Once upon a time there lived a group of directors…
Steven Spielberg. Martin Scorsese. Francis Ford Coppola. George Lucas. The names read like a veritable who’s who of the new wave of American filmmakers, each one doing their part to revolutionize the world of film and go on to attain international fame and recognition to this very day. Of this revered group who emerged during the 1970s, one name is quietly neglected, seemingly forgotten despite his numerous contributions to world cinema. His name: Brain De Palma.
After watching the recent HBO documentary on Spielberg which went in-depth on the relationship forged by this group of young directors, I was compelled to take a deeper dive into De Palma’s body of work. Why, I had to wonder, could this one director be so easily forgotten today when he inhabited a sphere alongside so many luminaries of his time – and perhaps all time. The simple answer to this question is that De Palma lacked the talent of Spielberg, Scorsese, and Coppola. This sentiment seems to be verified if one takes a look at his filmography on Rotten Tomatoes (admittedly a source always to be taken with a grain of salt) and sees a number of his films with very low ratings. However, this is circumstantial evidence at best to say that De Palma is a poor director because after having taken that deeper dive myself, I can honestly say that Brian De Palma is one of the most underrated and unique directors to ever work behind a camera.
|De Palma (left) photographed with Steven Spielberg (center)|
and Martin Scorsese (right)
Where do I begin, then, in this critical reevaluation of Brian De Palma as a director? Perhaps by using his own words: “I like stylization. I try to get away with as much as possible until people start laughing at it.” When one watches a De Palma film in isolation, only the most overt of his stylistic decisions are easily read. Who, for instance, can forget the camera spinning around and around John Travolta’s sound studio replicating the spinning of a reel of tape in Blow Out (1981), or the impressive thirteen-minute long one take which opens Snake Eyes (1998), never actually allowing us to glimpse the pivotal, fixed boxing match? While these scenes are likely to linger in the mind, if one studies De Palma closer, one will notice his repeated techniques - like overhead shots which look down on all his characters like some omniscient presence and his habit of placing large, disorienting objects in the foreground of his shots giving them great perspective and depth - are common to all his movies.
These methods pulled time and time again from the De Palma playbook give all of his films a unified, distinct look, something which few other famous directors can lay claim too. While other auteurs may be known for their style of writing or thematic approach to film, De Palma capitalizes on the visuals created from his movies. And, what is fascinating to take notice of is how consistent he was throughout his career employing these approaches to his films. De Palma’s second mainstream feature, Phantom of the Paradise (1974) shows De Palma’s early fascination with those overhead shots and sweeping long takes. Perhaps even more so than his contemporaries, De Palma – from the beginning – was forging a style all his own. Even in his later, more commercial properties like Scarface (1983), The Untouchables (1987), and Mission Impossible (1996), De Palma is able to pull a few novelties from his usual bag and tricks and hide them in plain sight.
|A masterpiece of suspense in the midst of Mission Impossible (1996)|
The three films mentioned immediately above are unique in the canon of Brian De Palma’s films as they represent a departure from his usual genre work. From the outset with his first true film, Sisters (1972), De Palma has had a predilection towards the genres of thriller and horror, no doubt spawned by the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock who De Palma cites as his primary influence. Indeed, De Palma’s earliest films owe a great deal to Hitchcock whether it is overt – the use of the Psycho strings used throughout Carrie (1976) – or more subtly. Dressed to Kill (1980) is itself one long homage to Psycho from the casting of well-known blonde actress who is murdered little more than a third of the way into the movie, down to a psychiatrist’s explanation of the killer’s motivations acting as the film’s resolution.
Blow Out is the obvious highlight of this period for De Palma, a grand homage to the kind of thriller for which Hitchcock was so well known, but De Palma’s script manages to balance the tributes to Hitchcock alongside an equally engrossing political conspiracy and the story of a twisted serial killer; both tropes being ones with which the Master only ever flirted. Hitchcock, himself, called De Palma’s films mere fromage instead of homage, but De Palma’s movies stand tall and as heretical as it may be to claim, the elevator murder in Dressed to Kill is executed just as well and packs just as much of a punch – if not more – than the similar shower scene in Psycho.
|Directing John Travolta and Nancy Allen in Blow Out (1981)|
Of course, not every one of Brain De Palma’s films has emerged quite as strong as his early thrillers, but every director has missteps and De Palma should not be judged on The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) alone. Indeed, throughout his career, De Palma has seen some positive press; when John Carpenter released his horror masterpiece, Halloween in 1978, some critics put it down as simply being a cheap imitation of De Palma’s style mixing suspense and out-and-out horror. Even today, I believe, the reevaluation of De Palma’s career is beginning: the 2015 documentary De Palma shed some light on what made the director tick and allowed him to defend even such lambasted films as Bonfire, and Kenneth Branagh’s more recent adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express (2017) pulled from the same cinematic stockpile which De Palma has made his own employing many long takes, POV, and overhead shots.
Perhaps the only reason that Brain De Palma has seemingly never generated the same praise as the others he ran with in the ‘70s is the simple reason that his film never revolutionized the artform in some way. De Palma was never granted a project which turned into the proto summer blockbuster like Jaws (1975); his original projects never had the same grand, operatic vision as Star Wars (1977); his films were less thematically challenging than Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976); and his gangster movies were never embraced with the same universality as The Godfather (1972).
That in no way diminishes the films he created, though. Almost always operating on a far smaller scale than those others and dabbling in territory which they would seldom touch, De Palma created a series of visually striking, and memorable films. Once seen, it’s unlikely that one is going to easily forget a Brian De Palma movie.