For those who care enough about movies to recognize his name, Brian De Palma can be a polarizing figure. He was part of the ‘movie brat’ generation of directors who redefined Hollywood in the 70s, close friends with the guys like Martin Scorsese who merged Hollywood with the European art house as well as future moguls Steven Spielberg and George Lucas who created a new brand of mainstream escapism. As a filmmaker, De Palma fell somewhere in between those two extremes. He was both a populist who worked almost exclusively in commercial genres and an artist who pushed and mocked those comfortable forms amidst a swirl of beautifully expressive visuals. Throughout his career, De Palma bounced between being a studio hit-maker and an obscurely perverse cult movie specialist. It’s what makes him such an interesting director as well as a polarizing filmmaker.
Though De Palma has created many movies so iconic that they are ingrained deep into collective pop culture memory, he’s oddly become a bit of a forgotten figure in recent years. For the last decade he’s worked outside of the studio system to increasing apathy and is routinely overlooked when discussing the great directors of his era. Thankfully, that’s starting to change. There’s an intriguing new documentary out (appropriately titled De Palma) that gives the often-private filmmaker a chance to talk through his entire career with candid honesty and acidic wit. It’s opening in major cities this week before spilling out On Demand, and for fellow Toronto residents, the doc also kicks off a summer long screening series at The TIFF Bell Lightbox of all of the filmmaker’s greatest works, bringing a nice mix of artistry and sleaze to that cozy home of high-minded cinephilia.
To celebrate, we here at CGM have assembled the definitive Top Ten list of the greatest triumphs of Brian De Palma’s career, a healthy mix of his mainstream hits and perversely personal Hitchcockian thrillers. Sure, some of his most serious pictures like Casualties Of War or his more cultish efforts like Femme Fatale, Body Double, and Hi, Mom!, didn’t make the cut, but that’s only because the guy has made so many great movies—so don’t feel sad that Snake Eyes didn’t appear on the list, we love that Wildman Nic Cage flick too. But for the sake of brevity we’re sticking to ten titles. If you want to see ten movies that sum of the career of genre genius Brian De Palma either at the Lightbox or at home this summer, these are the flicks to choose. It’s as simple as that. Buckle up, it’s going to be a wild ride. De Palma doesn’t do simple, subtle, cozy, or non-violent. That’s part of what makes him so special.
10) The Fury (1978)
Oddly, De Palma isn’t too fond of this particular entry in his catalogue. For everyone else the very X-Men like tale of a school for troubled psychic teens intertwined with bizarre political assassinations is a damn delight. Featuring an aging Kirk Douglas in a speedo with a machine gun, the movie is a camp classic of 70’s silliness executed with breakneck pacing and some wild n’ massive spectacle from the director. It also features a spectacular John Williams score in what was sadly their only collaboration. Intentional or not, The Fury is an ideal midnight movie mixing ironic laughs and trippy visuals in a sci-fi/horror/action/thriller executed with De Palma’s first big budget. Plus, it features quite possibly the finest and most explosive/bloody movie finale of all time that every cult movie aficionado needs to experience. A final image that tops Scanners’ most iconic moment years before Scanners even existed. Seek The Fury out for that moment alone.
9) Sisters (1973)
De Palma has long been both honoured and dismissed as a Hitchcock disciple (or rip-off artist, depending on your point of view), but it’s such an amusing and crucial part of his work that these complaints seem a bit silly. Sisters is the first time that De Palma dabbled with Hitch, telling a strange tale of former conjoined twins with taste for blood (Margot Kidder with an amusing French Canadian accent, naturally) and the men who love them (various, often dead). It’s a delightfully tongue-in-cheek thriller filled with homages to Hitchcock’s greatest achievements as well as De Palma’s first use of split screen for suspense that’s an absolute showstopper. Throw in a fantastic and aggressive score by Hitchcock’s old Psycho collaborator Bernard Herrmann and you’ve got a cheap indie thriller that holds up better than many of the most polished Hollywood films of 1973. It’s more of a dark comedy with scares and suspense than a traditional thriller, but that was the De Palma way.
8) Carlito’s Way (1993)
Often overshadowed by the other gangster movie that De Palma made with Al Pacino, Carlito’s Way is one of the most underrated crime movies of a decade defined by the genre. Al dials down his growling to play a former big city crime success returning home from prison with hopes of going straight. Guess what? It doesn’t work out (spoiler!). The film is one of the few in De Palma’s catalogue that strives for realism and finds it, featuring some fantastic sleazeball performances from the likes of Sean Penn (with spectacular hair), John Leguizamo, Viggo Mortensen, and Luis Guzman. The flick features some absolutely magical De Palma set pieces and explosions of violence, yet also feels more melancholically tragic as a character piece than the hyper-stylized director tends to deliver. It’s one of his most underappreciated efforts and a damn good gangster tale for those who enjoy such things.
7) Dressed To Kill (1980)
Probably the most controversial film of Brian De Palma’s career, it’s amazing how little actual sex and violence is seen on screen for all of the outrage that Dressed To Kill caused at the time. There’s not that much, even by 1980 standards. However, the filmmaker was in such control of his craft and the effect that he could have on audiences that the sequences just feel more graphic because they are so impactful. It’s a silly tale of a cross-dressing serial killer and a call girl with a heart of gold; pure pulp and sleaze entertainment, often even downright stupid by design. Yet, De Palma crafts it all with such genuine artistry and a sarcastic sense of humour that it feels heightened and intelligent despite those base level aims. Good gross times for folks who enjoy such things, straight razors optional.
6) Mission: Impossible (1996)
You wouldn’t necessarily think of Brian De Palma as the type of guy who would create a blockbuster franchise that’s still running 20 years later, but he did it. Adapting a TV series with Tom Cruise, this wasn’t an easy movie for De Palma to plaster his personality over, but he found a way. The major set pieces are all hinged on visually heightened suspense (especially the iconic dangling heist), the opening mission was a Hitchcock inspired switcheroo, and the whole thing has a gently tongue-in-cheek tone that mocks these types of massive commercial ventures while also raising the bar. In fact, De Palma did such a fine job combining his style with the needs of franchise filmmaking that it’s kind of a shame he never did it again. Lord knows contemporary blockbusters could use more of his subversive wit.
5) Scarface (1983)
Scarface is a tricky movie to love and defend these days because it’s become such an iconic slice of bro culture and is often considered to be a guidebook for toxic greed. However, if you actually watch the movie rather than just engaging with the posters and t-shirts, it’s clear that DePalma (as well as screenwriter Oliver Stone) made a vicious satire of cocaine excess, capitalistic evil, and the pastel colored absurdity of the 80s. Scarface is an operatic satire and hilariously vicious in its critiques. Toss in some unforgettable violent set pieces as well as a performance from Al Pacino so unhinged that he was never capable of subtlety again, and you’ve got yourself a bit of a masterpiece that works on a variety of levels beyond the gross fantasy on the surface. Like Fight Club, Scarface is one of those movies that often appeal to the wrong crowd for the wrong reasons, even though it mercilessly mocks the ideals of the dumbbells that like it the most.
4) The Untouchables (1987)
A iconic and Oscar winning hit in the 80s, The Untouchables has sadly vanished from pop culture prominence over the last decade, even though it’s actually one of the finest mainstream efforts of the era. Adapted from a TV series, the film follows the special gang of “untouchable” police officers who brought down Al Capone with a deliberately superheroic Kevin Costner and Sean Connery taking on Robert De Niro swinging for the fences in a cartoonishly evil performance. With a snappy and immensely quotable script from the great David Mamet and De Palma stretching his visual muscles on a massive scale, The Untouchables is pure popcorn bliss fro start to finish. If you can somehow make it through this movie without cracking a smile, you might not actually be human.
3) Phantom Of The Paradise (1974)
A horror rock opera released one year before The Rocky Horror Picture Show made midnight movie history, Phantom Of The Paradise is a wacko production that never earned the cult audience it deserved. Mixing together bits of Phantom Of The Opera and Faust with a dark music industry satire, there’s nothing else quite like it. De Palma was at his most playful here, delivering hysterical slapstick and stunningly controlled suspense/horror sequences along with an exquisite pop score by Paul Williams that mocked all of the most popular music genres of the early 70s. The movie is at least as good at Rocky Horror, yet just missed the boat to becoming as iconic. Thankfully, folks have been warming too it lately even though the movie was only successful in France and Winnipeg (Yes, Winnipeg. For real) when it was released. If you like Rocky Horror and De Palma, then Phantom Of The Paradise is probably your favourite movie. You just don’t know it yet.
2) Carrie (1976)
This one goes without saying. One of the most iconic horror movies ever made, this Stephen King adaptation was the only time that De Palma went for straight scares without a hit of irony and he delivered something that still works exquisitely 40 years later. The pigs blood, the mother, the Travolta, the split screen, the jump scare ending, there are countless elements of Carrie that have burned their way so deeply into pop culture history that most folks know all of the most famous moments before they even see the movie. Here’s one reason why I think the movie is more relevant than ever though: if you were to replace psychic powers with an obsession with firearms, Carrie would be a school shooting story and the best film on the subject. It’s odd that so few folks have noticed, especially the folks who did the contemporary remake.
1) Blow Out (1981)
Finally, there is only one movie that could possibly top this list. Blow Out might not be the most famous, successful, or beloved movie of the great director’s career, but it is by far the most De Palma-y movie ever made. From the opening singe take parody of slasher flicks to the devastatingly tragic finale, Blow Out shows De Palma at the top of his game and using all of his tricks to create a horrific, self-conscious, darkly comedic, deeply romantic, visually astounding, political thriller. It’s smart, visceral, silly, and engaging. A movie that shows off everything that the director was capable of, while also tossing in possibly the finest performances of Nancy Allen and John Travolta’s careers for good measure (not to mention a spine-tingling villainous turn from John Lithgow). It’s brilliant B-movie stuff with art house trappings. Something for every movie nut and a little sex n’ blood to keep things dirty. De Palma was on his A-game here and the fact that the movie was also one of his biggest bombs is just a sad reflection of how deeply underappreciated the cult filmmaker has always been.