Of all the filmmakers to emerge from the American new wave in the 1970s, none would prove as polarising as Brian De Palma. None would communicate meaning in their films in such direct cinematic terms either, or speak the language of cinema with such clarity and fluency.
The surfaces of Brian De Palma’s cinema are touched with an aesthetic and technical rapture, the very mechanics of the medium the key to unpacking deeper truths. Depending on who you believe, he’s either a misogynist or the ‘master of the macabre’, the filmmaker for whom his greatest fan – the film critic Pauline Kael – conjured an image of “Welles, Peckinpah, Scorsese and Spielberg… stunned, bowing to the ground, choking with laughter.”
The humour inherent in De Palma’s filmography wasn’t lost on Kael, but it’s a facet of his cinema that is often overlooked. It plays a large part in De Palma, the recent documentary by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow. It’s a masterclass in filmmaking told seemingly in direct address, as De Palma talks us through his career, picture by picture. A warm, humble raconteur, the filmmaker addresses his successes and commercial failures through anecdote and technical deconstruction – all punctuated with charmingly quaint exclamations of “Holy Mackerel!”
The documentary shows the work that De Palma puts into his set-pieces, which are often dramatic showstoppers that leave jaws swinging wide in astonishment. His is a cinema about cinema itself, about the act of watching, and his set-pieces are often booby-trapped to simultaneously entice and critique his audience. Every viewer is made an active participant: come for the show, but don’t expect to leave without having first been made to look in the mirror.
Highlighting a mere dozen of these sequences is of course a mission: impossible, but we took a stab at it nonetheless….
Hi, Mom! (1970)
The formal audacity which defines De Palma’s career is already visible in his earliest films, albeit in rougher form. The most memorable scene in Hi, Mom! certainly reveals his mischievousness, while also being very abrasive.
Aping the aesthetic of cinéma vérité, the Be Black Baby sequence follows a group of bourgeois people invited to take part in an immersive theatre piece orchestrated by African Americans, designed to give white people a taste of “the black experience”. Beginning with the performers repeating stereotypes about the black body, the scene is at first mildly disturbing but amusing as the participants remain oblivious to the ironic tone of these affirmations. Soon enough, however, the conversation turns to the brutalisation of the black body by society and De Palma escalates things into a gruesome confrontation. The director’s dark humour ultimately redeems this horrid moment as the participants, bloody and bewildered, express their gratitude to the pseudo-documentarian behind the camera.
Renouncing the church of Godard to evangelise the gospel according to Hitchcock, De Palma lays out his creed in Sisters’ opening minutes. The split-screen clean-up and climactic nightmare may seem the most obvious sequences to turn to, but it’s this opening gambit that effectively serves as a set of instructions on how to watch a De Palma picture. A man is pulling on his clothes in a changing room as a woman enters and begins to undress. The man makes a motion to leave, hesitating as he realises she’s blind. The power balance is clear, as is the viewer’s voyeuristic identification.
Then a keyhole logo appears on screen: “Peeping Toms”, the woman revealed to be an actor taking part in a Candid Camera-style game show, the man (and the viewer) its unwitting patsy. The power balance is flipped, and the male (and audience’s) gaze is suddenly under scrutiny from a panel of contestants placing bets on whether he’ll chivalrously walk or stick around and leer. A total literalisation of De Palma’s approach: enjoy the view, but don’t expect an uncritical eye to go unpunished.
De Palma’s set-pieces all stem from drastic shifts in the narrative, for which he unapologetically accentuates and transforms his style. The prom sequence in his 1976 adaption of Stephen King’s Carrie is emblematic of this sense for chaos as the multiple characters revolving around Carrie all come together. Finally, each of their personal storylines come crashing into each other dangerously.
De Palma depicts the rising tension and the intertwining of their intentions with tact, vividness and suspense via slow-motion, cross-cutting and close-ups on faces traversed by emotions. But, placed in his hands, this story of a girl’s desperate attempt to come of age from an oppressive upbringing into a cruel world could only lead to an emotionally and formally explosive ending. Carrie eventually overturns adversity through telepathic destruction, which translates into split screens and kaleidoscopic effects that both visually set her apart from her deceitful peers, and turn the violence of her revenge towards the celluloid itself.
The Fury (1978)
De Palma has always been interested in depicting his characters’ interiority, and never more so than in The Fury where his protagonist Gillian (Amy Irving) experiences disturbing visions that she cannot explain to those around her. The director goes to great lengths to make the audience share in her emotions and discoveries about past events, placing us firmly on her side. In this particular jolting sequence, De Palma’s trademark flash-cuts show Gillian’s hand catching Dr McKeever’s (Charles Durning), prompting a breach in her psyche. Suddenly, a new scene starts unfolding around her on a green screen, immersing her in the same room but at a different moment in time.
In the present, close-ups on Dr McKeever’s bleeding hand along with crash-zooms on Gillian’s traumatised face and screeching violins on the soundtrack magnify her emotional distress and the violence of what she has just witnessed. Gillian’s fractured reality feels as palpable to the spectator as it does to her.
Dressed to Kill (1980)
“Geography is very important when you’re setting up a suspense sequence because you’ve got to know where things are,” said De Palma to Noah Baumbach for Criterion’s Dressed to Kill release. “Then the chess game can begin, but you’ve got to know the board and you’ve got to know what the pieces can do.”
They were talking of the film’s art gallery set-piece, a masterclass in screen direction if ever there was one. De Palma sets the stage by establishing our familiarity with the space, cutting back and forth on eyelines with a rigorous simplicity. Only then does the flirtatious game of cat-n-mouse begin, pursuer and pursued switching roles for an intricately choreographed pick-up routine. The sequence’s suspense builds entirely from its geography, from our absolute knowledge of where we are and who’s following who at any given moment. Pino Donaggio’s score swells as the director makes the stunningly complex appear effortless, en route to the orgasmic hilarity of its taxicab stinger. It’s pure De Palma, and pure cinema.
Blow Out (1981)
While the film begins with a glorious middle finger to his critics – a Halloween (1978) riffing steadicam routine that puts the viewer in the shoes of a wheezing psycho – Blow Out’s climax sees De Palma simultaneously at his most emotionally forthright and violently cynical. As so often in his films, fallible technology plays a key role, as John Travolta’s foley artist relies on a radio mic to find his way to an imperilled Nancy Allen.
It’s a race against time, peaking with a slow-motion dash through the Liberty Day celebrations towards impotence and tragedy; he gets the villain but can’t save the girl. Cue one of the filmmaker’s most iconic shots: a 360-degree green-screen revolve, a cinematic agony against an exploding, mocking sky. The Brechtian shakedown of the opening set-piece’s climactic scream is here revisited for his filmography’s most vicious gut-punch. The studio couldn’t forgive him, neither could audiences or critics (pace Kael, natch), but Blow Out sees De Palma at the top of his game. Out for a hit, Scarface (1983) came next, but the film’s failure continued to smart. If only all commercial busts could lead to such embittered masterpieces as Body Double…
Body Double (1984)
One of De Palma’s signature traits is his talent for misleading the spectator without offending their intelligence: his manipulated audience is always eventually brought in on the joke. The ‘Relax’ sequence in his 1984 psychosexual thriller Body Double begins as any other, following the loser-hero Jake (Craig Wasson) stumbling into new surroundings. Yet, disturbingly, a bombastic tune and its performer suddenly appear to take Jake into another narrative dimension. Nevertheless, confusion doesn’t prevent enjoyment, rather to the contrary. Just as Jake lets himself be seduced by the explicit club, the spectator is pushed to share his arousal, even after the illusion breaks down.
Indeed, we soon understand we’ve been watching a porn film in the making, hidden in De Palma’s movie. The embarrassment of this realisation is, however, shared with the filmmaker himself: the porn director’s camera appearing in a mirror is, technically, De Palma’s. Refusing to let the audience alone in this trap, he makes this scene strangely poignant.
Carlito’s Way (1993)
In the new documentary, De Palma tells of how losing his original location led to the pièce de résistance of Carlito’s Way, a climactic 10-minute chase to and through Grand Central Station. No matter how many times you’ve seen the film, the same thought is inescapable: maybe this time Pacino will make that train.
The sequence’s centrepiece is a tour-de-force steadicam shot on and around a set of escalators as Pacino evades the goons on his tail, with De Palma once again demonstrating his mastery of space and location. Even more impressive is the last shot fired, the entire set-piece effectively a sleight-of-hand job, a breathtakingly rendered act of misdirection in service of one last sucker punch. The film begins in media res but shorn of context, until the sudden reappearance of Benny Blanco from the Bronx brings us full circle in the final moments. “I can’t make a better picture than this,” De Palma recalls thinking at the film’s Berlin premiere. It’s another of the filmmaker’s masterworks, but it wouldn’t be his last.
Mission: Impossible (1996)
While Brian De Palma’s filmmaking is memorable mostly for its exuberance and eccentricity, it often reveals itself as far more subtle on close analysis. In the iconic raid scene on CIA headquarters in Mission: Impossible, the director displays his playful approach to physical contrasts, turning a robbery into a ballet in which variations of sound, weight and touch directly impact the action and – more crucially – the suspense.
The hypersensitive secure vault that Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team must break into makes for a perfect playground for De Palma’s sensorial sensibility and obsessive attention to detail. Every step of the operation is presented in close-up, the camera moving in all directions to bring the tactility of the space and moment to the spectator. Tom Cruise hanging perilously upside-down for torturous minutes is suspense materialised, such that when that tension reaches its peak, it cuts like the knife which, falling in slow-motion into the vault, threatens to ruin the mission.
Snake Eyes (1998)
De Palma’s passion for his craft frequently translates into bold but never gratuitous formal choices. Every daring effect gives verve to the narrative and matches his characters’ emotional states. This can be seen in the opening sequence of his 1998 film Snake Eyes in which a relentless mise-en-scène communicates the vibrant atmosphere of a night at a heavyweight boxing championship.
Beginning with footage of a TV crew struggling to record their spot, De Palma immediately draws attention to his camera before letting it run wild as it follows the over-enthusiastic Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage) with intense fluidity. In a 13-minute-long take, the director establishes the drama via Santoro’s brief but charged encounters with characters backstage and around the ring. Punctuated by ridiculous phone calls and violent confrontations, Santoro’s trajectory reveals his corruption. It is only when this pervasive seediness culminates in chaos, and Santoro is no longer in his element, that the conceit of the long take breaks down.
Mission to Mars (2000)
“It can be said with certainty,” wrote Armond White in the New York Press on the eve of the film’s release, “that any reviewer who pans Mission to Mars does not understand movies, let alone like them.” Elsewhere, the film was critically eviscerated (although it would go on to take fourth place in Cahiers du Cinéma’s annual roundup).
If ever a film of De Palma’s were in need of reappraisal, it’s his last studio blockbuster; his last American film, in fact. The filmmaker’s serpentine camera-dances seem the perfect fit for a zero-gravity tango, and De Palma more than delivers with a geometrically-patterned series of circular swirls and double-helix visual motifs. For all its quiet rumination on humanity, technology and evolution – in a Disney picture! – the set-pieces captured in unmoored 360-degree whirls pack a suitably stellar punch. Not least among these is a mid-point twofer that sees a shard of meteorite puncture the ship’s hull (to be saved by the Coca Cola Co) before an expertly handled drift into the melodrama of a necessary sacrifice.
Femme Fatale (2002)
The most recent of the director’s masterpieces, Femme Fatale belongs in the top echelons of the filmmakers work. Here, De Palma unloads his entire cinematic arsenal, and there’s barely a scene that goes by that isn’t a marvel of technique or directorial showmanship. In many respects, it’s the slick sister to Raising Cain’s (1992) deranged sibling – it even borrows and betters that film’s chain-reaction set-piece – while dialling thematic tropes up to 11.
You don’t need to look far into the film for awareness you’re in the safe hands of a master: the opening Cannes Film Festival heist alone will do the trick. Credits roll on a loaded image with implications to come: Rebecca Romijn Stamos reflected in her TV as she watches Barbara Stanwyck do her thing in Double Indemnity (1944). The game is swiftly afoot, with a red carpet premiere the front for a sexually-charged diamond robbery that would make Tom Cruise’s IMF blush. As Stamos seduces her stooge, De Palma seduces us: his elegantly prowling camera brushing the heights of its casually ecstatic powers.