Friday, June 25, 2010

#18: Brian De Palma

- "So I like to try to go back and develop pure visual storytelling. Because to me, it's one of the most exciting aspects of making movies and almost a lost art at this point."

Brian De Palma can split film critics and moviegoers faster than anyone, Steven Spielberg included. What is so interesting in regard to De Palma is that there is rarely any middle ground in assessing his body of work. To those that appreciate him, De Palma is a technical virtuoso who has inherited the mantle of his cinematic idols. For those that don’t care for his films, he has simply made a career out of producing cheap, second-rate imitations of Hitchcock and other legitimate giants. Where do you fall in this debate? Is there any middle ground among those that dare to venture to each newly-released and critically-panned De Palma film?

Where I fall on the spectrum is obvious since he is included in this list. I have always had at least a limited interest in De Palma, but it was only recently that I went on a serious binge. I had actually shied away from some of his more maligned efforts, figuring if they were panned _that_ badly, then everybody couldn’t be completely wrong… right? Wrong. What is commonly listed as being among his worst films is now sitting atop my list of favorites. And as my appreciation of De Palma’s visual style has continued to increase, so too has my appreciation of his earlier films, as I went back and re-watched movies that I had not seen in some time.

De Palma is one of the great visual stylists working today. Those that dislike his films in general are likely to deny such praise, but I stand by it. The man does things with the camera and editing that rarely fail to impress me. Maybe someone will not enjoy the story, but I am amazed that fans of cinema are not at least mildly interested or impressed by his visual flair. De Palma gets playful, exulting in what he can do with the camera and the film, and this is often interpreted as being tricky and rendering his stories incomprehensible. Certainly, many of his stories can be hard to follow at times. But in most cases, repeat viewings show that De Palma has actually laid things out. The clues might not be easy to pick up, but they are there. Rather than concentrating on them, though, I recommend just taking in the wonderful atmosphere and scenes that De Palma revels in creating. Finding a coherent story and interpretation will be there on repeat viewings.

I’ll be particularly interested to hear thoughts from everyone on some of De Palma’s more reviled films that I hold dear – particularly The Black Dahlia and Mission to Mars. Both have been completely torn apart by critics, but I think they are very, very good.

1. The Black Dahlia (2006)
2. Carlito’s Way (1993)
3. Dressed to Kill (1980)
4. Blow Out (1981)
5. Scarface (1983)
6. Femme Fatale (2002)
7. The Untouchables (1987)
8. Mission to Mars (2000)
9. The Fury (1978)
10. Casualties of War (1989)
11. Body Double (1984)
12. Sisters (1973)
13. Obsession (1976)
14. Carrie (1976)
15. Raising Cain (1992)
16. Greetings (1968)
17. Mission Impossible (1996)
18. Hi, Mom! (1970)
19. Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
20. The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
21. Snake Eyes (1998)
22. Murder a la Mod (1968)

Next we come to the man with the famous Touch: Ernst Lubitsch.


  1. Dave, I don't believe I've seen any of De Palma's films since Mission Impossible. Though some sound promising (Black Dahlia in particular) I haven't had sufficient enthusiasm to bring any of them home. That's no reflection on his past work, from which I have some peculiar favorites.

    1. Carlito's Way
    2. Carrie
    3. Casualties of War
    4. The Untouchables
    5. Raising Cain
    6. Blow Out
    7. Mission Impossible
    8. The Fury
    9. Scarface -- one of those canonical or phenomenal films I don't really get.

    And perhaps it's because I read the novel first, but I regard Bonfire of the Vanities as one of the worst literary adaptations I've ever seen.

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  3. Hi, Mom!, Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise, The Fury, Dressed to Kill, Body Double, Raising Cain, Carlito's Way and Femme Fatale are my personal favorites. I like Carrie, Blow Out, Scarface and Casualties of War a heck of a lot, although because they're his most popular films I don't wax poetic about them quite as often. Used to be a massive Untouchables fan, but really I only think it's 2/3 a great film. Nice to see appreciation for The Black Dahlia, which I've been meaning to see again. I might even be so bold as to say that I have some affection for Bonfire of the Vanities, too.

    I didn't see Redacted listed here. What's your opinion on that one?

  4. I haven't seen much De Palma - only four, though I really liked three of them, Carlito's Way, The Black Dahlia and The Untouchables. The fourth one I've seen is Mission Impossible, and I'll admit I remember very little about it.

  5. Dave, De Palma is not in the list with my favorites directors but here it is:

    1. Carlito’s Way (1993)
    2. Scarface (1983)
    3. Carrie (1976)
    4. The Untouchables (1987)
    5. Mission Impossible (1996)
    6. The Black Dahlia (2006)
    7. Mission to Mars (2000)
    8. The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
    9. Snake Eyes (1998)

    I can't follow your thoughts about "The Black Dahlia" and "Mission to Mars". For me they are naive. "Mission to Mars" is more pathetic than I can bear. Maybe you will bring some more lights what is your point of view...

  6. Aha. Interesting. I've only seen 3 films by de Palma. Here's how I'd rank them

    1. The Untouchables
    2. Scarface
    3. Mission Impossible

  7. Dave, as I think you know DePalma is one of my Favorites. As you say he is one of the great visual stylist of the day and after all, isn't film a visual medium? Critics have attacked him for just being, at least in the early part of his career a Hitchcock derivative. My thought is okay, if you are going to copy, copy from one of the best. As for the THE BLACK DAHLIA, I liked it though not as much as you, the film does have some problems.

    Like Samuel, having read BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES the film was a major disappointment. BTW the book THE DEVIL's CANDY by Julie Salomon about the making of the film is a must read. Again like Samuel, I am no fan of his Scarface, way overrated by too many.

    Phantom of the Paradise is an interesting take on the Phantom of the Opera ruined by Paul Williams performance. If only someone else had been in the role.

    Blow Out
    Dressed to Kill
    Carlito's Way
    Femme Fatale
    Hi Mom!
    Casualties of War
    Body Double
    The Untouchables
    The Black Dahalia
    Phantom of the Paradise
    Mission Impossible
    Murder 'a la Mod
    Bonfire of the Vanities
    Snake Eyes
    Mission to Mars
    The Fury
    Raising Cain
    The Wedding Party
    Home Movies
    Get To Know Your Rabbit
    Wise Guys

  8. De Palma recently grew on me too. There's still a number of his classics I haven't seen - last I checked, Dressed to Kill and Blow Out still weren't on Netflix - what gives! I used to find him a bit baroque for my taste, but I think it was seeing his early work (Greetings, Hi Mom) that made me see his later work in a different light. Then again, maybe it was finally seeing so much of his later work - movies like Carrie which I didn't see until last year! But even when I didn't really have a taste for De Palma, I adored Scarface.

    Last fall, I did a video tribute for Tony Dayoub's De Palma blog-a-thon, incorporating thematic and visual overlaps (as well as divergences) between Carrie, Scarface, and Hi Mom:

  9. Dave:

    I will take a pass on De Palma. I have seen only eight, and especially like the first two I have listed. I have a positive remembrance of the third – which I have not seen since it was first shown:

    Femme Fatale
    The Untouchables (I love Connery speaking Mamet)

    But I will copy your list and watch those you favor most as they appear in my viewing world. (Many are on Netflix, including eight in download mode.) Thank you.


    Postscript: I would very much like to see his short: “660124: The Story of an IBM Card.” I was a tab room operator the year it was issued.

  10. Blow Out is, for me, simply one of the best movies ever made, and I am very, very fond of many of his films. While his technical achievements are obvious, what makes it so hard to discuss his films with his detractors is that they remain almost purely emotional, and the conversation almost always devolves into "why don't they make you feel like they make me do?" He's one of my favorite directors.

    My ten favorites:

    Blow Out
    Carlito's Way
    The Black Dahlia
    Femme Fatale
    MIssion: Impossible
    Mission To Mars
    Casualties Of War
    Dressed To Kill

  11. Ah well Dave, I think I've expressed my general indifference for this director, one who was regularly referred to as a hack and and one who 'borrowed', but I won't go further there, as I greatly admire your great enthusiasm (as I do John's and Donophon's and others here) but I am pretty much on the same page with Samuel Wilson. I am no fan of THE BLUE DAHLIA, but I'm prepared at some point to fly out to Ohio and watch it with you in the room! Still, I do admit he did direct four or five very good films, which I will note here is a modest top ten:

    1 Blow Out
    2 Dressed to Kill
    3 Carrie
    4 The Untouchables
    5 Sisters
    6 Phantom of the Paradise
    7 Carlito's Way
    8 Scarface
    9 Obssession
    10 Mission to Mars

  12. I LOVE Blow Out, and I've enjoyed most of the other De Palma movies I've seen (I agree with you on the visual style), but I hated Mission Impossible. I went in expecting to watch the group, and they killed off the group in the first ten minutes! I thought "Oh crap, this is going to be The Tom Cruise Show." Should have left the theater.

  13. Well Dave, I can't say I'm as big an admirer of De Palma as you are. And I didn't like Black Dahlia at all, though quite interestingly, it has taken the pole position in your list. Maybe I should give it another try given your strong recommendations.

    Nonetheless here are my 5 De Palma favourites:

    1) Carlito's Way
    2) Scarface
    3) The Untouchables
    4) Mission Impossible
    5) Femme Fatale

  14. The Black Dahlia has really grown on me. I now officially like two De Palma films!! Can only come up with five that I can tolerate.

    1. Blow Out
    2. The Black Dahlia
    3. Dressed To Kill
    4. Carrie
    5. Carlito's Way
    Went away for the weekend so can't elaborate....M.Roca

  15. Samuel - I can understand this reaction, but I would certainly recommend checking out films like The Black Dahlia and Femme Fatale. I'm not saying that you will definitely like them, but they're worth checking out.

    Adam - I haven't seen Redacted, so I can't comment. The other choices of your favorites I obviously agree with.

    Nostromo - Let me get back to you on laying out a case for Mission to Mars... it's too late and I'm too tired (not to mention too many beers in! LOL) at this moment to do.

    JAFB - I'd recommend checking out some others that are listed, but he is certainly not to everyone's taste, so it's hard to say whether you would respond well to the others or not.

    John - Yes, Bonfires is not a very good film, although there are some interesting technical things going on, the acting and storytelling just are not up to par in the film. I definitely remember that you are a De Palma fan, so I'm glad to see your extensive list submitted as well.

    MovieMan- Good to hear, I had a similar epiphany in recent months as well. I will check out your video tribute in the morning!

    Gerald - Haven't seen that short, but I am intrigued that you bring it up. I like seeing your praise for The Untouchables. I have trouble with it's terrible history, but when viewed as a kind of comic book or tall-tale version of the Capone vs. Ness story, I think it works very well. And as you say, listening to someone like Connery read Mamet's dialog is just awesome.

    Doniphon - Well, I owe you huge praise for forcing me to finally give The Black Dahlia a shot. I love, love, love the movie and likely never would have gotten to it if you hadn't included it in your best of the 2000s list. And you're right, it's almost impossible to "convert" a non-believer to being a De Palma fan.

    Sam - I remember from Jeffrey Goodman's blog that De Palma was not a favorite of yours, but glad that you could still play along as we go. As for the THE BLACK DAHLIA, if you ever make it to Cincy or I get to New Jersey, we definitely are going to have to sit down and watch that one... see if I can convert you!

    Retro Hound - I'm not a very big fan of Mission Impossible either, but glad to hear that Blow Out is a favorite.

    Shubhajit - I'd recommend giving The Black Dahlia another try, but I certainly understand that I am in a very, very small minority that rates it that highly. I like seeing Carlito's Way at the top of any list!

    M.Roca - Well, at least I converted one person to the merits of THE BLACK DAHLIA! I assume that Blow Out, at least, is above just the "tolerable" stage if you rate it above Black Dahlia?

  16. I love it when people defend a much maligned film, most of the time those people are really passionate about the film and there's nothing like being passionate ;) . I'm gonna give The Black Dahlia another chance one of these days, but first I need to get more familiar with De Palma's body of work.

  17. Dave I give you and Doniphon credit for my newfound enjoyment of The Black Dahlia. Blow Out and Dahlia are well above tolerable. I could only name three others that I don't despise. Femme Fatale I could never be sold on no matter what you guys say lol......M.Roca

  18. Wow, that's really ballsy to rank THE BLACK DAHLIA so highly! I love Ellroy's novel which is probably why the film doesn't do it for me. It's great to look at it but the script lets it down - definitely its weak spot. As for the rest of his body of work, my faves are:

    1. Blow Out
    2. Carlito's Way
    3. The Untouchables
    4. Sisters
    5. The Fury
    6. Body Double
    7. Scarface
    8. Carrie
    9. Mission: Impossible
    10. Casualties Of War
    11. Dressed to Kill

  19. Take DePalma out and replace him with Alfred
    Hitchcock or Billy Wilder. He made mostly
    bad or weak films. Carrie is really his only
    classic hit. Sisters are good. But the rest

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