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.
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.
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.
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 could only really come from this filmmaker. 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?
- Murder a la Mod (1968) **
- Greetings (1968) **
- The Wedding Party (1969) *
- Hi, Mom! (1970) ***
- Dionysus in ’69 (1970) **
- Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972) *
- Sisters (1973) *****
- Phantom of the Paradise (1974) *****
- Obsession (1976) ****
- Carrie (1976) *****
- The Fury (1978) ***
- Home Movies (1980) *
- Dressed to Kill (1980) *****
- Blow Out (1981) *****
- Scarface (1983) ***
- Body Double (1984) ***
- Wise Guys (1986) **
- The Untouchables (1987) ****
- Casualties of War (1989) ****
- The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) ***
- Raising Cain (1992) *****
- Carlito’s Way (1993) *****
- Mission: Impossible (1996) ****
- Snake Eyes (1998) ****
- Mission to Mars (2000) ***
- Femme Fatale (2002) *****
- The Black Dahlia (2006) ***
- Redacted (2007) ***
- Passion (2012) ****
- Domino (2019) **
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 and The Fury are now also on Blu, with an HD edition of Raising Cain just released on Blu in the US with the intriguing ‘director’s cut’ (a de Palma approved fan edit based on the shooting script) – a UK release is due in early 2017 from the always dependable Arrow.