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Retrospective: The Films of Brian De Palma

by The Playlist Staff
August 28, 2013 1:52 PM
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Few film directors are as polarizing as Brian De Palma, whose new film, the already argued-over "Passion," opens this week (read our review from Venice here). Hailed by some as an American visionary and a modern master of suspense, capable of gorgeously realized visual feats, De Palma is derided by others as a overtly referential hack who has based almost his entire career on a single trick: ripping off Alfred Hitchcock. But, as "Un-American Psycho: Brian De Palma and the Political Invisible," the new scholarly text on the director by Chris Dumas, points out, this divisiveness is at least partially his own doing. De Palma is a director who once claimed that he wanted to be "the American Godard" and talked openly about "the revolution" on national television (fun fact: he was once shot by a cop), yet went on to create fizzy popcorn entertainments that were occasionally boycotted for their perceived misogyny (at least two of his movies spawned honest-to-God, organized revolts). But if one of De Palma's inherent gifts as an artist is his uncanny ability to synthesize films that feel very much his own out of disparate source material, that doesn't always lead to a great deal of consistency as regards the quality of his output—and so his fascinating filmography runs the gamut from stone-cold classic to whatthehellwashethinking??? and back again, several times over.

It's undeniable that De Palma has real flair and visual sense. When so many action and suspense movies these days are lost in a shuffle of quick cuts and hand-held shakiness, De Palma's camera gracefully glides around sequences, so that you're always aware of the spatial geography of the moment and where the characters are in relation to the camera and each other. He uses a whole host of tricks as a kind of visual shorthand: the split diopter lens that allows both the foreground and background to be in focus, the employment of split-screen for a number of reasons (mostly to show the same event from two different locations or perspectives) and the use of slow motion as a way not just to amplify the visual importance of a moment but to accentuate the moment's emotionality. But (especially to his detractors), these often acutely-aware-of-themselves flourishes can end up taking away from what are often perceived as lightweight narratives, pieces where the style doesn't enhance the subject but rather is the subject. 

The vocal enthusiasm of both his supporters and detractors actually makes him somewhat unique in his peer group (which also includes Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola). From the outset it seems like a love-it-or-leave-it approach has to be taken; either you're on board or not. But this is slightly unfair. There are things that even the skeptics can begrudgingly love about his movies, and things that even diehards are quick to admit can be improved. In this feature, we hope to explore the wide range of emotions associated with De Palma's distinctive filmography. Of course, since this is De Palma, we may occasionally slip into the realm of the hopelessly obsessive ourselves. It's only fitting.

"Murder A La Mod" (1968)
As far as debut features go, it's hard to find one that's more evocative of the filmmaker's overarching career trajectory than "Murder a La Mod." Released in one theater in New York City in 1968, the film was quickly forgotten and remained, for a while, one of the hidden corners of De Palma's past. You can already feel the effects Antonioni's "Blow-Up" was having on the director (as well as Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom" and, of course, Hitchcock), in this tale of murder set amongst the blurred territory between art and pornography. A number of later, better De Palma movies can claim their origin here too, along with his chief thematic obsessions: voyeurism and sexual violence. In fact the movie is relatively entertaining, even though, at 80 minutes, it feels more like an art school thesis project rather than a bona fide feature film (and that theme song, written and sung by future "Phantom of the Paradise" icon William Finley, is kind of a hoot). The movie's black-and-white aesthetic adds to its generally homemade quality, poised somewhere between experimentalism (already he was toying with jump cuts and POV shots) and amateurism (some scenes are just cut oddly, and it's not for dramatic or artistic effect). The humor that would define De Palma's best films is in short supply here, although some of the sequences are unintentionally hilarious. It's like De Palma was unsure whether or not humor and horror could commingle, so he wanted to make sure the comedies he was making at the time were ultra wacky and things like "Murder a La Mod" were as told as straightfacedly as possible. Watching "Murder a La Mod" now, as part of the supplemental spread on the deluxe Criterion edition of "Blow Out," is like uncovering a De Palma time capsule that predicts the future of his career. If only the movie was better. [C-]

Greetings” (1968)
Audiences that only know (and perhaps adore) De Palma for the stylish, immaculately crafted Hitchcockian postmodern movieness that dominated his career, might not even recognize the De Palma from the early ‘70s with his socio-political bent and anarchic, silly, freewheeling comedic style. An amusing socio-political satire about three New York men trying to dodge the Vietnam draft, “Greetings” is offbeat and wacky with musical segments that resemble something taken from “The Monkees” TV show or the Beatles during their early Help! days. Starring Robert De Niro (in one of his first major roles), Jonathan Warden and Gerrit Graham, the vignette-heavy picture wrily plays like a self-mocking spoof of free love and ‘60s culture while at the same time embracing the anti-establishment zeitgeist. Discursive, episodic and very loose (to see this in contrast to De Palma’s modern work is like seeing night and day), the film follows three characters: Paul (Warden) the shy love-seeker who uses a computer dating service to get laid, Jon (Deniro), the amateur filmmaker-cum-peeping tom who helps coach his friends out of the draft with all kind of hilariously wild ideas, and Lloyd (Graham), the Kennedy assassination conspiracy nut. While DeNiro is largely defined as the super-serious unhinged tough guy in “Mean Streets,” his De Palma collaborations came way ahead of Marty’s breakthrough film and it’s wonderful to see him this loose and playful in this nebbish part (more akin to Rupert Pupkin in “The King Of Comedy") — he even breaks the 4th wall at one point. While still very ragtag, De Palma’s affection for the French New Wave is very much in evidence, and while enthusiasm once again eclipses focus, “Greetings” is nonetheless vibrant, spirited and often times a hilarious portrait of the anxiety of living in the shadow of the draft. [B]

The Wedding Party” (1969)
You’ll often see “The Wedding Party”— when looking at a chronological view of De Palma’s filmography — listed as his third feature-length film (as it is here), but make no mistake, it’s actually his true directorial debut (well, sorta). And to be honest, it shows. Independently produced, shot in 1963 and released six years later, it’s safe to say DePalma would rather have this film seen as a student movie instead of what is technically his feature debut (though that’s arguable too: its credits list his drama teacher and renowned stage director Wilford Leach and the film’s producer Cynthia Munroe as co-directors, but it’s said Leach worked with actors and Munroe simply paid for it). Starring Robert De Niro (improperly listed as ”Denero”), Jill Clayburgh (both of whom he is credited with “discovering”) and Charles Pfluger, “The Wedding Party” is a dark farce set in Long Island, New York with a simple premise: a soon-to-be-groom interacts with his fiancée’s family and the members of his wedding party two days before he’s supposed to married. This mostly amounts to the groom (Pfluger) conversing with his friends (one of which is DeNiro) about various topical ‘60s issues such as the sexual revolution, Vietnam and black power, all while also discussing bachelorhood and impending marriage. High on enthusiasm, but low on focus, laughs or insight “The Wedding Party” is often improvised (it shows) and like all of his early work, has a goofy sheen to it. Notable for its use of jump cuts (De Palma was in love with the energy of the French New Wave at the time) and silent film techniques (title cards, sped up running around a la Keystone Kops), the director seems to spit techniques at the screen (still photography, voice-over) without much thought or arrangement. And often, said techniques feel like choices of necessity, circumstance or budget rather than creative ones. While an interesting curio, especially for De Niro and De Palma completists, "The Wedding Party" is more of an unpolished experiment in filmmaking rather than a proper De Palma film and should be viewed as such. [C-]

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  • Daniel | April 26, 2014 7:58 PMReply

    The writers mentioned Carlito Brigante as a "Cuban American". WRONG!!!!!!!!!!!
    Carlito was a Puerto Rican. He was Puerto Rican in the two novels Carlitos Way & After Hours. He was Puerto Rican in the movie. While I found this DePalma list entertaining and informative ( found some new movies to watch) I can't help but wonder if you made more errors.

  • waldek | April 20, 2014 9:01 PMReply

    as a fan of de palma i absolutely agree with the grades in this retrospective. i only didn't see "passion", because i gave up on new de palma movies since the last good one was mission impossible and the last great one was carlito's way, but after i saw a "B" here, i think i'll give it a chance. i especially love "sisters", "blow out", "dressed to kill", "body double", "scarface" and "carlito's way". these movies are enough for me to make him one of the best movie makers ever. today's blockbuster movies look all the same, it seems not to matter who's the director at all. that's why i like de palma's distinguished style. his movies look like de palma movies and you can't imagine anyone else directing them.

  • Grego | April 15, 2014 1:50 PMReply

    That Femme Fatale rating is just wrong. It's the ultimate De Palma movie. It's not about a "clever twist," it's about cinema itself. Simply getting lost in a movie, among other things.

    I respect that you acknowledged that it split critics down the middle, but perhaps you should have acknowledged the extent to which it did so. It finished in the top 100 of Film Comment's best films of the decade poll, for example.

  • MishuPishu | August 30, 2013 6:55 PMReply

    Wow! It's easy to forget that De Palma was behind all these great movies, as well as the clunkers. Bound to happen when you're making a movie almost every year for four decades.

    I remember going to see "Blow Out" at the Drive-In when I was ten. The images were such a primal movie moment for me. When I returned to it later, it held on as one of my favorites. I recall Carrie being one of the early horror films that made me yearn for the genre. Then I remember catching Scarface when I was a teenager and thinking it was the most badass screen expression ever. Absolutely exhilerating.

    Easy to forget that he was behind Mission Impossible.

    Thanks for the walk down memory lane.

  • MFD | August 29, 2013 8:50 PMReply

    I vote for Brian De Palma's tragic, emotionally shattering "Casualties of War" as not simply his finest film but as one of top-rank masterworks of all American cinema since the very beginning of its history.

    And as for acting, just watch Michael J. Fox slam one of his platoon mates with a shovel after they have tried to frag him for trying to reveal their participation in the gang rape and killing of a young Vietnamese woman and then listen to him deliver the line "You don't have to kill me, I told them -- and they don't care!" If Fox needed anything to justify his whole career (he doesn't), this sorrowful, indelible moment is it.

  • boo boo butter | August 29, 2013 7:18 PMReply

    What sequence did tarantino lift from casualties of war?

  • BOB | August 29, 2013 11:26 AMReply

    When I saw Thives Like Us get a C+ in the Altman I thought you guys were dumb. Now you giving Casualties of War a C+ just proves you are beyond reach. How are you not moved by that film? Droids I tell you! You all are droids! No emotion shilling for Nolan and Bigelow. Down with you cynics!

  • BENNY BLANCO FROM THE BRONX | August 29, 2013 9:14 AMReply

    ones i will watch and watch again

    2002 Femme Fatale

    1998 Snake Eyes
    1992 Raising Cain
    1990 The Bonfire of the Vanities

    1989 Casualties of War
    1984 Body Double
    1981 Blow Out
    1980 Dressed to Kill

    1976 Carrie
    1973 Sisters
    1970 Hi, Mom!

    1969 The Wedding Party
    1968 Greetings

  • Leah k | August 28, 2013 8:11 PMReply

    Thank you so much for this wonderful list! While I don't quite agree that Causalities of War deserved the grade it received, it's refreshing knowing that De Palma is getting his due. At least, here on this website.

  • Erik | August 28, 2013 7:28 PMReply

    You guys are really undervalueing Casualties of War! If any De Palma film holds up as well now as when it was released, it's that one. The final scene is kind of shitty, but the rest of the movie is terrific.

  • El Hanso | August 28, 2013 3:25 PMReply

    I'm not the biggest De Palma fan, but most of the films I've seen are at least fascinating in their very unique way. "Carrie" and "Blow out" are probably my favorites, while I couldn't really get behind "Sisters" last time I tried. But I feel like I want to check out "The Fury."

    But many thanks for this special. Love the director's retrospectives you do from time to time. Great work. Keep 'em coming.

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