WRITER/DIRECTOR BRIAN DE PALMA
In his halcyon days, Brian De Palma was one badass motherf*cker! As a staunch Hitchcock acolyte, De Palma's deft understanding of camera framing, movement and composition...all in the name of building suspense and mounting tension...is really second to none. At least, it was in the 70s and 80s. As you may know, big Bri has a new film currently out in limited release, the Sapphic-erotic-thriller PASSION, starring Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace. The flick boasts many themes that weave in and out of De Palma's film canon...body identity, gender roles, lurid sex, grisly murder and incidental intrigue. In flicks like CARRIE, THE FURY, SCARFACE, BLOWOUT, DRESSED TO KILL, BODY DOUBLE etc...it's clear the dude embraced genre from the start, often using his visual flare and hyper-stylization to elevate an otherwise throwaway B-movie into a classic of its kind. And while he's certainly slowed down a bit in the last decade or so (quantitatively and qualitatively), De Palma will always be my favorite of the New Hollywood directors. Lads and lasses, the knife is out, so let us dissect the 40 year career of Mr. Brian De Palma!
It's easy to call the organized Al Pacino crime epics SCARFACE and CARLITO'S WAY De Palma's best (or THE UNTOUCHABLES for that matter), but I'm going to make a case that his 1981 film BLOW OUT is his finest work. First off, he wrote the BLOW OUT screenplay himself, something he did not even do in collaboration for the aforementioned trio. That counts. Riffing on Antonio's BLOW UP, John Travolta stars as a soundman for low budget horror films who, while out recording FX on a bridge one night, accidentally records evidence of a political assassination when a car comes crashing into the drink. As Travolta slowly pieces the audio together, the further mixed up in a dastardly plot he becomes. It's a gripping story that De Palma expertly directs, with not only Travolta giving one of his very best performances, but John Lithgow as the villain? Fucking bonkers! Throw in the gorgeous cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond (then Laszlo Kovacs in two reshot scenes) and a haunting score by Giallo great Pino Donaggio...I'm telling you, BLOW OUT is De Palma at his absolute apogee!
It's hard to explain. Sometimes a film is a made at the absolute right intersection of time, space and talent to produce pure cinematic alchemy...and I feel BLOW OUT is one of those films. Everything came together at once...the story, the acting, the direction, the score, the editing...all for the desired effect of pulling an audience headlong into its world. Consider the opening sequence for example - a perfect setup - where for all intents and purposes, the film opens as a low-budget slasher film. We amble through the brambles behind a heavy breathing, masked slasher as he skulks around a house, peeking on his potential teenage victims. It looks right, it feels right...we're in a 80s slasher flick. Then, just as the killer lays the blade, we suddenly pull back to reveal that we were watching a movie within a movie...that said horror flick was just Travolta's latest sound FX gig. It's a brilliant setup to suck the viewer into the story immediately, and instantly lets the audience know that what they're seeing in the movie is not always what it seems. A great visual metaphor that plays to the films mysterious nature.
By most accounts, THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES is De Palma's biggest misfire, but since it's not in the genre realm, I bestow RAISING CAIN with such a dubious distinction. In addition to showing signs of effete retreading, the film is simply not up to De Palma's standards, despite starring the always dependable and longtime pal John Lithgow. Here again, De Palma alone writes the screenplay, which makes him even more culpable for the overall product. But unlike BLOW OUT, the story of RAISING CAIN is largely bereft of a cohesive plot, and tonally, awkwardly shifts from silly to serious too many times to take serious. And surprisingly done with mediocre acting, which is rare for a De Palma flick. From a larger viewpoint, the film simply suffers from being an early 90s, pre-SCREAM horror flick...and even despite being R-rated, never really delivers the goods. Not for a horror film, not for De Palma! It's like he's toying with not just the audience, but HIS audience, which kind of plays like a slap in the face when all is said and done. Make no mistake, RAISING CAIN is De Palma-lite...and one of the first signs of his inevitable regression. After bouncing back with CARLITO'S WAY and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, it's sort of been tough sledding ever since.
Consistent through-lines in De Palma's work can be divided into two categories; the thematic and the technical. Thematically, there are few films of his that do NOT grapple with deep seeded psychological issues, identity crises, bodily perversion and the like. De Palma revels in the darkness of humanity, often populating his stories with doppelgangers, voyeurs, femme fatales and unreliable antiheroes. Like his idol Hitchcock, buxom blonds and dangerous dames are also no stranger to his work. But even more than the subject matter, De Palma is known for the technical wizardry he continually shows behind the camera.
In specific, De Palma mastered split-screen technology. By using optical FX or a split diopter while filming, many of De Palma's movies feature a lengthy split-screen sequence that allows the viewer to focus on one of two different images, essentially immersing them further by letting them choose what to see. The technique also fosters a more drawn out, suspenseful interplay between the two sides of the screen. It also seems so normal now, as cats like Tarantino (a huge De Palma fan) use split-screen all the time. But it was BDP who made that shite vogue, and not just as a technical gimmick, but as a truly innovative way of telling a story and engaging the viewers. To accentuate this technique, extremely long single takes are also a mainstay of De Palma's work, often punctuates by dazzling camera sweeps, elaborate crane moves and momentous tracking shots. Put simpler, De Palma understands how the camera can play a role in the film itself...a realization few filmmakers have had more fun with.
Given the breadth of his work, a few hidden gems can be found in De Palma's filmography. PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE for one, OBSSESSION for another. Alas, the one I wholeheartedly urge you to seek out if you've not already is the 1973 flick SISTERS, starring Margot Kidder and Charles Durning. Not only is it one of my favorite De Palma flicks (or horror flicks at that), it really encompasses everything we've discussed about his work heretofore. If you know not, SISTERS plays like the sick lovechild of PSYCHO, REAR WINDOW and DEAD RINGERS. Margot Kidder plays twins Danielle and Dominique, the former's posh apartment becoming the scene of a brutal murder witnessed by her neighbor, Grace (Jennifer Salt). when Grace informs the coppers, they don't believe a word of it, and Grace gets further tangled in a web of murderous deceit. It's a smart film with a knockout final shot, all done with technical ingenuity. De Palma only had half a million to make the film, and uses his limitations as a benefit rather than a hindrance. The use of split-screen is on impressive display here, as is a solid Bernard Hermann (PSYCHO) score...and both serve to augment the story instead of merely distract. I just remember seeing SISTERS on IFC one day, having known nothing about, and coming away thinking...wow, that was a fantastic hidden gem of a movie. And by De Palma? Who knew?!
With nothing officially announced for the future, and seeing how he has zero involvement with the upcoming CARRIE redo, we must focus on De Palma's latest, PASSION. Unfortunately the film has received tepid reviews at best, with our own C.Bum giving the flick a paltry 4/10. Word is the flick is laughably overwrought with camp and kitsch, a quality De Palma could have gotten away with in the 80s, but not these days. I still want to clock the flick myself, if for no other reasons than the sheer spectacle of Rachel McAdams macking on Noomi Rapace...in the bathtub no less. Seriously, peep the set up:
Brian De Palma returns to the sleek, sly, seductive territory of Dressed To Kill with an erotic corporate thriller fueled by sex, ambition, image, envy and the dark, murderous side of PASSION. The film stars Rachel McAdams (Midnight In Paris, Sherlock Holmes, Mean Girls) and Noomi Rapace (Prometheus, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) as two rising female executives in a multinational corporation whose fierce competition to rise up the ranks is about to turn literally cut-throat.
Sounds fun to me, even if I fully acknowledge this is b-grade De Palma. Let's be honest though, directing is a young man's game...how many directors after the age of 70 continue to churn out solid work? Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood? That's about it. That said, I know what I can expect to see in a De Palma film...a well shot, seedy story with characters that don't need redemption. I'm gravitated to those qualities, and, as a lifelong De Palma fan, will see almost anything he puts out.
If you come away with nothing else after this column, know that, at his height, outside of maybe Stanley Kubrick, no one could shoot a movie better than Brian De Palma. Dude's a technical wizard when it comes to camera tricks...be they extended takes, lavish camera movements, self-conscious angles, and of course his baby, the split-screen. Straight up, dude could shoot the f*ck out of a movie. And it was exactly that technical aplomb that allowed him to take sleazy, exploitation stories and elevate them behind mere trash cinema. In most of his flicks, there's a technical high art melded with a lowbrow narrative that, when combined, has yielded some of the all time best genre movies the world has ever seen. Here's a week early happy 73rd birthday from us here at AITH. Thanks for the flicks, Brian!