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The Good, The Bad & The Badass: Brian De Palma

07.18.2016
Last week, we took a look at the career of actor Alec Baldwin who, somehow, has never gotten around to making a movie with this week’s subject...
Brian De Palma
de palma doc

Of all the directors I’ve featured in this column, I must admit that I have a particular - or perhaps peculiar - soft spot for Brian De Palma. Having attended TIFF since 2009, one of the neatest things about attending press/industry screenings is the near constant presence of De Palma, who - certain years anyways - makes his way to the festival and watches all the big movies with the rest of us just on the virtue of being a film fan. Being reticent to ever approach a celebrity, I’ve never actually spoken to De Palma, who’s always recognizable due to his trademark photographer’s jacket, but I still feel a weird kind of link with him.

brian de palma al pacino scarface

I decided to write about him after watching Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s mesmerizing doc, DE PALMA, which is basically two hours of De Palma - the only interviewee - taking us through his career movie-by-movie. While not all of his films have been great (his post-FEMME FATALE output has been dire, and REDACTED is an embarrassment) over his fifty yer career he’s made some of the best movies of their time. Often mocked as an Alfred Hitchcock wannabe, De Palma is much more than that, leaving a huge, personal mark on all of his movies that’s so blatant it’s almost unnerving.

brian de palma robert de niro the untouchables

For a long time, De Palma was criticized for his depiction of women, with a recurrent theme being that of the voyeur, and them often falling victim to hideous, drawn-out murders (such as Angie Dickinson’s death in DRESSED TO KILL or the shocking power-drill murder of Deborah Shelton in BODY DOUBLE). Certainly, De Palma has never shied away from using violence to provoke, or more disturbingly - enthrall- but through it all no one can say he’s not a true auteur and a master of film as art.

john travolta blow out

Really though, modern film fans should look beyond any simplistic interpretation of De Palma’s work and explore the films for themselves. There are so many great ones, from THE PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, to CARRIE to the wild sci-fi of THE FURY (featuring what’s arguably the grossest death scene in history), the sexy style of DRESSED TO KILL and BODY DOUBLE (a particular guilty pleasure of mine), the amazing BLOW OUT (featuring John Travolta’s best-ever screen performance) and the informal crime trilogy made up of SCARFACE, THE UNTOUCHABLES and CARLITO’s WAY - the three of which I believe rank as his crowning achievements. Sure, there’s been the odd disaster along the way like THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES (made even more infamous by the book “The Devil’s Candy”) or MISSION TO MARS. But, the good far outweighs the bad, and even some of his most ignored movies, like CASUALTIES OF WAR, are superb.

His Best Work
al pacino scarface

I’d argue that of my top five favorite De Palma movies, there’s not much separating them in terms of my own enjoyment. Of his movies, the ones I return to most are SCARFACE and CARLITO’S WAY. I’ll give SCARFACE a slight edge as it’s just so De Palma-esque, and a movie that so perfectly sums up the time (early eighties) and place (Miami) it was made in that it’s uncanny. While only a modest hit upon its release, it became a massive cult phenomenon on VHS, and most big rappers have gone on record saying it’s their favorite movie It’s just so unbelievably foul and in-your-face that it’s impossible not to love, with Al Pacino’s wild performance as Tony Montana being the icing on the cake. There’s so much to adore about this movie, from the Giorgio Moroder soundtrack to the pastels and neon design, to Michelle Pfeiffer, to the Hitchcockian set-pieces (the nightclub assault and the car bomb sequence) to the bug nuts insane coke and machine guns finale. God I love this coked-up masterpiece of trash and art.

His Most Overrated Work
mission impossible tom cruise

Some of you may think it’s sacrilegious for me to say this, but I never thought much of the first MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE film. Sure, it has some cool set-pieces, including the vault break-in (lifted wholesale from the movie TOPKAPI) and the train finale. On the whole though, the first two MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movies suffer by relying too much on the stupid face-masks, which De Palma pretty much blames on co-writer Robert Towne in the doc. The first film is fine, but De Palma himself seems only okay with the end result, and I feel the same way.

His Most Underrated Film
al pacino sean penn carlito's way

It’s insane that CARLITO’S WAY isn’t listed among the great gangster masterpieces like GOODFELLAS and THE GODFATHER TRILOGY. While thematically similar to SCARFACE in that it’s about a Latino gangster, CARLITO’S WAY is a far more elegiac, suspenseful and romantic film, with Pacino’s anti-hero gangster a noble throwback to the doomed but kind types James Cagney played in ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES and THE ROARING TWENTIES. Pacino gives the performance of his life as Carlito, who desperately tries to go straight so he can runaway with his girlfriend (Penelope Ann Miller), while being sucked back into violence by his coked-up mouthpiece lawyer (an amazing Sean Penn). It’s just so astoundingly great, with amazing action scenes (the pool room and Grand Central Station shootouts), possibly Pacino’s greatest performance and killer dialogue (“you think you’re big time? You’re gonna die big time!”) In the doc, De Palma flat out says that he couldn’t possibly make a movie better than CARLITO’S WAY, and I think that’s true of virtually any of his contemporaries. It’s utterly perfect and every time I see John Leguizamo’s Benny Blanco from the Bronx, I hope Carlito will get away - to no avail.

His Best Scene

Not everyone’s a fan of De Palma’s re-staging of the baby-carriage scene of BATTLESHIP POTEMPKIN as a shootout in THE UNTOUCHABLES (I had a film teacher who told me it made him want to slash his wrists) but to me it’s one of De Palma’s signature bits and a sharp reminder of how few living directors are out there that can stage an action scene like this, where the carnage, the suspense, the acting (especially from Kevin Costner and Andy Garcia) and the art of it all (not to forget Ennio Morricone’s music) blend so seamlessly.

His Five Best Films

5. THE PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE
4. BLOW OUT
3. THE UNTOUCHABLES
2. CARLITO’S WAY
1. SCARFACE

Up Next

Hopefully, DE PALMA will lead to a resurgence, as ever since the poorly received PASSION, De Palma’s been rather low-key, although the odd film project is still announced from time-to-time. I’d still like to see him do that UNTOUCHABLES prequel he’s always talked about, or another great gangster movie with Pacino. We’ll see.

 

Source: JoBlo.com

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