'De Palma': An Underrated Director Opens Up About His Work, And His Obsessions In a new documentary Brian De Palma, director of both blockbusters (The Untouchables) and kinkily voyeuristic films (Dressed to Kill) looks back on a career of cinematic carnage with great candor.
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'De Palma': An Underrated Director Opens Up About His Work, And His Obsessions

Director Brian De Palma and John Travolta on the set of Blow Out. A24 hide caption

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Director Brian De Palma and John Travolta on the set of Blow Out.

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So wide is the fame-gap stretching between filmmaker Brian De Palma and Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola that the new feature-length profile De Palma makes a point of reminding us that the four pals were in more or less the same place at the dawn of the 1970s: trying to make personal statements amid what remained of the studio system.

While De Palma would remain prolific longer than the others save for Spielberg, he'd never come close to their wealth or influence. Though he made hits like 1983's Scarface and 1987's The Untouchables as a director-for-hire, it's De Palma's weirder, more prurient films as writer-director that've been granted the egghead honor of Criterion Collection Blu-Ray editions: 1973's Siamese-twins thriller Sisters. Dressed to Kill, the explicit 1980 Hitchcock pastiche that sparked one of several fights between De Palma and the MPAA over the commercially ruinous X rating. The 1981 Michelangelo Antonioni remix Blow Out. You won't find a Spielberg, Lucas, or Coppola film among the Criterion Collection Blu-Rays. They had to console themselves with various configurations of Oscars, wineries, and vast oceans of money.

It's been this way for a while. "Underrated" is an adjective that has stuck to De Palma nearly as long as the old knock that he's a Hitchcock copyist. No matter how many retrospectives he gets, or how many times Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert's vigorous defenses of De Palma movies condemned by others as smutty and/or misogynistic get reread and cited, the notion that posterity has not sufficiently rewarded Brian De Palma remains a stubborn one.

Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, De Palma's co-directors (and offscreen interviewers), met their subject as fans. Paltrow has worked mostly in network television; Baumbach is the celebrated writer-director of successful indies like The Squid and the Whale and Frances Ha. Neither would appear to have been directly influenced by De Palma's bloody obsessions or meticulous camerawork, but their deep enthusiasm serves their portrait of the artist as an old man. De Palma is essentially De Palma's cranky-but-lucid chronological defense of his resume to two (er, four) sympathetic ears, seasoned with clips.

Which is to say: If you're convinced their subject is merely a skilled technician who can create suspense but not tell a story, or that he's a pornographer whose most personal films share a theme of women being threatened, abused, and worse, De Palma is unlikely to change your mind. But even then, you might find something of value in its subject's candor about the compromises Hollywood extracts and the necessity of keeping faith in one's artistic compass as fashions change or attitudes evolve.

Two of the documentary's revelations seem particularly illuminating:

1) De Palma ascribes his ease with blood and viscera to the fact his father was an orthopedic surgeon who allowed his young son to watch him operate. (This sounds crazy until you recall the filmmaker was born in 1940.)

2) Some years later, De Palma trailed his father to his office to try to learn the identity of the old man's mistress. De Palma claims he held his dad at knifepoint until the woman emerged from her hiding place. That's offered as the secret origin of Dressed to Kill, a mélange of voyeurism and sexual frustration that leans into the goofiness of its plot twists, hard.

De Palma's war stories from the sets of his mainstream pictures are less psychologically rich but more fun. Recall the glorious Union Station showdown in The Untouchables, wherein Kevin Costner's Elliott Ness tries to catch a runaway baby carriage that's bounding down the steps while avoiding the bullets of Al Capone's henchmen. It's a homage to the Odessa Steps sequence in Sergei Eisenstein's silent propaganda masterpiece Potemkin, sure... but it only happened because the production ran out of money to shoot the train chase in David Mamet' script. De Palma's improvised-in-a-few-days replacement is one of the most memorable set pieces of the 1980s. (For more on this bravura sequence, check out the episode of comedian Matt Gourley's podcast I Was There Too featuring Melody Rae, the actor who played the mom whose baby Costner is trying to save.)

After the unexpected success of 1976's Carrie made him a viable studio director (and boosted the careers of up-and-comers Sissy Spacek and John Travolta), his impatience with movie stars became an amusing constant. Al Pacino touched the barrel of a gun that had just been fired on the set of Scarface, burning his hand so badly he didn't return to the set for two weeks. Sean Connery was taken to the hospital after getting dust in his eye on the first take of his death scene in The Untouchables. De Palma was privately tickled that James Bond was unaccustomed to being shot, but still had to beg the star for a second take. (The Untouchables would win Connery his only Oscar, for Best Supporting Actor.) Robert De Niro, meanwhile, insisted on the invisible-to-the-camera detail of wearing the same style of boxer shorts that his character Al Capone had worn — but couldn't be bothered to learn his lines.

De Palma walked away from Hollywood 15 years ago. He has nothing to lose by telling these stories now. They make De Palma brisk and engaging for the same reasons every interview his old pal Steven has ever given is deathly dull. Spielberg is a nice guy, and the maker of many crowd-pleasers, and an artist, and a diplomat. De Palma is only one of those.