By James Hancock February 24th, 2016
If you missed the first part of this post, click the link above. If not, continue with my top 15 films by Brian De Palma.
15. Snake Eyes (1998)
My first summer working as an intern for a production company in Los Angeles, we were all urged to read David Koepp’s screenplay for Snake Eyes. At the time, David Koepp was one of the hottest screenwriters in Hollywood having recently written two massive blockbusters, Jurassic Park and Mission: Impossible, and everyone assumed Snake Eyes would be yet another hit. What had me most excited at the time was the idea that Snake Eyes would be reteaming Koepp with De Palma who together had made one of my favorite movies, Carlito’s Way. Well the script I read that summer was quite different from the eventual movie with the latter half bearing little resemblance to the movie we saw. That said, I’m still not sure which version I prefer. The reality is that they had no clear idea how to finish the movie. The first half of Snake Eyes is as intoxicating as anything De Palma ever shot but slowly the movie just runs out of gas until we’re left wondering why we’re watching it. On the other hand, Nicolas Cage, Gary Sinise and Carla Gugino are all outstanding and 50% of a great movie is still far better than most of the movies out there can claim.
14. Obsession (1976)
Brian De Palma and screenwriter Paul Schrader were both tremendous admirers of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and they expressed their respect with this dreamlike, melodramatic homage to what is now an acknowledged classic. Some might think of remaking Vertigo as cinematic heresy but we need to remember that in the 1970s Vertigo was considered by many to be a box office bomb and was almost impossible to find unless one knew a curator in New York or Los Angeles who was willing to project an 8mm print on a sheet. It is because of cinephiles like De Palma and Schrader that Vertigo now enjoys its lofty reputation. Watched today, Obsession feels like a far slower, sleepier version of Vertigo with a dash of incest for good measure. It is notable as one of the last films featuring music by the brilliant composer Bernard Herrmann who took De Palma’s side in a creative battle with Paul Schrader resulting in a truncated ending, a breach of trust that severely damaged De Palma’s relationship with Schrader. All personal drama aside, Obsession was De Palma’s first success in Hollywood opening the door to the next stage in his career.
13. Casualties of War (1989)
As a thirteen year old kid, I was completely caught off guard when I first saw Casualties of War on television. I was used to watching Michael J. Fox in comparably innocuous fare such as Family Ties and Back to the Future so I was in for quite a shock when I confronted this tale about American soldiers kidnapping, raping and eventually murdering a young Vietnamese girl. I had already seen Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) so I was not completely new to depictions of the Vietnam War on film, but the intensely personal focus of Casualties of War was incredibly disturbing to me at the time. I recently revisited the film and it holds up pretty damn well mostly due to great performances by Sean Penn, and the baby faced John C. Reilly and John Leguizamo. I still have trouble seeing Michael J. Fox starring in this kind of material but kudos to him for trying to stretch out his range at a time when he was being offered mostly Reagan-era yuppie fantasies like The Secret of My Succe$s (1987).
12. Mission: Impossible (1996)
Five movies into Mission: Impossible, I have yet to really love any of them. I find Tom Cruise’s portrayal of Ethan Hunt to be some of the most boring work of his career but clearly this is a franchise that people want more of. It would not surprise me if Cruise continues with Mission: Impossible until he retires. But twenty years into the series, a lot of people have forgotten that Brian De Palma deserves a ton of credit for giving the movie franchise its initial momentum. Commercially, Mission Impossible is the biggest hit of Brian De Palma’s career. The fact that De Palma continued to have problems in the studio system even after delivering a massive hit completely disproves the myth that commercial success guarantees filmmakers greater freedom to pursue the projects they want. All that aside, De Palma’s ability to sustain suspense was a perfect match for this material in particular during the sequence where Hunt breaks into CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. Personally, I’m just happy for De Palma who at least once during his 50 year career got to experience the joy of delivering a major blockbuster success.
11. Raising Cain (1992)
I first caught Raising Cain on TV as a teenager, when I still had not even heard of Brian De Palma by name, and the movie absolutely terrified me. In preparation for this post, I revisited the flick and I was delighted to see that the movie still works pretty well more than twenty years later with at least two scenes that remain genuinely shocking even from my jaded perspective. John Lithgow is clearly having a blast in this movie playing a man suffering from multiple personality after being experimented on by his twisted father as a child. The movie feels all but forgotten these days, but if you like De Palma’s thrillers, I highly recommend you give Raising Cain a try.
10. Hi, Mom! (1970)
The best part of preparing for this post was seeing Hi, Mom! for the first time. A sequel to De Palma’s Greetings (1968), this is the perfect film to show to anyone who erroneously claims that De Palma is only capable of stealing from Hitchcock. This film has far more in common with the early 1960s films of Jean-Luc Godard than any other influence I can think of. Robert De Niro stars as an aspiring director of erotic films with the goal of creating a series called ‘Peep Art’, yet another opportunity for De Palma to explore his fascination with voyeurism. The movie is funny as hell until it abruptly shifts in tone to a brilliant black & white segment titled “Be Black Baby”. Some of the most interesting work of De Palma’s career, “Be Black Baby” features an experimental theater where wealthy white theatergoers temporarily experience what it means to be Black in America. The sequence almost feels like a snuff film with a violent intensity that remains incredibly shocking and provocative to this day. Just for this scene alone the movie is worth watching and of all the films made during De Palma’s formative experimental phase, Hi, Mom! is by far my favorite.
9. Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
There’s never been another movie quite like Phantom of the Paradise. A melancholy rock opera/horror movie, the film is the ultimate cautionary tale about the dark side of show business. De Palma regular William Finley plays a hapless song writer who is abused and taken advantage by a corrupt producer named Swan (played brilliantly by Paul Williams) until he emerges a broken, disfigured monster. Now the Phantom of the Paradise Theater, he agrees to continue writing for Swan provided that a singer played by Jessica Harper will be the only one to sing his music. Needless to say nothing goes as planned but along the way we’re treated to some astonishing music and one of the most twisted movie scenarios of the 1970s. I love The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) but when it comes to rock operas, Rocky Horror comes in a distant second behind Phantom of the Paradise.
8. Sisters (1973)
For hardcore fans of De Palma’s thrillers, Sisters is the earliest must-see film of De Palma’s career. I don’t want to go into too many spoilers, but the film justifiably has many vocal admirers to this day. For those haters who enjoy accusing De Palma of misogyny, they clearly have not seen the first gruesome kill sequence in this film. Even more disturbing than the film’s grisly violence are those sequences where a journalist is drugged and checked into an insane asylum against her will. Luckily, the Criterion Collection has given this superb thriller a lot of love over the years and it is readily available to anyone who wants to see it.
7. Body Double (1984)
If you’re one of the people that hates De Palma, there’s a very good chance that Body Double furnished you with all of your ammunition. I’m not saying I agree, but it is easy to see how Body Double pushes some critics’ buttons. Body Double is the most gratuitous movie of De Palma’s career in the best possible way. The concept lifts heavily from Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Vertigo and offers some of the most violent imagery De Palma ever conceived. The latter half of the film takes place almost entirely within the porn industry giving Melanie Griffith the chance to shine as pornstar Holly Body. So I understand why some find this movie distasteful but for me it is pure, undiluted entertainment. De Palma is at his best when dealing with voyeurism, eroticism, the movie industry and murder, and Body Double delivers big time on all fronts.
6. The Untouchables (1987)
We finally come to the first De Palma film I ever saw. When I was 11 years old, The Untouchables got some serious playtime on HBO and I eagerly watched it every time it came on. The story follows Eliot Ness’s attempts to take down Al Capone and the result is one of the few Prohibition era gangster movies made after the 1930s that really works well. The cast enjoys a level of chemistry that almost makes The Untouchables feel like a romantic adventure movie in particular as the heroes ride on horseback to stop a deal going down at the border with Canada. Sean Connery and Robert De Niro are both in fine form while De Palma delivers some of the best scenes of his career, most notably his homage to Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin (1925). Arguably the most fun movie De Palma ever made, The Untouchables is the perfect gateway drug into De Palma’s work.
5. Blow Out (1981)
Often cited by Quentin Tarantino as one of his favorite movies alongside Rio Bravo (1959) and Taxi Driver (1976), Blow Out is one of De Palma’s signature films. From my perspective, thematically Blow Out would make a great companion piece to Blow-Up (1966) and The Conversation (1974), the perfect triple feature about solving mysteries using the tricks of trade of filmmaking, photography, sound mixing, etc. In the case of Blow Out we have a sound man played by Travolta who works on low-budget horror films. When he accidentally records a political assassination, he finds himself up to his ears in trouble alongside the very beautiful Nancy Allen. The film combines many of De Palma’s obsessions such as political corruption and the mechanics of filmmaking technique, resulting in what might be his most personal film he has ever made. If you don’t like this movie, you simply don’t get Brian De Palma.
4. Dressed to Kill (1980)
For a man who has devoted much of his career to photographing women, Dressed to Kill is one of his most erotic films. The opening of the film gives us what is essentially a thirty minute short film with almost no dialogue. This opening segment showcases De Palma’s keen sense of visual storytelling only to end shockingly in a scene that takes a page from the book of Hitchcock’s Psycho but with the additional twist of adding a spectator to the equation. Nancy Allen and Michael Caine are incredible in this film, one whose deranged plot kept me guessing up until the very last frame of film the first time I saw it. If you have a taste for lurid, sexual thrillers, this movie gets my highest possible recommendation.
3. Carrie (1976)
Carrie could very easily have occupied my #1 slot. The film is an absolute masterpiece of horror that has seldom been equaled with some of the most operatic, unrestrained melodrama seen in any De Palma film. Everything in this movie works to perfection from the technical expertise of De Palma’s split-screen prom night massacre to Sissy Spacek’s performance that I find as raw and pitiful as an open wound. As part of a demented experiment only a De Palma fan can appreciate, I screen this movie every few years for young family members and I am always thrilled to see just how many miniature heart attacks the ending of this film is still capable of inflicting on an audience. Forty years after its release, Carrie has lost none of its power, making so many of today’s young horror directors feel like pretenders to the throne at best.
2. Scarface (1983)
I discovered Scarface my first year at the University of Virginia and I can still recall the sensation of what felt like my entire body humming with energy as I returned to my dorm. I was stunned to put it mildly and prior to that night, I had no idea movies were capable of such operatic force. This was in the early days of my initial love affair with film and luckily I have had many similar awe inspiring experiences watching movies since that pivotal evening. But in the more than twenty years since that night, in spite of many repeat viewings, Scarface remains a powerhouse movie experience that always blows my mind. Scarface takes advantage of the rags to riches formula established in classic gangster films like Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931) and the original Scarface (1932, director Howard Hawks), but then cranks up the emotion, music, violence and the performances to a level of almost hallucinatory power. De Palma’s haters love to point to this film as the beginning of his artistic decline but from my vantage point, Brian De Palma has never been better.
1. Carlito’s Way (1993)
I knew in advance that no matter what I picked for my #1 slot, it would provoke a lot of disagreements, but the way I see it, anyone disputing my choice is more than likely a hardcore De Palma fan which is always a good thing. My first year in college my friends and I spent a lot of time drinking cheap beer and watching gangster movies on VHS on what was possibly the smallest television set ever owned by a human being. Somehow, the less than ideal viewing circumstances did not seem to matter. Each time we watched Carlito’s Way it was an event and we regularly packed the small dorm room to feast on this amazing movie. For my money, Al Pacino has never been better in what is essentially a tragic love story where all the gangster tropes simply serve as the backdrop for a powerful tale about Carlito Brigante’s search for redemption. Sean Penn is brilliant as Carlito’s corrupt lawyer but the real star of the show is Brian De Palma. His camera movements, his framing of shots, his ability to stretch or compress dramatic beats, and his use of space have never better. I think Carlito’s Way is Brian De Palma’s finest hour and I hope that movie fans will continue to discover this incredible movie for many decades to come.
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So if you made it this far, I hope you enjoyed this post as much as I enjoyed preparing for it. I’ve wanted to complete my study of De Palma’s filmography for many years and it was a blast revisiting some of his classic films. I’m sure you disagree with most if not all of the above rankings but part of the fun of these posts is getting folks involved on Twitter after the fact. So please give me a shout and let me know how you’d rank his movies. Even better, if this list inspires anyone to hunt down some of De Palma’s films they have not yet seen, then my mission has been accomplished. There’s a very good chance that De Palma will never make another movie making it all the more important to appreciate and savor the incredible movies we have from one of the most interesting careers in film from the last half century.
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