Jake Cole August 19, 2013
Of all the key directors to come of age during the renaissance of New Hollywood, Brian De Palma stands as one of the most talented yet misunderstood of upstart filmmakers. Perhaps this owes to the director devoting much of the 1970s to experimental features and small-scale genre films, with “Carrie” his only breakout success during a decade that saw his contemporaries raking in awards and setting box-office records. And when some of the other New Hollywood filmmakers had to scale back their bloated productions in the ‘80s, De Palma suddenly found himself elevated to helm prestigious studio pictures, at which point he did not bite the hand that fed so much as tear it off.
Much as De Palma might have struggled to establish himself in those early years, his films, dated by low budgets, dubious performances and esoteric style, have aged better than many of the more celebrated work of his peers. Seen today, his trashy, referential cinema resembles the New Wave as translated through exploitation, a postmodern canon that takes pleasure in its lurid sights as much as it critiques its own images. De Palma’s contentious work has been variously (and perhaps not unfairly) labeled cynical, wantonly violent and misogynistic, though to argue for or against such labels would be to miss the uneasy alliance between indulgence and analysis that propels the director’s films.
Frequently called out for his many references to Alfred Hitchcock’s movies, De Palma indeed cribs shots, scenarios, even entire premises from the Master of Suspense. At his best, however, he also expands on Hitchcock’s darker subtexts, updating and reconfiguring the British director’s hangups all while take a step out to address how the act of filmmaking itself reduces people and shapes them into types, confining sets of predetermined traits that characters either struggle against or embrace wholeheartedly. Surveillance is the natural state of De Palma’s cinema, not merely between characters but between the filmmaker/subject and audience/film. These carefully arranged planes of awareness seem all too prescient, but at their most challenging, they present enigmas even to jaded, self-aware viewers.
As engaging as such setups are, one cannot deny that the biggest immediate draw of the director’s films is their wild, ostentatious style. Shots dip in and out of POV perspectives and amble along in comically extended tracks and Steadicam sequences. Split-diopter lenses bypass deep focus for an unreal equality of presence for fore- and background, and often split-screens themselves are used to track linked but separate actions along a single time period. Expressionistic color and lighting complete the package, all of it assembled through deft editing that takes an endless delight in throwing an audience of its game. Even when the film itself fails, De Palma’s flair puts his craft well above any other contenders.
De Palma’s latest film, “Passion,” is his 29th, and a fresh addition to an inconsistent filmography often mesmerizing even in failure. And unlike directors who either grow into their mastery or flame out early, De Palma’s highs are evenly distributed across his career, always offering something worth watching in his distinctive artistic periods. From blatantly experimental productions well into his studio days to ostentatious, occasionally termitic big-budget extravaganzas, these films are linked by their self-reflexive autocritique and, more broadly, the sheer delight of watching a genius at work.
29. “Wise Guys” (1986)
In terms of technical competence, “Wise Guys” may not be nearly as bad as the experimental, sloppy nature of De Palma’s earliest work, but the anonymity of this production proves far more unbearable. There is promise in this film: it pushes De Palma’s personal and sexualized voyeurism into the realm of all-seeing corporate monitoring (an important precursor to his ‘90s work), and a few shots even show off the director’s skill, especially a trademark split-diopter that stresses the distance that settles in between two close friends. But it’s just not funny, with Danny DeVito committing admirably to a terrible script and Joe Piscopo mugging desperately, as if he knew just how soon he’d disappear off the public radar. There are many weak De Palma films, but none so soulless.
28. “The Wedding Party” (1963; released 1969)
Sharing directing and writing credits with his mentor at Sarah Lawrence College, Wilford Leach, and Cynthia Munroe, the classmate whose family bankrolled the film, De Palma’s inauspicious first film is an unremarkable student project, unencumbered by financial risk but unmotivated by it all the same. Leach, a theater teacher, clearly held the most sway over the film’s aesthetic, with shots arranged in still tableaux for actors to speak their lines and a fondness for letting the young performers flex over the cohesion of a story.
De Palma displays a few early tricks, though, with silent-movie frame rates opening the film, class-conscious looks played in slo-mo and impersonal group meetings communicated through jump-cuts of perfunctory handshakes. Such touches liven up what is otherwise an unfocused and dreary comedy, so generally dull that even the touted first screen appearance of Robert De Niro cannot hold interest for much time.
27. “The Bonfire of the Vanities” (1990)
On paper, this should have been a home run. Thomas Wolfe’s acidic overview of Reagan-era New York, with its class chasm between the high-rise elite and the swarms of neglected underclass below, should have been perfect for De Palma’s sensibilities. Instead, it became a legendary flop chronicled by a muckraking behind-the-scenes book that confirmed Bruce Willis to be as impossible to handle for the crew as he is to watch in this.
The film’s high budget necessitated a blunting of Wolfe’s satire, but all of the softening occurs around the material’s racial elements, preserving its caricatures of poor minorities and social-climbing Jews but making Tom Hanks’ WASP Sherman McCoy sympathetic even after he kills a black man in a panic. From Hanks’ affable charm down to the recasting of a white judge to black to make McCoy’s acquittal less a demonstration of systemic racism, De Palma’s “Bonfire” turns a satire of corrupted social values into a celebration of them.
26. “Murder à la Mod” (1968)
In many ways De Palma’s first true feature, “Murder à la Mod” certainly provides a clearer view of the director we know today than “The Wedding Party.” References abound, from “Peeping Tom” to Hitchcock to a pornographic variant of the wizard’s exposure in “The Wizard of Oz,” while De Palma futzes with film speeds and the multiple perspectives captured by filmmaking and film screening.
William Finley steals the show as a porno assistant gone mad, toting with him a real and prop ice pick that he gets constantly mixed up (De Palma uses freeze-frames and arrows to helpfully point out which is which). Overall, this is De Palma in embryo, his themes of masculine sexual aggression and stylistically bawdy autocritique of the role filmmaking has in perpetuating exploitation on display half-formed. It’s most useful as proof that the glossy superficiality of his more sophisticated work is rooted in a conceptual, self-debasing analysis of itself.
25. “Dionysus” (1970)
Even a filmed play looks different when De Palma shoots it. In recording an experimental theatrical production of Euripides’ “The Bacchae,” the director employs experimental tics of his own, most notably an early use of his beloved split-screens to bridge simultaneous action in separate places.
What he films is an oddity: pale and lanky, William Finley makes for an unconvincing party god, but he undeniably brings out Dionysus’ pervert side. Most of the film’s strangest, headiest moments belong to the actual show, whether in Finley flitting between answering to his own name and Dionysus and a rebirth metaphor staged through a living birth canal made of the cast’s deftly intertwined bodies, but its weirdness provided a vital early venue for De Palma to stretch and absorb some of the more radical elements of the counterculture.
24. “Redacted” (2007)
“Redacted” could have worked. It updates “Casualties of War” from Vietnam to Iraq, and most disturbingly shares a real-life connection to the Second Gulf War that the director’s earlier war film did to ‘Nam. Its collage of image sources—handheld personal cameras, black-and-white surveillance footage, vlogs, crisp documentary film—in a potentially incisive portrait of how an age in which everything is filmed can still leave so many things covered up and unreported.
But the film is ultimately consumed by its nihilism, which rails against the chain of command and foot soldiers alike, as well as the inarticulate, self-righteous liberals who protest from their bedrooms. That omnidirectional hatred does have one benefit, though, in its harsh denunciation of the whistleblower, whom De Palma does not let off the hook for his party to crimes simply because he had the conscience to regret it later. Otherwise, though, this is by far the director’s biggest contemporary failure.
23. “Get to Know Your Rabbit” (1972)
You have to hand it to Brian De Palma: few underground filmmakers could move to a major studio like Warner Bros. with a baffling picture like this. Like the rest of his work to this point, “Get to Know Your Rabbit” is a comedy, and in many ways it is of a more traditional variety than the macabre, annihilating tones of “Greetings” and “Hi, Mom!” Sporting a talented but mishmash cast—where else could Orson Welles and Tommy Smothers and John Astin rub shoulders?—the film’s saga of a wannabe tap-dancing magician briefly finds life in the insanity of Welles as a Svengali whose unsuitability for dancing is only half so funny as the severity his sonorous speeches lend to the act.
The final, black-comic twist, however, recontextualizes the farce of the film to suggest that tap-dancing magic was the last artform not co-opted for corporate gain, and even it is not safe from hostile takeover.
22. “Home Movies” (1980)
Made in the dying days of New Hollywood, De Palma’s no-budget, 16mm feature, made during his time as a guest lecturer at Sarah Lawrence with the help of his students acts as a kind of tonic to the unsustainably large budget of his auteur contemporaries, and a show of the experimental bedrock that helped spawn the previous decade of mainstream American film. Judging from the film in question, however, De Palma must not have taught his student much. That may be by design: “Home Movies” juxtaposes the director’s skill with the unformed minds of his collaborators, directly building new rules around those who never learned the old ones.
The end result, however, feels like little more than a postmodern teen comedy, with Kirk Douglas (playing a De Palma stand-in by the name of “The Maestro”) intruding on the Keith Gordon’s storyline to routinely change up, if not dispose of, the plot. Gordon, already at home in his sad-sack nerd shtick, gives maybe the first grounded performance in a De Palma film, and it’s for a movie so off-the-wall and deliberately patched together that his competence is a distraction.
21. “The Untouchables” (1987)
“The Untouchables” provided De Palma with a much-needed box-office hit just as it he was running out of studio goodwill. Much as it rejuvenated the director’s standing with financiers, however, the film lacks the spark of his best or even his memorable work. Kevin Costner defines Eliot Ness’ dedication to the letter of the law for its own sake early on, when he tells a reporter that were Prohibition repealed, he’d have a drink. That evocative admission goes nowhere, however, and the rest of the film settles into a surprisingly straightforward tale of cops vs. criminals, where the harsh tactics of Ness and co. are justified and Sean Connery dares you to call him out on dropping his character’s Irish accent within minutes.
Everyone involved puts in mediocre work, from the leaden script by David Mamet(!) to the stiff lead performances to De Palma’s flaccid direction, which sports his laziest extended reference in that beat-for-beat duplication of the Odessa Steps sequence of “Potemkin” that only recreates, never critiques.
20. “Snake Eyes” (1998)
As with many of the films that sport a great and unhinged Nicolas Cage performance, whether or not “Snake Eyes” is “good” is entirely irrelevant to the conversation. Surely, no film that instantly bridges ostentatious camera form and actorly skill like the gaudy Steadicam long take that follows Cage around the Atlantic City Arena could be considered all bad. The director and actor appear to share an understanding that carries through the entire film and remains the best reason to watch it, more so than its conspiracy narrative that plays like a reheated and less wild version of “Mission: Impossible.”
Gary Sinise provides a necessary contrast for Cage’s manic energy but threatens to disappear in its shadow, but Carla Gugino holds her own as the mysterious woman who flits between generic types at will, matching Cage’s single-minded force with versatility. Throw in a few dazzling shots like a top-down scan over hotel rooms as forces close in on Cage and Gugino, and you get a film more than worth a watch.
19. “Greetings” (1968)
De Palma’s third film shows the director developing his skill in earnest, retaining his early, experimental edge while laying down a clear aesthetic consistency that unifies his scattershot narrative. He films a trio of wannabe draft dodgers with hilarious theatricality as they rehearse everything from dressing as stereotypical homosexuals to nailing the precise enunciation of prepared rants about murderous fantasies of friendly fire against minority soldiers.
From there, the style splinters to follow each man’s particular social quirk, from one guy’s conspiracy theories to the voyeurism of Robert De Niro’s Rubin, who portrays his perversion as “Peep Art” to lend it legitimacy and attract willing models. In an oblique but vaguely resonant metaphor for Vietnam, Rubin eventually gets deployed, only to spend his time in Nam trying to convince indigenous women to star in his films. It’s the most scathing joke yet used in a De Palma film, though it pales compared to what was just on the horizon.
18. “Mission: Impossible” (1996)
Brian De Palma brought “Mission: Impossible” to the big screen with shamelessly OTT élan. Everything in the movie is absurdly big: spikes jut out at the top of an elevator shaft an exploding fish tank releases a reservoir’s worth of water, and a helicopter gets added to a fight on top of a bullet train (y’know, to keep things interesting). Underneath all that, though, is a shocking (and now unthinkable) betrayal of the original show’s fans: De Palma turns the hero of the television program into the film’s villain, casting Cold War soldiers as perpetual motion war machines that, in the absence of a foreign enemy and the threat of reduced funding, will turn on their allies. The sequels all tried to have bigger setpieces and more twisting reversals, but none ever again broached the middle finger De Palma raised to the military-industrial complex.
17. “Sisters” (1973)
An extended split-screen sequence marks what may be the first great formal moment of De Palma’s career, juxtaposing one person’s attempt to alert authorities of a murder with the attacker’s removal of evidence. The film’s most impressive split, however, is in its frequent mash-up of its suspense with delightfully bleak comedy; even in the aforementioned scene, the columnist trying to save a life finds herself ignored by cops who recognize the woman from her anti-police articles. The balance between these elements routinely displays a surer hand than was on display in earlier films.
The director, often criticized for his portrayal of women, offers a sympathetic vision of his deranged protagonist, casting her erratic behavior as partially the product of her condescending ex-husband, who orders her around even as he helps her clean up a body. Emerging from his radical formative years, De Palma spares no invective for the ostensibly liberal, educated man who clings to archaic gender roles.
16. “Scarface” (1983)
The official TV screensaver of “MTV Cribs,” the harbinger of Al Pacino’s artistic decline, the source of more tediously over-quoted dialogue than a Monty Python film. “Scarface” is all of things, but as Martin Scorsese astutely spotted at a screening, it’s also an underhanded slap at studio executives. Seen through that prism, Tony Montana certainly fits the bill: an immigrant who finds his way into a boom industry, ruthlessly establishes superiority and then corrupts the nation with filth while doing to cocaine what Richard Dreyfuss did to mashed potatoes in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Undeniably over-the-top and perhaps unfairly diluted by sheer overexposure, “Scarface” nevertheless still packs a punch, and its veiled jabs at studio heads set the stage for more blatant attacks to come.
15. “The Fury” (1978)
A film made by Brian De Palma and starring John Cassavetes and Kirk Douglas almost by definition fails Gene Siskel’s rule of thumb regarding films being less interesting than its cast and crew simply having lunch. Then again, one imagines not many appointments at Spago end with a head exploding. The director has a great deal of fun with this new star power, especially in making Douglas’ character a parody of the actor’s chiseled heroes: at once a master of disguise, an eloquent orator, a diver, marksman and, naturally, a sexual tasmanian devil.
A comical but intricately laid-out chase sequence and a single-minded revenge narrative keep things sprightly, but the climax takes a turn for the oddly poignant, a reflection upon a father’s love warring with his awareness of the dangers of letting the monster he loves live. It offers a revealing peek into the Romantic agonies that would be deepened in the best of De Palma’s later career, but then, those later films don’t blow up a single head.
14. “Obsession” (1976)
Defining De Palma, as many do, by his Hitchcock references denies both the director’s originality and, frankly, how complex and analytical his quotations can be, but there’s no denying that “Obsession” draws heavily from the master, especially “Vertigo.” Admittedly, he lessens the innovative structure of Hitchcock’s masterpiece, saving this film’s version of the Judy/Madeleine reveal until a more conventional, climactic twist.
Yet “Obsession” finds its own emotional resonance, the image of a widowed man erecting a replica of Florence’s San Miniato basilica to honor his dead wife and child a metaphor not only for this film’s aims of finds different purposes in copies but of the goal of De Palma’s references in general. The finale is one of the director’s most jubilant, in which a giddy 360-degree shot overpowers the narrowly avoided filicide that precedes it.
13. “Dressed to Kill” (1980)
In some ways, “Dressed to Kill” is the ultimate litmus test for De Palma. It exists at the center of so many dichotomies—elegant/trashy, progressive/regressive, waking/oneiric—that one must decide whether the highs of De Palma can be enjoyed in tandem with his inseparable lows. The transgender character proves as backward as Hitchcock’s depictions of homosexuals, but that character also opens up the castration fears of the director’s work to their most blatant exposure, creating a work that wrestles with the very id-driven anxieties it vents.
It may be the De Palma film that requires the greatest level of scrutiny and critique, though the prospect of revisiting it multiple times is made more palatable by its deft construction, from its dangerous but playful pas-de-deux of mutually aware voyeurism in a museum to the simple but gorgeous glint of light off a razor before it slashes a throat.
12. “Raising Cain” (1992)
The end of the ‘80s marked the lowest creative point of De Palma’s career, a time in which both the success of “The Untouchables” and the colossal failure of “The Bonfire of the Vanities” seemed to have equally deleterious effects on his artistic vigor. “Raising Cain” briefly threw off the pressure of box-office expectations, a creative exercise akin to Scorsese’s “After Hours.” Starring John Lithgow (who manages to top even the insidious performance he gave in “Blow Out”) as a man with multiple personalities, “Cain” soon disappears into a nightmare realm of asymmetrically oriented mise-en-scène and alienating, warped physical distances.
The narrative movement recurs and shifts, déjà vu sights replayed at different angles, or through different characters wearing the same actor’s face. To call it “labyrinthine” offers the false possibility of an escape, a hope cruelly denied by the last shot, once once the cheapest shock and the most ridiculous joke in De Palma’s canon.
11. “Passion” (2013)
More than a mere return to form, “Passion” updates one of the director’s best, “Dressed to Kill.” Like that film, it deals in dubious sexual politics, a thriller that is somehow more effective for being predictable, and a hallucinatory dénouement that, in “Passion’s” case, stretches out to cover the whole back half. But the trashy aesthetic of the earlier film has been sublimated into modern form; the whole film looks as if it grew out of the Apple logo that opens it, all clean, white surfaces and ostensibly easy access.
The director gets his movie references out of the way with some “On the Waterfront”-esque blinds in a car’s back window, and he has a great deal of fun filming from female perspectives, especially in a shot of a model runway that makes the latest shoes as big as Rachel McAdams’ and Noomi Rapace’s heads. Yet this is the only film of the director’s in which women hold 100 percent of the power, and the frame’s consistent elegance hints at how well they can keep up appearances while enacting schemes far more complicated than the sex and murder fetishes of De Palma’s animalistic men.
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Categories: ListsTags: Al pacino, Blow Out, Brian De Palma, Carlito's Way, Carrie, Jake Cole, Nicolas cage, Passion, Phantom of the Paradise, Ranked, Robert de niro, Snake Eyes, The untouchables