“If we’ve grown up with the movies, we know that good work is continuous not with the academic, respectable tradition but with the glimpses of something good in trash, yet we want the subversive gesture carried to the domain of discovery. Trash has given us an appetite for art.”
– Pauline Kael, “Trash, Art and the Movies” (1969)
Brian De Palma is my favorite director of all time.
I make no bones about this, nor do I feel the need to apologize (thus having to label myself a “DePologist”). The Death Records sparrow is tattooed on my left wrist. My wife & I sleep under a framed, original DRESSED TO KILL UK Quad. I’ve sought out nearly every film he’s directed on some format of film (be it 16 or 35mm) and ingested them all countless times on VHS, DVD and blu ray. Some could call me obsessed. I like to think of it as torrential admiration.
The accepted critical narrative regarding De Palma’s career is that of the cold, dispassionate New Hollywood technical genius from a class that included Scorsese, Lucas, Spielberg and Coppola. Often derided for simply “ripping off Hitchcock”, his movies came off to some as meticulously story-boarded homages that lacked an emotional center. But doing just a smidgen of research reveals that this couldn’t be further from the truth. Even most of his impersonal “work for hire” jobs are injected with connective thematic through-lines, and his best works as a writer/director contain elements that could flat out be called autobiographical (a fact even a recent Film.com “Worst to Best” list seems to omit completely). Where Scorsese was translating the streets he grew up on to the big screen, De Palma was filtering his own narrative through the styles he picked up in the art and exploitation houses of New York while studying at Columbia Universty. It’s no coincidence that Tarantino cites him as a primary influence, as both artists are consummate movie geeks, cribbing from their favorites in order to craft their own personal, often seminal films.
On the surface, much of De Palma’s work could be considered “trash”; suspense and gangster pictures that revel in bad taste, sex and ultra-violence. But digging beneath this scummy veneer reveals the beating heart of a risk taker his peers endlessly admired. It’s no wonder that Steven Spielberg once labeled the director “the most experimental member of our group”, as De Palma toyed with form and narrative in nearly every movie he made, forgoing box office success for the most part to craft his own eccentric, often lecherous thrillers soaked in sleaze. He was a man obsessed with the “noble watcher”; outsider heroes who are made to feel powerless by the atrocities they witness and who are often undone by their attempts to prevent further wrongdoing. But there’s a also second De Palma — an artist who helmed mainstream hits throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s (THE UNTOUCHABLES, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE) while managing to imprint his personal, stylistic DNA onto each and every one.
This Friday (August 30) brings the release of PASSION, the first Brian De Palma film to hit theaters in nearly five years. Drenched in the shadowy noir tropes he’s mastered over five decades, the film is a return to his days of making paranoid thrillers such as BLOW OUT, BODY DOUBLE and DRESSED TO KILL. In honor of this momentous occasion, I thought it might be fitting to revisit and attempt to rank the master’s ENTIRE FILMOGRAPHY, giving each and every one of you readers out there a detailed guide to one of the most uniquely fascinating bodies of work ever assembled by a Hollywood director.
A small caveat — I did not include DIONYSUS IN ’69 for two reasons:
- It is a stage play that is merely filmed & edited by De Palma (along with two others), not so much directed.
- It is damn near impossible to find a legit copy in the US (and no, I don’t consider DVD-R or some wonky streaming service to be “legit”)
If you disagree with this omission, feel free to scream at me in the comments or on Twitter. Now, on to the main event…
(Oh — and there may be SPOILERS in a few of the clips I’ve included. So if you haven’t seen the movie [and it isn’t just a “trailer”], you might want to skip the A/V bits until after.)
#28. RAISING CAIN  (w. Brian De Palma)
“I am what you made me, Dad.”
The creative partnership between Brian De Palma and John Lithgow yielded one unforgettably psychotic performance in BLOW OUT, one mustache-twirling southern caricature in OBSESSION, and five slightly ham fisted bits in RAISING CAIN, as Lithgow plays the multiple personalities of child psychologist-cum-kidnapper Carter Nix. Unspooling like a “best of” cover record of De Palma’s lurid thrillers, it contains all the hallmark cold technicality of his much better works, but none of the pulsing heart. You have the cheating wife (here played by Lolita Davidovich), the fractured psycho, video voyeurism, and shifting protagonists — all scored by the twinkling pianos and soothing strings of Pino Donaggio. Unfortunately, instead of coming off fluid like SISTERS, DRESSED TO KILL or BODY DOUBLE, the film feels incredibly forced and mashed together; a series of ideas more disjointed than Nix’s demented brain.
De Palma reportedly came up with the idea for RAISING CAIN while working on THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES, wanting to set a shocker on a child’s playground. But the director was hesitant to return to his old stomping grounds, as he saw working in genre pictures as taking a step backward in his career. While there are moments amongst the muck that shine through, the whole is certainly one of the most average works contained in De Palma’s filmography, so much so that you can almost feel his disinterest at times. De Palma should’ve trusted his own gut and gone in a different direction, as maybe he would’ve delivered a slightly more engaging work. While an exposition heavy (as is the whole film) walk and talk tracking shot and the slow motion finale are both wonderful examples of his mechanical prowess, RAISING CAIN does very little else to distinguish itself.
One could make the argument that De Palma kicked off the ’90s with one of his most personal films, as Nix’s condition is the result of his relationship with an abusive, distant, physician patriarch; a commentary on the director’s own personality as a result of he and his father’s “bond” (more on this later). But it would also be one of the rare times that De Palma channeling vague, autobiographical details through his pop art didn’t translate into solid cinema. A slightly entertaining miss, but a miss nonetheless.
#27. THE WEDDING PARTY  (w. Wilford Leach, Cynthia Monroe & Brian De Palma)
“We gotta be good to Charlie…after all, it’s his last chance to have some fun.”
In his original New York Times review, dated April 10, 1969, Howard Thompson chimed:
Like a dipper of fresh spring water, THE WEDDING PARTY arrived yesterday at the downtown Cinema Village. This farcical comedy, modestly produced by a trio of young people and utilizing some unfamiliar faces, is great fun.
One of those unfamiliar faces? Robert De Niro, in what is technically his first screen role (THE WEDDING PARTY was produced in 1963, but not officially released until six years later, after De Palma’s GREETINGS gained both the actor and director notoriety in the Greenwich Village film scene). A slapstick comedy with a kind of gritty, devil-may-care attitude, De Palma conceived the movie while studying English at Sarah Lawrence (where theater professor Wilford Leach aided the budding filmmaker in writing and directing while fellow student Cynthia Monroe produced). Those only familiar with the director’s later thrillers are probably going to be surprised by the goofy, kind of gonzo vibe contained within his first 16mm feature. Benny Hill is an obvious influence, as is Jean Luc Godard. But this isn’t the work of a cold, detached film student; instead a madcap, merry jokester, shooting mostly sans sound and speeding the footage up for comic effect. The story of a groom-to-be (Charles Pfluger) and his two goofball pals (De Niro, William Finley) meeting his wife’s WASP-y, upper crust family and the hijinks that ensue, it’s a good reminder that De Palma was a sly humorist first, a sensibility that would creep into the rest of his work throughout his career.
First features are almost always minor and, in the worst cases, forgettable (yes, there are certainly exceptions, like KANE). But THE WEDDING PARTY stands out because of just how damn different it is from everything that came after. Like his New Wave obsessions, there’s a snotty stab at conventions lurking underneath the amateurish exterior. But while THE WEDDING PARTY is a treat for die hards, the film’s about as far from “essential” as one can get.
#26. HOME MOVIES  (w. Kim Ambler, Dana Edelman, Robert Harders, Stephen Le May, Charles Loventhal & Gloria Norris)
“My movie stunk. So did my life. I never did anything heroic or exciting except for spy on my father.”
A “cool down” picture of the highest order, the chronological placement of HOME MOVIES, De Palma’s farcical, autobiographical return to the style of his earliest comedies, makes complete sense…and also none at all. 1980’s DRESSED TO KILL (which would be released mere months later) would find the director hitting what appeared to be an apex of excessiveness (which he would then later exceed with SCARFACE); each movie showing a natural progression of talent and boldness in artistic intent. After the attempt at international, Spielbergian bombast with THE FURY in 1978, wherein he went full-tilt SCANNERS on Cassavetes’ whole body and had Kirk Douglas manning an AK while wearing nothing but a tiny swimsuit, it seemed like De Palma knew that the ceiling on ridiculousness had been reached, and a change of pace was in order. But at the same time, it’s hard not to view the buffering $400,000 cheapie starring a cast full of nobodies as anything but a career momentum killer.
It’s probably only because of the film’s indisputable ballsiness that it doesn’t anchor this entire list. Denis Byrd (Keith Gordon) is a film obsessed teen stuck with a serial philandering father (ahem), a pill-popping mom, and “Beef” from PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE as an older brother (who leads a “Male Power!” group that he also uses to satiate his closeted homosexuality). After his mother attempts suicide (ahem…twice), Denis pursues his father’s new fiance (Nancy Allen) as revenge, hoping to humiliate the patriarch as enough evidence could never be amassed against him to grant divorce. The narrative is a clear repurposing of De Palma’s own late teens that he had would channel through genre in a much better, bolder fashion with DRESSED TO KILL (again — more later).
Denis’ filming of every aspect of his life will feel like an indirect influence on the “found footage” subgenre that overtook horror cinema some thirty years later (and that De Palma himself would partake in with 2007’s non-horror REDACTED). The constant documentation of one’s existence will also feel weirdly prescient in the age of Twitter and Facebook as everyone, at one point or another during the movie, seems to pick up a camera and start filming. Its the meshing of this “life is cinema” farce with a kind of odd dreaminess (the switching between “found footage” and narrative may loosely remind some of a comical CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST) that gives the movie a kind of obtuse charm, with Kirk Douglas cameoing as an advice doling character simply known as The Maestro.
Does any of this make for great cinema? Not really. While it’s fun to watch De Palma put a camera in a potato chip bag at one point, the movie amounts to nothing more than a series of barely linked set pieces. HOME MOVIES distinctly feels like the director continuing to get something off of his chest that had been bugging him for over half of his life. While admirable for its ambitious timing, the film is best remembered only as a kind of cinematic B-Side.
Apologies — I watched this on a battered VHS tape, and it seems that there are absolutely ZERO clips from the film online at the moment.
#25. WISE GUYS  (w. George Gallo & Norman Steinberg)
“Do we really hurt them by killing them?”
Easily one of the most impersonal films contained in the De Palma ouvure, both stylistically and narratively, WISE GUYS still feels slightly ahead of its time. Coming a full four years before Martin Scorsese would make GOODFELLAS, De Palma is parodying a subculture (Newark, New Jersey “made guys”) that hadn’t yet been catapulted full-on into the pop culture vernacular (to put it into an even greater timeline, THE SOPRANOS wouldn’t premiere on HBO for another thirteen years). Outside of RAGING BULL, the Italian American working class east coast gangster was still a relatively untapped stereotype, not yet having a cinematic masterwork to their name. The mythic gangster of the ‘30s and Coppola’s GODFATHER films was still the image most American moviegoers associated with the mafia and, in this regard, De Palma is parodying a subset of films that doesn’t quite exist yet. Contextually, this makes WISE GUYS quite the oddity, regardless of whose filmography it belongs to, and also explains why it died a fairly quick death at the box office in 1986.
The chemistry between Danny DeVito (playing a role he’d go on to perfect later in the ‘80s in Ivan Reitman’s TWINS) and Joe Piscopo (who finds himself in only the second role of his short lived, post SNL stab at Hollywood stardom) works well enough. Pro wrestling all-timer Captain Lou Albano (who looks here like he swallowed Joe Spinell) is memorable as a beefy, constantly consuming hit man, while Harvey Keitel plays an appropriately sleazy Atlantic City hotel mafioso. And Dan Hedaya is comically over the top (as usual) in his role as the Boss who can’t figure out just why these two numbskulls are more loyal to each other than they are to the Family.
Still, it’s hard to view WISE GUYS as little more than a middling, director for hire gig, as, outside of a few flourishes (a Benny Hill-style 360 pan of a street clearing out before a car bomb blows is somewhat amusing), it would be difficult to even pin this down as a “Brian De Palma picture”. While one wouldn’t be too hard pressed to figure out what attracted him to tackling the project (two guys escaping a life they don’t want in De Palma’s hometown of Newark, complete with a blackly comic finale), one also can’t help but wonder what the auteur gained out of the experience other than a simple paycheck.
#24. REDACTED  (w. Brian De Palma)
“How ’bout a war story?”
REDACTED is a movie I wish I loved, but only really admire almost from a purely theoretical standpoint.
A strange beast for any filmmaker, REDACTED both plays with form (the relative unknown actors acting like they’re not acting is such a fascinating concept despite becoming more than a little grating over ninety minutes) while signaling the first time De Palma ever dropped his style in favor of chasing a current cinematic trend (found footage). An Iraq-set thematic companion piece to his (much, much stronger) CASUALTIES OF WAR, REDACTED is purposefully ugly and carries the director’s trademark distrust for authority. Based on a true story of a horrific rape committed by stationed American soldiers, De Palma bends the found footage form to shape something somewhat unique to the sub-genre in 2007. Pieced together from multiple media sources (cameras, websites, news reports, night-vision glimpses), it sometimes seems like a faux doc polemic, distancing itself from the usual “single camera” horror films (though, of course, it just so happens that one of the soldiers “wants to be a filmmaker”); an anti-war howl of cinematic rage against yet another conflict many Americans did not want.
Sadly, REDACTED does become rather tedious at times, as De Palma’s typically unreliable camera leads to a somewhat unstable, rambling structure. And while I no doubt agree that the movie should be hard to watch, that doesn’t make the experience any more enjoyable, as REDACTED shifts from being a simple cry to a full-on lecture. Probably best described as a fascinating failure (or simply a series of clever ideas unfortunately executed), the film at the very least proved that the then sixty-six year-old director still had a fire burning deep in his gut. Following the unfortunate box office demise of THE BLACK DAHLIA, it was a good reminder that the aging auteur hadn’t let financial ruin (which, in all seriousness, he was probably very, very used to at this point in his forty-plus year career) destroy his wily, experimental streak.
#23. GREETINGS  (w. Charles Hirsch & Brian De Palma)
“You’ve heard of ‘Pop Art’ right? Well this is ‘Peep Art’.”
Slapdash and episodic, De Palma’s first major release plays like a collection of vignettes that don’t quite add up to a coherent whole. Belonging to the same style of gonzo comedy as THE WEDDING PARTY, the film is centered around three friends: nebbish Jon Rubin (Robert De Niro at his most green), the ebullient Lloyd (Gerrit Graham, playing the entire movie like he’s on a paranoid coke binge) and shy, lovesick Paul (a counter-balancing, low frequency Jonathan Warden). The key issue at hand isn’t any of their personal lives, but Vietnam, particularly the trio’s fear of being drafted into service. Opening with a broadcast from President Lyndon Johnson, who is attempting to sell the public on the war, the specter of impending doom doesn’t just hang over the entirety of the film, it pervades each character’s waking moment, adding a morose quality to the otherwise shambolic picture.
There are bright spots along the way, as Lloyd lets his fascination with conspiracy theories interrupt his own attempts at connection. And watching Paul stand as a kind of representation of the other side of the spectrum when it came to the “Free Love” movement of the ’60s (his nebbish nature clashing with the idea that sex can be had anywhere), leads to a series of “computer dates” that end funnily enough. But the film’s best joke doesn’t come until the final moments, as Jon walks through the tall grass of Vietnam and encounters a television crew. Leading them to what may be a member of the Viet Cong, the young soldier turns journalism into his own personal piece of international “Peep Art” (something Jon attempts to create not only throughout this picture, but also its pseudo-sequel, HI,MOM!). Then the same LBJ clip that opened the film closes it, causing GREETINGS to create a kind of cynical cycle. We’re all being manipulated, it seems, and will continue to be until we escape the tyrannical rule of elected kings. GREETINGS is fairly minor in terms of representing De Palma’s cinematic talents, but it definitely holds solid clues to the ethos behind De Palma’s oftentimes anarchic madness.
#22. GET TO KNOW YOUR RABBIT  (w. Jordan Crittenden)
“You’re holding your rabbit wrong!”
Arguably one of the strangest studio debuts of all time, GET TO KNOW YOUR RABBIT takes on the very system De Palma reluctantly joined (albeit briefly). A comedic treatise on how corporatization perverts individual creativity, the director’s rebellious tendancies are on full display while he conforms to the manufacturing line of Hollywood. While not as flip-you-off daring as HI, MOM!, RABBIT still has a loopiness about itself that is about as far from “mainstream” as a film can get. Featuring none other than Orson Welles as the picture’s only “name” actor, De Palma polishes his style and even works in an overt Hitchcock reference (the Golden Gate Bridge scene from VERTIGO, relocated to New York to save money on location shooting), delivering an idiosyncratic picture that would mark his last bit of straight comedic output for nearly a decade.
GET TO KNOW YOUR RABBIT finds De Palma utilizing a much larger budget to really flesh out his sense of visual flair. While a sped-up, silent film flashback recalls the director’s earliest work in THE WEDDING PARTY, a later crane shot serves to establish one of the director’s favorite visual tricks: gliding over the tops of sets to give as an almost “God’s Eye View” of the events. And his gleeful insertion of Hitchcock into a comedy isn’t the only reference wedged in, as De Palma also fast forwards the back-and-forth between the divorcing couple from Godard’s CONTEMPT, creating maybe the first true moment of “how the hell did he pull that off?” in the director’s career.
To be honest, GET TO KNOW YOUR RABBIT feels mostly like De Palma reassuring himself that he could retain his individuality while working within the system. And even if the central metaphor might be a bit on-the-nose (an office worker who wants to go to “magic school”?), the director’s bonkers vision actually makes a solid argument when it can keep the message from getting lost amidst the looniness. A culmination of the director’s talents to this point, it’s understandable why he decided to break and go in a new filmic direction. Even though his style continued to evolve, his rebellious sense of humor was never going to be 100% palatable to the public.
#21. THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES  (w. Michael Cristofer)
“Sherman…where are all the white people?”
While definitely nowhere near the top of De Palma’s filmography, his 1990 adaptation of the Tom Wolfe novel is also not the unmitigated disaster you might’ve heard. Usually known for being a soulless, quote-whoring shill, Peter Travers’ check for BONFIRE obviously got lost in the mail, leading him to drop this acerbic ditty:
On film, BONFIRE achieves a consistency of ineptitude rare even in this era of over-inflated cinematic air bags.
Tough talk for a man who would go on to call the SEX AND THE CITY MOVIE “funny, touching and vital”.
De Palma and Michael Cristofer’s adaptation barely even earns the designation, opting for thrilling moments of cinematic alchemy over literary fidelity. A screwball satire of late ’80s race and class, THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES will probably feel alien to a new generation who only know Tom Hanks as a lovable Jimmy Stewart style everyman (and if they even know Melanie Griffith at all will be a surprise at this point in her non-career). Hanks’ “Master of the Universe” is a fairly despicable cariacture of the Manhattan upper class (and three shades removed from Dan Aykroyd’s Louis Winthorpe in TRADING PLACES), while his hyped up, kept housewife (a post-MANNEQUIN Kim Cattrall) feels more like a piece of heightened performance art than an actual character created through thespianism. But while their highly demonstrative work can be disorienting, it’s nothing when compared to an uncredited F. Murray Abraham’s epithet-spewing district attorney, D.A. Weiss. Weiss’ introduction is a true highlight not only of this film, but of an already colorful collection of De Palma side characters (which also includes Morgan Freeman’s cue balled, speechifying Judge Leonard White).
The jettisoning of Tom Wolfe’s sly wit in favor of a broader, far from subtle tone is usually the biggest point of contention most critics and fans of the novel have with De Palma’s film. But focusing solely on the transmogrification of voice not only discounts that of the filmic auteur, but also shows a lack of contextual analysis in said auteur’s catalogue. THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES is relatively restrained De Palma, despite almost becoming the director’s own personal bonfire for being viewed as just the opposite.
#20. MURDER à LA MOD  (w. Brian De Palma)
“I’m not a child…”
Murder in the movie business. Brian De Palma’s first experimental film lays the groundwork for most everything that will come after (you can even see hints of à LA MOD in 2006’s THE BLACK DAHLIA, with De Palma playing the off camera ‘director’ in Elizabeth Short’s screen tests). There’s a crudeness to the film that can’t be denied, but also an experimental streak that sets it apart from his initial stab at attempting to be the “American Godard”. MURDER à LA MOD plays almost like an exercise in method more than it does a coherent narrative, but there’s something thrilling about watching the director try his hand at high stylization for the first time. Where THE WEDDING PARTY is tiny and intimate and sort of grungy, MURDER à LA MOD feels more like a predictor of things to come, as his Hitchcock by way of Warhol take on the thriller is drenched in both the director’s fascination with cinema and black humor.
Lust and violence are impossibly entangled in much of De Palma’s oeuvre, and MURDER à LA MOD is the starting point for his sexual bloodlust. Virginal Karen (Margo Norton) wants to aid Christopher, a “photo artist” who shoots porn flicks as a means to raise money to divorce his wife (another first for De Palma — his fascination with “artists” working a disreputable beat — which he’d revisit famously in BLOW OUT and BODY DOUBLE). When her friend Tracey (Andra Akers) removes her grandmother’s jewels from the safety of the bank, Karen sees the valuables as a way to finance Christopher’s getaway from nudie films. But after Christopher beds her on his porn set Karen is promptly stabbed to death with an ice pick (a storytelling choice that could be criticized for being overtly misogynistic, as it plays almost as a “punishment” for Karen’s crimes).
It’s important to point out that MURDER à LA MOD is more an “important” film in De Palma’s filmography than it is necessarily a “good” one, as it presents the artist in infancy. Where SISTERS is the picture where De Palma’s style would truly blossom, MURDER à LA MOD presents the first planting of the seed, complete with the introduction of William Finley (who also wrote and performed the movie’s totally “groovy” eponymous theme), De Palma’s classmate at Columbia, who also starred in the director’s first short (WOTON’S WAKE).
#19. THE FURY  (w. John Farris)
“I killed her. I knew I would, the first time I said ‘Hello’.”
John Cassavetes often commented that he would take many genre acting jobs solely as paychecks; funding for his passion project dramas. He made appearing in movies like MACHINE GUN MCCAIN and THE INCUBUS sound like professional sacrifices, chosen in the service of pursuing his own, very personal art. So, keeping this in mind, it feels safe to wonder what kind of movie he considered Brian De Palma’s THE FURY to be. A grand meld of high adventure and the same bizarre psychic phenomenon explored in CARRIE, THE FURY is definitely one of De Palma’s more outlandish works, complete with a splattery finale that appears to be yet another thinly veiled commentary on female victimization.
The bluster of THE FURY feels almost like a direct result of De Palma’s disappointment with the box office of CARRIE (John Williams’ score is especially Spielbergian). Featuring an Old Hollywood heavyweight (Kirk Douglas, looking like he definitely had a Jack Lalanne Power Juicer in his kitchen) and the aforementioned, possibly slumming indie star (not to mention Amy Irving, armed with her own psychic power this time around), THE FURY ditches teen sexuality in favor of a tone that could almost be described as swashbuckling. But no matter how awesome it might be to watch Douglas, wearing nothing but his underwear, swing into the open apartment window of some eccentric shut-ins and later dress up as an “Old Grandpa” prototype and pull a pistol on those who pass, you can’t help but feel like De Palma is overcompensating to some extent. It’s not entirely a stretch to say that THE FURY coasts on bonkers charm alone, flailing wildly as it attempts to appeal to an audience much wider than anything De Palma had done before.
Is THE FURY a bad movie? Sure. But its also a damn entertaining one (that slow motion chase/gunfight at the end of the second act is gorgeous), and a precursor to De Palma’s “mainstreaming” of his own wacko style. The film proved that the director could go broad and, dare I say it, borderline family friendly (if it weren’t for one of the stars combusting and spraying gore all over the screen, THE FURY would easily earn a PG-13 today). The problem here is source. Brian De Palma’s biggest financial successes came from adapting the work of David Koepp, Mamet and Robert Towne, instead of a horror fiction lifer refashioning his own own dime store text (though, in Farris’ defense, where else can you find a scene where a boy psychically assassinates a group of men utilizing a Tilt-a-Whirl?). THE FURY would go on to collect over three times its budget at the US box office, aiding De Palma to pursue his own set of “passion projects”, including DRESSED TO KILL, a film that would define the next decade of his film career.