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Previewing Split/Screen: The Cinema of Brian De Palma at TIFF Bell Lightbox

June 18, 2016

By John Corrado

Blow Out

John Travolta in Blow Out

To coincide with the release of the excellent documentary De Palma, TIFF Bell Lightbox is hosting Split/Screen: The Cinema of Brian De Palma, a retrospective of the director’s films over the summer.  It starts tonight with his Vietnam War drama Casualties of War (1989), and culminates on September 3rd with his most recent erotic thriller Passion (2012).

Never afraid of veering into deeply controversial territory, and the son of a surgeon so not afraid of blood, Brian De Palma is a director whose work evokes a wide range of opinions whenever his films are brought up.  Throughout his expansive and decades long feature filmmaking career, the director has crafted a wide array of various hits and misses, as well as a handful of truly great films.  So where to begin?  This retrospective doesn’t really follow chronological order, so I guess I should start by talking about some of his early independent films that were inspired by the French New Wave and are being included in the lineup.

When his detractors accuse him of style over substance, there are actually instances where they aren’t all that wrong.  Take for example his first feature film Murder à la Mod (1968), a mix of murder mystery and exploitation thriller involving fashion models, the adult film industry and needing money for divorce.  It’s got some interestingly framed images, and a few impressive editing choices that provide early indicators of the style that would become paramount throughout his career, but it can also be cartoonishly over the top and doesn’t really hold up now as more than a mild curiosity for film buffs.

A sequel of sorts to his earlier Greetings (1969), Hi, Mom! (1970) is an example of a film that features some very well crafted sequences in its satirization of 1970s New York and white bourgeois lifestyles colliding with the black civil rights movement, including a frantic elevator sequence.  But it lacks a clear narrative focus, shifting between several plot points that both do and don’t come together.  It’s mainly worth seeing now for an intense early performance from Robert De Niro as a damaged Vietnam vet, eerily predicting the work he would do later under Martin Scorsese in Taxi Driver.

Heavily influenced by his idol Alfred Hitchcock, whose career was just winding down when his was getting started, Brian De Palma infused elements of Rear Window into Sisters (1973).  The crafty and intense thriller features one the director’s early uses of split screens to build suspense, starring Margot Kidder as a model who harbours a dark secret in the form of her recently detached conjoined twin sister, and Jennifer Salt as a reporter who witnesses murder through her window.  He then crafted something entirely different with Phantom of the Paradise (1974), a mix of grand guignol horror, rock opera and gothic fairy tale, starring William Finley as a disfigured songwriter and Paul Williams as a deranged club owner.  A sort of precursor to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, it’s a campy and entertaining film that is actually a bit of a misunderstood cult classic, featuring some great songs by Paul Williams.

Brian De Palma followed it up with Obsession (1976).  The story of a New Orleans real estate mogul (Cliff Robertson) who becomes enamoured with the dopleganger of his deceased wife (Geneviève Bujold), it provides a mirror of sorts to Hitchcock’s Vertigo and remains one of his more subdued efforts.  When Brian De Palma attracted mainstream success later that year, it was with his Stephen King adaptation Carrie (1976), which also remains one of his best and most surprisingly sympathetic films.  Watching Carrie now, even after the most shocking elements of the plot have reached public consciousness and a 2013 remake aimed to capture its success, it’s amazing just how suspenseful and heartbreaking the whole thing still feels, which really is a testament to De Palma’s filmmaking.

Sissy Spacek and William Katt in Carrie

Sissy Spacek and William Katt in Carrie

With brilliant, Oscar-nominated performances from Sissy Spacek as a horribly bullied teenager with telekinetic powers, and Piper Laurie as her insane religious zealot mother, Carrie is a standout classic of the horror genre that is as resonant now as it has ever been.  The technical elements still hold up, like the way the camera keeps spinning round and round during Carrie’s first dance in the iconic prom sequence, starting as romantic but becoming dizzying as the circular camera movements become faster and present a sort of dissonance within her mind.  The way the director stages the scene with the pig blood, we still watch it holding our breath, hoping against hope that maybe the bucket won’t fall.  But it does, and everything that comes after is still terrifying, including that final jump moment.  Brian De Palma followed it up with The Fury (1978), another thriller about a teen with telekinetic powers.

The controversy that Brian De Palma has always courted with his work is on full display in Dressed to Kill (1980), an erotic thriller following a sexually frustrated woman (Angie Dickinson), her psychiatrist (Michael Caine) and her teenaged son (Keith Gordon), who ends up having to help solve his mother’s murder.  The film challenged both audiences and the ratings board upon its release, opening with a steamy shower fantasy that is far more graphic than anything we might see in a mainstream movie nowadays.  It’s one of the director’s most acclaimed works, and filled with his trademark technical merits, but time has also revealed the film’s major flaws.  This is essentially De Palma riffing on Psycho, comparisons that can make the film feel like an outright copy of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterwork, with some of the twists becoming predictable because of it.

The film follows a philandering blonde who gets killed off at the end of the first act, in a quick cut elevator scene that plays like a bloodier copy of the shower murder from Psycho, as she gets sliced apart by a shiny blade wielded by a man dressed as a woman.  We even get an end scene in an actual shower, and a last act sequence where a detective dryly explains that the killer was a “transsexual.”  And herein lies the biggest problem with Dressed to Kill.  While often technically superb in its use of split screens and free flowing camerawork, with several sequences that are still adept at generating incredible suspense several decades later, the inherent transphobia of the material casts an ugly shadow over the entire film that makes it feel extremely dated.  It’s so offensive by current standards, that it should almost be necessary to screen the film with a broader discussion of the outdated gender politics.

Controversy was also not far behind with Body Double (1984), another Rear Window inspired thriller that is perhaps better regarded now than it was back then, but still gets questioned for its graphic depictions of violence against women, particularly in one gruesome scene involving a drill bit.  To rebound from this initial flop, Brian De Palma tried his hand at doing a studio buddy comedy with the divisive Wise Guys (1986), starring Danny DeVito and Joe Piscopo as a pair of mob flunkies on the run from their vengeful boss, after screwing up a bet at the track.  The reviews weren’t too kind.

For me, Brian De Palma’s crowning achievement is still Blow Out (1981), a perfect culmination of his best stylistic touches wrapped around an intricate political conspiracy plot, bringing him maybe the closest his films ever got to being worthy of Alfred Hitchcock.  The movie presents a deep love of the filmmaking craft both in front of and behind the camera, following a “sound man” (John Travolota) working in the adult film industry who ends up recording a gunshot just before a car veers into the river in a supposed accident.  Featuring one of John Travolta’s best performances, Blow Out is a true classic that builds genuine suspense and keeps us engaged throughout, right up to the haunting final scene.

This gave way to what are widely considered to be some of his best and most popular works.  Al Pacino’s iconic performance still stands out amongst the wildly entertaining excesses of the violent gangster epic Scarface (1983), and Brian De Palma reteamed with the actor a decade later in Carlito’s Way (1993), a perhaps lesser known crime saga that still holds up as an equally impressive achievement.  Sean Connery received an Oscar for his supporting performance as a veteran cop in The Untouchables (1987), a stylish and entertaining Prohibition Era crime drama following a federal agent (Kevin Costner) trying to take down Al Capone (Robert De Niro) in Chicago.  The film remains an undoubtable classic of both its genre and the director’s work, and the train station shootout is one of his best crafted action sequences.

Al Pacino in Scarface

Al Pacino in Scarface

But mixed in between are some pretty dispensable works, including the notorious flop that was The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), which tellingly isn’t even included in this retrospective.  Brian De Palma reached levels of self-parody with Raising Cain (1992), a laughable and downright terrible psychological thriller that often plays like a cheaply made melodramatic soap opera, starring John Lithgow as a child psychologist who has multiple personalities.  It doesn’t even work as satire.  Although Snake Eyes (1998) at least deserves some recognition for an extended sequence at the beginning that is edited to look like a single take, the schlocky action thriller is another one of his weakest efforts, starring Nicholas Cage in an exaggerated performance as a crooked cop uncovering a political conspiracy at a boxing match.

Aside from a few iconic sequences, I’m not even that big a fan of Brian De Palma’s blockbuster take on Mission: Impossible (1996), the first entry into a popular franchise that has actually gotten much better as it goes along.  When the filmmaker delivered another critically derided big budget flop with the sci-fi thriller Mission to Mars (2000), he gave up entirely on the American studio system.  This leads us to the final stage of his filmography with the career indulgences that he has been making in Europe ever since, including the heist thriller Femme Fatale (2002), the murder mystery The Black Dahlia (2006), and the documentary-style Iraq War drama Redacted (2007), which allowed him to further explore the staunch anti-war positions that he holds in real life.

There are perhaps few filmmakers as widely known for their sensationalistic and voyeuristic impulses as Brian De Palma, and even though his films aren’t all equally good, he is a director whose work merits discussion, and a retrospective for that matter, because of the technical prowess that he has behind the camera.  Put simply, his films might not all be great, but the ones that are absolutely deserve to be sought out, and I’ll be damned if his filmography as a whole isn’t fun to talk about.

You can look through the entire lineup for Split/Screen: The Cinema of Brian De Palma right here, and I also highly recommend checking out De Palma for an even deeper look at the director’s work in his own words.  After all, it’s what sparked this whole discussion in the first place.

To conclude, here’s a video with Brad Deane, the retro programmer at TIFF, doing a scene analysis of a classic sequence from Body Double:

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