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When Dressed to Kill was released in 1980, the Village Voice famously ran a point-counterpart take on the movie, with veteran critic Andrew Sarris slamming it as “derivative,” while then-newcomer J. Hoberman called it “dazzling.” But despite the highly influential support of Pauline Kael throughout the peak years of his prolific five-decade career, director Brian De Palma has often been sidelined in the critical conversation — at least compared to the rest of the “youth group” that hit Hollywood in the early ‘70s, namely Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola.
Two longtime friends and admirers, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, now give him a forum to speak for himself in their entertaining, unequivocally titled documentary, De Palma. Screened in Venice without end credits, the film has the feel of a rushed edit, with jittery cuts in the interview segments and uneven audio. Plus the bid to be comprehensive and cover every last movie (right down to the video for Bruce Springsteen‘s “Dancing in the Dark,” in which the Boss plucks a then-unknown Courtney Cox out of the audience) makes it feel hurried at times, hurtling over career highlights to touch on minor entries possibly best forgotten. But there’s a ton of great material here and a nonstop flow of expertly chosen clips. With further finessing to allow more time to breathe and savor some of the many virtuoso set-pieces that are a De Palma trademark, this could be a definitive study of the director’s work.
Like the recent By Sidney Lumet, which premiered this year in Cannes, the strength of De Palma is that its sole point of view belongs to the subject. It also helps that he’s very good company. It’s clear at times that he’s in conversation with fellow filmmakers, acknowledging that they will have had similar experiences, but Baumbach and Paltrow remain unseen and unheard. De Palma ventures at one point that their movies start with character and work outwards while his do the opposite, but he seems to regard his films as no less personal.
De Palma is candid about his failures, honest about his disappointments, and doesn’t bother with false modesty where his great pictures are concerned. Speaking of the various remakes and subsequent adaptations of Carrie, the film that put him on the commercial map, he chuckles over the amusement of watching other people make mistakes that he avoided. He’s sanguine about movies that were attacked upon their original release and then embraced years later, by which time the initial criticism — usually pertaining to his penchant for baroque violence, especially when perpetrated against women — has been forgotten or become irrelevant.
He can also be very funny. Discussing Cliff Robertson, who was not his choice for the male lead in Obsession, De Palma recalls his cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond insulting the wooden actor by pointing out that his tan was the same color as the mahogany wall. His imitation of Bernard Herrmann‘s horrified reaction when he first sat him down to watch Sisters with a temp track of the composer’s Hitchcock scores is priceless.
One of the bonuses of having the director as our guide is his appreciation for craft contributions, none more important than music, given his love of extended dialogue-free action sequences electrified by big orchestral scores. In addition to “Bernie,” who was a link to the Hitchcock thrillers that so strongly influenced De Palma, Italian composer Pino Donaggio‘s lush scores are given due praise; Ennio Morricone‘s pulsing themes are credited with heightening the tension in The Untouchables; and one of the few good things the director has to say about The Fury is a nod to John Williams‘ fine score. Likewise, he acknowledges the key collaboration with his cinematographers — Zsigmond introducing him to the Steadicam on Blow Out, for instance — or production designer Richard Sylbert‘s conception of the flashy look for the nightclub in Carlito’s Way.
Among many delectable tidbits, he details the weird symmetry of losing Prince of the City to Sidney Lumet, and then ending up on Scarface after it had passed through Lumet’s hands. And the notion that he was offered Flashdance makes you want to turn back time and make that unlikely matchup happen.
While the overarching view of De Palma’s body of work offered here could be more cohesive, the wealth of detail is compelling stuff. “Being a director is being a watcher,” he says at one point, and he comes across as attentive to every aspect of the filmmaking process. That explains how something as seemingly routine as sound recording becomes a central plot point in Blow Out. (For those of us who adored that 1981 release from the start, it still hurts to hear of the studio’s appalled reaction to it, in particular the fabulously operatic ending with its cynical sting.)
His love of drawing attention to the director’s tricks, and weaving that film craft into the very fabric of the plot is something De Palma acknowledges came directly from Hitchcock, citing Vertigo as a formative influence. (Hitchcock clips are sprinkled throughout.) Without self-aggrandizement, he even lays sole claim to keeping the Hitchcock legacy alive through artistic renewal.
De Palma remains mostly diplomatic when discussing actors, and is often generous in his comments, notably about Sissy Spacek. She was not under consideration, but asked to try out for the role in Carrie, having met De Palma while she was painting sets alongside her production designer boyfriend (and later, husband) Jack Fisk on Phantom of the Paradise. (A little more time on that campy cult favorite would have been welcome.)
He tells fun stories about Al Pacino‘s meltdown after sweating in a leather coat in 100-degree heat while shooting the Carlito’s Way subway scenes; and rats out Sean Penn for echoing his onscreen hostility toward the Michael J. Fox character even in his offscreen dealings with the co-star. “Good old Sean,” says De Palma with a wry laugh. “Very exciting to work with.” Having given Robert De Niro some of his earliest roles, De Palma doesn’t even need to imply lack of gratitude when describing how he had to coax the actor back at an elevated salary to play Al Capone in The Untouchables, and then deal with him not bothering to learn his lines. On the same film there’s an amusing account of Sean Connery‘s indignation at having his character showered with a rain of bullets.
Hearing De Palma’s version of conflicts with screenwriter Robert Towne on Mission: Impossible, and the crafty way he got Tom Cruise on board with his concept for the exhilarating train-top ending makes the director seem the smartest guy in the room. But he’s wistful about how rarely in any career all the elements fall into place as they did on that hit and just a small handful of others. He’s forthright about the mistakes he made on one of his most clamorous flops, The Bonfire of the Vanities, and seems downright saddened when admitting he was out of his depth on the big-budget, effects-driven Mission to Mars, which killed his appetite to work in Hollywood.
As someone who has choreographed too many brilliant and memorably complex action sequences to mention — think the Odessa Steps homage from The Untouchables, for example, or the prom scene in Carrie — De Palma has earned the right to sniff at the clichés of so many previsualized Hollywood action scenes today.
The personal insights are fairly basic in terms of his upbringing and perhaps a shade guarded concerning his marriages and relationships. But this is unapologetically a professional reflection and not a memoir. While De Palma doesn’t appear to go in for much talk of thematic threads in his work, he does come close to geeking out when discussing some of his signature devices, like slow-motion, split screen, long takes, complicated tracking shots and that dizzying 360-degree pan around the editing room in Blow Out. That’s the stuff that will make this exhaustive survey catnip to the De Palma faithful.
Production company: Empire Ward Productions
Director-producers-camera: Noah Baumbach, Jake Paltrow
Executive producers: Scott Rudin, Eli Bush
Editors: Matt Mayer, Lauren Minnerath
Sales: UTA Independent Film Group
Not rated, 107 minutes
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