “interesting failure.” It’s just junk.
One of the lessons of Bonfire Of The Vanities was De Palma should never be paired with an equally strong sensibility, especially—in Tom Wolfe’s case—if those sensibilities are not compatible. So while the teaming of De Palma and crime novelist James Ellroy for The Black Dahlia sounded like a great idea in principle—for one, the victim’s Hollywood ambitions dovetail nicely with De Palma’s favorite points of reference—the reality is an awkward two-step that doesn’t serve either man well. Casting is the biggest issue: Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, and Hilary Swank all look like kids wearing grown-up clothes, doing their best imitation of ’40s detectives and femmes fatale, but never seeming authentic in the roles. The other major problem with The Black Dahlia is the quandary of adapting Ellroy, an author whose sprawling stories of mass corruption and seedy scandal are not easily streamlined for the movies. (L.A. Confidential succeeded in part by taking a buzzsaw to Ellroy’s book.) The film has a few scattered moments of wit and suspense, and some of the period richness that illuminated The Untouchables, but De Palma spends so much time trying to get Ellroy’s dense plotting across that it’s impoverished in the ways that count. It’s by no means the worst movie of his career, just the most disappointing.
De Palma’s filmography contains the usual assortment of hard-to-see student work, along with a few work-for-hire assignments. Among the student shorts is 1962’s “Woton’s Wake,” which features De Palma stalwart William Finley as a murderous sex maniac, in a plotless collage of images inspired by films and literature important to the director. And among the commercial work is 1966’s “The Responsive Eye,” a half-hour documentary about an op-art exhibit at The Museum Of Modern Art. Both films demonstrate some De Palma preoccupations right from the start: namely, the power of images to shock and confuse.
De Palma obsessives can find “Woton’s Wake” and “The Responsive Eye” on a French DVD with one of the director’s oddest early films, Dionysus In ’69, a document of a performance of Euripides’ The Bacchae by The Performance Group. De Palma would satirize radical experimental theater a year later in Hi, Mom!, but here he takes it seriously, using split-screens to capture what’s happening onstage—where performers are either screaming at each other and getting violent or shedding their clothes and writhing around like randy beasts—along with what’s happening in the audience as it gets increasingly involved in the “happening.” A high tolerance for hippie-hassles is required, but Dionysus is a significant piece of the De Palma puzzle, both in style and content.
Later in his career, De Palma joined the ranks of major directors shooting music videos when he helmed Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark” video, the first clip from what would go on to be the mega-hit album Born In The U.S.A. The song is an oddity in the Springsteen catalog—an overt pop single, complete with an ’80s-friendly synthesizer line—and on the surface, the video appears to be an oddity in De Palma’s filmography. It’s a fairly straightforward performance piece, showing Springsteen and the E Street Band entertaining a huge, enthusiastic crowd. Yet while in the context of MTV at the time there’s nothing weird about “Dancing In The Dark,” in the context of Springsteen’s work before and since it’s very, very weird. The ordinarily scruffy Springsteen looks buffed and trimmed, and dances around like a teen idol while De Palma keeps bringing his camera back around to the singer’s crotch and ass. In long shots, the performance footage looks real, but the insert shots of the audience look fake—a dissonance made even more blatant when Springsteen reaches into the crowd and pulls up a pre-fame Courtney Cox to dance with him. It’s not Phantom Of The Paradise, granted, but still… there’s a joke here somewhere, and it may be on us.
1. Blow Out (1981)
The quintessential De Palma film, this study of a movie craftsman investigating a political cover-up marries suspense, sick humor, sexuality, and leftist cynicism into an endlessly reflective study of art imitating life imitating art.
2. Carlito’s Way (1993)
A surprisingly soulful movie about an aging crook trying to go straight, Carlito’s Way builds to a brilliantly staged scene that’s all about who sees whom when, and who they don’t see coming. Because no matter where you are in De Palma’s world, you’re either watching, or being watched.
3. Femme Fatale (2002)
Returning to sexy thrillers after a too-long layoff—and working outside of the Hollywood system for the first time in decades—De Palma abandoned all pretense that he cared about verisimilitude more than style, delivering a nutty noir in which the characters wonder whether they’re doomed to live their lives as movie “types,” repeating the same bad choices over and over.
4. Casualties Of War (1989)
Freed of irony and cinematic reference, De Palma’s chronicle of the rape and murder of a 20-year-old Vietnamese peasant woman—and the cover-up that followed—is an emotional experience unlike any film in his career. Ultimately, it’s not about the particular madness of Vietnam, but the collective madness of men at war, doing things their consciences would not allow in any other circumstance.
5. Phantom Of The Paradise (1974)
In a more just world, De Palma’s camp musical would be the midnight phenomenon that The Rocky Horror Picture Show became instead, but there’s still a pocket of cultists who rightly appreciate his fiendishly clever mix of soaring songcraft and satirical jibes at the tools that run the music industry.