This year, over the course of Brian De PalMarch (which stretched into Brian De PalmApril), I watched every single one of Brian De Palma‘s films, including those I had seen before, his early shorts (the only two that weren’t impossible to find), and his disappointingly ordinary music video for Bruce Springsteen (the music video that shows up in the middle of Body Double, from the same year, is far more impressive), and I watched them all in order. I also read The De Palma Cut: The Films of America’s Most Controversial Director (which covered his work up to The Untouchables) by Laurent Bouzereau, who also directed the many exhaustive Making-Of documentaries I watched.
De P’s progress as a visual storyteller was fascinating, as was the recurrence of his many prevalent themes and techniques. Many are already associated with his work, like peeping/voyeurism, doubles (twins, doppelgangers, multiple personality, etc.), split-screen, long tracking shots, swirling cameras, and split-diopter (a device, wholly unique to De Palma, that keeps both the foreground and background simultaneously in focus). But there were other little things that would pop up, too. Like, he shoots a TV screen (or film screen, or monitor) in almost every single film. Or that three of his films (Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out) open with a shower scene (Body Double was supposed to as well, but the scene (which now plays over the end credits) didn’t work at the beginning). Also, he’s like really into peeping and voyeurism.
He’s a brilliant director, and a fairly weird one, without a single true mis-step (I didn’t like Dionysus in ’69, but that was more something he filmed and presented than “directed”). His strongest period was in the 70s and 80s (whose wasn’t, when it comes to directors of that period who are still around?), but his later stuff is worth exploring as well, and he has definitely cemented himself as one of my favorite directors. Love you, BDP.
Woton’s Wake (1962, Short) – 5.0
A man with a disfigured face attacks a couple of sex-havers with a blowtorch, then makes a woman out of a birdcage, and she runs off to a sex/chess party. It was ok. I didn’t really understand what was happening.
The Wedding Party (1963) – 6.0
Family and friends gather at a house in the preceding days before a wedding. Focused primarily on the groom, who begins to have doubts as the wedding draws nearer, and his interactions with friends William Finley and a very young Robert De Niro. There’s no plot really, but it’s a likable enough watch, and interesting as a first feature for De Palma. He wastes no time in experimenting with edits and sped up footage, or anything to enhance the entertainment value. De Niro and Finley have some funny moments.
The Responsive Eye (1966, Short) – 6.0
A couple of art curators give a tour through their gallery, with an exhibit on optical art. Things that trick the mind into seeing movement or an extra dimension. I like the art, but a lot of the effects really don’t come through on camera, especially since it’s shot in black-and-white and many of the pieces are in color. It’s still somewhat interesting, though, and the interviews with the patrons giving their reviews are a definite highlight.
Murder á la Mod (1968) – 7.0
A woman starts dating a pornographer, and she gets murdered in his studio. The killer is presumably the crazed, possibly mentally challenged jokester played by William Finley, but then we start to see the murder, and the events preceding and following it, from different perspectives, until the final one reveals who the real killer is. Somewhat of a simple thriller premise, made intriguing through De Palma’s early experiments with editing and stylization. Really liked it. And it’s got a great theme song by Finley.
Greetings (1968) – 6.5
Three draft-dodging friends obsess over computer dating (Jonathan Warden), the JFK assassination (Gerrit Graham), and peeping (Robert De Niro). It’s very talky, with no real story, and I had no attachment to the characters, but it’s interesting how much it feels like a late 60s time capsule. De Palma’s experiments with editing keep things appealing, too, and there are definitely some funny scenes. The computer dates are good, and one sequence with De Niro shooting a voyeuristic peeping tom movie with a woman who can’t take direction well is hysterical.
Dionysus in ‘69 (1970) – 2.5
A filmed account of a self-referential play about godliness and hippie nonsense starring the normally great William Finley. Filmed with two cameras and shown entirely in split-screen (later to become a staple in De Palma’s work), which is an effective way to showcase an in-the-round performance, but I fucking hated the play, so it didn’t matter too much.
Hi, Mom! (1970) – 9.0
Reprising his role as a peeping tom in Greetings, Robert De Niro tries to get a job for a porn company, by filming his neighbors through their windows in the apartment complex across the street. He gets involved with a girl (Jennifer Salt) in one of the apartments, and tries to seduce her while the camera’s rolling. But when that fails, he gives up peep art, and instead gets involved with a radical performance piece another of the neighbors (Gerrit Graham) leads him to called “Be Black, Baby,” which seeks to create the black experience for white people. The performance is shown in its entirety, shot handheld and feeling very much like a documentary, and it’s an insane and amazing sequence. It’s an odd, fascinating film, that doesn’t adhere to a consistent plot, but always remains compelling and often really funny (the opening scene where Charles Durning shows De Niro an apartment is great). Definitely my favorite of De Palma’s early period. Completely loved it.
Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972) – 6.5
Tom Smothers is a businessman, who gets tired of his corporate life, so he becomes a traveling tap-dancing magician (after taking lessons from Orson Welles). He reconnects with his old boss (John Astin), who becomes his manager, and as tap-dancing magic becomes a trend, Astin starts turning it into a corporate business, and soon Smothers is back where he started. The plot is a bit random and bizarre, but De Palma takes it easy on style, and the filmmaking is fairly straightforward. It’s good, though, and has some funny moments.
Sisters (1973) – 8.0
Margot Kidder brings a guy home (who she met on a peeping tom themed game show), then murders him the next morning after he brings her a birthday cake, though it may have actually been her detached Siamese twin sister. Jennifer Salt, a reporter, witnesses the murder through the window from across the street. Utilizing split-screen fantastically, we see the murder scene being cleaned up by Kidder and a man (William Finley) claiming to be her ex-husband (though likely something more), while the police waste time arguing with Salt downstairs, leading to the police not believing a murder took place. Salt then has to lead her own investigation, uncovering the details of the twins’ separation and current connection to a mental hospital, and ending in a surreal flashback sequence that doesn’t necessarily explain everything. It’s De Palma’s first thriller, and it is satisfyingly bizarre and innovative. Really great.
Phantom of the Paradise (1974) – 9.5
William Finley is a talented musician whose Faust-inspired music is stolen by a successful record producer named Swan (Paul Williams), and on top of that, he’s framed for drug possession and forced to get silver teeth in prison, then gets his face burned up and disfigured in a record-pressing machine. Now masked, leathered, and caped, the Phantom musician tries to get back at Swan, but makes a deal with him instead to ensure that a particular girl (Jessica Harper) is the singer of his songs. Swan betrays him again, though, instead employing the flamboyant Beef (Gerrit Graham) as the lead performer, then attempting to corrupt and ruin Phoenix. And so the Phantom has to figure how to stop Swan, who he finds out has made a deal himself, with the devil. The musical numbers are completely amazing, the story is amazing, the performances are amazing, and the look and style of everything is fucking amazing. This movie is incredible.
Obsession (1976) – 7.0
A hostage situation goes badly, killing a man’s (Cliff Robertson) wife and daughter. Sixteen years later, Cliff sees a woman (Geneviéve Bujold) who looks exactly like his wife, and apparently just assuming it’s a coincidence and not that it could be his daughter whose body was never found, he begins courting her, and eventually becomes determined to marry her, but first he has to reenact the ransom drop-off from when his family had been taken. The twists at the end seemed pretty apparent, and with the primary one, I wasn’t even sure if it was something I wasn’t supposed to have put together, but it doesn’t get in the way of the film’s craft and enjoyment level. The story’s a bit weird and creepy, and unfortunately doesn’t go as far as I would’ve liked (and as De Palma would’ve liked, but he was forced to make changes by the studio), but it’s a solid, very attractive thriller.
Carrie (1976) – 10.0
Carrie (Sissy Spacek), an outcast at her high school, gets her period for the first time in the shower after gym class, and doesn’t know what’s happening because her religiously insane mother (Piper Laurie) has sheltered her too much. Despite Carrie’s obvious panic, all the other girls torment her and throw tampons at her. One of the girls involved (Amy Irving) feels guilty, and convinces her boyfriend (William Katt) to take Carrie to the prom to make it up to her. Another girl (Nancy Allen) is furious about getting in trouble, so she convinces her boyfriend (John Travolta) to slaughter a pig and collect the blood, to dump on Carrie when she’s voted prom queen in a fixed election. Also, Carrie has telekinetic powers, and the pig’s blood prank sets off some paranoia and madness inside her, which doesn’t turn out well for the guests of the prom. De Palma employs all his best tricks throughout; slow motion, diffused lighting, long tracking shots, split screen, split diopter, a swirling camera, etc., to craft an exceptional horror film. But it’s really the cast, every one of whom creates a realistic character and plays it flawlessly, that heightens the film. Spacek, in particular, is brilliant, and Piper Laurie gives one of the best performances of ever. This movie is the greatest. It’s perfect.
The Fury (1978) – 7.0
John Cassavetes, working under a mysterious government agency, steals Kirk Douglas’ psychic son, and Douglas tries to find him. Amy Irving is a teenager starting to discover her own psychic/telekinetic/making-people-bleed-by-touching-them powers, so she enrolls at Psychic University. Irving has a telepathic connection with Douglas’ son, who is being experimented on, and so Irving and Douglas try to get together to save him, but the villainous Cassavetes is always in the way. It feels a bit long, and the performances of Irving and the son are overly dramatic, but the way the stories are woven together is interesting, and there are a lot of good ideas and visual delights. Like someone gushing blood out of their fingertips, someone spraying blood on the walls from their ears and eyes while being spun around in the air, and the insane final moment with Cassavetes. Overall, it’s very good.
Home Movies (1980) – 8.5
Keith Gordon is living in the shadow of his older brother (Gerrit Graham), who is obsessed with the purity of Man and leads his life according to a set of principles he’s named “Spartanetics”. Gordon, while spying on and filming his father, trying to catch him cheating, in order to win some attention from his mother, is approached by The Maestro (Kirk Douglas), a film professor. The Maestro helps him develop Star Quality, so he’ll no longer be an extra in his own life. He falls in love with his brother’s fiancé (Nancy Allen), who is being tortured by the brother’s endless tests to prove her worthiness, while still haunted by Bunny, a rabbit she used to perform live sex acts with. Extremely endearing and hilarious movie. Keith Gordon is amazing in it.
Dressed to Kill (1980) – 9.0
Angie Dickinson is having sexual issues with her husband, which she talks to her psychiatrist Michael Caine about, and then has a bizarre, sweeping, incredibly long seduction sequence with some guy in a museum. They sleep with each other, but then she finds out he has VD, which doesn’t really matter because she’s slashed to death immediately after in an elevator. Dennis Franz is a hard-edged detective who doesn’t do a good enough job investigating, so Dickinson’s son (Keith Gordon) and a prostitute who witnessed the murder (Nancy Allen) team up to figure out who the killer is, and what the connection is to Caine. An incredibly unique, strange thriller. De Palma is fucking crazy. He is also the best.
Blow Out (1981) – 8.5
John Travolta is a sound guy for cheap horror movies, and one night, while recording some night noises, a car drives off a bridge. He dives in and saves the girl inside (Nancy Allen), but the driver, a governor and frontrunner for president, doesn’t make it. Appearing to be an accident as a result of a tire blow-out, Travolta knows better because he recorded a gunshot. The police don’t believe him, so he tries to build more evidence by syncing the sound to frame-by-frame photos from a video that was taken. Allen, who is connected to the sleazy guy who took the original video (Dennis Franz), helps Travolta along, and they build up some chemistry. Meanwhile, bad guy John Lithgow stirs up a mess of trouble! (He kills people and acts like a fucking creep.) The fantastic premise is equaled by De Palma’s pizzazz-y filmmaking, and it’s beautifully shot with delightfully obsessive scenes of audio editing, and a fun, cute performance from Allen. Great thriller, with an excellent ending.
Scarface (1983) – 8.5
Tony Montana (Al Pacino), a Cuban refugee, works his way up through the ranks of dealing cocaine, eventually stealing the business and wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) of his boss, Robert Loggia. He builds up an immense fortune (during an amazing 80s montage set to “Push It to the Limit”), but as he grows crazier from doing too much of his own product, things start to fall apart. Pacino is brilliant and riveting, giving a completely unhinged performance for a completely unhinged character, who is always likable no matter how rash or insane his decisions. The story is violent and lavish and all-around excessive, and De Palma directs appropriately off a flawless script from Oliver Stone. It’s extremely entertaining, and an epic accomplishment.
Body Double (1984) – 9.0
Craig Wasson is a struggling actor who gets fired for being too claustrophobic to shoot a coffin scene in a vampire movie, then comes home to find his girlfriend cheating on him (Barbara Crampton, in an all too brief appearance). He meets Gregg Henry, who helps him out by letting him take over a house-sitting gig. Henry informs him that there’s a house nearby where a woman performs a masturbation dance in the window, every night at the exact same time, that can be viewed by telescope. The next night, as Wasson peeps, he sees a Native American who is also watching the woman. Then the next day, he sees that the Native American is following her. So he follows her as well and randomly steals her underwear, and they up embracing, passionately kissing as the camera swirls around them for like 10 minutes (it’s amazing). That night, he sees that the Native American has entered her house with a large power-drill, and he runs over to save her, but is too late. The Native American drills through her, and through the second-story floor, so blood pours through the ceiling, in a scene that Patrick Bateman watched over and over again in American Psycho (the book). Later, while watching pornography, Wasson sees Holly Body (Melanie Griffith) doing the same masturbation dance he had become familiar with. So he gets himself cast in a porn movie/music video in order to meet her, and finds out it was actually her dancing in the window, and he starts to piece together that he may have been set up to witness the murder. Does this sound like an amazing movie yet? Because it is. It’s a fucking amazing movie.
Wise Guys (1986) – 6.5
Best friends Danny DeVito and Joe Piscopo are low-ranking gangsters working for mob boss Dan Hedaya. Tasked with placing a bet at the races, gambling addict DeVito instead bets on the horse he thinks has a better shot at winning, but it doesn’t work out and they end up in debt for $250,000. To teach them a lesson about loyalty, Hedaya orders each of them to kill the other. They instead flee to Atlantic City. Nothing too extraordinary, but it’s got a lot of funny moments, and the two leads are very likable.
The Untouchables (1987) – 7.0
Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is a Federal Agent during Prohibition, and he’s out to get powerful mob boss Al Capone (Robert De Niro). He gathers up an incorruptible group, including an experienced beat cop (Sean Connery), an accountant (Charles Martin Smith), and a rookie sharpshooter (Andy Garcia), and they wage war on Capone and his gang. The film never necessarily lives up to it’s opening where a little girl explodes, but there’s a lot of good stuff going on, and it’s a compelling crime story. De Niro has limited screen time, but his scenes are strong, and Billy Drago as his murderous henchman is a creepy stand-out. It’s definitely one of De Palma’s more accessible films, but it doesn’t shy away from violence or style. There’s a slow-motion shoot-out revolving around a baby carriage falling down stairs that is pretty fucking outstanding. Really good movie. I was not untouched by it.
Casualties of War (1989) – 8.0
Michael J. Fox is a soldier in Vietnam, and his squadron, led by Sean Penn, kidnaps, gang-rapes, and murders a Vietnamese girl. Fox is adamantly opposed to these actions and refuses to take part. When they get back to camp, he tries to report them to the higher-ups, but no one will take action. Very disturbing story, and told realistically. Penn’s character (which he completely embodies and plays brilliantly) is not a psychopath, but one whose mind has been muddled by war. He saves Fox’s life early in the movie, then loses a close friend, leaving him distraught and vengeful. The whole group is angry, and loses the ability to see the Vietnamese as individuals, instead viewing them as a collective, inhuman enemy. This early set-up gives an interesting, very real context to the crimes committed, though obviously doesn’t excuse them. Likewise, we the audience want the somber and relatable Fox to do more to save the girl. His character does as well, and struggles with this later, but is that how it would have actually played out? It’s almost as if this was based on a true story (it is). There are great individual moments scattered throughout as well. The murder scene is amazing, just in how it’s composed visually. And the scene where J. Fox hits a guy in the face with a shovel is fucking great. For a war drama (a combination of two genres I’m not that interested in), it’s very impressive.
The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) – 6.5
Tom Hanks is a Wall Street person, and while with his mistress (Melanie Griffith), he accidentally exits the freeway in a bad part of town, and they run over a black guy who was maybe trying to rob them. Hanks wants to report it, but Griffith insists they don’t, and Hanks ends up caught anyway. An article by reporter Bruce Willis turns it into a big media event, and everyone exploits the situation to suit their own needs. It’s pretty good. Kim Cattrall is great as Hanks’ wife.
Raising Cain (1992) – 8.0
John Lithgow plays Carter, a child psychologist with multiple personality disorder who, with the help of his twin brother/alternate personality Cain, begins stealing little kids for his/their father (who may also be another personality) to do experimental studies on. John Lithgow is really good as Carter, but it’s John Lithgow who really stands out as the boisterously miscreant Cain, with a couple other John Lithgows making some great appearances as well. Really fun, different kind of thriller that is perfectly De Palma (not to mention DeMented, DeRanged, and DeCeptive). The tour-through-a-building, long tracking shot with the Lithgow father’s former partner (Frances Sternhagen) constantly trying to walk in the wrong direction is hilarious and amazing, and definitely my favorite of De Palma’s tour-through-a-building, long tracking shots (he’s got a few).
Carlito’s Way (1993) – 7.5
Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino) is released early from a long prison sentence, and has resolved to live a clean life, and not involve himself in criminal activities, but his past follows him around and constantly tries to suck him in. His coked-up, very Jewish lawyer (Sean Penn) convinces him to assist in a prison break of a mob guy, which turns ugly when the in-over-his-head Penn shows he has other plans. It’s a little long for a movie about someone always trying to avoid situations that would be entertaining to watch, but it’s great in most other ways. Pacino gives an enjoyable performance, if perhaps overly subdued at times (though I suppose the more extravagant Penn makes up for it), John Leguizamo is excellent in a smaller role, and there are a couple good set-pieces (the drug deal shoot-out early on is amazing). Really good.
Mission: Impossible (1996) – 8.5
Ethan Hunt (Thomas Cruise) goes on a mission with his mission-crew to steal an important computer disc, but it’s all a set-up. Most of his crew is killed, and Hunt takes the blame. In order to single out who the mole is that let this all happen, he gathers a new crew of former agents who have also been disavowed, and sets out on a new, seemingly impossible mission to steal the same important information that was supposed to have been on the computer disc. It can only be retrieved by breaking into a highly secured room in CIA headquarters, in an insanely suspenseful scene where Cruise is suspended in the air (it’s even suspenseful literally), unable to touch the floor without setting off the alarm. Even outside of that scene, there are some great action set-pieces. There’s even one with a helicopter chasing a train in a tunnel with digital effects that look surprisingly good for ’96. It’s a fun spy thriller, and really just a great fucking action movie, with some occasional visual flair courtesy of De Palms.
Snake Eyes (1998) – 7.0
Nicolas Cage plays a gleefully corrupt cop who witnesses a political assassination during a boxing match, and takes it upon himself to investigate, uncovering a shitty truth about his friend Gary Sinise along the way. It opens strong with an energetic, extremely long tracking shot, and though it’s definitely lost some steam by the end (of the movie, not the tracking shot), it remains engaging as Cage is piecing together the conspiracy. There was apparently a much huger, action-packed finale planned that probably would’ve balanced things out better, but it was left out for some reason (though there is still some confusing dialogue at the end that references it). Cage is excellent as always, and Sinise stiffly moves like a robot throughout (is he always like that? I haven’t seen a movie with him in awhile.) Good thriller, and an enjoyable time at the movies (in my living room).
Mission to Mars (2000) – 7.5
Some astronauts go on a mission to explore Mars, and look for life, and they all die in a mysterious, seemingly conscious sandstorm, except for Don Cheadle. A new crew (Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins, Jerry O’Connell, Connie Nielsen) sets out to rescue him, but run into problems of their own. Once at Mars, they discover not only what the sitch is with Mars life, but what the origin of life on Earth is (spoiler: we’re from Mars). It’s a bit much at the end, and kinda silly, but everything leading up to it is really great. It’s a good sci-fi drama, that’s impressive visually, and has some very effective scenes of suspense in space. De Palma proves himself not just a master of terrestrial suspense, but a master of suspacense.
Femme Fatale (2002) – 8.0
Rebecca Romijn rips off her partners after a diamond heist at the Cannes Film Festival, then goes into hiding by stealing the identity of a suicidal woman who looks exactly like her, and marrying a politician. Antonio Banderas plays a reluctant paparazzo, who manages to take, and sell, a photo of her, which gets her old partners on track to finding her and taking revenge. Romijn then uses Banderas to rip off money from her husband. Very reminiscent of De Palma’s earlier thrillers, caring more about style than always making sense, and using many of his old tricks (he even brings back split-screen). It’s not quite as special as Body Double or Dressed to Kill, but it’s still really great and should be appreciated by any De Palma fan. The twist ending is misguided, but forgivable, and perhaps adds something to the film’s absurd craziness.
The Black Dahlia (2006) – 5.5
Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart are ex-boxer detectives who are best friends, even though there’s some sexual tension between Hartnett and Eckhart’s girlfriend (Scarlett Johansson). They’re assigned the case of an aspiring starlet who was brutally murdered, and each obsess over it in their own way, and Hartnett starts sleeping with one of the suspects (Hilary Swank). It’s not as investigative as I would’ve liked, and has too many unnecessary subplots that barely relate to the main murder. The primary focus is almost entirely on Hartnett’s character as he just, like, has issues with stuff, and since he’s a pretty boring actor, there’s almost nothing to latch onto in the story. It’s never very intense or suspenseful, and though it’s shot attractively, De Palma keeps the visual innovation to a minimum, so it comes out feeling flat. It does have it’s moments, though. An appearance from the late William Finley was an unexpected bit of excitement (the entire sequence that he’s involved in is a definite highlight). The resolution to the case is entertainingly sensational. And the few, brief scenes with the murdered starlet (Mia Kirshner) auditioning for an off-camera director (voiced by De Palma himself) are extremely engaging, and generate way more intrigue than the entire rest of the film. It’s ok overall, but essentially a disappointment from Brian.
Redacted (2007) – 6.5
A soldier in Iraq is tirelessly documenting the Iraq War Experience (most of the movie is his footage), which includes filming, and involving himself with, the rape of a teenage local, and killing of her family, by a couple members of his squadron. Another member protests and tries to stop them, and later makes attempts to report the crime. The war is different, and the filmmaking is modernized (it’s made up of not just the soldier’s footage, but a French documentary, and video blogs), but otherwise, this is the exact same movie as Casualties of War. So it’s not bad, as the story remains enthralling and horrific, but it’s certainly a lesser film. It doesn’t provide the same kind of context for what drives the soldiers to committing such a horrible crime. In Casualties, it’s a clear result of being psychologically damaged by the war, but here, the two guys responsible are just really fucking terrible people. And the mixed-media concept is fine, but lacks the visual flair of Casualties, and ultimately doesn’t add anything. Objectively, I do think it’s a good movie, and I liked it, but having recently seen COW, it’s just way too familiar.
Here is my list of De Palma’s feature films, ranked on Letterboxd.
To read more of Austin’s writings, almost always about movies, visit his website at wolfsothern.blogspot.com.