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Retrospective: The Films of Brian De Palma

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist August 28, 2013 at 1:52PM

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).
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Dressed to Kill

"Dressed to Kill" (1980)
We could describe the plot of “Dressed to Kill" in detail, but the story isn’t really the point here for either the director or his audience. De Palma’s love for and homages to Alfred Hitchcock have been discussed to a brutal, stabby death, but it’s impossible not to bring up the original Master of Suspense when talking about this particular movie. We imagine it’s the film that De Palma thinks Hitchcock would’ve made were he not operating under the Hays Code. Echoing one of Hitch's most famous scenes, this 1980 film begins with Angie Dickinson’s Kate Miller in the shower having a rape fantasy, and the film isn’t shy about showing every inch of the actress (or, more accurately, body double–and Playmate–Victoria Lynn Johnson). While Hitchcock’s shower scene doesn’t show the blade piercing the skin, De Palma’s murder later in the film zeroes in on a slicing blade and glories in the spurting blood from the first strike -- what a difference two decades makes. Beyond the individual moments, there are of course thematic and stylistic echoes, including doubles, voyeurism and blondes (there are apparently no brunettes in De Palma’s New York). But outside of the easy comparisons to the classic filmmaker’s work, “Dressed to Kill” stands on its own as a fun, sometimes silly psychosexual thriller that only De Palma could have made. The film is steeped in the year 1980, and many of its elements haven’t aged particularly well (it’s not one of Michael Caine’s best performances), but it is still an enjoyable exercise in style. Ann Roth deserves extra notice for creating the glamorous costumes, particularly for Dickinson’s sexually frustrated housewife and Nancy Allen’s upscale hooker. [B+]

Blow Out

"Blow Out" (1981)
No matter what you think of De Palma's oeuvre as a whole, it's impossible to deny the raw power of "Blow Out." An uncanny bouillabaisse of influences including everything from Antonioni's "Blow-Up" to the JFK assassination, the movie concerns a B-movie sound technician (John Travolta, in his all-time best performance) who accidentally records a political assassination and gets involved in a dark conspiracy involving a young call girl (Nancy Allen, of course) and a contract killer (John Lithgow, of course again), who lets his work get away from him. "Blow Out" oscillates wildly in terms of tone and genre, too. Ostensibly, it's a thriller, but it's also a movie-world satire about low-budget filmmaking, and a celebration of the transformative power of cinema, all nestled inside regular De Palma themes of voyeurism, sexuality and political unease. What was originally intended as a much smaller film wound up with an infinitely larger budget thanks to the rising star power of Travolta and the movie, according to one De Palma book, made less than half of its production back in its initial domestic run. It's hard to imagine audiences, who had been so beguiled by Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever" and "Grease" turning up to see him as an obsessive, self-loathing sleazeball. (The movie, although released in 1981, carries with it the cynicism and sophistication of a seventies movie. Had it been released just a few years earlier we have to believe it would have been more loudly appreciated and seen by a greater audience.) But really, its cheif pleasure is that if "Blow Out" is consumed with the mechanics of filmmaking, then the filmmaking in "Blow Out" is beyond exquisite. From the opening prologue, a phony slasher movie sequence that is giddily over-the-top, to the title sequence that basically lays out the entire movie in a few minutes, to the staging of the actual blow out; this is De Palma's working at an astonishing technical level, but without the usual glittery flourishes that usually garner so much criticism from the director's detractors. It is, in its weird way, subtler than most of De Palma's thrillers but just as dazzling, maybe more so (Quentin Tarantino may have repurposed a section of it for "Death Proof," but even Pino Donaggio's score feels delicate and understated). There are showy moments, of course, like the sequence where Travolta realizes his tapes have been erased, all captured by a single swirling camera movement, but it's all in service of a deceptively simple story of growing paranoia and sexual unease. "Blow Out" culminates in what is undoubtedly De Palma's most downbeat ending; (SPOILER) not only does the beautiful girl get horribly murdered but our "hero," racked with guilt, who has been recording the entire moment, ends up utilizing it for one of his hacky B movies. In De Palma's world, even real-world tragedy can be fodder for movie magic. [A]

Scarface

Scarface” (1983)
A 1983 retelling of the 1933 Paul Muni gangster classic, DePalma takes on the American dream and renders it absurd (and violent) in the form of Cuban immigrant Tony Montana (Al Pacino). The gangster genre has long been a useful way to dissect the American dream, especially for those ethnic immigrants shut out of the mainstream capitalist system who found access to financial success (the marker of achievement) by turning to crime. The 1933 version of “Scarface” was so violent that it, in part, inspired the restrictive Hays Code, enforced in Hollywood in 1934, that required films have “compensating moral values” for depicting crime, lawlessness, and general immorality (ie. the bad guy’s got to be punished). And DePalma's take follows the gangster formula dutifully, down to the bloody blaze of “compensating moral values” that he goes out in. Written by Oliver Stone in the wake of a fierce cocaine addiction, the film is like the effect of a line of fresh powder snorted in a Miami club bathroom: colorful, bright and bloody. Pacino disappears into Tony, his accent thick and unwieldy, his eyes wild. He is unhinged and unpredictable, a man who lives by the motto he sees on a Goodyear blimp: the world is yours. An exquisite Michelle Pfeiffer represents his ultimate trophy: an icy blonde white woman, whom he gets how he gets everything in his life—with copious amounts of cocaine. But while Tony’s creeds and lifestyle are often aped in rap videos as an aspirational way of life, make no bones about it, “Scarface” is an absolute satire of the fallacy that is this particular American Dream. At the moment when Tony throws a tantrum in a fancy restaurant, sipping expensive wine, surrounded by his drug-addled trophy wife and his best friend Manny (Steven Bauer), he realizes that all that he’s worked (and killed) to attain is utterly empty and meaningless. Tony Montana is capitalism’s existential crisis. A close reading of the film clearly demonstrates how De Palma illustrates this—even the famous bathtub scene shows Tony alone and made absurd by his own meaningless surroundings. The epic scope of the film, the South Beach sun-blasted, saturated colors, the brutal violence, and Pacino’s over the top, but brilliant, performance have co-mingled to create a gangster classic that wasn’t embraced upon release, but has since imprinted itself on our collective unconscious. [A]

Body Double

"Body Double" (1984)
While "Blow Out" is the undisputed masterpiece from De Palma's so-called "red period," "Body Double" might be the most flat-out fun, though it was inspired by De Palma's experience working with a body double for the opening of "Dressed to Kill" (no, that was not Angie Dickinson's bush) and intended initially as an honest intersection of adult film and Hollywood (complete with X-rating). Even after it was decided that the movie would be a more mainstream Hollywood piece, De Palma flirted with actually casting an adult film actress in the lead role of Holly Body. But when Columbia brass found out he was auditioning porno queens, they had a shit fit, leading De Palma to cast a largely unknown Melanie Griffith in the role. From the infamous teaser poster (which won an advertising award) to the movie itself, "Body Double" was marred by controversy that often tipped over into outright hate. De Palma, who had flirted with being labeled a misogynist mostly due to his uncanny ability to think of creative ways to kill beautiful young women, was finally condemned as villainously anti-woman, with most of the criticism centered around a scene where a woman is impaled by an oversized phallic drill (get it?) Of course, the hysteria feels misplaced now, with the movie playing more as a clever mash-up of elements of "Vertigo" and "Rear Window," significantly sexed-up for the music video eighties (there's even a music video within the movie)) It's also infused with De Palma's trademark absurdist sense of humor, particularly when, towards the end, the narrative shuffles between the actual plot and the cheesy vampire movie that our main character (Craig Wasson, charming in his own, wooden way) is making. But even if you find "Body Double" deplorable ("sadistic" was probably the word most often used to describe it), it's hard not to be awed by some of the set pieces (even the drill-killing sequence, which features the same pooch from Sam Fuller's "White Dog" trivia fans), including the extended chase that travels through an outdoor mall and out onto the beach, the aforementioned Frankie Goes to Hollywood music video, and anything involving a naked Melanie Griffith. There's a certain amount of joy in every frame of "Body Double" that is sometimes lacking in De Palma's more clinical technical exercises, with little flourishes like frequent De Palma confederate Dennis Franz playing De Palma (he's even wearing De Palma's clothes); a phony all-pornographic channel that Wasson watches ("And for you home viewers, you can pick it up at Tower Records all-night video sales"); Wasson auditioning for a porno while another one is being shot on the stage below (viewable, since this is a De Palma movie, thanks to a rectangular sliver of glass in the producer's elevated office); and Pino Donaggio's purposefully cheesy, electronics-infused score. (The screenplay, too, by De Palma and Robert J. Avrech, is endlessly quotable — "I'm not some fucking stunt cock, I'm an actor!") It's got the conspiratorial tone of someone telling a really dirty joke, something that makes the outrage that followed the film's release even more baffling. Plus, if De Palma was really a misogynist, why would he give Griffith all the best lines? [A-]

Wiseguys

"Wise Guys" (1986)
Oftentimes Brian De Palma movies can be funny, sometimes outrageously so (as is the case with "Body Double" and "The Fury"), but when he tries to do out-and-out comedies the results are decidedly more mixed. In the case of "Wise Guys," though, his attempt at humor was more or less a complete disaster. Danny DeVito and Joe Piscopo (!) play a couple of low-level leg-breakers who squander a mob boss' money and go on the run together (in a pink Cadillac, no less). There are a couple of noteworthy supporting performances, particularly Dan Hedaya as the mob boss who loves wearing bulletproof business suits (don't ask) and Harvey Keitel as an Atlantic City hotel owner, whose mere presence makes the movie a few degrees cooler, but that doesn't amount to much. What could have been an intriguing, fun concept is marred from the very beginning by cartoonish performances and a kind of heightened reality that doesn't, as is usually the case with De Palma movies, enrich the action but instead detracts from it to a crippling degree. Everyone seems to be shouting and waving their arms around and De Palma's direction more or less follows suit, with a number of visual flourishes that only serve to remind us that the director could very well be using his complex technical expertise on much better material. (Although there is a great, super single shot of an entire street clearing the way for an exploding car, only hampered slightly by his decision to speed up the action a la the trying-on-the-tuxedos moment in "Carrie.") "Wise Guys" proves that a tone deaf, dumb-ass comedy with a bunch of nifty split diopter shots is still a tone deaf, dumb-ass comedy, and for all its frenetic energy it can't muster much enthusiasm in those watching. [D]

This article is related to: Brian De Palma, Passion, Retrospective, Features, Feature, Carrie, Blow Out, Scarface


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