Perhaps it was Roger Ebert, with some help from Howard Hawks, who so perfectly described Brian De Palma’s career. In Ebert’s review of De Palma’s Mission to Mars, Ebert quoted Hawks’ definition of a good movie. “Three great scenes. No bad scenes,” Hawks famously said. “Mission to Mars,” Ebert added, “only gets the first part right.”
Now, don’t get me wrong, Brian De Palma is an auteur in the truest sense. The impact he’s had on American cinema will certainly outlive us all. He’s one of my favorite filmmakers, but rarely does he make a universally great film. Nearly all of his films contain immaculate set pieces (i.e., Hawks’ three great scenes), but few sustain their hype throughout.
So, to put it clearly, almost all of De Palma’s films are on for part of their duration. And when Brian De Palma is on, we all reap the benefits.
De Palma’s first feature, available on the Criterion Collection edition of Blow Out, is part gory horror, part suspense thriller and part absurdist comedy. On the surface, Murder à la Mod is about a young artist and his sketchy friend becoming entangled in a murder mystery. But really, this film is more focused on unconventional style than coherent plot. The editing is jumpy, the cinematography is jarring (but routinely gorgeous), and the narrative acts as a revolving door of sequences (rather interestingly, the same scenes are occasionally depicted several times through different points of view).
With heavy influences from Powell’s Pepping Tom, Hitchcock’s Psycho and even Clouzot’s Diabolique, Murder à la Mod feels like a student film that was made by Brian De Palma. Expect that going in, and you’ll be fine. C+
Three friends hilariously practice ways to lie their way out of Vietnam duty. Sounds like the makings for a good comedy. But then everything changes. The film turns into a series of episodes, none having anything to do with one another, except the three men who are involved in them. Paul avoids Vietnam and tries to get laid (with equal fervor), Lloyd ceaselessly verbalizes conspiracy theories about JFK’s assassination, and Jon (Robert De Niro) convinces unsuspecting women to strip for his camera for the sake of art.
Shot on the streets of New York for next to no money, Greetings is a clunky experiment made on passion and not much more. C-
The Wedding Party is technically De Palma’s first film, as he made it (with two other people) while he was a student at Sarah Lawrence. Shot in 1963 but released in ‘69 (after De Niro made a name for himself on stage and in film), The Wedding Party is a simple story about a man’s interactions with his fiancée’s family just days before their wedding. The film, while certainly amateurish, is fun for no other reason than to watch its awkward cast figure it out as they go along. De Niro and William Finley, another De Palma regular, have a ball as friends of the groom, and it’s great to see a fresh-faced Jill Clayburgh as the bride to be. An enjoyable experience, even if The Wedding Party is for De Palma enthusiasts only. C+
Hi, Mom! is a quasi sequel to Greetings, essentially picking up with De Niro’s character a few years after we left him. But nevermind the antics Jon gets into as an aspiring adult filmmaker, because Hi, Mom! deserves to be remembered for one thing only: its utterly mortifying “Be Black, Baby” sequence.
Throughout Hi, Mom! De Palma abandons the structure and look of his film, opting for a documentary-style exposé of black people asking unsuspecting New Yorkers if they know what it “feels like to be black.” Without warning, De Palma cuts this footage into Hi, Mom!, much to our confusion. That is until the film’s central, horrifying sequence in which the black people invite a group of WASPy white people to view their show, entitled “Be Black, Baby.”
What happens next is nothing short of revelatory. During the “show,” the black theater troupe forces the white audience into a tiny hallway and terrorizes them. They smear shoe polish over their white faces (essentially making them black), and put white masks on themselves. They steal their money, point guns at them, and even attempt to rape one of the white attendees.
Watching this 20-minute sequence, the amateurishness of Hi, Mom! disappeared and the film became appallingly real. But then it hit me: it’s all staged, it’s all part of the plan. It’s De Palma telling us how black people are so routinely slighted in our society. Because of this, “Be Black, Baby” is the most accomplished and damning examination of American culture that Brian De Palma has ever filmed. The shock of the sequence is awful, but what’s worse is how it accurately describes race in America. Watching it now, I’d like to say that much has changed since 1970. Sadly, that’d be a lie. Perhaps the sequence is best described by one of the abused audience members, who, after the show, breathlessly tells the camera that, “It really makes you stop and think. Really.”
“Be Black, Baby”: A+ / Hi, Mom!: C+
“Be Black, Baby”: A+ / Hi, Mom!: C+
There are two films in De Palma’s oeuvre that I admittedly don’t remember very well. Both are nearly impossible to track down now (I was able to view them in college as part of an experimental cinema course), and both aren’t really worth remembering anyway.
First is Dionysus in ’69, an experimental film (shot entirely in split-screen) that is nothing more than a filmed version of The Performance Group’s stage play version of Euripides’ “The Bacchae.” Translation: De Palma filmed an avant-garde Greenwhich Village play with two cameras, printed it on film and decided to call it a movie. I will give credit to De Palma for making a filmed stage play come alive. These types of movies can often be so stuffy, but by showing us the same action from two different angles, it keeps the material invigorated. If watching performers do weird shit in a back room while the audience crowds around them on the floor is your thing, then by all means, check this out. D
A young guy bored with his day job inexplicably quits and goes about changing his life. He moves into a hotel and meets a weird fella (Orson Welles) who, for whatever reason, teaches our hero how to become a tap dancing magician. Like all of De Palma’s films that came before, Get to Know Your Rabbit is in no way conventional. It introduces new characters as quickly as it writes them off, includes several random sequences of virtually no importance, and results in a misspent 92 minutes. I watched this film for the first time a month ago and am having trouble remembering much about it. D-
Sisters will always be remembered as the first film made in the style Brian De Palma became famous for. Its sex is dangerous, its technical flourishes are significant, its plot is complex, and its violence is swift yet gruesome. The result is a superb, raw thriller that De Palma’s chief influence, Alfred Hitchcock, would be proud of.
The film details how a young actress, Danielle (Margot Kidder), attempts to live her life in the wake of a sister who’s obsessed with her, an ex husband who understands her, a new lover who desires her, and a neighbor who’s trying to help (or hurt…) her. Like most De Palma thrillers, Sisters shouldn’t be experienced via a crude print description. You’re far better off watching De Palma experiment with a new genre, and marvel at how it influenced the rest of his career. After all, the split-screen murder sequence alone is enough to make Sisters essential De Palma viewing. A-
After an innocent singer/songwriter is deceived into having his tunes stolen, he’s then framed for drug possession, escapes prison, and gets horribly disfigured trying to win his tracks back. While Phantom of the Paradise sounds plot heavy on the surface, De Palma executed this zany story with the foresight to know it would be the cult sensation it’s become. Seriously, this flick is so hilariously batshit insane, it puts The Rocky Horror Picture Show to shame. The most fun film Brian De Palma ever made? Yeah, you better believe it. A-
A real estate developer named Michael (Cliff Robertson) is thrown into disarray when his wife and daughter are kidnapped and subsequently killed. Fifteen years later, Michael meets a young woman overseas, and courts her into becoming his wife. But this is no conventional courtship. Instead, Michael physically molds his new love to look exactly like his dead wife. And that’s only the beginning of Michael’s mania. Taking a huge note from Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Obsession is a macabre character study of what traumatic fascination can do to the mind. The plot is a bit overwrought (as De Palma’s films often are), but it certainly makes for a very disturbing film. Case in point: the ending to this film is one of the most fucked up things De Palma has ever done. B-
Carrie is such a milestone film. The first Stephen Kind film adaptation, an accurate depiction of the perplexities of teenage life, an audacious social examination of fanatical religion, oh, and it’s goddamn scary too. Sissy Spacek plays a mortified teen to perfection, Piper Laurie haunts as an obsessive mother, and John Travolta proves his soon-to-be star status as a lethal tormenter. Carrie is a marriage of artists at their highest order, and I remain enthralled by it. A
A young girl (Amy Irving) with psychic powers is studied in a seemingly well-intentioned clinic. But she soon realizes that the place is hiding a psychic male patient who was kidnapped by a suspicious man named Ben (John Cassavetes), after Ben tried (and failed) to have his close friend, Peter (Kirk Douglass) assassinated.
Basically, The Fury is two different movies needlessly cut into one. It takes too long to get where it’s going and could easily be 30 minutes shorter and two plot twists lighter. Also, maybe you’ve heard about the film’s somewhat infamous ending, but what you may not know is that the film shows its climatic moment thirteen times. No, really. Thirteen. But why? C-
The other De Palma film I’m a bit hazy on is his über experiment, Home Movies. The Fury was a huge film for De Palma, and after its moderate success, he was interested in going back to his roots and crafting a fly on the wall comedy. For help, he enlisted film students from Sarah Lawrence to act as his crew. Together, they created a low budget film about a newly empowered young kid who decides to romantically go after his brother’s fiancée. It’s a shame that Home Movies is impossible to get ahold of today. I would love to watch a featurette in which De Palma explains his motivations for the film, and what he hoped to gain from it. As it stands now, I only have the film itself to go on, which, if memory serves, isn’t exactly worth remembering. D
Dressed to Kill is probably the best example of Brian De Palma’s strength of sequence, but weakness of overall film. The film as a whole, about a psychiatrist (Michael Caine), his sexually frustrated patient, an innocent young woman, an evil transgender person, and a murder that connects them all, is too complex (yet conclusively simple) for its own good. But the film contains a handful of brilliant sequences that remain some of De Palma’s most iconic work. The first is an extended, dialogue-free segment in which a woman flirtatiously stalks (and is stalked by) a mysterious man in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The second memorable sequence is the famed elevator murder, in which a tall, blonde haired woman slashes another woman to death with a straight razor.
But despite its strengths, Dressed to Kill concludes itself too neatly – stripping away the delicious mystery that made it so compelling. I’m not saying that having the director solve the puzzle for us is always a bad thing; I just wish De Palma left a little more to our imaginations. B
Blow Out is that kind of rare film that is so good, I find it difficult to actually write about. The film is so precise with what it’s doing, from its persistent cinematography, to its captivating acting, to, of course, its flawless use of sound – Blow Out is the single greatest work Brian De Palma has ever done, and I dare to try and explain why.
The film tells the story of Jack, a sound technician (John Travolta, perfect), who, while capturing sound at a park, witnesses a car accident and subsequently saves a woman involved. When Jack realizes he recorded the audio of the accident, he plays it back and discovers that he may have involved himself in something far more complicated than a mere car accident. I’ll leave the plot description at that, as Blow Out is a film that everyone should see to appreciate. If you’re even a moderate fan of Brian De Palma, Blow Out is surely worth watching. Now. A+
De Palma’s most famous film is an epic retelling of the American Dream. Endlessly glamorized, immortalized, and idolized, Scarface is a film executed like many of De Palma’s films: full of impressive set pieces, but a tad too bloated as a whole.
The bathroom chainsaw killing is utterly terrifying; the way De Palma cross cuts the suspense by showing an oblivious Manny waiting outside, is a stroke of patient genius. Similarly, the final scene, in all its intentionally frenzied glory, is one of the finest “grand” sequences De Palma has done. I don’t like the film nearly as much as its die-hard fans, but I've always appreciated its massive scope.
Scarface isn’t an acclamation of the American Dream, but rather an indictment of our fascination of getting rich by any means necessary. (Sounds like another popular film currently in theaters.) Interestingly, the film says as much about the person watching it as it does about the culture it depicts. B
Body Double is Brian De Palma at his most De Palma-esque. By 1984, De Palma was fully aware of the benefits of keeping his style in check, and the dangers of pushing it too far. Thankfully, Body Double gets everything right. The plot intricacies, the technical stylizations, the patient voyeurism, the sexualized violence – everything about Body Double works.
To describe the complex plot is to weaken the core mystery. Why ruin the brilliance of how a claustrophobic actor, an attractive neighbor, a disfigured man, and a massive handheld drill all form one of De Palma’s most gratifying head trips? Body Double may not be the best film Brian De Palma has ever made, but it’s certainly the best Brian De Palma film Brian De Palma has ever made. A
Going back to his absurdist comedy roots, De Palma’s Wise Guys is a playful send-up of the morons-in-the-mob motif. After low-level thugs Harry (Danny DeVito) and Moe (Joe Piscopo) flub up a bet for their boss, Castelo (Dan Hedaya), they are tortured into promising to whack one another. Not knowing they’ve agreed to kill each other, they steal a car and high tail it to Atlantic City, seeking refuge.
Wise Guys is one of De Palma’s lesser efforts and, despite a spirited turn from Hedaya and some amusing physical gags, it’s about what you’d expect. C-
The Untouchables is the best kind of Brian De Palma action picture – slow yet tense, with sudden moments of iconic conflict. Honestly, the Battleship Potemkin-inspired Union Station showdown is enough to hail this entire film as great. It’s the single best scene of a career full of unforgettable scenes. But luckily, De Palma gives us plenty of reasons to appreciate the whole film.
Fiery acting, a splendid David Mamet script, and an impeccable Ennio Morricone score all help make The Untouchables a continually rewarding experience. Despite its (purposefully) slow pace, I never tire of this film. A-
Casualties of War tells the true story of a squad of American soldiers who kidnapped, raped and ultimately killed a Vietnamese girl during the war. In the film, the squad is portrayed as a spectrum, with their psychopathic leader (Sean Penn) on one end, and the one man who denies taking part in the brutality (Michael J. Fox) on the other. The first time I watched this film, I was floored by how honest De Palma kept the pain. He doesn’t pull any punches with the material, resulting in an overall grueling experience. However, despite the director’s frankness, the film is by no means perfect. It’s bookended with a needless narrative device that cheapens the forthrightness of everything that comes before. A worthy effort, certainly, but one I can’t help feeling let down by. B-
This one’s a total wash. A wealthy businessman (Tom Hanks) tries to clear his name after committing a crime in the “jungle” (South Bronx) amongst “animals” (black people). The entirety of The Bonfire of the Vanities takes place within Bruce Willis’ flashback… a flashback that appears to take place over five seconds of real time. So already, the film is opening itself up to a host of narrative contradictions. (Here’s two: How exactly does a two hour flashback can take place over such a short period of real time? And how is Willis’ flashback able to show us scenes that Willis’ character wasn’t involved in?) But really, those qualms are minor. Lacking here is a good story, pointed execution, and anything remotely compelling, leaving us with a ranting, raving, never-ending mess that is nearly unfinishable. D-
Raising Cain is a movie of shameless thrills that have been borrowed from better films, including notable works from Alfred Hitchcock and De Palma’s own classics. Carter, a child psychologist who suffers from multiple personality disorder, is secretly killing mothers so he can conduct experiments on their children. Carter’s wife is having an affair with a much younger man, which only enrages Carter further. Raising Cain is wildly over the top, but somehow as generic as a Movie of the Week. It feels like De Palma attempting to cash in on whatever of his old tricks are still for sale. D
Ten years after they made super crime super cool with Scarface, Al Pacino and Brian De Palma collaborated on this far more interesting character study about a reformed con looking to go straight. Released from prison on a technicality, Carlito Brigante (Pacino) is excited to hit the streets a free and legit man. He has plans to make some cash, get his girl back, and live the rest of his days in the Bahamas. Behind him is the drugging, the killing, the thieving, the ganging. He takes over as owner of a club, gets in good with his lady, and even supports his dedicated lawyer (Sean Penn, unrecognizable and fucking brilliant).
But, as is often the case with tales similar to Carlito’s, once you’re in the game, you’re in for life. Despite his best efforts, Carlito is quickly sucked back into his old lifestyle, making for a devastating transition from straight to crooked con. Because Carlito’s Way is one of De Palma’s less showy films, it has never received the proper credit it deserves. That’s a shame, for it is certainly one of the director’s most mature, and very best films. A-
Again, it’s the set pieces that make Mission: Impossible an undeniably good time. Of course, the theft of the NOC list from the CIA headquarters is one of the most thrilling sequences De Palma has filmed. But there’s far more to appreciate here, like De Palma killing off much of his principal cast in the first expertly crafted scene, or the final train vs. helicopter action sequence. Mission: Impossible isn’t particularly anything special, but it never really tries to be. It’s a decent action film and a fine Brian De Palma picture, one that you can tell he had fun making. B
I love Snake Eyes. All of Snake Eyes. Not an opinion shared by many, I know, but I just can’t help it. I love the amount of detailed trickery it took to pull off its opening shot, I love Nicolas Cage’s showy, but dedicated performance, a sneaky Gary Sinise, a curiously sexy Carla Gugino – there’s simply nothing about it that I don’t enjoy. In many ways, Rick Santoro is the perfect role for Cage. He’s gaudy, dirty, but equipped with solid morals, albeit ones buried deep. The character allows Cage to be his most, well, Cagey, while also providing him moments of great torment. Cage’s character anchors the film, so I suppose if he doesn’t work for you, the film won’t either. To say it still works for me would be an understatement. A-
Mission to Mars is yet another example of De Palma crafting a film that doesn’t live up to a handful of excellent sequences within it. The film is a worthy venture – a PG-rated, optimistic science fiction film with a great cast. It so desperately wants to get there and enthrall us throughout, but it never quite makes it.
Still, the sequence in which we slowly watch the effects of a spacecraft running into a few small meteors is utterly thrilling. It’s arguably the last truly excellent set piece De Palma put on film. I just wish the rest of the mission measured up. C-
I can never make my mind up about Femme Fatale. When I saw the film upon its release, I thought it was style over substance. The story of a thief assuming the identity of another woman, only to be tracked down years later by people she screwed over, is right in De Palma’s territory. There are mistaken identities, creepy voyeurism, erotic tension (the film is certainty De Palma’s sexiest feature since Body Double), and plenty of other notable aspects that make the film worthy. And although the director clearly has a blast with the material, I’m never able to fully invest. Much of my aversion is brought on by the movie’s conclusion, which I won’t spoil here. In short, I appreciate the film more than I used to, but doubt it’ll ever be one of my favorite De Palma’s. B-
The Black Dahlia is a classic case of a Hollywood misfire. On paper, it has everything going for it: an iconic director, a great author who supplied the punchy words, an impressive cast of young talent, and a type of true story that Hollywood loves to film. But, sadly, this movie about the still unsolved murder of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short proved to be one of the worst films everyone involved has been a part of. The plot is needlessly complicated, the execution of the story is puzzlingly clunky, and the acting is universally stiff. It’s as if every performer was doing their best caricature impression of Bogart films from the ‘40s. A saving grace? Vilmos Zsigmond’s Oscar-nominated cinematography is pleasant to look at, but honestly, this thing was dead on arrival. D-
Redacted is a sort of retelling of the events depicted in Casualties of War. Which is a horrific statement, considering Redacted is based on a completely different (and true) war story, this time from Iraq. In 2006, five American Army soldiers stationed in Iraq gang raped a 14-year-old girl and killed her and her family. The crime was dubbed the Mahmudiyah killings by the press, and within 18 months, all of the soldiers involved were handed life sentences for their involvement in the crime.
For Redacted, De Palma changes a few details for the sake of legality, and conveys the story through grainy, consumer-grade handheld cameras. He also casts non-actors and denies the audience the luxury of conventional storytelling. The result is yet another bold experiment of De Palma showing American citizens at their most depraved. The film’s deliberate style (or rather, non style) is enough to keep the film from being hailed as great, but I do respect the hell out of it regardless. Not an easy film to take, but perhaps a necessary one all the same. B
An erotic thriller about two career-driven women trying to get over on one another sounds perfect for the De Palma canon. But Passion is just too damn much. It starts off clean, respecting the details and sexual tension established by the French film, Love Crime, on which Passion is based, but it slowly morphs into something far too frenzied for its own good.
Like the best of De Palma’s work, Passion looks and sounds amazing. Perfect even. And it has an amusingly layered plot to boot. But, like the weakest of De Palma’s work, Passion gets bogged down with too many complex twists. You think the double crosses are finished and then they Just. Keep. Going. becoming more diluted with each passing moment of forced Gotcha! I just wish it knew when enough was enough. C
Hi, Mom! (“Be Black, Baby” sequence)
Phantom of the Paradise
Murder à la Mod
The Wedding Party
Dressed to Kill
Casualties of War
Mission to Mars
Just Plain Bad
Dionysus in ‘69
Get to Know Your Rabbit
The Bonfire of the Vanities
The Black Dahlia