This week marks the 40th anniversary of my favorite movie, so of course I'm taking the opportunity to write about its director, Brian De Palma.
"Blow Out" earned decent reviews when it was released on July 24, 1981, but wasn't a hit, particularly when you consider that leading man John Travolta was just about the biggest movie star on the planet. His "Grease" audience apparently didn't want to see him in an adult drama with a bummer of an ending. Also, the movie's borrowings from "Blow-Up," the Watergate and Chappaquiddick scandals and the Zapruder film didn't sit well with 1981 audiences, who were ready to move on from all that stuff. But De Palma's thriller is now seen as one of the underrated films of the time.
Still, there's the Alfred Hitchcock thing.
Throughout his career, De Palma has been knocked as a Hitchcock imitator and it's true that he echoes Hitch tropes: icy blondes, protagonists wrongly accused of murder, characters who double each other, loners who can't convince anyone they witnessed a crime, Freudian explanations for aberrant behavior (although De Palma usually lampoons those explanations).
That knock has faded. Decades of hip-hop sampling and remixes may have made us more comfortable with the idea that all artists draw on previous artists, even Shakespeare. But what's interesting about De Palma is that, while the plot similarities to Hitchcock are legit, he's a much different filmmaker. Even when he's obsessing over the same themes — as in "Obsession," practically a "Vertigo" remake — De Palma explores them with fresh eyes.
Consider his love of extremely long takes, such as the one that opens "Snake Eyes" or another that encapsulates an entire relationship between strangers in "Dressed to Kill." They owe nothing to Hitchcock, who was more interested in building sequences in the editing room than the camera. Those scenes — there's one in practically every De Palma work — are a key to how he sees movies. De Palma uses long, edit-less sequences to persuade us to follow him on the ride he's planning. "I'm not hiding anything," he seems to be saying. "You can trust me."
We can't, of course — there are always twists — but the idea is that De Palma lets us in on the moviemaking process. That's also true of the movies-within-movies he often includes and of his fondness for splitting the screen in half, to show two scenes at once. Reminding us that we're watching a movie also reminds us that he has us exactly where he wants us; there's extra joy in a De Palma thriller because he reveals his tricks. He has such control of movie mechanics that how he tells a story is as interesting as the story itself.
That can fall flat. No amount of formal brilliance can make a bad script like "Mission to Mars" or "Redacted" good, but he has made a bunch of terrific movies that didn't make my top seven: "Femme Fatale," "Snake Eyes," "Mission: Impossible" and more. When everything comes together for De Palma, it's like a guy who loves the movies more than anything is helping us see why he loves them.
"Blow Out" (1981)
Like a lot of paranoid thrillers, this one — in which a movie sound guy (Travolta, never better) and a prostitute (Nancy Allen, heartbreaking) unwittingly witness an assassination — is about how the events of the '70s damaged average folks' faith in the American dream. Set, ironically, in the City of Brotherly Love during a Liberty Bell celebration, it's also about the joy of making movies, since Travolta assembles a Zapruder-like film of the assassination. And it has one of the best endings in movie history.
'Dressed to Kill' (1980)
Stylish and cruel, it stars Angie Dickinson and Michael Caine as a troubled woman and her therapist, both of whom are somehow connected to a killer. The tension is almost unbearable and Nancy Allen, who was once married to De Palma, and Keith Gordon, as Dickinson's son, complete a quartet of fine performances.
'Carlito's Way' (1993)
Some love Al Pacino's over-the-top work in De Palma's "Scarface" remake but I'll take this garish melodrama any day. Pacino plays a mobster, released from prison, who — say it with me — gets sucked back into a life of crime. Sean Penn gives his best performance as a shady lawyer in a movie the French magazine Cahiers du Cinema said was the best not just of 1993 but of the entire decade.
Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie earned Oscar nods — De Palma has never been nominated — as the title character and her fanatical mother in this terrifying and surprisingly funny adaptation of Stephen King's novel. De Palma, who gave Robert De Niro his first movie leads, did the same here for Allen, Travolta and Amy Irving.
'The Untouchables' (1987)
De Palma dials down his perversity in a propulsive epic, which pits Prohibition agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) against Al Capone (De Niro) in Depression-era Chicago. Sean Connery won the supporting actor Oscar for his zesty work as Ness' mentor, and De Palma gives yet another fine actor, Patricia Clarkson, her first movie role as Ness' wife.
'The Black Dahlia' (2006)
Josh Hartnett, Hilary Swank and Scarlett Johansson channel old Hollywood glamour in a thriller about a cop investigating the famous unsolved murder of a would-be starlet whose severed body was found in a meadow. But it's Fiona Shaw who steals the show with her entertaining overacting as a wealthy crackpot.
'Body Double' (1984)
De Palma has said he made this comic take on "Rear Window" in frustration, to show those who complained he only cared about sex and violence what a movie would look like if that were true. Set in the worlds of shlocky horror and porn, the surprisingly elegant result features Melanie Griffith's most assured performance as a XXX star who defies our expectations. The movie is soon to be rereleased as a deluxe Blu-ray by the Criterion Channel.
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