Monday, September 10, 2012

Director Essentials: Brian De Palma

by Patrick Bromley
A look at the essential movies of a filmmaker who is much more than a Hitchcock imitator.

Brian De Palma is one of my favorite directors. It's no surprise that he's a polarizing figure; most movie nerds either love his excessive, often comically operatic style or largely dismiss him as a hack whose body of work consists of derivative trash and nonsense. What I've always loved about De Palma is just how much his movies are about being movies; there are few directors who are as open and as enthusiastic about manipulating an audience -- a trick he learned from (who else?) Hitchcock, then spent an entire career exploring. Few directors are more technically accomplished, but it's the wit and the cleverness that keeps me coming back to his movies over and over.

Keep in mind that, like all Director Essentials columns, these aren't necessarily the director's 10 best movies, or even my 10 favorite. These are 10 movies essential in understanding and showcasing Brian De Palma as a filmmaker. Also, these are not ranked in quality. They are chronological. No complaints about the order, please.
1. Sisters (1973) - Though he had made several political comedies in the late '60s and early '70s, many of De Palma's earliest movies still feel like student films. Murder a la Mod (1968) introduces a few of of De Palma's recurring themes and motifs, but it wasn't until Sisters in '73 that the De Palma we know and love was born. A thriller with overtones of pitch black comedy, Sisters has Margot Kidder as a wannabe actress who may be at the center of some grisly murders. There's so much De Palma here: split screens, Hitchcock nods, bloody violence, excellent suspense, William Finley (RIP). It's not his best movie, but it's the first movie where it feels like he comes into focus.

2. Phantom of the Paradise (1974) - After developing his signature style in Sisters, De Palma mixed things up with his very next movie, turning away from Hitchcockian thrillers and doing a crazy rock n' roll musical/horror mash-up. There's so much De Palma still in the movie, including one split-screen sequence that ranks with the pig's blood scene in Carrie and a mixing of styles and (especially) influences. It all adds up to a twisted, brilliant and unique movie that's more fun than anything DePalma has made since. And, as anyone who follows this site probably already knows, it's one of my favorite movies ever.

3. Carrie (1976) - If Sisters was the movie that introduced the "De Palma" style, Carrie is the movie that cemented it for good. The Stephen King adaptation gave the director his first big commercial success and still holds up as one of the best horror movies ever made. De Palma turned the source material into a darkly funny opera about high school life, got great performances from his young cast (he shared casting sessions with George Lucas, who was reading actors for Star Wars) and created some of the most iconic moments the genre has ever produced. The last scene alone changed horror movies forever.
4. Dressed to Kill (1980) - Though it feels like De Palma was treading water for much of the late '70s and '80s -- churning out the same Hitchcock-inspired suspense thriller over and over -- Dressed to Kill cranks up all the stuff that makes De Palma so entertaining. This is essentially his take on Psycho, only with none of Hitchcock's restraint. Everything Hitchcock avoided showing is on full display here, and then some.

5. Blow Out (1981) -Still De Palma's best movie, and one of my all-time favorites. A brilliant suspense movie, a brilliant political thriller, a brilliant examination of how movies are constructed. Few directors are as open about their filmmaking processes as De Palma, and while the movie is often read as a variation on Antonioni's Blow-up and one of the director's most "serious" film, it's also one of his most personally revealing efforts. John Travolta has never been better, and that ending will never stop being a punch in the stomach. It's a good scream.

6. The Untouchables (1987) - Here it is. The Untouchables is DePalma's most successful commercial movie -- not necessarily in terms of box office (that would be Mission: Impossible), but in terms of marrying his aesthetic with a mainstream, audience-friendly piece of filmmaking (an observation I first heard made by Quentin Tarantino). Great cast, great David Mamet script, great locations, great production design, great set pieces. This is the movie that could have made Brian De Palma a household name outside of us movie nerds, but between Casualties of War and Bonfire of the Vanities, De Palma just couldn't help being De Palma. The goodwill disappeared.
7. Casualties of War (1989) - After the critical and (especially) commercial success of The Untouchables, De Palma cashed in his chips to get this longtime personal project off the ground. He started his career making political, anti-war movies, so it made sense that he would return to that arena as soon as success afforded him to do so. Instead of focusing on "WAR" as a whole, the movie boils the conflict down to one horrible act that shatters the lives of everyone involved. The movie got lost in the glut of Vietnam war films that came out around the same time (Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Hamburger Hill, Born on the Fourth of July), but it's a messy, deeply personal and haunting movie that demonstrated De Palma could do more than just riff on Hitchcock.

8. The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) - To fully understand and appreciate a filmmaker, you also have to study his failures -- and there are few failures bigger and more famous than De Palma's adaptation of Tom Wolfe's hugely popular 1987 novel. An entire book (The Devil's Candy) was written about just how things went so wrong on the movie, but the answer is pretty simple: De Palma was the wrong guy for the job. He's capable of doing comedy, but more so in the context of one of his thrillers. He's good at satire, but he's hardly subtle; as a result, he turned out one of the clunkiest and most tone-deaf satires of the last 30 years. Though a lot of the movie's problems can be attributed to a bad screenplay, miscast actors (Tom Hanks and Bruce Willis are NOT RIGHT for their roles) and huge cost overruns, it was De Palma's hubris steering the ship. Some filmmakers just fly too close to the sun.

9. Carlito's Way (1993) - Still smarting from the wounds of Vanities and the frustrating disappointment of Raising Cain, De Palma returned to the well and made another gangster movie with his Scarface star Al Pacino. Though lacking that movie's De Palmian excess, Carlito's Way is a better, richer movie, and one of the best crime/gangster movies of the 1990s. Ending aside, Scarface celebrates being a gangster; Carlito's Way laments it. Yes, there's some bad voice over and Pacino's lisp can be hard to take (ditto for Penelope Ann Miller), but the movie could be considered a minor classic just on the basis of the bar shootout and the last 30 minutes. Plus, Sean Penn is ridiculous and great. The movie doesn't get talked about as much as it should by De Palma lovers, but people who could care less about who directed it have totally embraced it.
10. Femme Fatale (2002) - There are plenty of people who don't like Femme Fatale. That's fine. It's not for everyone. But there are a lot of De Palma fans who don't like Femme Fatale, and that I cannot understand. It is his last great movie and, in so many ways, both the culmination of his entire body of work and a sly commentary on the kinds of movies on which he built his career -- a pulpy, kinky, brilliant deconstruction of the thriller genre, of movies as dreams, of genre conventions and audience expectations. Rebecca Romijn's limited acting abilities actually serve her well, as her flatness reads as icy and aloof. I don't get how you could love movies and not love Femme Fatale. It has everything you could want.

As a huge De Palma fan, there are several movies left off the list that I would love to have included: The Fury and Body Double, two of his most underrated and misunderstood thrillers; Mission: Impossible, his last big hit and another good example of how well-suited his aesthetic could be for commercial success (but the script does that one in a little bit); Raising Cain and Snake Eyes, two frustrating and ultimately unsatisfying attempts at reclaiming his glory. F Head Cameron Cloutier pointed me in the direction of reedited Raising Cain that is supposedly much closer to De Palma's original vision and a better movie; I have yet to watch it.

More Director Essentials:
1. Michael Bay
2. Woody Allen
3. Ron Howard
4. Sidney Lumet
5. Paul Verhoeven
6. Steven Soderbergh
7. Tim Burton
8. Joe Dante
9. Robert Zemeckis
10. Michael Cimino
11. Wes Craven
12. Spike Lee
13. John Landis 


  1. The one movie directed by De Palma that I actually saw in theaters was "Mission to Mars" back when I was a kid. I did not realize how awful this film would be once I eventually grew up and I haven't seen it since then.

  2. 'Blow Out' is also one of my favorites though i wouldnt consider myself a "Brian De Palma". Not that i dont like him but i havent seen enough of his stuff. But i did watch 'Phantom of the Paradise' after listening to your favorite movies podcast and yea it's crazy and great.

  3. No love for "Get to Know Your Rabbit"? :-)

  4. I really love De Palma. I have not seen all of his movies, but I was a big fan of pretty much everything from The Untouchables onward, and can remember sitting in an otherwise empty theater watching Snake Eyes and realizing it wasn't great but still had a lot of redeeming qualities, like that very impressive long, one shot of Cage walking into the arena at the beginning of the movie. I should really catch up on his films that I've never seen.

    1. Yes! There are many I can recommend. His '80s period is probably my favorite, but a lot of his best stuff was done in the '70s. Definitely check out Phantom of the Paradise (of course), Blow Out and Dressed to Kill. And I think you would dig The Fury.

  5. Patrick, I'm curious if you've had the chance to watch the re-edited version of Raising Cain. It's certainly an interesting experiment, but I'm not convinced that it's superior to the theatrical version.

    1. I haven't seen it yet. Thanks for the reminder, actually. I like the theatrical cut, so I will temper my expectations.