The Passion of Brian De Palma

DePalma-Sisters

Well, there is a slight change to our usual schedule today as it’s my birthday, which means I am officially in my mid forties … good grief! So I could commemorate this august moment just by joining a gym (of course) but there has to be an indulgence too, on this of all days, right? Oh I know … A new film from writer-director Brian De Palma (who incidentally turned 73 last month) – yay! It’s called Passion, it stars Noomi Rapace and Rachel McAdams and is a murder mystery set in the world of advertising.  It’s his 29th feature and I think it’s great – but where does it stand in comparison with the rest of his oeuvre? Come this way for some fanboy indulgence, if you dare …

“No backstabbing. Just business.”

Passion begins slowly with a series of boardroom betrayals as McAdams’ ad exec befriends and then humiliates Rapace, stealing her ideas and boyfriend. As McAdams continues to cut a swathe through the agency and making enemies everywhere she goes, her progress to the top ultimately culminates in a murder sequence that is breathtaking in its audacity and visual accomplishment. This extended sequence alone is worth the price of admission (though one suspects that most will not be seeing it on video rather than in the theatre, more’s the pity) in which the killer’s identity is literally masked though De Palma has, it turns out, been performing some exceptionally fancy footwork to cover his tracks.

DePalma-Passion

This is a film dominated by women and all three of the leading ladies offer very good value – the blonde McAdams is superb as the uber-manipulative boss from hell with personal problems at home, while brunette Rapace as the exploited subaltern is perhaps slightly less well cast as the object of her toying but is always fascinating in her eccentric and deeply focussed performance. A real revelation though is red-head Karoline Hefurth, who is due for a great career in the movies if there is any justice (and if you think the colour-coding in De Palma is incidental, then you really haven’t been paying attention for the last 40 years). The Berlin locations are often fascinating (though make for a poor stand-in for London briefly) and to my surprise the plot really did keep me guessing right up to its ‘who is chasing who’ climax. And that central murder sequence that combines a performance of Jerome Robbins’ staging of Debussy’s sublime ‘Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune’ with a split-screen stalking is just brilliantly done. It’s not all good – the opening section can be a bit clunky at times, but as the cat and mouse part of the plot kicks in and the film starts to reflect a more heightened and subjective sensibility it really takes off. If you can see it in a cinema but either way, if you like your thrillers well outside of the norm and maybe with more than a dash of Postmodern insouciance, then make sure you at least see it.

Rapace-McAdams-Passion

So how does this ironic dream of a movie compare with the controversial writer-director’s other work? De Palma has made small, personal works and also generated big studio films more or less as a gun-for-hire. He is known for his Hitchcock pastiches (Sisters, Obsession, Dressed to Kill, Body Double) and for his horror (Carrie) and gangster pictures (Scarface) too but he has made several social satires, two war films, a musical, and a greatly underrated science fiction thriller, Mission to Mars, which while overly earnest and too reverential to Kubrick’s 2001 also has one of his most successful set-pieces in the extended EVA sequence in which the astronauts are forced to leave their ship. These, at their best, still retain some of his distinctive style and interests, albeit in a more subdued manner but occasionally still performed wonders at the box office, most notably Carrie, The Untouchables and Mission: Impossible.

De_alma-Dressed-to-Kill

I have decided to mostly exclude these from my top 10 though, to concentrate, for the most part, on the films he has written himself. This means that I am privileging much smaller-scale and personal projects like Raising Cain that could only ever appeal to dedicated cinefiles – so how can you rank and reconcile these differing sorts of films with any degree of fairness? Well, to the extent that this is even remotely worth doing, here goes my list of top 10 De Palma films and then a chronological listing of all his features, with Fedora tips out of five – well, I did say this would be a bit of a birthday indulgence …

My De Palma Top 10

1. Femme Fatale (2002)
I’ve blogged and raved about this one separately here but I believe that it represents the best and most distinctive work by this auteur. Not necessarily the most accessible but perhaps the most pure.

2. Blow Out(1981)
This commingling of Antonioni’s Blow Up, Coppola’s The Conversation and Kennedy at Chappaquiddick will always be among his most powerful films, from its jokey film-with-a-film opening to its stark and unforgettable finish – no one else could have made this radical conspiracy thriller – and it features John Travolta’s very best performance on-screen (even Tarantino says so).

3. Dressed to Kill (1980)
A witty hommage to Psycho, this is much more indebted to Antonioni than the master of suspense though the use of multiple split screens to represent the fragmentation of the murderer’s mind and the double and triple roles being played. Angie Dickinson is the housewife with a loving son trapped in a loveless marriage, Michael Caine is her shrink who comes to believe one of his patients may be a murderer and Nancy Allen is a sex tough as nails sex worker trying to solve a particularly brutal murder. From its stylish ten minute museum sequence, told entirely without words, to it troubling juxtaposition of sex and violence

4. Carrie (1976)
De Palma’s depiction of the pressures on high school kids, from the paperback bestseller by Stephen King, proved to be a breakthrough hit and is still one of the best film adaptations of the writer’s work. Sissy Spaceck is enormously affecting as the troubled and much-wronged teenager while Piper Laurie has a great time as the parent from hell.

5. Carlito’s Way (1993)
Of De Palma’s big studio films, this is perhaps the finest. A deeply romantic film noir set in the New York of the mid 1970s, it begins in black and white and flashes back into colour. Narrated by the inestimable Al Pacino as a gangster who freshly out of prison, wants to make a new start outside of criminality, only nobody wants him to, even his lawyer (and extraordinary frizzy-haired turn by Sean Penn).

6. Sisters (1973)
De Palma’s feminist revision of two favourite Hitchcock films (Psycho and then, via split screen, Rear Window) that is genuinely frightening, anchored by Margot Kidder as the troubled protagonist. No, not the best film to see on your birthday (see the still at the top of this post) but a genuinely scary movie – the first of his series of Hitchcock-inspired thrillers  - the others include Obsession (see below), Dressed to Kill (see above), Body Double and Raising Cain (below). This is the least well-known of them but may be the most ingenious.

7. Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
A darkly witty take on the emerging glam rock phenomenon, this update of The Phantom of the Opera is a both smart musical satire and a swipe and the music biz in general, festooned with movie references (from Orson Welles to Rod Serling), and has a great performance from Paul Williams (who also wrote the songs). Utterly unexpected and one of De Palma’s most distinctive works.

8. Raising Cain (1992)
The director’s last major hommage to Hitchcock (to date), most notably Psycho, it has much more in common with Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom in its story of a child psychologist (Lithgow) who was tormented by his father (Lithgow again) and who is haunted by an evil twin (yes, Lithgow too) while his wife (Lolita Davidovich) is off having an affair (probably). The story is deliberately complicated by dreams-within-dreams but it does adhere rigidly to its own set of rules and never cheats – there is a strong sense of humour here, not least in a splendidly long sequence shot that goes on for ever and ever to distract from a huge chunk of exposition but which is beautifully done all the same.

9. Obsession (1976)
Made as a kind od critical reposte to Vertigo, Cliff Robertson plays the New Orleans businessman shattered by the loss of his wife and daughter in the 1950s when they are kidnapped and the police operation to recover them goes tragically wrong. Years later while on holiday in Italy he meets a young woman who looks just like his late wife and on impulse decides to marry her and bring her home. The story has overtones Rebecca too and has a magnificent score by Bernard Herrmann who, with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, give the film an ethereal glow but is held together by an extraordinary performance, in multiple role, by Genevieve Bujold.

10. Passion (2013)
I’ll need to watch this again but for now it comes tenth – I might be tempted to swap it for the underrated Snake Eyes starring Nicolas cage or maybe Hi Mom (not least for its extraordinary ‘Be Black, Baby’ sequence).

The Complete De Palma

Here’s a chronological listing of Brian De Palma’s feature films. His earliest films were all counter-culture comedies of some sort or another before embarking on the kind of florid, baroque, neo-Gothic style for which he is best-known in popular terms. While a devotee of Hitchcock he has clearly been just as influenced by the likes of Antonioni and Godard, while his own preoccupations with such themes as loss of innocence, betrayal by father figures, voyeurism and surveillance, political cover-ups and all add up to a difficult but nourishing body of work.

Having avoided most of his big Hollywood movies in my top 10 above, here is a list of all his features in chronological order with each given Fedora Tips as always out of five – De Palma would doubtless disdain such reductive behaviour but this is if nothing else a launching point – what order would you rank them in terms of achievement?

  1. Murder a la Mod (1968) **
  2. Greetings (1968) **
  3. The Wedding Party (1969) *
  4. Hi, Mom! (1970) ***
  5. Dionysus in ’69 (1970) **
  6. Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972) *Double-DePalma
  7. Sisters (1973) *****
  8. Phantom of the Paradise (1974) *****
  9. Obsession (1976) ****
  10. Carrie (1976) *****
  11. The Fury (1978) ***
  12. Home Movies (1980) *
  13. Dressed to Kill (1980) *****
  14. Blow Out (1981) *****
  15. Scarface (1983) ***
  16. Body Double (1984) ***
  17. Wise Guys (1986) **
  18. The Untouchables (1987) ****
  19. Casualties of War (1989) ****
  20. The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) ***
  21. Raising Cain (1992) *****
  22. Carlito’s Way (1993) *****
  23. Mission: Impossible (1996) ****
  24. Snake Eyes (1998) ****
  25. Mission to Mars (2000) **
  26. Femme Fatale (2002) *****
  27. The Black Dahlia (2006) ***
  28. Redacted (2007) ***
  29. Passion (2012) ****

DVD availability: Nearly all of the director’s films have been made available on DVD one way or another, though some only in France like Dionysus for instance. De Palma is also pretty well represented on Blu-ray. Criterion has released a sensational edition Blow Out in the US that includes Murder A La Mod as an extra. Arrow released a UK version and Carlotta made their own in France. All have their own virtues and the same goes for Dressed to Kill, with maybe the UK edition coming out best as it combines the unique extras from the US and the UK editions with a tip-top transfer to disc. Arrow also released a wonderful edition of Obsession that not only included an early De Palma short, Woton’s Wake, but also the original screenplay with the third act that the director ultimately decided not to shoot. Phantom of the Paradise is currently only available in France on blu but a UK edition has been announced and the same goes for Sisters and The Fury (a US exclusive currently).

***** (5 fedora tips out of 5)

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35 Responses to The Passion of Brian De Palma

  1. le0pard13 says:

    Well, happiest of birthday’s, Sergio! I remember my forties, I think ;-). You’ll undoubtably handle it well, my friend. And that’s one great list of De Palma’s best. Glad to see ‘Femme Fatale’ so high as I was reluctant to screen it at first (bad word-of-mouth that I shouldn’t have listened to) then kicked myself for not catching it on the big screen.

    Unfortunately, it seems some are willing to write off this uniquely talented filmmaker. Nay, I say.

    I really hope someone allows his director’s cut of ‘The Black Dahlia’ to finally see the light of day. Author James Elroy saw that version and really touted it. Then the studio took it away, and we ended up with the trainwreck that still bares his name. Too bad.

    Great to know you’re a fan, Sergio. Enjoy.

    • Thanks for the good wishes Michael – hell, us De Palma-philes got to stick together! Sadly Femme Fatale went straight to video in the UK but I hope to see it on the bog screen someday. If you liked that one I think you’ll really enjoy Passion. Although there is much that I really like in Black Dahlia, it does seem that the studio mandated 2-hour running time is what is ultimately to blame, which is maddening. Mind you, I really wish the original ending from Snake Eyes might turn up one day. Apparently De Palma is not too keen, though clearly the climax is seriously undermined by its absence.

  2. Sergio – Happy birthday!!! I wish you many, many more, too. And thanks for sharing this terrific review. It’s interesting to see both Rapace and McAdams in these roles. I’ll confess I’ve not (yet) seen the film, but I can imagine some very well-done scenes between them. About DePalma’s other work, I am very glad you put Carlito’s Way and Carrie as high up on the list as you did. I think they’re both masterfully done. And I must see Obsession again – it’s been too long.

    • Thanks very much Margot, I plan to spend all day with my family and try ans forget all my worries … I think Carlito may end up as the most successful fusion of the director’s approach and the more conventional requirements of big budget studio filmmaking. Carrie remains a horro classic – it will be interesting to see if the remake also leads to renewed interest in the original!

  3. Colin says:

    Happy birthday pal – I’m only a few months behind you in the official mid-40s stakes.

    Great idea for a birthday tribute too. I missed Passion in the cinema – I think I must have blinked and it was gone. I’ve yet to see it but I intend to put that right at some point. From what I’ve heard, it sounds like a film that was quite well received by De Palma fans, if not a wider audience, so I think and hope it will be one I’ll appreciate.

    • Thank you Colin, very kind. 44 has been a bit blah of late and very stressful but I’m determined to make a success of 45! Passion is clearly one for the fans, but full of good things in my view. I got the DVD release in the UK (truly horrible generic cover) but when a decent Blu turns up, maybe with some extras, I’ll snap it up!
      PASSION

  4. A Very Happy Birthday to you, Sergio! What a way to ring in your big day — a terrific repertoire of Brian De Palma films! You chose his top 10 films well as I for one don’t remember the ones I have seen. It’s a relief, though, that I have seen many of De Palma’s 29 films, mostly the ones that came out in the 80s and thereafter, when I had access to more English films. I’d single out SCARFACE and THE UNTOUCHABLES as two very good gangster movies. It is also interesting that he made films like THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, and MISSION TO MARS — quite the experimental director.

    I hope you have a great day and a great year, Sergio!

    • Thank you Prashant, very good of you. I agree there is a lot more variety in his work than he gets credit for. My personal taste is more towards his exercises in style that a like feature essays on cinema but Carlito, Mission: Impossible, Untouchables, Scarface and so on work supremely well!

  5. neer says:

    Happy B’day Sergio. Hope you have a great day. Wishing you joy and happiness always.

  6. John says:

    This is a remake of a French film called Crime d’Amour (LOVE CRIME – 2010) starring Kristen Scott Thomas and Ludevine Sagnier. I saw it last year sometime and liked it a lot. DePalma’s version seems unsurprisingly more lurid. I watched the opening scene of PASSION a while back and found interesting but I think the age difference between Scott-Thomas and Sagnier added a dimension that might be missing in the Depalma version. I’m going to track it down all the same. Will be intrigued to note the changes and similarities (if any).

    Happy forty-something-eth, my friend. No turning back now! :^D

    • De Palma, lurid? Surely you jest! I was deliberately not mentioning the remake aspect (officially only the director’s second) just to not get into that whole debate about his work – hope you catch up with it – it’s much more of a mystery than the original though and actually I think works pretty well. I look forward to hearing what you make of it – and thanks for the good thoughts – for me 45 is definitely the new 35!

  7. TracyK says:

    Happy, happy birthday. I am officially a LOT older than you, so enjoy your forties. That is a great decade.

    I am a little overwhelmed with all this info but… Passion sounds good. I like Noomi Rapace a lot. Will buy it and watch it eventually (or maybe rent first). Of your top ten, I would like to see Carlito’s Way. Of the others, I especially liked Mission Impossible.

    • Thanks TracyK – you can’t fool me, 39 doesn’t sound older than 45 to me :) Carlito’s Way is wonderful I think and has some amazing performances from Pacino and Sean Penn. Passion is probably more of an ‘acquired taste’ (which is to say a taste that some people may never acquire) I am prepared to admit …

  8. Maja says:

    Happy Birthday, Sergio, from Jamie & myself! We had the good fortune to attend a screening of “Phantom of the Paradise” a few years ago. It was an archival print (direct from the studio) that was shown, and as an added bonus, Paul Williams (with whom I chatted–very charming man) was the special guest. A wonderful movie-going experience featuring my favourite De Palma film!

    • So lovely to hear from yuo Maja – thanks very much for the good wishes – I had a great time with Mum and dad and my brother’s family – I really envy you going to that screening and getting to meet Paul Williams – that’s just! One of these years you must tell me all about it in person. Hugs for Jamie, kisses for you. Love, Sergio

      • Maja says:

        Right back ‘atcha ;)
        It’s been ages since we’ve seen you, but we talk about you often and are happy to hear that you are doing well. Oh, and It’s nice to see that you’ve taken a shine to the Hard Case Crime series we recommended way back when :) Warmest wishes to you & everyone in your family. Wishing you a year of happiness, good health & success!

        • Thanks Maja – oh yes, every time I read an HCC I think of you guys – that’s a fact! And sooner or later I will make to to BC, really I will. In the mean time, sincerest hugs all round.

  9. Yvette says:

    Not a fan of De Palma so have nothing to say except HAPPY BIRTHDAY, SERGIO!!! Somehow I missed the Big Day. So Belated Good Wishes, my friend. Hope it was a great one.

  10. 282daniele says:

    Mi inserisco in uno spazio che vagamente mi introduce, per cognome uguale: chissà se sia un lontanissimo parente. Bis-bis-bis come gli antenati di Pippo.
    Vorrei chiederti Sergio se tu abbia tra i tuoi scritti, The Third Bullet di Carr in lingua inglese, oppure se tu sappia che ne sia in possesso qualcuno che mi possa aiutare.
    Curt farà un’antologia dedicata a Green e vorrebbe leggere i miei articoli su Carr: io vorrei dargli innanzitutto questo su The Third Bullet ma ho bisogno nella traduzione inglese, che anche i passi caratterizzanti siano riportati in inglese e non posso ritradurre dall’italiano nell’inglese originale il testo di Carr, perchè anche se il senso sarebbe lo stesso o quasi, la resa lessicale sarebbe diversa.
    Piero

  11. 282daniele says:

    Ti ho appena inviato una email. Grazie del tuo aiuto Sergio. Come sempre da quando ti conosco.
    Piero

  12. 282daniele says:

    Ho letto che quando hai postato quest’articolo era il tuo compleanno. Se l’avessi saputo prima, e mi avessi dato il tuo nuovo indirizzo, ti avrei mandato qualcosa.
    Comunque Buon Compleanno, anche se in ritardo!!! 45? Io ne ho fatti 50 il mese scorso. Ahimè, la vecchiaia incombe.
    Dalle nostre parti si dice che..la vecchiaia è una carogna.
    A presto.
    Piero

  13. Jeff Cordell says:

    I’m 45 so I know how you feel. When I arrived at 43 I took a long hard look at myself in the mirror (literally) and decided I had to lose weight. So I dropped approximately 85 lbs (38 Kilograms) over a two year period. That was my mid-life crisis. I’m married and I can’t afford a mistress (on a police officer’s pay? Ridiculous), I don’t like motorcycles and I look ridiculous in a sports car. The good news is my cholesterol count and blood pressure is the lowest it’s been since Reagan was in the White House.

  14. Kelly says:

    Ooh, this sounds like a must-see. Blow Out is one of my favorite movies, by the way. I’m constantly recommending it to people.

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