Brian De Palma directing John Travolta still from Split/Screen trailer

The Summer of De Palma: Looking Back at a Master Filmmaker’s Career

Following the release of Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow's document on the eponymous director, the legacy of Brian de Palma's extensive and controversial filmography is given renewed attention.

Ask the average movie lover to list today’s most successful and influential directors and you get the same list of names: Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Ridley Scott. There is one particular icon who often gets left off that list: Brian De Palma. Not only is De Palma one of this elite circle’s contemporaries (photos exist of the group out for nights on the town, looking like a dad-jean wearing version of the Rat Pack), he also has a hall of fame filmography that places him in the great director pantheon.

In 2016, audiences are spoiled for choice and they’ve acclimatized themselves to excellence. Moviegoers can head to the cinema to see films from modern-day masters like Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher, and Christopher Nolan. We also still routinely see the old guard put out amazing work. Steven Spielberg, Terence Malick, Kathryn Bigelow, and Ridley Scott haven’t forgotten how to hit it out of the park. In addition, we have the work of legends such as Akira Kurosawa, Sergio Leone, François Roland Truffaut, Satyajit Ray, and Stanley Kubrick available at the push of a button. It’s easy to lose oneself among that greatness and forget how rare those talents are.

Most working directors go through their entire careers in search of a hit; directors with a string of hits spend their career striving for an iconic film, and those rare filmmakers that reach icon status push their talents to the very limits to become legends. De Palma’s career is legendary. He’s directed big budget blockbusters (Mission: Impossible), critically adored pictures (The Untouchables), beloved crime flicks (Carlito’s Way), cult classics (Scarface), and unheralded masterpieces (Blow Out). Whether in the form of homage or a blatant rip-off, his signature style has influenced countless films, TV series, music videos, and video games.

Most importantly, De Palma’s multifaceted career inspired a generation of actors, writers, and filmmakers in numerous genres. There’s a myriad of Hollywood talent working today who went into show business because they fell in love with De Palma’s movies.

Appreciating an Icon

Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow are two fans who decided to share their De Palma appreciation with the rest of the world. The duo co-directed the fantastic new documentary, De Palma. The film is an in-depth discussion with the eponymous director as he guides the viewer through his career’s most memorable moments. Coinciding with the documentary’s release, Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF Bell Lightbox) has launched Split/Screen: The Cinema of Brian De Palma.

TIFF’s summer-long retrospective takes place on select nights from 18 June through 3 September and features 25 titles from De Palma’s filmography. Kicking off with Casualties of War (18 June), the series will run through a gamut of De Palma’s classic films including Carrie (8 July), Obsession (14 July), Scarface (23 July), and Femme Fatale (20 August). If you’re a film lover and happen to be in the Greater Toronto Area between now and 3 September, don’t miss out on a chance to see some of De Palma’s finest work while it’s up on the big screen, as it’s meant to be seen.

When discussing De Palma’s movies, the same titles tend to dominate the conversation: Carrie, Scarface, The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way, and Mission: Impossible. It’s understandable; each one of those films are certified classics. However, De Palma has been making movies for over 40 years, and there’s a library of lesser-known films that deserve just as much attention. If you’re new to De Palma’s work, here are a few less talked about films that are worth exploring.

The Fury (1978)

Carrie wasn’t De Palma’s only cinematic venture into exploring the paranormal. He followed up his 1976 Stephen King adaptation two-years later with a picture that’s one part ’70s spy-thriller and one part X-Men movie. Like Carrie, The Fury prominently features a young woman manifesting supernatural abilities as she’s coming of age, but the similarities end there.

The Fury features Spartacus himself, Kirk Douglas, as a father/CIA agent, attempting to rescue his “gifted” son from an insidious government agency. As if Kurt Douglas as a 60-year-old bad-ass wasn’t exciting enough, the secret agency is led by the perfectly cast John Cassavetes, who turns in a delectably villainous performance.

The Fury lacks the overall polish of De Palma’s best work (Amy Irving and Andrew Stevens’ performances are atrocious), and the film’s parallel plots lead to some pacing issues, but the movie still works like gangbusters. Credit The Fury’s insane premise, an incredible John Williams score, and over the top set-pieces for minimizing its flaws. The Fury is a film where the viewer can lose themselves in its absurdity with a big silly grin on their face. If you enjoy moody tales packed with car chases, nefarious secret agencies, and super-powered teenagers with the ability to splatter their enemies like over-ripe melons, then you need to stop what you’re doing right now to go and watch this film.

Body Double (1984)

In Body Double, Craig Wasson plays Jake Scully, a down on his luck B-movie actor. When fellow D-lister, Sam Bouchard (Gregg Henry), lands an out of town role, he offers Jake the chance to take on his house-sitting duties while he’s away. Homeless and with nowhere to go, looking after a fabulous home in an upscale neighbourhood seems like a can’t-lose prospect, and Jake happily obliges. Jake’s fortunes seem to be changing until his infatuation with the beautiful neighbor down the road drags him into L.A.’s sordid underbelly.

Critics often compare De Palma’s style to Alfred Hitchcock’s, and with good reason. De Palma openly acknowledges Hitchcock’s influence on his own filmography. Body Double is an overt nod to Hitchcock; De Palma expertly crafts a voyeuristic tale so packed with tension and intrigue that he would make the Master of Suspense himself proud.

At the time of Body Double’s release, many critics dismissed the film for blatantly re-appropriating its style and themes from Hitchcock’s films, particularly Rear Window. Although critics in 1984 had a difficult time accepting Body Double on its own merits, in the years following its release filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino have taught modern audiences how to embrace the art of the homage. In a time of rampant prequels, sequels, reboots, and remakes, audiences are well aware that simply copying a successful formula is no guarantee of success. In fact, it’s usually the recipe for a huge letdown.

Decades after Body Double’s release, the picture holds up in a way only highly enjoyable films can. Despite taking place amidst the height of ’80s tackiness, the film hardly feels dated. Some of the clothes are pretty wild and the film prominently features a Frankie Goes to Hollywood musical number, but these anachronisms never take the modern-day viewer out of the story. A gripping plot and expert craftsmanship behind the camera help whittle away the distraction of dated visuals, letting the film simply affect the audience on a visceral level.

Body Double is De Palma’s follow up to Scarface, and he uses the film as a platform to fire back at critics who viewed Scarface as the work of a sadistic misogynist. Body Double doesn’t hold back on the sex and violence; De Palma titillates the viewer with the alacrity of an exploitation movie hack. He goes out of his way to make the viewer an accomplice in the camera’s lurid male gaze. Alternatively, he uses clever camera work to break standard cinematic illusions, exposing how fabricated movies are — a not so subtle “F-U” to everyone claiming movie violence was ushering in the apocalypse. Whether you’re a film student studying the art of suspense or a casual viewer with a few hours to kill, Body Double is worth checking out.

Blow Out (1981)

Blow Out stars John Travolta as Jack Terry, a B-movie sound engineer who finds himself at the wrong place at the right time. One night while out recording audio for a film, Jack accidentally captures evidence proving that what looks like a car accident was in fact an assassination. Making matters worse, the assassination’s target was a presidential candidate.

Released in 1981, Blow Out feels like a throwback to ’70s era political thrillers. It’s drenched in the paranoia and political cynicism that’s a hallmark of the genre. By thriller standards, Blow Out is simple and straight-forward; it never gets tangled up in the complicated plot twists of his later films like Body Double. That lean storytelling approach works so well because of the film’s masterful casting along with the exceptional performances De Palma evokes from his cast.

A young John Travolta turns in a career-best performance, proving that at the height of his popularity he was more than just a pretty face. Travolta counter-balances Jack’s thousand-watt smile with a haunting pathos. Without getting too spoilery (with regard to a 36-year old movie), toward the end of the film Travolta delivers a line so heartbreaking that it will linger with the viewer long after the credits roll. Nancy Allen loses herself in the sweet naiveté of Sally, a character who is the embodiment of the “hooker with the heart of gold” trope. John Lithgow reveals the lethal, off-kilter menace that he would return to decades later as the Trinity Killer on Dexter. Frequent De Palma collaborator Dennis Franz also shows up as Manny, a sleazy con who would throw his own mother under a bus if it meant a few extra dollars in his pocket. Each performance is pitch-perfect, and De Palma leaves the heavy narrative lifting to the actors. He never gets carried away with his signature camera movements.

Like an athlete capping off a historic season with an MVP trophy, Blow Out is the indelible mark left behind by a gifted filmmaker amidst a run of incredible films: it was released at the midpoint of a ten-year run that featured Carrie, Scarface, and The Untouchables. Given its fantastic pacing, killer cinematography, and top-notch performances, it’s difficult to argue that Blow Out isn’t a perfect thriller. In a filmography filled with iconic films, Blow Out may be De Palma’s masterpiece.

De Palma (2015)

Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s documentary, De Palma, is a cinephile’s dream come true. The film takes a deep dive into De Palma’s career, covering his early days in film school (where he began working with Robert De Niro) before going step-by-step though his filmography.

As far as documentary filmmaking goes, this picture is simple; it’s just Brian De Palma sitting in a chair and talking about his career. The film cuts away from the director to feature behind the scene photos and footage from his movies. It’s candid and straight-forward, but it’s also amazing. De Palma offers up the type of insights and anecdotes that make movie nerds drool, but even casual fans will find much to enjoy. De Palma’s filmography is iconic enough that most viewers will be familiar with at least a few films in the doc (and who doesn’t love a good Hollywood anecdote).

For cinephiles and aspiring filmmakers alike, De Palma is an absolute must see. For those who aren’t enamored by the movie-magic that takes place behind the camera, the film may play the role of movie history curator. De Palma has a large filmography which spans 40 years, so the documentary is likely to reveal some unexplored material for those who just appreciate quality movies. There is one caveat: the documentary does spoil major reveals in some of the films it covers. However, a few spoilers are a small price to pay if it means unearthing some overlooked cinematic gems.

Forging a Legacy

In terms of notoriety, Brian De Palma never attained his contemporaries’ apex-level director status; his extensive filmography is steeped in too much controversy. With each new release, detractors came out of the woodwork to denounce his movies. Critics were quick to label De Palma’s films misogynistic, derivative, misanthropic, and exercises in style-over-substance.

In many ways, De Palma’s work was penalized for being too far ahead of the curve. Many of his movies are not easy watches for passive viewers. He speaks to audiences through an advanced cinematic language without coddling them. He forces viewers to learn the nuances of his extensive vocabulary or fall behind. They often fall behind. De Palma employs a meticulous style of artistry, plotting out elaborate compositions and imbuing films with subtle themes that standard viewers aren’t conditioned to key in on. In 2016, directors are applauded for the same techniques De Palma was criticized for: well-executed cinematic pastiche, indicting social commentaries, and elaborate tracking shots.

Today, audiences are well versed in cinematic artifice. Whereas surface-level theatricality appalled past generations — particularly violent acts towards women — viewers today watch films on multiple levels and are better at picking up a plot’s subtext. Today’s audiences see shades of gray in yesterday’s black and white issues. Moviegoers can differentiate between gratuitous T&A and director commentary on the industry’s depiction of women.

As fellow professional filmmakers, Baumbach and Paltrow have a level of insight into De Palma’s work that most of us don’t. It speaks volumes that these two directors, movie industry veterans, and unapologetic fans, chose De Palma as the subject for their passion project — both men were still in diapers during the early stages of his career. Furthermore, it’s a testament to the man’s work that the next generation of filmmakers grew up holding him in such high regard and now wants to shine a spotlight on his career. It shows De Palma hasn’t just crafted a filmography, he has created a legacy. That’s what legends do.