Brian De Palma is an extremely gifted filmmaker, and has been since his emergence in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with his strange dark comedies, and Hitchcock inspired thrillers. He is a student of cinema past, and takes those films and filters them through his own mind, and comes up with something between homage and original. Unfortunately it seems like De Palma has lost some of his magic in the past two decades or so. Really, since 1990, he has only made two really good films (both of them are on this list), but too much of his work since that time has been visually interesting, but dramatically hollow or even silly (Snake Eyes has one of the best opening shots in cinema history – a shot worthy of Scorsese, Hitchcock, Ophuks or Welles, but then devolves into a truly awful movie, The Black Dahlia has a perfect film noir look, but is undone by horrible miscasting). Nevertheless, I will be seeing his most recent film, Passion, at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, so I thought I’d look back at his 10 best films, if for no other reason than to remind myself how good he can be.
10. Dressed to Kill (1980)
I easily could have placed Sisters (1973) or Obsession (1976) in this spot, as both of those films, along with Dressed to Kill, are among De Palma’s most obvious Hitchcock homages – and all three of them have plots that would not work if you thought about them for five minutes, but you do not really care because the style of the movie is so mesmerizing, you simply sit back and enjoy the ride. This film, a clear Psycho homage, stars Angie Dickinson as a bored housewife who is one brilliant sequence (the sequence that I finally decided merited putting this film on the list) meets a stranger in a museum, and the two play a wordless game of sexual cat and mouse, with first one character stalking the other, and then vice versa, before they finally consummate their relationship. From there, the movie takes on twist and turn after another, many of which don’t hold up to scrutiny, but then again, we don’t really care, as absorbed as we are by the style, and the performances by Dickinson, Nancy Allen, as a street wise prostitute, and Michael Caine, as a psychiatrist. I know there are lots of plot holes, but I also know I don’t care.
9. Casualties of War (1989)
Casualties of War is not a great film – but had it been shortened, it well could have been. The film is based on the shocking true story of an American unit of five men in Vietnam who are sent out on patrol. Their Commanding Officer, played by a brilliant Sean Penn, is enraged that the MPs won’t let him go into town and get a prostitute, so instead he decides that, along with his four underlings, that they will go into a nearby village and kidnap a girl to fill their sexual needs on patrol. Hearing this, a Private (Michael J. Fox) does not believe him – but it becomes all too real when they actually do kidnap a girl, and force her to march alongside them on patrol. The other four men will eventually rape and kill the girl – and Fox will try to get the military to press charges against them. The bookending scenes at the beginning and the end don’t really work too well – they are too contrived. And yet the scenes in the jungle, where a decent man tries in vain to stop a violent one, who bullies everyone to go along with, are brilliant. There is a greater, shorter film in Casualties of War.
8. Carlito’s Way (1993)
In Carlito’s Way, Al Pacino stars as a Puerto Rican gangster in New York City, who has been released from prison on a technicality, and says he wants to go straight. All he needs to do is make a little money so he can invest alongside his friend in a car rental business in the Bahamas. And yet, Carlito knows nothing about going straight – his only friends are criminals, or his attorney (Sean Penn, who is easily the best thing in the movie), who is basically a criminal as well, and so, as the movie goes along, it becomes clear that Carlito will not get his happy ending – but then again, he doesn’t really deserve one - he should have died in prison. Al Pacino has a gift for playing these larger than life characters – and Carlito bears a resemblance to another gangster he played for De Palma, except a little older and wiser, and he carries the movie, and allows the colorful supporting cast to be truly bizarre at times. The film also has a number of great action set pieces – De Palma’s specialty. Carlito’s Way is a wonderful gangster movie.
7. The Untouchables (1987)
The Untouchables may not be among De Palma’s most daring works, but it certainly ranks as one of his most entertaining and satisfying. From Kevin Costner’s square jawed Elliot Ness, to Sean Connery, obviously having a blast in his Oscar winning performance as his mentor to Robert DeNiro, chewing the scenery brilliantly as a larger than life Al Capone, the cast is uniformly excellent. The movie also has several great action set pieces – the now infamous one in the train station playing homage to Battleship Potemkin, being the best, although there are some other great ones as well. True, The Untouchables is a movie built on clichés – there is hardly an original moment in its running time, but as straight ahead, Hollywood entertainment, The Untouchables is great fun.
6. Hi, Mom! (1970)
De Palma’s early, demented black comedy Hi, Mom! sees the director at his most experimental and ambitious – in fact, perhaps a touch too ambitious, as this is a very strange, unwieldy film, but also a great one. It stars a young Robert DeNiro, reprising his role from De Palma’s Greetings, as a Vietnam vet home from the war, who moves starts the movie wanting to making pornography – but a realistic pornography, than combines elements of cinema verite, moving on to becoming an actor for an strange, underground theater troupe (which includes the infamous Be Black, Baby! sequence), and finally becoming a domestic terrorist. If this all sounds very strange, that is because it is, but it is also among the most complex of De Palma’s films, one that very early on addresses his fascination with voyeurism, and the link between sex and violence. I cannot say that Hi, Mom is a completely successful film – it throws everything at the wall to see what will stick – but it certainly in an interesting one.
5. Body Double (1984)
In many ways, Body Double resembles De Palma’s other blatant Hitchcock homages – Sisters, Obsession and Dressed to Kill – except this one actually has a much better, much less flawed plot, and characters who are easier to believe. This one stars Craig Wasson as an unemployed actor whose friend lets him stay at his house for a few days when he’s out of town. It’s one of those strange houses on stilts around L.A., and his friends shows him the sights – especially the sexy neighbor who does a striptease in front of a window every night. Wasson cannot help himself, and watches her through a telescope, but starts to believe that she is in danger (Rear Window anyone?). From there, I won’t spoil the rest of the plot, except to say that the movie takes a strange but completely logical turn into the world of pornography – and contains one of the best performances of Melanie Griffith’s career as a porn star Wasson enlists to help him. The movie is sexy, violent and over the top – but also masterfully directed by De Palma, who here, finally directed a film that was not mere Hitchcock homage – but worthy of the master himself.
4. Scarface (1983)
Scarface is probably De Palma’s most famous film these days, which is odd when you consider who reviled by many critics when it was released back in 1983. But for whatever reasons, the world of rap has embraced the film, and Tony Montana, as a model for their life of excess – which is pretty sad when you think about the film itself. But De Palma’s violent gangster saga is not to blame for its followers – because on its own terms it a brilliant, violent, epic gangster film, with a brilliantly over the top Al Pacino, as a Cuban refugee who comes to Miami to make money – because along with money comes power, and with power comes respect. Montana rises up in the criminal underworld because he lets nothing stand in his way – he will do anything, as those around him will eventually find out. The screenplay by Oliver Stone is one that mixes the over the top violence with a political statement about America, and Cuba for that matter, but is above all a character study of a man who starts out as ambitious, and achieves everything he wants, but ends up drowning in his own excess. Scarface is a great movie because Stone, Pacino and De Palma all know it has be larger than life for it to work at all – and none of them were afraid to go there.
3. Femme Fatale (2002)
Femme Fatale is an exercise in pure cinema style. It opens with a jewel heist and a brazen one at that, as a team of seemingly highly trained thieves send the beautiful Laure Ashe (Rebecca Romijn) to a premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, where she ends up seducing a model in a bathroom wearing millions in jewels – and then ends up getting away with it – and screwing over her partners. Seven years later, a woman who looks a lot like Laure Ashe is back in Paris, and is photographed by a paparazzi photographer (Antonio Banderas), and is determined to get those photos back – no matter what she has to do to get them. This is a sexy film where Romijn proved that while she may not be a great actress, she at least had to good sense to know that this was the role she was born to play – Hitchcock would have loved her, and De Palma certainly does. The movie twists and turns, and keeps you guessing right to very end. It is a sexy thriller in the very best sense of the word. Now, is it really THAT much better than the similar films De Palma made in the 1970s and 1980s, or does it just seem so because it is the type of film that no one but De Palma would even think to make anymore? I honestly have no idea. But I love it just the same.
2. Blow Out (1981)
Blow Out is the best of De Palma’s Hitchcockian thrillers because, to me anyway, it is the one that most clearly moves beyond just mere homage, and gets to something deeper, darker and more original than those other films. In this one, John Travolta plays a B-movie soundman, out on a bridge late one night recording background noise, when he witnesses a car accident, as a car plunges off the bridge into the water below. He dives in, and saves the girl (Nancy Allen), but not the man who dies. What he discovers is that the man was a possible Presidential candidate, and when he goes back and listens to his tapes, he thinks he hears not just the blow out of the tire – but also a gunshot. Was this not an accident at all, but rather a murder? Travolta becomes obsessed trying to piece this altogether, and his investigation leads to a rogues gallery of people – Nancy Allen, not just an innocent victim, Dennis Franz as a slimy P.I., but not quite THAT slimy, and John Lithgow as a ruthless political fixer - and a possible, massive political conspiracy. Unlike many thrillers, these people do not behave as they do merely to serve the plot, but respond like real people would. The movie ends on a bleak, but fitting note. Yes, you can point out the influences in Blow Out – Hitchcock in the chase scene through the crowded streets of Philadelphia during an anniversary celebration of the Liberty Bell, Antonioni in the concept of a man driven to extremes thinking he has captured a murder that no one will believe – but De Palma moves beyond his influences here, and crafted his most complete thriller – one that it definitely his.
1. Carrie (1976)
Carrie is one of the best horror movies ever made, because it is one of those horror films that feels the most real. No, I do not believe in telekinesis, but the horror that grows in Carrie is a horror that comes out of the story and its characters – and not just a bit of tacked on bloodletting for commercial reasons. Sissy Spacek delivers a terrifyingly realistic performance as the pretty, painfully shy Carrie, who is tormented at school by the popular kids (the scenes involving the tampon are truly horrifying, but not in a horror movie way) but it pales in comparison to what she goes through at home, at the hands of her religiously fanatical mother, who is so scared of sexuality, that she will never let Carrie develop to be a normal girl. De Palma has often, rightfully, been accused of caring more about style than substance – but here, he lets the movie develop naturally, and takes his time setting up the characters, so that the horror when it comes, actually does come from a real place – which makes it all the more terrifying. Spacek and Laurie are brilliant in this movie to be sure, and while De Palma may be more restrained at times in Carrie than normal, it works – and he does let his stylistics out to play at points, most memorably as Carrie dances with her prom date, which first seems romantic, and then spins wildly out of control as De Palma’s camera moves faster and faster around them. Carrie may not be De Palma’s most “Brian De Palma” film (if that makes sense, and it does to me), but it is the best film he has ever made.