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Days of De Palma: Conclusions

A while back, I decided it would be fun to watch through the filmography of Brian De Palma.  I had previously seen a number of films directed by Mr. De Palma, such as Scarface, Mission: Impossible, The Untouchables, and Snake Eyes.  I’d enjoyed those films, but it had been a while since I’d last seen any of them.  I knew that Mr. De Palma was a controversial filmmaker, loved by some critics and movie fans, and dismissed by others.  I was eager to make a judgment for myself, and also to watch some famous films (like Blow Out) that I had never before seen.

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It took me a while longer than I’d thought to finish this project.  But I’m glad I stuck with it.  I had quite a lot of fun making my way through Mr. De Palma’s impressively varied filmography.  While I quickly discovered that Mr. De Palma has a variety of stylistic devices that he enjoys employing in many/most of his films (long, uncut tracking shots; deep focus shots, in which characters in both the foreground and the background ate both in focus; and P.O.V. shots), I was even more impressed to learn that he did not limit himself to any one type of genre.  More than almost any other filmmaker I can think of, Mr. De Palma allowed himself to direct a vast array of different types of movies: science fiction stories, gangster stories, period pieces, horror/thrillers, goofy comedies, and more.  I don’t think Mr. De Palma was entirely successful in all of these different genres (I did not have much patience for his supposed “comedies” like Wise Guys), but I was incredibly impressed at his exploration of different types of movies.

Very quickly in to this project, it was clear to me that Mr. De Palma possessed a phenomenal mastery of the cinematic form.  His ability to incorporate creative, innovative shot-design, editing techniques, and other unusual stylistic devices (such as those I listed in the previous paragraph) into every one of his films blew me away.  (This was clear to me right away in Carrie In Noah Baumbach’s wonderful documentary De Palma, Mr. De Palma recounts how the studio was mystified by the complicated panning shot Mr. De Palma had set up to establish the bucket of blood up in the rafters.  Why was he taking so much time to set up such a bizarre, elaborate shot?  Why not just cut to a quick shot of the bucket of blood?  But Mr. De Palma’s genius lay in his understanding of how this long, complicated tracking shot would allow the audience to fully understand the geography of the room, who was where and what they were doing, and how this would build incredible suspense into the sequence.)

There is no question to me that Mr. De Palma approached movies with a unique eye.  This specificity of vision allowed me to enjoy even some of Mr. De Palma’s more mediocre films.  There is no arguing that Mission to Mars is a great movie, but I enjoyed watching a Brian De Palma version of a science fiction movie.

I wish that Mr. De Palma was able to more consistently direct films based on a truly great script.  When Mr. De Palma was paired with a great screenplay, he could create extraordinary films.  It’s no accident that the David Mamet-written The Untouchables is one of Mr. De Palma’s most successful and popular films.  I also loved Mr. De Palma’s run of films written by David Koepp: Carlito’s Way, Mission: Impossible, and Snake Eyes.  That was the strongest run of his career, in my opinion.

For me, the best discovery of this re-watch project was Blow Out I’d heard of this thriller starring John Travolta, of course, but I’d never seen it.  I was really taken by this film.  John Travolta is terrific, and the whole film is an impressive display of sustained tension.

I’ve mentioned many of Mr. De Palma’s signature stylistic devices, but one I haven’t mentioned yet is his often-times jaw-dropping use of nudity.  Mr. De Palma’s films in the seventies and eighties were filled with quite a lot of female nudity.  (This trend seemed to stop with 1990’s The Bonfire of the Vanities.)  Mr. De Palma sure does like the nude female form!  So do I, but I often felt this nudity was gratuitous, a juvenile distraction in several films that I felt were otherwise terrific, serious films (such as Carrie and Blow Out).  I say “serious” films not meaning to imply that they are dour, but rather that they are incredibly well-made movies with something to say, not the B-movie schlock that all of the nudity might suggest.  More than anything else, this over-the-top nudity is what has dated some of Mr. De Palma’s earlier films, in my opinion.

I wrote above about how impressed I was that Mr. De Palma made movies in so many different genres, but there is no question that I think he was at his best making crime thrillers.  Scarface, The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way, Snake Eyes — I love all of those films.  (I will argue that Snake Eyes is hugely underrated — yes, its ending is weak, but up until then it is an extremely entertaining film, filled with skillful cinematic trickery and a gloriously unhinged Nic Cage performance.)  Heck, even The Black Dahlia is, I think, the strongest of Mr. De Palma’s later films, even though it’s nowhere near the other films I just mentioned that Mr. De Palma made in his prime.  I liked when Mr. De Palma was working in a more grounded area, as opposed to the over-the-top fantasy shenanigans in films like The Fury or the outlandish murder plots of Dressed to Kill and Body Double.  These crime/noir stories allowed Mr. De Palma’s incredible eye behind the camera to truly shine, and to unleash what I think is his greatest strength as a filmmaker: his unparalleled mastery at creating suspense.  There are some who dismiss Mr. De Palma’s stylistic flourishes as a simple imitation of Hitchcock, but I think it is Mr. De Palma’s mastery of suspense and tension that makes him a true heir to Alfred Hitchcock.

I enjoyed the times when Mr. De Palma was able to work on a big-budget movie backed by a major studio (such as Mission: Impossible), but I am glad that Mr. De Palma avoided, for the most part, working in the Hollywood big-budget sandbox.  I am sure there were plenty of times when Mr. De Palma would have wished to have had more money to spend on one of his projects, and I certainly enjoyed his epic, sweeping films such as Scarface or Carlito’s Way, two of the best films of Mr. De Palma’s career.  But I also enjoyed Mr. De Palma’s smaller-scale movies.  I suspect that he had more creative freedom on his lower-budget films (films like Blow Out or Snake Eyes), which might be why those were more successful then, say, The Bonfire of the Vanities.

I wish that Mr. De Palma was still working more frequently.  Based on the documentary De Palma, it doesn’t look like he has lost his passion for filmmaking.  I suspect that in this era of enormous-budget franchise “tentpole” movies, Mr. De Palma has had a harder time getting his smaller, adult-focused films made.  That’s a shame.  I hope there are still several more Brian De Palma-directed movies in our future.

I hope you have enjoyed reading my reviews as I have made my way through these films.  (By the way, it’s true that I didn’t actually start at the very beginning of Mr. De Palma’s filmography.  When I started this project, I didn’t know how to get my hands on his very earliest films.  Someday I do hope to remedy that.  I started with Carrie, Mr. De Palma’s 1976 breakthrough film.)  I certainly had a heck of a lot of fun with this!  I’m already thinking about which director’s work I want to take a deep dive into next.  But for now, it’s my pleasure to conclude, at long last, this “Days of De Palma” series.  Thanks, as always, for reading!

Here, one last time, are links to all of the De Palma films that I watched over the course of this project:

Part 1 — Carrie (1976); Part 2 — The Fury (1978); Part 3 — Dressed to Kill (1980); Part 4 — Blow Out (1981); Part 5 – Scarface (1983); Part 6 – Body Double (1984); Part 7 – Wise Guys (1986); Part 8 — The Untouchables (1987); Part 9 — Casualties of War (1989); Part 10 — The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990); Part 11 — Raising Cain (1992); Part 12 — Carlito’s Way (1993); Part 13 — Mission: Impossible (1996); Part 14 — Snake Eyes (1998); Part 15 — Mission to Mars (2000); Part 16 — Femme Fatale (2002); Part 17 — The Black Dahlia (2006); Part 18 — Redacted (2007); Part 19 — Passion (2012); Part 20 — De Palma (2015).

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