From ‘Carrie’ to ‘Scarface,’ new documentary ‘De Palma’ makes the case for Brian De Palma

July 22, 2024 | (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — He’s one of the most controversial filmmakers in American cinema, not only for his brash style but for his divisive standing among academics split over his merits. Detractors dismiss him as derivative of the Hitchcocks who came before, while supporters think he’s close to brilliant (myself included).

Now, moviegoers can rediscover the prolific work and reconsider the legacy of Brian De Palma in the compelling new documentary “De Palma,” which makes its limited release in D.C. theaters this Friday.

“You gotta realize you’re being criticized against the fashion of the day,” De Palma said in the documentary, zeitgeist be damned. “When the fashion changes, everybody forgets about that.”

Directed with admiration by Noah Baumbach (“Mistress America”) and Jake Paltrow (“Young Ones”), the film features one-on-one interviews with De Palma as it moves chronologically through his work.

We get a glimpse at what inspired him in his youth, from growing up around blood in an operating room, to his schooling at Sarah Lawrence College, as well as his early film career, discovering a young Robert De Niro in “The Wedding Party” (1969) — four years before Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” (1973).

“There was Marty [Scorsese] and I, then there was George [Lucas], Francis [Ford Coppola] and Steven [Spielberg],” De Palma said, fashioning himself as a crucial member of the Fab Five visionaries of the 1970s Hollywood Renaissance. “What we did in our generation will never be duplicated.”

This unique moment in American cinema — the so-called “American New Wave” — could also include the likes of Mike Nichols, Arthur Penn, John Schlesinger, Sam Peckinpah and Robert Altman — but De Palma has every bit the right to consider himself in this class. Unlike Spielberg or Lucas, De Palma always existed in the more controversial wing of his contemporaries, dividing critics with each flick.

In fact, Baumbach and Paltrow show a graphic of side-by-side newspaper articles, one declaring De Palma a cheap knockoff; the other declaring him a highly-stylized genius. There’s no doubt which side the documentary champions; “De Palma” takes on the director’s detractors head on, embracing derivative elements as loving homages to Hitchcock, Eisenstein and Antonioni, while hailing De Palma’s own signature techniques, from Dutch angles to diopter split-screens to Figure 8 long-takes.

His big breakthrough, “Sisters” (1973), was ripe for such a debate. Starring Margot Kidder and Jennifer Salt, the film follows a journalist who witnesses a murder in a neighboring apartment only to find that the skeptical police department doesn’t believe the crime took place. The plot similarities to Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” (1954) are uncanny, but “Sisters” nonetheless put De Palma on the map.

Those who found him too derivative of Hitchcock found more fuel for their critical fires with the release of De Palma’s “Obsession” (1976), which bared a huge resemblance to Hitchcock’s greatest masterpiece “Vertigo” (1958). Not only did “Obsession” feature an Oscar-nominated score by “Vertigo” composer Bernard Herrmann, the plot similarly features a man obsessed with a mysterious woman who looks exactly like his dead lover, only in this case, it’s set in Italy, not San Francisco.

That same year, De Palma really came into his own with “Carrie” (1976), the very first adaptation of a Stephen King novel and arguably De Palma’s greatest overall work. The film was a surprise box office hit and instant horror classic, but the film’s cinesthetic language invites plenty of additional analysis.

Never had a girl’s first menstruation been captured in so beautifully horrific a manner than the slow-motion opening, as the camera floats through a steamy high school shower as Sissy Spacek notices the blood, all set to some of the most touching music ever put on film. The climatic Figure 8 long-take shot at prom is legendary, as is the graveside finale, which De Palma filmed backwards to eerie effect.

The doc even features De Palma laughing at subsequent failures to remake “Carrie,” while insisting it was necessary to include the flying daggers and crucifix symbolism for Piper Laurie’s demise.

Four years later, “Dressed to Kill” (1980) was just as shocking, recalling Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (1960) by killing off a blonde bombshell in the first third of the movie, leaving stunned audiences to wonder who the film is actually about. Rather than the slashing shower of Janet Leigh, this time it’s an elevator slaughter of Angie Dickinson, witnessed in a chilling elevator mirror by Nancy Allen.

The following year, “Blow Out” (1981) proved a fascinating variation on Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-Up” (1966), in which a photographer believes he’s captured a murder in a park (Zapruder analogies abound). In “Blow Out,” De Palma tackles a similar concept, casting John Travolta as a movie sound recordist who coincidentally catches a piece of audio that may help solve a murder.

The documentary holds up “Blow Out” as a work of art worth reconsidering, not only for the emotional resonance of Travolta’s final line (“Good scream, good scream”), but also for the technical and compositional brilliance of De Palma’s diopter split-screens. Juxtaposing images with a half-convex glass attached to the camera lens, the camera can focus on the background while the diopter simultaneously focuses on the foreground, creating the illusion of deep focus (a la Orson Welles).

His next film would prove his most controversial. “Scarface” (1983) took Howard Hawks’ 1932 gangster classic and moved it from 1920s Prohibition New York to 1980s cocaine Miami. The documentary exposes behind the scenes squabbling between De Palma and screenwriter Oliver Stone, while insisting the chain saw slaughter of Al Pacino’s cohort is all “theater of the mind.”

It’s true, we never see the chain saw enter the head, but the more impressive feat is the textbook suspense building up to that grisly moment. Watch the way De Palma’s camera cranes up from Steven Bauer’s car outside on the street, then moves “through” the bathroom window. There hasn’t been a more fluid juxtaposition of quiet exterior and violent interior since Hitchcock’s “Frenzy” (1972).

Of course, the X-rated film had its critics who echoed Michelle Pfeiffer’s warning: “Nothing exceeds like excess.” Even so, “Scarface” developed a cult following. In “De Palma,” the director marvels at the surprise pop-culture impact on the hip-hop generation, as well as the more negative impact on video game culture. You can draw a direct comparison from “Scarface” to “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.”

De Palma returned with a different sort of gangster picture in “The Untouchables” (1987). Here, the Hitchcock comparisons gave way to analogies with Sergei Eisenstein, as the film mimics the Odessa Steps sequence of “Battleship Potemkin” as a baby carriage tumbles down a staircase.

The documentary explains how De Palma patterned the famous sequence after the silent Soviet masterpiece, while manipulating the sound design to create virtual silence except for key sound effects. It also takes us behind Ennio Morricone’s iconic score, Robert De Niro’s brutal baseball bat scene and Sean Connery’s “knife to a gunfight” scene, as De Palma expresses shock that Connery had never worn explosive squibs before, saying, “You’re James Bond and you’ve never been shot?”

As De Palma’s career entered the ’90s, “Carlito’s Way” (1993) proved he was still in top form. Reuniting with Al Pacino to follow an ex-con trying to live the clean life, the film earned Golden Globe nods for Penelope Ann Miller and Sean Penn, who had starred in De Palma’s “Casualties of War.”

“De Palma” explores the film’s impressive camerawork, namely the Steadicam escalator sequence, and fans will be thrilled to hear De Palma admit: “I don’t think I can make a better movie than this.”

Even if he viewed “Carlito’s Way” as a sort of career crescendo, the rest of us were thrilled to embrace his follow-up effort. “Mission: Impossible” (1996) turned a 1960s television series into a blockbuster action franchise that’s still cranking out installments today, though yours truly believes De Palma’s entry will never be topped. How can you beat the breach of C.I.A. headquarters?

The documentary explores the iconic heist sequence, as well as differing opinions on the final train chase (masks vs. helicopters), all while De Palma fulfills his duty of creating a vehicle for Tom Cruise.

If you’re not yet convinced of De Palma’s range, consider the other films explored in the doc: early efforts like “Phantom of the Paradise” (1974) and “The Fury” (1978), controversial works like “Body Double” (1984) and “Casualties of War” (1989), flawed-but-fascinating efforts like “Snake Eyes” (1998) and box office flops like “Bonfire of the Vampires” (1990) and “Mission to Mars” (2000).

But beyond all the movies, the most fascinating part of “De Palma” is its personal touch, exposing the man with honest reflection. It’s no accident that the documentary ends with De Palma discussing his failed marriages, revealing that he ultimately chose cinema as the true love of his life. It’s a tragic reminder of the artist’s obsession, the blowouts behind the scenes and the emotional scars he faces.

July 22, 2024 | (Jason Fraley)
Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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