Top Ten Brian De Palma Sequences
uring promotion for The Black Dahlia, his most recent critical and box-office fiasco, Brian De Palma was asked how he felt about the bad reviews his film was getting. Shrugging, he told the interviewer, “When a critic defends me, they’ve got a lot on their plate.” It’s a refreshingly candid line, but its cheekiness masks more than a little resignation, which isn’t much of a surprise; De Palma must be used to bad reviews. As the most divisive figure in American filmmaking, he’s been getting them for forty years.
There’s never been much middle ground; you’re either Pauline Kael or Andrew Sarris, and De Palma’s either the best director of his generation, or the worst. A. O. Scott said it best when he titled a recent New York Times feature “Say Brian De Palma, Let the Fighting Start.” The release of last fall’s wildly uneven Dahlia merely occasioned the latest skirmish in the ongoing critical war over De Palma’s worth as a director, and as he enters his fifth decade of filmmaking, I suspect it won’t be the last.
Full disclosure: I’m a huge Brian De Palma fan. But when I look at my DVD shelf, I wince at the sight of Dressed to Kill shelved alongside Sunset Boulevard, at the sad spectacle of Sisters sitting beside Citizen Kane. The truth is, although I consider him a great director, De Palma has yet to complete a movie that isn’t marred by at least one sloppy casting choice, narrative hiccup, or downright lousy scene. Few major filmmakers have so many weaknesses: he’s only fitfully interested in character or narrative, can be careless with dialogue, and has a spotty record with actors, letting people like Al Pacino and Nicolas Cage ham it up, while offering center stage to limited performers like Craig Wasson and Nancy Allen. And then there are the accusations of unoriginality that nearly derailed De Palma’s career in the mid-‘80s, as his unabashedly Hitchcockian suspense thrillers were accused of outright plagiarism—a somewhat valid, if irrelevant, criticism.
But for all his abundant weaknesses, De Palma has strengths that even his most highly regarded contemporaries struggle with. He has been heard to call himself one of few remaining filmmakers interested in Hitchcock’s concept of “pure cinema”—in visual ideas that convey meaning not through literary techniques of plot and characterization, but through composition, color, and the juxtaposition of images. His eye is remarkable, and he pays special attention to location and set design, using architecture and decor the way other directors use dialogue. To understand a De Palma film, you have to look past the trashy, blood-soaked stories, and pay attention to the visual cues he’s giving you—to the shape of buildings, the relationship of one composition to the next, to the use of light, and the endless, dazzling movement of the camera. Once you key into his style, something becomes clear: these are not genre films at all, but vicious black comedies disguised as suspense thrillers—subversive, biting satires of the Reagan-era consumer culture. Unlike Kubrick’s Lolita and Dr. Strangelove—regularly cited as the ultimate screen satires—De Palma’s humor comes not from situation and verbal gags, but through visual puns, ironies of editing, and dirty jokes hidden in background details.
De Palma has never made a great film because he considers his films mere frameworks within which to stage elaborately planned cinematic set pieces—extended silent sequences in which camera placement, rhythmic editing, and the symphonic blend of music and movement builds to a crescendo—the filmic equivalent of a transcendent still life, or a show-stopping production number in a Broadway musical.
Here, then, is a list of his greatest hits—the ten finest “De Palma sequences”—those meticulously choreographed set pieces that have earned him his reputation as the finest cinematic stager of his generation. Taken as a whole, these sequences redeem De Palma’s spotty reputation, and earn him a slot alongside his friends Spielberg, Coppola, and Scorsese, as no less than the finest filmmakers of the past three decades.
10. Raising Cain
This nutty, paraphrased remake of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom opens with an attempted broad-daylight murder in the front seat of automobile on the side of the road. John Lithgow, in a performance that redefines “over-the-top,” is about to kill a soccer mom in order to kidnap her infant (don’t ask), when he spots a pair of joggers coming up the road. Another director might move on after a quick thrill, but De Palma slows the action down to an excruciating pace, forcing you to identify—even root for—the killer.
09. Mission: Impossible
Mission: Impossible was producer-star Tom Cruise’s bid to become an action hero. Hired to deliver a blockbuster, De Palma promptly re-wrote the script so that it conformed to his own meta-cinematic obsessions, and inserted the central set piece at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virgina. The memorable result has Cruise hanging from the ceiling of a high-tech security lab in order to steal a computer disc containing some kind of vague government secret (no, it doesn’t make sense, and yes, that’s perfectly fine), while a CIA employee threatens to re-enter the room. Like a juggler, De Palma adds one complication after another until you’re left breathless. He even makes it look easy.
08. Femme Fatale
After the execrable Mission to Mars (which, believe it or not, still contained a few brilliant sequences), De Palma rebounded with this witty, dreamlike noir, a kind of goofy kid sister to David Lynch’s superb Mulholland Drive. This clever thriller opens with one of De Palma’s finest sequences—a ridiculously elaborate jewel heist at the Cannes film festival that involves a diamond-encrusted dress, a power outage, and a lesbian seduction in a bathroom stall, all set to the strains of Ravel’s buoyant “Bolero.”
07. The Untouchables
A blockbuster in its day, the prohibition gangster epic The Untouchables was De Palma’s biggest hit up to that point, and it returned him to the Hollywood A-list after the failure of Body Double. Working from a tight script by David Mamet, De Palma pulled excellent performances from all the leads, and reined in his own excesses, save for an extraordinary central shoot-out on the steps of a Chicago train station. Both an homage to and a parody of Eisenstein’s famous “Odessa Steps” sequence, this slow-motion scene manages not only to endanger children and kill off gangsters, but to make Kevin Costner seem like an action hero—no mean feat.
06. Body Double
Sick of accusations of misogyny, in 1984 De Palma released Body Double, quite possibly the single most deliberately alienating mainstream movie in recent cinema history. A vicious assault on his critics and his audience alike, it took the director’s obsessions—Hitchcock, voyeurism, sex, violence, black comedy—and leaped into L.A.’s sleazy underbelly with them, ending somewhere dangerously close to self-parody. The cheerfully over-the-top central murder sequence—one of his finest—features a woman being impaled with a power drill (!). This being a De Palma movie, the director uses this as an opportunity to indulge in morbid phallic humor, complete with last-minute impotence, when the killer pulls the drill’s plug from the wall right before driving it into his victim.
Pauline Kael called this “a De Palma movie for people who don’t like De Palma movies,” and she’s right—there’s little hint of his usual themes and visual flourishes in this, his most conventional film. Scarface has developed a huge cult in recent years, but I wonder how many fans recognize that its crazed, coke-driven mania is not a celebration of the gangster film, but a parody of it. The still-shocking chainsaw murder has few rivals when it comes to hard-to-stomach gore, but more interesting still is De Palma’s ability to insert comedy that actually enhances the suspense, as his sweeping camera—after passing through a wall—stops to take note of an old man with a walker before discovering Pacino’s second-in-command ogling a beach bunny, instead of looking out for his boss.
04. Blow Out
A political thriller arriving in the wake of Watergate and Chappaquiddick, the brilliant Blow Out is De Palma’s most personal film, and probably his best. Playing one of the director’s few fully realized characters, John Travolta stars as B-movie sound man Jack Terry, who becomes an unwitting witness to a political assassination, and whose attempt to bring the perpetrators to justice leads to his own destruction. Blow Out stands alongside Casualties of War and Carlito’s Way as De Palma’s only films that aren’t delivered with a self-reflexive wink—an intention made explicitly clear in its bravura opening sequence, an extended parody of the slasher-film genre that was currently in vogue. A lengthy steadicam shot follows a killer through a girl’s dormitory, ending on a shower knifing that both references De Palma’s own reliance on Hitchcock, and makes it clear that he’s leaving the pulpy thriller genre behind.
Of all De Palma’s thrillers, 1972’s witty, low-budget Sisters owes the greatest debt to Hitchcock, lifting Psycho’s plot structure, Vertigo’s atmosphere, and Rear Window’s voyeurism; the director even brought in Bernard Herrmann to write the score. Forty minutes into the film, a shocking murder occurs, but De Palma isn’t interested in the murder itself—he’s interested in the aftermath. As the dying victim scrawls “HELP” on a window in his own blood, neighbor Grace Collier frantically calls the police. Trouble is, Grace is famous for writing anti-police op-eds like “Why We Call Them Pigs,” and the cops are unwilling to believe her. In a stroke of genius, De Palma uses a split-screen so he can show both Grace’s frantic efforts to investigate, and the murderers’ efforts to clean up after themselves—at the same time.
02. Carlito’s Way
A near-masterpiece, marred only by a single mistake in casting, Carlito’s Way reunited De Palma and Pacino for another gangster picture ten years after Scarface. Elegiac and regretful where its counterpart was gleefully remorseless, Carlito’s Way ends with a twenty minute chase scene that stands as one of the finest set pieces ever filmed, as Italian gangsters pursue Pacino’s title character through the New York subway and Grand Central Station, culminating in an astonishing shoot-out on an escalator. For once, the sequence’s power comes not from formal virtuosity, but from how deeply we care for Carlito, a former gangster trying to go straight. But as usual with De Palma, there are no happy endings—the suspense here comes not from the hope that Carlito will escape, but from the wrenching suspicion that he won’t.
01. Dressed to Kill
A huge hit in 1980, Dressed to Kill hasn’t aged well; like its predecessor Psycho, the film’s final two-thirds are sadly unable to top the stunning first thirty minutes, which contain De Palma’s finest moment on film: an extended seduction set in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with bored housewife Angie Dickenson pursuing a handsome older man among the paintings and tour groups. Using every available filmmaking tool, from sound effects to editing, from split-screens to steadicam shots, this is pure cinema at its finest, where the emotions of the character and those of the audience are indistinguishable. In these ten silent minutes, De Palma manages to capture the feeling of romantic pursuit as eloquently as any great novel, but he isn’t trying to show you what the character feels—he’s using cinema to make you feel it too. Like De Palma’s finest work, it doesn’t just belong alongside the best work of his contemporaries—it belongs in a museum.
By: Patrick McKay
Published on: 2007-04-11