The key films of Brian De Palma

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 09 Sep 2016

New documentary De Palma, from Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, lets New Hollywood survivor Brian De Palma talk through the ups and downs of his career. Ahead of the film, we offer a primer on this most exciting of filmmakers

Hi, Mom! and the early political comedies

Brian De Palma has a wicked sense of humour (and we mean wicked in both sense). He’s famous for thrillers full of delicious irony, but his comic roots are evident much earlier. In the 60s he claimed ambition to be the “American Godard”, and he came as close as any with his searing political comedies like Greetings (1968) and Hi, Mom! (1970). There’s little of the slick formal skill De Palma would showcase later in his career. These are scuzzy counter-culture flicks formed from anarchic sketches concerned with ideas of anti-authoritarian politics, sexual revolution and racial tension.

The most notorious sequence comes from Hi, Mom!, which contains a fake film-within-film showing a Black militant theatre group turn the tables on their white, middle-class audience by dressing them in black face, before verbally harassing and physically abusing them. The liberal audience lap-up the ‘authentic’ experience. Satire has rarely been so cutting.

Dressed to Kill and the Hitchcockian thrillers

“He just rips off Hitchcock.” That’s the charge you’ll hear most from De Palma detractors. Well, yes, he does take many ideas from the Master of Suspense. Obsession (1976) replays Vertigo; Sisters (1973) borrows from Psycho; Body Double (1984) splices Rear Window with Vertigo. But he’s doing much more than just reheating plots. These homages have a weird, kinky energy all their own. The imagery is much more surreal and erotic than anything Hitch dared.

Take, for example, Dressed to Kill (1980), De Palma's greatest Hitchcock homage, where he riffs on Psycho's suspense plot of a girl who steals money from her boss, and replaces it with the story of a bored housewife who ventures on a secret erotic life. Like the pop artists of the 50s, De Palma appropriates Hitchcock’s familiar images and techniques, creating his own subversive works of art.

Carlito’s Way and the gangster movies

What marks De Palma’s gangster pictures apart from those by his New Hollywood contemporaries is that he sees these crooks for what they are: soulless and ruthless. With Scarface (1983) he ripped the guts out of the gangster movie after Coppola had elevated it to Oscar-winning acceptability. In the Scorsese movies, Robert De Niro’s wise guys were as charismatic as they were vicious, while in The Untouchables (1987), De Palma casts the same actor as Al Capone and the result is repellent.

In his greatest gangster film, Carlito’s Way (1993), he creates a grand tragedy about an ex-trafficker trying to go straight, but we know long before its heart-in-mouth ending that, in the hands of this great cynic, there’s no escape.

A brush with blockbusters on his two Missions

When De Palma watch the premiere of Carlito’s Way at the Berlin Film Festival, he thought to himself, “I can’t make a better picture than this.” This made its mixed reviews and lackluster box-office all the more heartbreaking. In 1996, when the director was offered a hack job to direct the movie version of a popular 60s spy show, he saw the chance of a reprieve. “‘I’m going to make a big hit,’ I thought. ‘Tom Cruise. Mission Impossible. Come on!’”

But even then, De Palma couldn’t play it straight, surrounding his spectacular setpieces with an audaciously labyrinthian plot. Audiences were thrilled, but baffled. "If you want to see Law and Order, it's on every night," was his defence. Four year's later he had audiences scratching their head again with Mission to Mars (2000), his biggest budget movie. The French loved it, everyone else hated it, and his brief afair with Hollywood blockbusters was over.

Casualties of War and the other outliers

De Palma has other strings to his bow. There are his two underrated anti-war movies, Casualties of War (1989) and Redacted (2007); the off-beat comedies, Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972) and Wise Guys (1986); his demented rock opera, The Phantom of the Paradise (1974); a disastrous literary adaptation, Bonfire of the Vanities (1990); more stunning thrillers, Blow Out (1980) and Femme Fatale (2002); more demented thrillers, Raising Cain (1992) and Snake Eyes (1998); and two telekinetic teen movies, Carrie (1976) and The Fury (1978).

 In short, one of the most interesting careers in American cinema, and one of the most missunderstood. "I've never been accepted as that conventional artist,” he told the Guardian in 2006. “Whatever you say about David Lynch or Martin Scorsese, they are considered major film artists and nobody can argue with that. I've never had that…"

Maybe Baumbach and Paltrow’s film is a step towards his critical rehabilitation.

De Palma is released 23 Sep by StudioCanal