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Retrospective: The Films of Brian De Palma

Features
by The Playlist Staff
August 28, 2013 1:52 PM
11 Comments
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"Obsession" (1976)
Considering how much bloody violence and explicit sex Brian De Palma has committed to cinema over the years, it's pretty strange that "Obsession," a PG-rated romantic mystery chiefly inspired by Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo," remains one of his most controversial. The movie itself is pretty simple, at least within the decidedly warped canon of De Palma movies: a New Orleans businessman (Cliff Robertson) loses his wife and daughter in a kidnapping plot gone wrong and years later falls in love with a woman (Genevieve Bujold) who looks exactly like his late wife. Of course, his new obsession runs the risk of turning out like the last one, with Robertson losing the person he loves the most, especially since the dark forces that were responsible for the previous kidnapping are realigning (if you see John Lithgow in a Brian De Palma movie, just run the other way as fast as you can, especially if he has a slippery southern drawl). Famously, "Taxi Driver" scribe Paul Schrader's original script, entitled "Deja vu," was significantly longer than the finished film, with the obsession repeating itself a third time (the end of the movie was set in the not-too-distant future). When De Palma requested that the ending be truncated and rearranged, based on a suggestion by composer Bernard Hermann, Schrader refused, and De Palma did the last script polish; Schrader never forgave him. But surely this extra act could have added little to the film besides yet another layer of mind boggling complexity (you can read the script in the little booklet that comes with the region-free European Blu-ray of the movie). The other area of contention is the movie's (SPOILER) incestuous subplot, with the eventual reveal being that the woman Robertson falls in love in the second timeline is actually his daughter (she didn't really die in the original kidnapping plot). In an effort to lessen the overt incest subplot and gain a distributor for the independent production, De Palma and his editor Paul Hirsch added effects and an establishing shot of Robertson sleeping to suggest much of their relationship, including when they have sex, was actually a dream - a dreamy fabrication of his inner desires. Subsequently, the dream sequence reading of the movie has largely been put aside, with most taking the literal meaning of the movie: that Robertson fucked his daughter. Pretty bleak stuff for a PG-rated movie (something that makes it all even more perverse). While "Obsession" is far from perfect — its pacing often drags, the cast is somewhat second rate (Robertson can't pull off the psychodrama or the sexuality) and Vilmos Zsigmond's diffused cinematography is sometimes so soft that the image becomes a blurry haze (though there are some truly wonderful shots, of course, including a great moment that's meant to represent the passage of 15 years). But there are just as many delights, like Hermann's sweeping score and Lithgow's bonkers performance. Admittedly, if you watch the movie thinking that the incest subplot is not a dream, then it's a much better, more gleefully lurid experience. [B]

Carrie” (1976)
Often imitated, never duplicated (woe to this fall's high profile remake), Brian De Palma’s 1976 film, “Carrie” not only introduced the work of Stephen King to the silver screen for the first time, but also helped to usher the horror genre out of the B-movie ghetto and into mainstream success and prestige (both Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie were Academy-award nominated for their performances). De Palma brings his sheer cinematic audacity to the well-trodden world of high school bullies and and mean girls, both energizing and abstracting the genre’s aesthetic, infusing the proceedings with a shot of absurdism and beauty, and showcasing a completely unique style of cinematic storytelling. However, here, all of the style serves the story, which is why sequences like the extended slow motion naked locker room introduction/tampon attack, the spiraling camera during a dance between Carrie and Tommy (William Katt), and the use of split screen to demonstrate Carrie’s telekinetic powers during her violent rampage feel not just apropos, but the only way to capture these moments. But while he applies artful (and ballsy) cinematic techniques to what is essentially high school horror exploitation material, De Palma isn’t afraid to muck around with a little bit of camp (a quality all too easily tossed aside in overly serious modern horror). Laurie’s performance as Carrie’s Southern-fried religious fanatic mother, as well as Nancy Allen as the evil Chris (with John Travolta as her dumb-as-rocks boyfriend) are the epitome of high camp. This willingness to allow the film to be ridiculous or funny at times is what makes it so compulsively re-watchable (the mark of a true classic), and inspires one to long for De Palma to return to this milieu. No matter how many sequels or remakes or Broadway adaptations, no iteration of this tale will come close to the original without De Palma behind the wheel. [A]

"The Fury" (1978)
Usually, you can tell whether or not someone is a De Palma die hard by where they stand on "The Fury": to the faithful it's a kicky, super-charged thriller, one in which the heightened style De Palma developed with "Carrie" spins gloriously out of control, a movie so artfully entertaining that it supposedly inspired Godard to return to more mainstream enterprises. For those on the other side of the fence it's an unnecessarily violent, muddled retread of the infinitely superior "Carrie," one in which the constant flow of sparky shocks trumps little things like narrative coherence or tonal consistency. What makes "The Fury" such a singular moment in the director's filmography is that both lines of thought are essentially correct: it is kind of a shit show, with the movie's highly emotional thematic core, which attempts to dramatize what it's like to be a young person (with psychic powers, no less) victimized by powerful adults, repeatedly getting undercut by De Palma's show-offy camerawork and abrupt tonal shifts, like the hilarious sight of Kirk Douglas, as an AWOL secret agent, running around Chicago in his underwear. On the other side of things, "The Fury" is an absurdist delight, one in which the rigid conventions of the seventies paranoid thriller are taken to such extremes that the movie takes on its own kind of profound, abstract beauty; earthly logic doesn't matter because you're so wholly transported. The plot of "The Fury" concerns teenagers who possess a psychic ability that makes them very attractive to a covert government shingle that hopes to weaponize them (led by a gloriously villainous John Cassavetes, who gets his comeuppance in the movie's unforgettable final moment). Like the "X-Men" movies, "The Fury" mines the transition from childhood to adulthood as a metaphorically rich period of time, where the emotional trauma and feelings of alienation and heartache translate into superpowers and exploding heads. For such an underseen movie, it has some of the director's most virtuosic set pieces, including a wordless foot chase sequence (scored by John Williams' amazing music), a foggy car chase that seems to have been filmed almost entirely on an elaborate set, and an absolutely astounding sequence set at a now-defunct indoor amusement park where one of the psychically gifted teens lets out his fury. The film has its share of problems (the parallel narrative paths never reconcile in a meaningful way) but it's a movie that seems to be saying something about America's relationship with the Middle East while also being a coming-of-age tale that makes time for jokes about Kirk Douglas' underwear and exploding heads. [A-]

"Home Movies" (1980)
During Brian De Palma's sexy, suspenseful streak of either out-and-out masterpieces or interesting, adventurous entertainments, he stopped to make "Home Movies," a clunky, low-budget, disarmingly autobiographical comedy about a young man (Keith Gordon) who, distraught over his parents' rocky marriage, starts obsessively filming his home life. (Some of its handmade charm came from the fact that De Palma made the movie with his students from a class he was teaching at Sarah Lawrence College). Voyeurism has been a constant theme in De Palma's work, stemming from an early childhood incident where he tried to capture photographic evidence of his father's philandering ways. This is De Palma dealing with that situation directly, although diffused through the trappings of a gonzo indie comedy, wherein the Gordon character is visited regularly by Kirk Douglas (who had just starred in De Palma's infinitely funnier big-budget sci-fi thingy "The Fury") playing a kind of magical film professor who guides Gordon in the best ways to photograph his father. Sometimes this is kind of funny, but more often than not it's WTF-worthy weirdness. De Palma regulars Nancy Allen (who was still married to the director at the time) and Gerrit Graham (from "Phantom of the Paradise") make memorable appearances but get lost in the muddy, boxy photography (so weird for a director who usually so elegantly uses the widescreen image) and snared in the script's confused tonal mishmash. De Palma movies are often notable for being wholly understandable just by the images alone; even without music or dialogue you can grasp what's happening. With "Home Movies," he was boldly reverting back to the more experimental material of his early films but in a way that fails to connect in any meaningful way. He was certainly going for something with "Home Movies," but what that something is remains wholly obscured. Not even the imagery can muster much enthusiasm, even from the De Palma faithful. [C-]

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11 Comments

  • 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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