#tbt review: The Greatest Works of Brian De Palma


de-palma-posterPreston Barta // Editor

Premiering this weekend at the Oak Cliff Film Festival (June 16-19) is Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow‘s DE PALMA. The film catalogs the career and life of filmmaker Brian De Palma.

Of all the storied filmmakers of the 1970s, De Palma was very much the outcast. He broke the rules and changed the game with cult films such as BODY DOUBLEFEMME FATALE and PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (also screening at the festival). And even though he’s not as active these days on set, he created some of the most unique works of art to admire and revisit.

As we prepare for the release of DE PALMA, let’s look back at De Palma’s greatest achievements in cinema.

Carrie-1976-edited-BE1. CARRIE (1976)

CARRIE is De Palma at has his peak. The blood stained images of actress Sissy Spacek has haunted the minds of children and adults for 40 years. The film has a sense of dread that trickles through every frame and through every heinous prank enacted by the cruel high school students.

De Palma had this film working on a multitude of tonal levels that only a master could manage. On one hand you have a high school horror film filled with gore, and on the other you have a fanatical mother played incredibly by Piper Laurie, who takes the film to a whole other level of terror.

Carrie is an oppressed woman stuck in several moments she can’t get out of, and De Palma frees her of the burden of life as a suburban teen by giving her a finale that goes down as one of the most electrifying and kinetic climaxes in film history. Plus, who doesn’t love to see a young John Travolta.
James Cole Clay

dressed_to_kill2. DRESSED TO KILL (1980)

It’s impossible to talk about Brian de Palma’s works and not mention what is considered one of the best thrillers ever, DRESSED TO KILL. Starring Michael Caine as a psychologist wrapped up in the motives of a killer, the movie made a splash with its frank discussion (and display) of sex. It’s especially poignant given that the year it debuted marked a transition from the party-era of the 70s to the fear-stricken and unsure 80s.

To be fair, there can’t really be a discussion of the plot without spoiling something, but it plays out like an adult slasher movie, complete with the subgenre’s characteristics: an unknown killer, promiscuity becoming punishment, the STD/antagonist metaphor. It’s “adult slasher” because of the fact that the sex involved isn’t something gratuitous, but plays into a personality. For example, Kate (Angie Dickinson) is bored because her lover is terrible in bed. So, she longs for excitement, leading her to a voyeuristic tryst, which leads to consequence.

De Palma had already started garnering murmurs that he was to be the next Hitchcock, and DRESSED TO KILL seemed to be an indicator, what with the shower scene, shocking turns, use of camera framing to accentuate the narrative. Hitchcock’s mantle remains in place, but it certainly cemented Brian de Palma as a director to look forward to. Over 25 years later, it has grown to be held in a high standard for suspense. (Fresh Fiction highly recommends getting the Criterion Collection restoration released last year)
– Jared McMillan

Scarface-43. SCARFACE (1983)

SCARFACE is perhaps one of the most culturally significant films on this list. Its influence on both cinema and pop culture shows no signs of slowing down. It’s been over 30 years since we saw Tony Montana (Al Pacino) snort the biggest pile of coke you’ve ever seen and introduce us to his “little friend.”

Penned by Oliver Stone and directed by De Palma, SCARFACE featured Pacino at his manic best, playing a Cuban immigrant turned Miami drug lord. And while the movie is far from perfect compared to gangster films like GOODFELLAS and THE GODFATHER, the cult appeal of the film is astounding. It’s visceral storytelling with an intoxicating performance at its center… it easily deserves its place here.
– Preston Barta

Still-from-The-Untouchabl-0014. THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987)

At this point in his career, Brian De Palma was known for having a deft hand when it came to the thriller. Wrought with tension, both atmospheric and sensual, viewers knew they were getting something suspenseful once they sat down in front of a screen. However, he has a great knack for action as well, as proven with one of his best works, THE UNTOUCHABLES.

The film opens by establishing Al Capone (Robert De Niro) as the heartless businessman he claims to be, blowing up a restaurant and killing innocent people as a byproduct of his business. The FBI then assigns Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) to create a task force built on taking Capone down, but is quickly embarrassed after Capone gets the tip on a raid. But, the luck of the Irish strikes in the form of beat cop Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery), and Ness realizes he needs to recruit from outside the force in order to succeed.

Everything about THE UNTOUCHABLES hits on every level. From legendary composer Ennio Morricone’s deliberate and mysterious score to David Mamet’s electric screenplay, there are tons of memorable moments throughout the film. Just off the top you have Malone’s “Chicago Way” speech, Capone’s “I Want Him Dead!” tirade, and the Union Station sequence that’s an homage to Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps in BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN. All of it is due to the hand of de Palma, who uses close-ups and long takes like a surgeon, making the suspense play out. Arguably, it’s one of the best action films of all time.
– J.M.

what-s-your-favorite-mission-impossible-movie-so-far-4044535. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1996)

The idea to bring the television series of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE to the big-screen in 1996 seemed kind of ludicrous and dull. What director De Palma did is a singular vision that might not be up-to-par to what the series has transformed into, but the film had class, originality and it certainly wasn’t afraid to take chances.

This was star Tom Cruise’s first credit as a major Hollywood producer and De Palma was out of his element making a big-budget spy thriller. The marriage of these two only last for one film, yet De Palma was able to employ his own filmmaking tricks and camera work that imprinted the film world 20 years later and counting.

While the film has it’s faults, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE is a mark in De Palma’s filmography that gave birth to bringing a signature auteurist flare to the spy genre.
– J.C.C

DE PALMA premieres at the Oak Cliff Film Festival on Sunday at 5:45 p.m. Ticket information can be found on the event’s website at oakclifffilmfestival.com.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.