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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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The Untouchables” (1987)
While many critics were right to dismiss the kinda awful “Gangster Squad” earlier this year, it seemed like a major criticism leveled against it was that it was a lesser “L.A. Confidential” knockoff. We’d argue that’s a more apt description of another, more recent De Palma film (yes, "The Black Dahlia"). "Gangster Squad’ was much more derivative of “The Untouchables,” attempting (and failing) to hit that sweet spot between comic book style iconography, true life crime tale, and hard-R action. If anything it was proof that screenwriter David Mamet, seemingly having a ball writing lots of theatrical, tough guy dialogue (“He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That's the Chicago way!”) and De Palma together fashioned something quite special with their truth-be-damned take on the Elliot Ness autobiography and TV series of the same name. While plenty of facts are smudged to tell the audience the legend instead of the truth—this is like the dime-store paperback edition of the truth, “Dick Tracy” for adults if you will—it’s hard to argue in favor of verisimilitude when the results are this entertaining. And now that Kevin Costner has been such a welcome presence in certain big movies lately (“Man of Steel”), can we all just admit that in his prime, he was a wonderful everyman star actor? His take on Elliot Ness as a goody-two-shoes cop who just wants to take down Capone is just the right center to give balance to all the high quality (and high decibel) work done by the supporting cast: Robert De Niro as Al Capone is lights out; Best Supporting Oscar winner Sean Connery (being awesome and so wonderfully Conneryish as a badass Irish beat cop); fellow untouchables Andy Garcia and especially Charles Martin Smith, who brings so much joy, be it firing a shotgun for the first time or digging into Capone’s taxes for any angle at an arrest. And we can’t forget Ennio Morricone’s lovely, bombastic score, old fashioned in all the right ways. It’s a tough trick to pull off something as strong as “The Untouchables,” which is artful purely and only for being so damn entertaining. [A-]

"Casualties of War" (1989)
When "The Untouchables" proved to be an unexpected box office bonanza, De Palma utilized his newfound popularity to get "Casualties of War," a singularly bleak war movie, off the ground. Inspired by an actual event that was covered in a New Yorker article from 1969 (three short years after it occurred), "Casualties of War" concerns a small deployment in Vietnam whose highest ranking officer (Sean Penn) orders his men to kidnap a young Vietnamese girl for, in his words, "A little portable R & R." A sorely miscast Michael J. Fox stars as a young infantrymen, recently deployed, who serves as the moral compass for the movie. We watch, in horror, as Fox wrestles with his guilt and culpability. Sex crime during war is a subject that has largely gone unattended to in the genre of the war film, and "Casualties of War" shows you why: it's disastrously bleak stuff and the movie pretty much suffocates the viewer in this darkness, like blanketing the entire audience in a thick toxic fog. "Casualties of War" is not without it's merits; most of the performances are great, notably Penn and a few supporting players who De Palma would reteam with later, like Ving Rhames and John Leguizamo (it was also, it should be noted, John C. Reilly's first movie), and occasionally the filmmaking is dazzling in a way that only De Palma movies are dazzling, like when the camera moves below ground, to show the inner workings of the Viet Cong's tunnel system, hollowed out like an ant farm. It's just that there's no recovering from the blackness of the subject matter, and the occasionally heavy-handed way that De Palma handles said subject matter. Still, it's not without its supporters (Quentin Tarantino called it his favorite war film ever and stole a sequence from the film for "Reservoir Dogs") and it's infinitely better than De Palma's later, thematically similar "Redacted." But that's damning it with faint praise. "Casualties of War" is an essential movie in the De Palma filmography, but more for the role that it played in his life rather than the film itself. After its disastrous response, both critically and commercially, De Palma fell into a deep depression, thinking that his personal projects were uniformly doomed. It's the reason that he wound up making one of the worst decisions of his career: taking on "Bonfire of the Vanities," because he was eager for an easy, surefire, crowd-pleasing hit. Little did he know. [C+]

"Bonfire of the Vanities" (1990)
As lovingly detailed in Julie Salamon's must-read first hand account "The Devil's Candy," De Palma's adaptation of Tom Wolfe's blockbuster novel was filled, from start to finish on both a macro and micro level, with crippling creative compromises and poor decisions. How, for instance, was lovably thuggish Bruce Willis cast as the novel's erudite British author or the loud, Jewish judge from the book portrayed by a knightly Morgan Freeman? De Palma has never been the best with straightforward comedies (see also: "Wise Guys"), which is once again the case here, particularly with the screechy comedic tone established and maintained by stars Tom Hanks and Melanie Griffith (so much better and funnier in earlier De Palma joint "Body Double"). Here you can almost feel the director's desperation to get back into the audience's good graces after the disastrously received, unrelentingly bleak "Casualties of War." Maybe most damning was the fact that, due to the sluggish development phase of "Bonfire of the Vanities," the novel that embodied the eighties wasn't released until 1990, well after it had captured the national zeitgeist. As is the case in all De Palma movies, no matter how miserable, there are a few moments that still dazzle: the opening, unbroken shot that follows Willis through a maze of underground tunnels before emerging into a swanky Manhattan event, the shot of the Concorde touching down that took a Herculean amount of effort to achieve (it's lit by the golden hue of the setting sun), and the movie's first image, atop the Chrysler Building, which required 24-hours of time lapse photography (achieved, like the Concorde moment, by second unit wizard Eric Schwab, who comes across in "The Devil's Candy" as one of the production's few non-assholes). In the documentary "Boffo: Tinseltown's Bombs and Blockbusters," Freeman (after a heavy sigh) said that the vibe was bad "going in." He continued: "When an airline crashes, they say that it's mostly as a result of a series of mishaps. Same thing." The movie remains a fascinatingly rococo misfire, but a misfire just the same. [D]

Raising Cain” (1992)
In the nineties, De Palma’s style had become almost a parody of itself, and its a credit to him that he didn’t alter his point-of-view, but rather embarked on a search for the camp within. Which is why “Raising Cain” might be one of his more overt homages to Hitchcock, mining the crux of “Psycho” to produce a murder mystery labyrinth balanced by one truly gonzo performance. A bug-eyed, memorably unhinged performance by John Lithgow carries “Raising Cain” as Dr. Carter Nix, who is basically the twist of “Psycho” made flesh and turned into the premise for a film. Nix is so disturbed by memories of his mother that he’s developed an excessive case of multiple personality disorder, one that has resulted in several new identities for him to try on. And all the while, he tries to find the root cause of the condition, with frequently murderous results. De Palma’s mastery of long shots reveals itself in a more contemporary context, as “Raising Cain” is also loaded with the sort of maddening trick angles and forced perspectives that reveal a storyteller brazenly emptying his bag of tricks. Less a movie than a magic trick, it’s De Palma dealing with a skimpy psychosexual theme, using it as an excuse to showcase not only a post-modern Hitch homage (watch those thundercracks!) but a standout nutball performance by Lithgow, never more terrifying, even as he tries on a number of increasingly absurd costumes and wigs. Rumors suggest a disastrous test screening forced De Palma to toss the set-up involving damsel in distress Jenny (Lolita Davidovitch), which gives “Raising Cain” a more askew, difficult reputation, as, essentially, the killer is the main character. What tickles isn’t the off-center moral confusion that creates, but the idea that De Palma is relishing challenging our notions of whether the “thriller” genre can ever feature a relatable “bad guy” who also happens to be totally batshit insane. [B+]

"Carlito's Way" (1993)
While "Scarface" gets the lion's share of the love when it comes to Brian De Palma crime epics starring Al Pacino, "Carlito's Way" is just as wonderful, in some ways even besting Pacino and De Palma's earlier triumph with a beautifully told story of rage, revenge, and (ultimately) redemption. In 1993, "Scarface" had yet to gain the cultural foothold it has now, and "Carlito's Way" was greeted with, if not indifference, than far less acclaim than it should have been given. It's the tale of Carlito Brigante (Pacino), a Cuban-American gangster freed on a technicality by his wormy Jewish lawyer (an unrecognizable Sean Penn) who tries to resist being pulled back into a life of crime, and sets about attempting to reconnect with a former flame (Penelope Ann Miller), while legitimately running a Harlem discotheque. Twenty minutes into the movie, during a dizzying sequence set inside a seedy pool hall, you can feel De Palma setting the film apart from "Scarface" while also re-establishing himself as a major cinematic talent after spending several years in the wilderness after the disastrous failure of "Bonfire of the Vanities." But not only does "Carlito's Way" feature some of De Palma's best set pieces (including the breathless climax set inside Grand Central Terminal circa 1975), it also boasts some of the very best performances in any of the director's films, particularly the unstoppable trifecta of Pacino, Penn and Miller (showing off her sexy side at a time when she was otherwise starring in clumsy contraptions like "The Shadow"). The movie's emotional complexity, too, cannot be overstated. De Palma is a filmmaker who frequently comes under fire for being too "cold" and "calculating," more interested in camera movements than character motivations. But he takes you on a journey with Carlito, one that you cannot help but get swept up in. When Carlito meets his fate at the end of the movie, it's the most heart-tugging moment in any of De Palma's films since the end of "Blow Out." The pool hall sequence, when he's trapped in a tiny bathroom, armed with an empty pistol and unsure of what's on the other side of the door actually spawned the movie's poster, because it so perfectly sums up the character's struggles in a single image: you can feel him getting tugged towards crime while he simply tries to keep to the shadows, out of everyone's way. "Carlito's Way" is a sprawling, multi-layered tragedy, elegantly told by De Palma and screenwriter David Koepp (who would become an essential collaborator for De Palma during this period). It's a film that represents the last time De Palma was responsible for a genuine masterpiece. [A]

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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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