Pajiba’s Guide to What’s Good for You /
Jeremy C. Fox
Guides | September 13, 2006 | Comments ()
In honor of the much-anticipated release of The Black Dahlia, Pajiba salutes Brian De Palma. Part one of our appreciation covers his career from the early years to Blow Out. Part two will cover Scarface to Dahlia. A warning: In discussing the films, significant plot details are mentioned, and some surprises are revealed.
Most of the American directors who emerged at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the ’70s are easy to peg. Scorsese is the great voice of his generation, speaking in a purely American vernacular but expressing universal themes. Spielberg is a showman with a versatile and unparalleled technical mastery, a genius of the form hamstrung only by his sentimentality and lack of intellectual inquisitiveness. George Lucas is the great whore, the indie impresario who saw a chance to merchandise his way into billionairedom and gradually forgot not only his values but how to even entertain. Coppola is the failed prodigy, the man who made perhaps the greatest pair of films of the 20th century but then flamed out spectacularly — Michael Cimino is the petit Coppola, with a lesser achievement and greater flameout. Altman is the brilliant miniaturist, the artist working in his garret, away from the exigencies of show business, crafting brilliant little microcosms, though his output is hit-and-miss.
What may make Brian De Palma a more fascinating figure than his contemporaries — though some have greater native talents — is that it’s so much harder to find a label that will stick to him. After 40 years and over two dozen films, there’s still no firm critical consensus as to whether he’s a truly major director or just a clever hack. For every tender exploration of his use of Christian symbolism in the closing frames of Raising Cain, there seems to be another critic who thinks him nothing more than a cynical provocateur. But more important than the lack of critical consensus is that it can often be hard for a viewer to make up his own mind about De Palma. This is, at least in part, due to the great variation in style, subject matter, and — let’s face it — quality of his output. He’s done everything from slapstick comedy to film noir to an anti-war war movie. Yet many people continue to think of him only as a director of lurid thrillers, the spiller of a million gallons of fake blood and author of the murders of dozens of beautiful young women. Throughout his career, he’s often been castigated for his seeming misogyny, the way his voyeur’s gaze casually objectifies the nubile blondes (often playing prostitutes, strippers, porn stars, and otherwise sexually available types) who populate most of his films. But if he objectifies women, he also objectifies men (though, since he isn’t interested in them as erotic subjects, the objectification takes a different form, merely simplifying them into two-dimensional types). All his players are like pieces on a chessboard, their feelings and their fates often subservient to his visual ideas and his desire to subvert audience expectations.
Who today, though, can say that De Palma’s exploration of voyeurism wasn’t prescient, that, in a world where satisfying the public fascination with the private lives, particularly the sex lives, of others is a major industry — where most of us can knowledgeably discuss the precise magnitudes of Brad Pitt or Colin Farrell’s manly endowments or the degree to which the pudenda of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan have been waxed — we are not all implicated in such prurience? We can no longer pretend that we are anything but a nation of voyeurs, and our tendency to steal a glance at the private moments of others, to linger at the open window as we walk down the street, was born partly in the dark of our neighborhood theaters, where we learned early to scrutinize the personal lives of the characters onscreen. De Palma long ago recognized that the act of watching a movie is inherently voyeuristic and realized that it was not only a fascinating subject but a great tool for audience manipulation — a way not just to titillate but to implicate the viewer, to remind us of the essential vulnerability of the object of our gaze and make us ashamed for having cared so much whether Sissy Spacek was freckly all over or Angie Dickinson’s carpet matched her drapes.
Of course, watching Dressed to Kill, one never sees Angie’s carpet, because the inserts were handled by a body double half her age. And this is one of the traps of voyeurism — you can’t be sure if what you’re seeing is real or if it’s only what someone wants you to see. De Palma is fascinated with this line between artifice and reality and, like a painter deliberately calling attention to the essential two-dimensionality of the canvas, he’s constantly reminding us that all we are seeing is images flickering on a screen. The film-within-a-film, the flashback, the dream/fantasy sequence, the split-screen, the jump-cut, the action that is sped up or slowed down — all these elements make the viewer conscious of the unreality of what he’s watching. De Palma consciously blends cutting-edge techniques with others so old that they’ve fallen out of fashion, creating a distinctive postmodern mélange that is immediately recognizable as his own.
His visuals are an attempt to sculpt — not matter but time, the essential element of the moving picture. His work is intended to appeal to the aesthetic sense, to the intellect, not the emotions, but his intellectualism is present in the complexity and invention of his narrative structures and his images, not in the ideas he seeks to explore, which are often simple and basic when they aren’t outright lurid. De Palma is a director of intellect and libido but less so of feeling, and so his films often have a quality of distance, and even the relationships between characters may not be laid out in a way that’s convincing. He’s interested in the mechanisms of filmmaking far more than in psychology, which is why, when the complexity of actual human psychology is addressed in his films, it may often seem poorly thought-through or unconvincing. His work approaches what used to be called “pure cinema”: It’s concerned with the composition of the image, the placement and motion of the camera much more than with the narrative or with characterization — those elements of film to which the cinematography is usually subordinated as a mere vehicle for their expression.
What De Palma does have in place of emotionality — and what serves to humanize his films, to keep them from being mere technical exercises — is a wicked sense of humor. Those who know him only for his thrillers or his unsuccessful attempts at big studio comedies such as Wise Guys or The Bonfire of the Vanities may not realize — at least not consciously — that De Palma is by temperament a satirist of very dry wit and biting irony, often playfully commenting on the very techniques he utilizes and even his own public image. De Palma’s concern is above all to keep filmmaking interesting and challenging for himself — one can get the feeling that he’s not really concerned about the audience at all, but only in seeing what he can come up with next — so that when he has a simple by-the-numbers scene that any hack could shoot effectively — but dully — in an afternoon, he has to play with it, to send it up or manipulate it to keep himself amused.
Like many beginning filmmakers, De Palma’s earliest works were student shorts and industrial films, most of which aren’t readily available to the public. In setting out to survey his work, the earliest De Palma film I was able to get my hands on is a 25-minute documentary called The Responsive Eye (1966). The title is simply taken from the 1965 Op Art show at MoMA that it documents. The film consists of casual, caught-on-the-fly handheld shots of interviews with curators, artists, and visitors to the exhibition, both knowledgeable (and pretentious) and thoroughly bemused, which De Palma uses as counterpoint to one another, using the observations of the average museumgoer to undercut the weighty pronouncements of curator William Seitz and psychologist Rudolf Arnheim. In the final third of the film, De Palma gets particularly playful, bringing in the most derisive and oblivious comments, constructing a subtle satire of the entire contemporary art scene — the poseurs and the philistines hanging themselves with their own words. More important to understanding its place in De Palma’s development, though, is his relation to the works themselves. In a way, they’re an ideal subject for the young De Palma, as they lend themselves to exploration by a mobile camera — zooming in and out, panning across the images, interacting with the two-dimensional works, exploiting their illusory, often three-dimensional effects — in a way that traditional painting never would.
Around the same time he made The Responsive Eye, De Palma was co-directing The Wedding Party (released 1969, but each source I checked seemed to have a different date for its shooting) with Wilford Leach, a theater and film professor at Sarah Lawrence College who was his early mentor, and his classmate Cynthia Monroe. The Wedding Party walks a curious line between being dated and being timeless; it’s a light domestic comedy about the pressures and bad advice that friends and family foist on a young couple over the weekend of their wedding. It takes a cynical view of marriage and the traditional roles the bride and groom are expected to assume, but it’s a gentle satire, a funny — and very silly — student film that holds up surprising well after 40 years. (Plus it features the screen debut of Robert De Niro — for which he was reportedly paid the princely sum of $50.)
For a film from the mid-1960s, though, particularly one from a director who would soon be so politicized, it offers no sense of the turmoil that was brewing in the world outside. (It makes me wonder what kind of a director De Palma would have become without the upheavals of the ’60s — and how any of the filmmakers of his generation would have turned out, for that matter.) It’s clear, though, that some of his instincts were already firmly in place. Large sections of the film are purely visual, with no dialogue at all, and much of the humor comes from chase sequences, whose sped-up action deliberately evokes silent-film comedy, and improvisatory, overlapping, absurdist banter reminiscent of the Marx Brothers.
Though its date is disputed, at a guess, I’d have to say that The Wedding Party must have been made no earlier than 1965, because the influence of Richard Lester seems so clear. It’s even more noticeable, though, in Murder à la Mod (1969), the first feature directed solely by De Palma. It’s more plot-driven and cohesive than The Wedding Party, yet it can at times feel more amateurish because it takes so long to get up on its feet, with a slow, bewildering opening that makes it difficult for the viewer to get his bearings. But it rewards patience, progressing gradually from nonsensical and dull to nonsensical and interesting. De Palma is already starting to do inventive things with narrative form and point of view, reexamining the same incidents repeatedly from different points of view, with each narrative moving further back in time. (It’s the missing link between Rashômon and Memento.) The essential element of the film is its acknowledgment of film trickery, as each new version of events belies what the previous version told us.
Following Murder, De Palma made Greetings (1968), produced and co-written by Charles Hirsch (whose brother Paul would go on to serve as editor on a number of De Palma films), which has the distinction of being the first film in the United States to receive an X-rating from the MPAA. From the mind-numbing yet infectious opening theme song — which sounds like the sort of generic ’60s rock often heard on the original “Scooby-Doo” cartoons — Greetings is very much an artifact of its time, so much so that parts of it could easily be mistaken for outtakes from “The Monkees.”
It’s a dated, sophomoric, but mildly amusing series of satirical skits detailing the misadventures of three young friends in the strange, confusing landscape of the late ’60s. Robert De Niro plays Jon Rubin, a fidgety peeping tom (his manner here is strangely reminiscent of Woody Allen) trying to dodge the draft — when he’s not busy working to persuade girls to let him film them taking off their clothes (this bit is handled almost identically to the opening scenes of Murder). His friend Paul Shaw (Jonathan Warden) is looking for romance through “computer dating” (the punch-card precursor to Match.com) while also trying to dodge the draft. The other member of the trio, Lloyd Clay (Gerrit Graham) — having already dodged the draft — is free to focus most of his time and energy on his theories about the Kennedy assassination.
The characters’ dialogue is loose and improvisatory, but the overall effect is that of a play that’s been “opened out.” De Palma keeps restlessly inserting jump-cuts and changing scenery to provide interest, but it’s a very talky movie, and his camera is frequently stationary. Though its visuals bear little similarity to later De Palma films, it does point the way toward subsequent directions he’d take, with a couple of homages to Antonioni’s Blowup.
Before De Palma began emulating Hitchcock, he emulated Godard, and he was actually pretty successful. There’s some of this in Greetings, but it becomes much more pronounced in its quasi-sequel Hi, Mom! (1970), which was also co-written with Charles Hirsch. De Niro’s Jon Rubin has just returned from Vietnam and is picking up his peeping where he left off. He takes a shithole apartment chosen solely for the picture windows it faces and begins trying to make a career as a pornographer by filming people in the building across the way. Allen Garfield, reprising his small, unnamed role from Greetings, plays Joe Banner, a professional pornographer and reluctant mentor to Jon. (A favorite line: When Jon offers to shake Joe’s hand, Joe responds, “When you get to know me better, we’ll shake hands. Right now it’s strictly business, OK?”) Jon and Joe have an amusing Abbott-and-Costello-style byplay, and indeed the entire film is funnier and feels less dated than Greetings.
I call Hi, Mom! a quasi-sequel because its links to the earlier film are never emphasized and much of it doesn’t quite gibe. Jon and the pornographer are the only characters they share, and Jon is so different in his manner (hardened by war?) that he might almost be an entirely different person (though he does still aspire to creating “Peep Art”) — more confident and aggressive, and De Niro’s performance feels more assured. Further, Gerrit Graham — whose character is killed at the end of Greetings — returns as an entirely different character, a photographer, promoter, and participant in a consciousness-raising show about the African-American experience called “Be Black Baby.”
The “Be Black Baby” sequence is the most remarkable element of Hi, Mom! — an avant-garde audience-participation theater piece that white folks are harassed, guilted, and cajoled into attending and at which they’re then humiliated, robbed, and physically assaulted. Shot in real-time in a rough, cinéma-vérité style, the sequence is clearly influence by De Palma’s contemporaneous work on Dionysus in ‘69 but is unique in his oeuvre in its direct, confrontational examination of social issues.
Released one month prior to Hi, Mom!, Dionysus in ‘69 (1970) is a filmed record of Richard Schechner’s highly sexualized, countercultural reinterpretation of Euripides’ The Bacchae, staged by The Performance Group, including early De Palma mainstay William Finley (another Sarah Lawrence classmate) as Dionysus himself. While it can be confounding and at times dull, parts of it are mesmerizing.
Given an X-rating (already De Palma’s second) by the MPAA for its rampant frontal nudity and simulated sex (it does, after all, depict a bacchanal), the film employs a constant split-screen, used both to simply offer two points of view on the same actions and to replicate the theatrical experience of checking out what’s going on elsewhere in the performance space and in the audience, of the mind simply wandering, admiring the firm limbs of the young performers apparently playing Twister whenever the central drama declines in interest.
It’s a technique that’s very much of its time — four years earlier Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls had consisted of essentially two entirely different films project side-by-side, and four days after the release of Dionysus Michael Wadleigh’s documentary Woodstock would show how effectively it could capture a musical performance — but one that De Palma would continue to use and refine in a way no one else has (except for the occasional director making a clear homage to De Palma, as in the hospital sequence in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 1).
In keeping with the anything-goes spirit of the times and the narrowing distinction between the public and private, it opens with actors doing breathing and vocal exercises and loosening up their limbs, then moves as well into the audience queuing up and entering the theater. The voyeur in De Palma seems to relish the performers’ sexual abandon, capturing their disrobings and nude gyrations with a casual frankness.
The film is an orgy of sex and death. Watching it is a little like hanging out with the Manson Family, minus those tacky murder sprees. But despite the frequent sense that the performers, like their characters, have completely given themselves over to hedonism, they do recover into quite competent performances, and the whole remains an intense, lively, and often effective retelling of the ancient story, but also a deconstruction of tragic drama, a clever contrast between the ancient past and the period’s free-love present.
Like the play itself, De Palma’s Dionysus took something very old and made it new and different, but with the next development in his career he would begin to face accusations of being a mere copyist, a cheap knockoff of Hitchcock. These accusations began with Sisters (1973), an obvious reworking of plot elements from Psycho and Rear Window, among others. In explaining his borrowings from Hitchcock, both here and in a number of later films, De Palma — who reveres Hitchcock above all other directors — has likened his process to that of a young painter copying works of the Old Masters. De Palma’s approach has always been, and even at this late date continues to be, that of the student seeking mastery of an art form. This sets him apart from most directors, who, once they’ve become proficient with a certain technique, settle in and play variations on it rather than trying new directions. De Palma, though, has always taken risks with approaches that weren’t guaranteed to work. This can lead to a lack of polish, even an amateurish quality when things don’t come off or when his focus is so much on the experimental aspect of what he’s shooting that he pays insufficient attention to other elements but, when it succeeds, his scenes are unlike anything you’ve seen before or that any other director would be likely to attempt.
De Palma became interested in pursuing genre filmmaking because it establishes a set of expectations that he must fulfill but leaves him with considerable latitude about how to get there, setting up the boundaries within which he’s free to explore his own preoccupations. Sisters doesn’t waste a minute in getting to his trademark voyeurism: It opens with a “Candid Camera”-inspired game show called “Peeping Toms,” in which contestants, shown a video of a man (Lisle Wilson) given the opportunity to watch a pretty girl (Margot Kidder) undress, must guess what he’ll do. What’s most remarkable about the sequence is that in 1973 it makes no comment on the man being black and the woman being white. The show does lead to De Palma’s last direct comment on race relations, though, when, at its conclusion, the man’s “parting gift” is a night of dinner and dancing for two at the African Room, where the very dark-skinned waiters all wear bowler hats, tuxedo jackets, white collars with bowties (but no shirts), and grass skirts.
Inspired by a 1966 Life magazine article about two Russian conjoined twins, Sisters is a Hitchcock grab-bag, combining elements of Psycho, Rear Window, and Rope with more sex and violence than Hitchcock could show in his heyday (ironically, when the loosening of screen restrictions permitted the aging Hitchcock to get lurid in Frenzy the year previous, it played like bad De Palma). Working from an existing template helped De Palma construct his first linear plot, and it gave him free rein to explore and build on Hitchcock’s cinematic tropes, incorporating his own innovations to enhance what he’d learned from his idol. To help achieve the right mood, De Palma recruited longtime Hitchcock composer Bernard Herrmann and even persuaded him to bring along his Theremin.
Margot Kidder, then just 25 years old and making only her fourth feature film, is both lovely and sympathetic as Danielle Breton, a former conjoined twin whose sister — whose double — continues to make trouble for her. But her friend (and De Palma vet) Jennifer Salt is at her worst here, arch and whiny and stiff as a pair of heavily starched underpants, which she might well be sporting beneath her hideous nightgown. (As an interesting side note, a remake is currently in production, to star Chloë Sevigny in the Jennifer Salt role and the French model/actress Lou Doillon as the twins.)
Sisters is where De Palma really begins to explore the possibilities of the split screen — he’d used it nonstop throughout Dionysus, but here he’s very selective, using it for sequences of complex gamesmanship and suspense. Always a cutup, De Palma loves to build tension around tasks that are mundane or downright silly, and few suspense sequences will top the cake-decorating nail-biter in Sisters. The film is also interesting for the flashback/fantasy sequences, shot in 16mm black and white with the image masked off into a silent-movie circle, to relay the backstory, thus avoiding scenes of tedious exposition.
Having taken on Hitchcock with relative success, De Palma then turned to another entirely different type of film. Phantom of the Paradise (1974) combines the plots of The Phantom of the Opera, Faust, and The Picture of Dorian Gray to construct a fabulous Grand Guignol rock opera. Though it’s never been able to garner as wide a cult following its overrated contemporary, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Phantom is superior in every way. It’s also De Palma’s only outright musical, though his attentiveness to the use of music in his films has extended from his careful selection of composers to his insertion of a music video for Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax” into Body Double. Phantom is set inside the music industry, so all the songs are introduced organically, rather than following the absurd theatrical convention of setting aside the action of the plot for five minutes of every fifteen. Instead the songs play out in an entirely natural way, while advancing and commenting on the narrative.
De Palma got doubly lucky when he hired composer/performer/actor Paul Williams, who not only starred as the devilish impresario Swan but also wrote a set of broad, darkly brilliant pastiches of various pop and rock styles of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. Williams’ performance is deeply creepy — De Palma really knew how to exploit his androgynous, troll-like quality — and De Palma regular William Finley is both menacing and pathetic as the phantom. But the real standout is the gorgeous young Jessica Harper (Suspiria), making her screen debut as Phoenix, the easily seduced ingénue. The film contrasts their motivations — Swan’s thirst for money and power, the phantom’s thirst for art and purity, and Phoenix’s thirst for fame and adulation — but ultimately ends concludes with the suggestion that no one who gets caught up in the machine of celebrity comes out intact.
De Palma returned to Hitchcockian territory for Obsession (1976), which he co-wrote with Paul Schrader (Auto Focus). It’s the perfect film for those who found Vertigo insufficiently Freudian. Cliff Robertson plays a wealthy land developer who loses his kidnapped wife and daughter when a scheme by the police to catch the kidnappers goes tragically wrong. The film then jumps 18 years to show us Robertson on a trip to Italy, where he visits the Florentine church where he met his wife and meets a woman who is her exact double. With shades of Vertigo, Marnie, and Rebecca, the film is gloriously operatic, and Vilmos Zsigmond’s sumptuous cinematography and the brilliant score Bernard Herrmann (who called Obsession “the finest film of my musical life”) combine to create an overall feeling of decadence. Many aspects of the film work well, but Robertson is a problem. He’s simply an insufficiently exciting actor to carry such an overwrought film, and Obsession ultimately falls short of greatness.
But how do you quantify greatness in the arts? One measure is that no element feels contingent — the work gives the impression of inevitability, as if each part were done just as it had to be. I get this feeling watching Carrie (1976), though of course I know that much of it could be handled differently — the Stephen King novel on which it was based and the 2002 TV remake make that much clear. Still, Carrie is De Palma’s first film — and one of only a few to date — that feels completely satisfying.
It really shouldn’t work at all. Carrie combines so many disparate elements — comedy, tragedy, suspense, irony, horror, pathos — that would seem totally incongruous, yet they blend seamlessly and accentuate one another. The humor loosens you up and the pathos draws you in and makes you care. I think of Carrie as a sort of precursor to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”: Both play out the traumas of adolescence by literalizing and extending them to extremes that are both funny and chilling. The film is full of deadpan jokes about the inherent melodrama of adolescence — note how thunder clatters outside the window and lightning splashes across the face of Mrs. White (Piper Laurie) when she first exclaims, “Prom?!” Or that one of the elements of her crucifixion is a pedestrian little potato peeler. But Spacek doesn’t play it as comedy — she’s deadly serious and thoroughly empathetic. She grounds the film, making us feel her suffering and isolation. Her face is so wide open and defenseless, you can’t imagine how anyone could hurt her.
Alongside Spacek there’s a fascinating contrast in the supporting characters. Moody, volatile, vengeful Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen) is the counterpoint to outwardly sweet Sue Snell (Amy Irving) — one is responsible for the greatest kindness of Carrie’s life while the other, in the same moment, is responsible for the greatest, most deliberate cruelty. (They’re like younger, female versions of the Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe characters in Platoon — two soldiers in a harsh, unforgiving environment devising their own survival strategies.) Chris blames Carrie for getting her banned from prom and induces her boyfriend Billy Nolan (John Travolta) to help her take revenge, while Sue, appropriately repentant for her role in Carrie’s humiliation, enlists her boyfriend Tommy Ross (William Katt) in her plan to make amends. Chris is an obvious controlling bitch, but Sue is a junior Lady Macbeth herself: a skilled manipulator who doesn’t even realize yet what she is. And De Palma seems unusually attentive to character here, catching not just the nuances of Spacek’s complex performance but such small but telling details as the way Edie McClurg (later of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and “Small Wonder”) takes particular delight in humiliating Carrie in the opening sequence — the fat, dorky girl’s rare chance to be part of the crowd and not herself the outcast.
Technically, the film is among De Palma’s most accomplished, with great binary compositions achieved through the use of a split-diopter lens (which allows the camera to focus on a near object on one side of the screen while simultaneously focusing on a faraway object on the other side), and an exceptional crane shot (De Palma calls it the “figure-eight shot”) that starts low, moving through the crowd at the prom and showing the actions several significant characters, then moves up into the rafters of the gymnasium to show the suspended bucket of pigs’ blood, and finally zooms back to the point where it began. This sets up a moment of prolonged tension as De Palma draws out the moment for the horrible climax, then the screen splits to deliver the gruesome details of the subsequent massacre.
Given its timing and subject matter, The Fury (1978) has often been derided as “Carrie 2” but, given its relative success creatively, I’d say “Carrie 1/3” is more like it. It didn’t help the film’s reception that it featured Carrie’s Amy Irving in the lead role, though she’s a delight once again, and the only person onscreen who actually appears as if she wants to be there. In the role of Irving’s fellow-psychic, handsome young Andrew Stevens has nostrils built for flaring, but that’s about as far as his attempts at acting go. (Thankfully, he subsequently found his true calling, starring in — and sometimes writing and directing — about 700 Skinemax softcore flicks with Shannon Tweed.) John Cassavetes, who excelled at playing rotten schemers, is a cardboard villain, and 62-year-old Kirk Douglas seems an unlikely acrobat, though you have to admire the relish with which he delivers particularly bad dialogue:
Douglas: “When you see Childress, ask him if it was worth his arm.”
Dennis Franz: “What happened to his arm, Peter?”
Douglas: “I killed it … with a machine gun.
The film offers a very paranoid vision of the world, in which sinister government forces plot to use humans as weapons and every character is pursuing his or her own hidden agenda. Overwrought (in a bad way this time) and a bit silly, the film is a prime example of De Palma getting so caught up in his cinematic legerdemain that he sacrificed both the narrative and the characters.
From making an amateurish movie to working with actual amateurs, De Palma’s next project, Home Movies (1980), was a small film made as a project for a class in independent filmmaking he taught at Sarah Lawrence. I’ve never actually had a chance to see the film, since it’s out of print in both VHS and DVD, not available through Netflix or any Boston video store I can find, and the only used copy I’ve found is currently listed at $190 (donations are welcome). I can tell you that it was an unusually personal film for De Palma, with characters loosely based on himself and his family, and that it starred Kirk Douglas, Keith Gordon (who played the character modeled on De Palma and would do so again in Dressed to Kill), and Carrie’s Nancy Allen, soon to be De Palma’s wife. (Those interested in a critical assessment should click here.)
Dressed to Kill (1980) takes its basic structure from Sisters (which in turn derived its structure from Vertigo and Psycho): a major character dies early in the movie, leaving behind a witness who becomes involved in tracking down the killer while herself being menaced. Its doomed heroine, Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson), is reminiscent of Vertigo’s restless, lonely Madeleine Elster (and she gets to recreate the great shot of Madeleine on a bench in a museum, this time with the bonus of being seated before an Alex Katz), though Kate’s problems are made much more explicit: She wants sex, good sex, and lots of it, and she ain’t getting it from her husband, who huffs and puffs atop her like a wolf chasing bacon.
Her pursuit of pleasure leads to one of De Palma’s great creative triumphs — in a very long, almost wordless sequence, the camera follows Kate through the labyrinth of a museum (the Philadelphia Museum of Art, standing in for the Met) as she plays a subtle game of tag with the handsome, mysterious man who comes and sits beside her on that bench. She allows herself to be caught, blowing off plans to meet her husband and mother-in-law for lunch, but her dalliance leads ultimately to her demise at the hands of a crazed pre-op transsexual(!).
The movie suffers from Dickinson’s absence, as none of the rest of the cast has her magnetism. As her son Peter, Keith Gordon is a likable and admirably restrained young actor, but not a very exciting screen presence. And he gets little help from Nancy Allen, who plays the very practical-minded prostitute (she would next play a very ditzy one in Blow Out) who witnesses Kate’s murder and becomes entangled in the investigation. Allen has a certain snub-nosed prettiness and can adopt a bitchy, petulant manner that serves her well in Carrie, but her performances are too shallow for her to carry a movie, as De Palma asks her to do here. (Of note for fans of really awkward acting is her first scene with Dennis Franz [“NYPD Blue”], who plays — surprise! — a police detective. Now, at this point in his career, Franz was not a particularly accomplished actor, and he and Allen brought out the very worst in each other, delivering their dialogue in arch, weirdly chummy tones that initially make the scene feel as though they’re playing non-actors reading out dialogue for some unseen audience. Then you realize that, no, they’re just awful here.)
Despite deficits in casting and in understanding human psychology (De Palma evinces a terrible ignorance about and insensitivity to gender dysphoria that’s typical of the era), Dressed to Kill is a fascinating and entertaining exercise in suspense and audience manipulation. The film’s “reality” is highly ambiguous — it both begins and ends with fantasy/dream sequences, and there are other instances in which the events we see couldn’t possibly happen the way we see them.
Just because you’re paranoid don’t mean they’re not after you. Blow Out (1981) reunited Nancy Allen and John Travolta, who had played a couple in Carrie, as innocents caught up in a vast and deadly conspiracy. From the title it’s obvious that the film takes Antonioni’s Blowup as its starting point, but it eschews Blowup’s ambiguity, going instead for a political allegory that combines elements of the JFK assassination, Chappaquiddick, and Watergate to create a general paranoia about government malfeasance that’s so pessimistic it makes The Fury look positively sunny. Everybody here is playing an angle, and even the “good guys” are morally ambiguous.
Travolta’s character, sound engineer Jack Terry, is in a park at night recording wind blowing through trees when he witnesses a car lose control and career into a large creek. Terry is able to rescue the passenger, Sally (Allen), but the driver is already dead. When Terry learns that the driver was the leading presidential candidate — and later that Sally is a prostitute hired to create a scandal — he doggedly pursues the real story behind the car’s apparent blowout.
Terry is another of De Palma’s vaguely autobiographical characters; he’s like Peter Miller from Dressed to Kill after an additional 10 years of disappointments and betrayals. Travolta gives an assured, charismatic performance as a man who’s single-mindedly obsessive and not written as especially likable (his feelings are ambiguous — does he really care about Sally, as he says, or is he just using her to get to the truth?), but Allen is really annoying, doing the same ditzy Judy Holliday routine that Melanie Griffith would later do in Body Double (appropriately, Griffith went on to take the Holliday role in the remake of her signature film, Born Yesterday).
Nonetheless, Blow Out is a clever exploration of De Palma’s recurrent theme of appearance vs. reality, full of clever dramatic ironies and a bracing post-Watergate cynicism — De Palma’s first overt statement on politics in a decade. It’s also the biggest, most elaborate film he had made up to that point. The box-office success of Dressed to Kill had won De Palma an $18 million budget for Blow Out — his biggest to date — enabling him to stage bigger, more impressive set pieces, like the huge Liberty Day parade and fireworks that mark the film’s climax. And it’s a very satisfying movie thematically, constantly playing with the idea of illusion vs. reality: It opens with a film-within-a-film and closes with an ironic resolution of the issue raised there that set the entire plot in motion. Its MacGuffin is so cleverly ephemeral and inconsequential that Hitchcock would have been impressed — Travolta’s journey begins when he sets off to capture nothing more than sounds.
Author’s note: While my opinions are entirely my own, facts have to come from somewhere and, for many of those mentioned above, I’m indebted to Julie Salamon’s book The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood and Bill Fentum’s wonderfully informative website Directed by Brian De Palma.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
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