Staff Picks: The Brutal Brian De Palma

Today marks the birth of one of the leading New Hollywood Directors; Brian De Palma. With a career spanning 52 years, and creating classics in multiple genres, De Palma has cemented him as a seminal director. To commemorate this occasion, we at A Fistful of Film have chosen to examine some of our favourites out of his filmography.

Obsession (1976): By Jacob Calta

When it comes to Brian De Palma, the intertwining of his bold allusions to Hitchcock and the bolder bloodshed a post-Hayes Code Hollywood allows made him quite possibly the most perfect director of cult cinema one could picture. A man who adores his predecessors and is willing to break more than just eggs in making his clever, surreal efforts. One film that stands head-and-shoulders above all of his filmography, in my humble opinion, is perhaps his most blatant borrowing of Hitchcock, and yet one of his most human films in the process: 1976’s Obsession.

When your blueprint is Vertigo, you are already off to a good start, but what Schrader and De Palma do is take the concepts at that film’s core and twist them into a touching, tremendous mystery. A man, haunted by the loss of his family in a kidnapping, and encounters a woman who is uncannily like the wife he lost. Obsession is easily my favorite De Palma picture, and his best in my humble opinion. It has this beautifully glossy camerawork by Vilmos Zsigmond, exquisite location shoots in Florence and New Orleans, and a solid cast pulling it all off. In a way, there is a greater empathy for the characters here than in the star-crossed tragedy of Vertigo. There is a moment between Cliff Robertson and Geneviève Bujold in Florence in particular that has a stunning resonance to it that is unlike anything in the De Palma filmography. 

And then you get to the score.

That.

SCORE.

Easily one of the best of Bernard Herrmann’s career. He did not leave on a high note with just Taxi Driver, he left on a truly euphoric fermata with Obsession as well. The powerful organ passages, that mesmerizing waltz that closes the film, that choir of angels sent from above. I do not think my heart was pounding quite the same way with any other De Palma film once he hit that finale, and that is thanks to Herrmann a great deal. It easy to see why De Palma clung to that sound well after the Maestro’s passing. To have a man who loves your film as much as Herrmann loved Obsession write a career-defining score, I too would make it a mandate to infuse each film with that iconic style. Obsession stands alone in the De Palma filmography as a gothic, dreamy, and stunning romantic mystery with a taboo twist.

Carrie (1976): By Amos Lamb

I have a vivid memory of being about 13 years old, staying up till 11pm after being given permission to watch Carrie on FilmFour. The excitement was palpable, I had often heard about the film and the novel when looking up “Best Horror” lists, and so the prospect of actually being allowed to watch it was exciting to say the least. From the very first scene in the locker room, which took younger me off guard very quickly, I was on edge; the way De Palma, and his cinematographer Mario Tosi, framed Carrie being bullied is harrowing, putting the viewer into Carrie’s shoes. 

This sense of empathy towards Carrie, who is abused by her mother and bullied at school, continues throughout the entire film, and leads to one of my absolute favourite moments in the film when we see her finally snap. It’s one of the greatest emotional climaxes in cinema history, as Sissy Spacek stands drenched in blood watching her classmates and teacher laugh at her misfortune. The moment is made so much better by the dynamic editing, alongwith Spacek’s cold stare that sends chills down my spine everytime I see it. This followed by one of the most brutal and overbearingly uncomfortable massacre’s, it’s such a well put together sequence. The fast cuts and dutch angles create a sense of confusion and disorientation, while the elaborate effects happening on screen are so terror-inducingly chaotic you can’t help but feel anxious watching it.

Carrie will always hold a special place in my heart, it was one of the first classic horror films I ever got to experience, and De Palma’s style, along with Spacek’s performance, create an unforgettable film. The supporting cast is just as great, and Piper Laurie’s performance as Carrie’s mother is one of best horror has to offer. There is a reason this film is considered a horror classic, and De Palma’s style and Cohen’s screenplay come together to create something as worthy but different, from Stephen King’s novel.

Blow Out (1981): By David Alkhed

By 1980, Brian De Palma had gone from making independent political comedies like Greetings and Hi, Mom! to make mainstream Hollywood fair like Carrie and The Fury. Whereas one could definitely see how they were all the works of the same creator, something was missing in the latter Hollywood films for me. There was always something personal in the smaller De Palma films as opposed to the studio films, which were wonderful in their own right. But with Dressed to Kill De Palma started moving closer to personal themes of voyeurism, guilt and violence, and it all coalesced in what I consider to be his ultimate masterpiece, Blow Out.

De Palma’s most political film since his early days, Blow Out manages to be a lot of things at once; a political conspiracy thriller with a biting cynical edge, a meta commentary on filmmaking (with elements of humor thrown in) and an engaging mainstream thriller. But at the centre of the film is the love story between two guilt-ridden people trying to make amends for their pasts. John Travolta as Jack Terry and Nancy Allen as Sally turn in believable and purely empathetic performances that are some of the best works in their careers that makes for a truly heartbreaking love story with one of the most devastating shots in all of cinema towards the end.

De Palma also finds ample opportunities to explore and push his own filmmaking techniques. Thanks to the new invention known as the Steadicam, De Palma was able to move the camera places where he simply wouldn’t have been able to before, and his cinema is all the richer for it, and he used it to brilliant effect in the films memorable opening scene where he clearly makes fun of himself and his imitators. And even without the Steadicam at hand, De Palma can still find the perfect ways to shoot scenes that are visually stylish yet also advance the story as they also give an insight into the psyche of the characters. The shot of Travolta realizing all of his tapes are erased comes to mind.

That’s why Blow Out is, for me, De Palma’s greatest film and one that should be mentioned in the same league as the ones made by his contemporaries at the time (Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola and Lucas).

Scarface (1983): By Amos Lamb

Despite the fact I had heard alot about the film for years, nothing quite prepared me for what the film actually ends up being. Of course lines like “Say hello to my little friend” and the iconic “The world is yours” blimp are so present in pop culture I knew about them going into it, but there’s so many more fantastic elements of the film like; the soundtrack, the screenplays clever critique of capitalism, the lavish production design, and, of course, Al Pacino’s performance, all of which elevate the film’s underlying themes and ideas.

The narrative is brilliant, Oliver Stone’s screenplay is a great commentary on the excessive greed of the Hollywood system, as well as capitalism as a whole, which paired with De Palma’s stylish visuals and production design create this colourful and lavish world that draws the audience in the same way Tony is drawn in by crime. So too does the soundtrack, filled with such high-octane and fast tempoed pop songs, play into the frenetic and frantic underworld, while also matching with Montana’s descent into addiction. The film also opens itself to interesting readings based on its depiction of women and Montana’s relationship with them, with his impotence, in his relationship with Michelle Pfeiffer Elvira and his pseudo-sexual relationship with his sister. While some might not subscribe to these readings, which is fair enough, I think the film is deep enough that it offers a lot for the viewer to dissect and unpack on subsequent viewings.

There is a reason why Scarface is considered a classic, it’s distinct flourish and iconography has earned the film its place among the best gangster films in my opinion. Pacino is in the height of his tremendous career, and Tony Montana is one of his best and most impressive performances and is rightfully considered one of the best villains ever.

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