Tom Jolliffe begins a series of features focused on iconic directors. Those whose work has influenced many younger directors who have followed them. First up is Brian De Palma…
The 70’s saw a group of exceptional directors coming to the forefront of cinema. It’s an era where I could all too easily cover Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola or Steven Spielberg for example. There were great directors who broke new ground. There were well established greats like Sidney Lumet, continuing to produce pictures at the pinnacle of their talents.
There are a few names from that era who are well known. Their films iconic, but for one reason or another, don’t get the respect their careers deserve. Okay, maybe they waned through the 90’s but the same could be said of Francis Ford Coppola. The fact is, among contemporaries within the aspiring director rat pack of the late 60’s, early 70’s in Hollywood, one name who is rated by his cohorts very highly as a stylistic trailblazer, is Brian De Palma. His fellow directors, and future auteurs who would look to his style in the future, gave him his dues perhaps more than the critic elite of the era.
His early films were of mix of experimental and comedy. It would be the Hitchcock ode, Sisters which would see De Palma find one of his particular niches. An almost voyeuristic, psychologically focused crime story. It’s almost classically melodramatic (as is a De Palma staple) and well worth seeking out. It’s also a great showcase for the late, and wonderful, Margot Kidder (who would find super stardom a few years after as Lois Lane in Richard Donner’s, Superman). De Palma preferred a heightened style over more gritty and grounded. Stylistically grandiose. It’s his trademark, which by the time he was shooting Carrie (which was his big breakout) would see him hone his directorial characteristics. These would influence many, including Quentin Tarantino and John Woo.
Carrie might have suggested an exciting prospective career in horror, but despite following with the largely forgotten, The Fury (which again dealt in telekinesis) his immediate career was predominantly focused on more Hitchcock styled thrillers and gangster films. In the former camp, he directed some greats like Obsession, Blow Out (which has a really under appreciated John Travolta performance), Dressed To Kill and the intriguingly unrestrained and unashamedly trashy, Body Double. In the latter, Scarface has a cinematic legacy that few films can match. It’s iconic, even among people who haven’t even sat down to watch it. It features Al Pacino at possibly his most scenery chewing, in a film so gleefully over the top and brash that the central character, Tony Montana, who is supposed to be reprehensible, has ended up becoming a cult hero. Then there’s The Untouchables, an essential piece of gangster cinema about Eliot Ness in his mission to take down Al Capone.
A few highlights like Carlito’s Way through the 90’s aside, the quality of De Palma’s output was waning coming into a new century full of aspiring, fresh, visionaries, even if some of them owed more than just a nod and a tip of the cap to him. He still attracts excellent casts. Some films should have worked better than they did, such as Passion and The Black Dahlia, particularly with such talent involved. He’s spent large swathes of his career, even at the peak of his powers, fighting critical derision. Scarface may be iconic but it was greeted initially with poor reviews and Razzie nominations. From 1980 until his relevance waned to a point that the Razzies just ignored a ‘bad’ De Palma picture, he would become a regular fixture among the anti-award, awards like the Razzies. Dressed To Kill was another. Initially greeted with derision it has become something of an essential Hitchcockian thriller.
Despite crafting timeless, iconic films and gaining a good deal of respect in Europe, in the US, the major awards have bypassed him entirely. Not an Oscar nomination, nor even a Golden Globe. It almost seems as if his best films are good, in spite of De Palma (in some eyes), but truth be told as a stylist, at his peak he was ahead of his time. By the time he was injecting his very trademark De Palma style on the first Mission: Impossible, and we were approaching the new millennium, his creativity was waning and his style was then becoming outdated. To an extent though, this is why so many of his films, particularly from the 70’s through to the beginning of the 90’s, have grown in influence over time. Auteurs, cinephiles, passionate and aspiring film-makers and his directorial brethren could already see it. He would produce shots that would blow his counterparts minds, but classically minded old schoolers (film-makers or critics) weren’t quite ready to tune in. He might be a good friend of Scorsese but there’s no bias in the way Marty passionately talks about De Palma’s work as a visual storyteller. ‘Nobody can interpret things visually like he does: telling the story through a lens.’
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has three features due out on DVD/VOD in 2019 and a number of shorts hitting festivals. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.