‘de palma’ is a revealing documentary exploring the films from a master of mystery & suspense

De Palma is a documentary directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow. Brian De Palma is arguably one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema. His techniques are truly one-of-a-kind. “People talk about Hitchcock all the time, being so influential, I’ve never found too many people that followed after the Hitchcock school, except for me. Here’s a guy that developed incredible visual storytelling vocabulary, that’s sort of going to die with him. And I was the one practitioner that took up the things that he pioneered, and built them into different forms of a style that I was evolving.” De Palma’s films put a spotlight on his illuminating style and inventive vision from timeless classics like the modish thriller Blow Out, in which he paid homage to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up. The documentary explores the ghoulish masterpiece Dressed to Kill, starring Michael Caine, and The Untouchables, which was a magnificent portrayal of Federal Agent Eliot Ness in the takedown of the notorious Al Capone.  The documentary did not fail to explore the controversial film, Scarface, written by Oliver Stone, a film that was decades ahead of its audience. This documentary brilliantly exposes the root of his influence in portraying the darkness of American culture in his films. In addition, Brian De Palma reveals in his own words, a revelation of the dark side of working in Hollywood in terms of the punishment an artist can and will inevitably receive. The in-depth interviews explore the influence Alfred Hitchcock had on his work and enlighten the viewer to the freedom he was given to make challenging films within the studio system of Hollywood’s golden age in the 1970s. Brian de Palma has been directing astonishing films for over fifty years and is a living legend. His career is underrated and this documentary gave him much deserved recognition. 

Jim Malone (Sean Connery) and Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) in The Untouchables Paramount Pictures, 1987

De Palma made films in an era different from contemporary Hollywood. He was a part of the New York New Wave of directors who were all friends. When Martin Scorsese was working on Mean Streets, De Palma helped with editing a scene between Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel. When De Palma was casting for, George Lucas was simultaneously casting for Star Wars. They used similar actors for auditions during their casting processes. He got the idea to do Obsession, with screenwriter Paul Schrader (Raging Bull, Taxi Driver) after seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo at the Los Angeles County Museum. De Palma wrote the story, Schrader wrote the script. They were trying to get Hitchcockian feel, like North by Northwest. Steven Spielberg wandered over to the set of Scarface. They did a few shots together. “What do you think about this shot? Should we put another camera up here?” De Palma recalls with humor. To which he recalled Steven Spielberg’s indifferent reply, “Why Not?” De Palma tells these stories with a great sense of humor and laughs hysterically, and we laugh with him.

Brian De Palma pioneered different techniques like the concept of the split-screen; putting two images against each other by putting a subject in the foreground and juxtaposing with a character in the background. He discovered split-screen is not good for directing action and that it’s “too much of an intellectual form.” De Palma is passionate about capturing women on camera because of the way they move. His films often revolve around the predicaments of women’s lives. He also admits with conviction the techniques he disapproves of. He despises sequences that involve car chases. The camera angles of windshield perspectives, cars peeling out and crashing are tasteless to him. “After the French Connection, there are no car chases. Best idea in the world. Car underneath a train track.” Giving a shout out to another prominent director of the 1970s, William Friedkin (To Live and Die in LA, Blue Chips). “When you’re trying to direct someone else’s ideas, it’s challenging because it doesn’t come from you, so you do your best to figure it out.” He goes on to say how interesting it is to see other filmmakers take the same material and make the errors that he took the time in evading. His film Carrie based on Stephen King’s novel, has been remade several times with contemporary versions and sequels. Though he dealt with a lot of failures in the result of his movies, everything worked on his picture Dressed to Kill. He was at the museum of modern art and came up with the idea of a displeased housewife who gets seduced by a stranger. The film got angry protests because of violence against women. De Palma claims he was inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, when in the opening sequence he kills off the lead female character.

Dr. Robert Elliott (Michael Caine) and Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) in Dressed to Kill (1980) Filmways Pictures

The Untouchables was suggested to him by paramount. This film had the dream-team of filmmakers in conjunction with a stellar cast. It’s music is composed by Ennio Morricone, produced by Art Linson, written by David Mamet, and directed by Brian De Palma. Initially, De Palma wanted Don Johnson, who was starring in Miami Vice at the time. “The movie felt like a sophisticated English playhouse theater. We need an American gangster.” Robert De Niro committed to playing the part of the notorious Chicago gangster and apparently wore the same type of silk underwear Capone wore, to evoke the change of his facial expression. According to Brian De Palma, the famous Odessa steps sequence came about because David Mamet refused to write anything more after they couldn’t afford to shoot the train chase sequence. This inspired the baby carriage going down the staircase amid a shootout, from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925). Bria De Palma made room for Ennio Morricone to compose beautiful pieces of music. “Very seldom does a composer have the chance to develop something musically that’s not constantly getting contradicted by dialogue and effects.” De Palma said. In shooting scenes, De Palma admitted that he hated shooting ‘coverage’ because it wasn’t visually exciting and admitted that Sean Connery was rushed to the hospital because he got powder in his eye from the scene where he’s shot repetitively. “The Untouchables is one those magical movies; very few happen in your career.” He said.

Kleinffeld (Sean Penn) and Carlito (Al Pacino) in Carlito’s Way (1993) Universal Pictures

 “Being a director is being a watcher. You’ve got a lot of egos in the room. Your job is to get the movie made. If someone loses their temper, everything stops.” De Palma spoke of the advantages that come with shooting long takes without edits because it disrupts the flow of the scene and allows the actors move on a platform that reveals the authenticity behind their performances. “You can document the emotion happening on screen in real time. Once you start cutting things up you lose emotion.” This was in reference to the train station sequence in Carlito’s Way with Al Pacino. Upon watching the film at a screening in Berlin, Germany, De Palma recalls thinking to himself, “I can’t make a better picture than this.” And he said it wondrously, firmly believing that Carlito’s Way is true testament to his filmmaking.

Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage) and Julia Costello (Carla Gugino) in Snake Eyes (1997) Paramount Pictures

In Snake Eyes Casino, he shot a multifaceted steadicam shot that ran sixteen minutes with edits hidden between the swish pans of camera movement. The different perspectives of the characters in the narrative was another Hitchcockian idea. Nobody sees the fight, they hear it and react to it but don’t see it. The ending was the most disappointing for audiences, but the film’s first two acts are remarkable. “The Hollywood system we work in does nothing but destroy you. There’s nothing good about it in terms of creativity. So you’re battling a very difficult system.” De Palma claimed. “All the rules of that system are the opposite of what goes into making movies.” After Mission to Mars, De Palma decided he would stop making movies in the United States and took his talents to Europe. Generally speaking, the film industry in Hollywood is interested in turning one dollar into two, and if your movie doesn’t suit that strategy, your creativity will happily go out the window because vast sums of money are on the line. The business of Hollywood is greater than its creativity. “You see that the creative periods of most directors are in their thirties, forties and fifties. Obviously, they can go on and make another ten movies, but you’ll probably only be talking about the movies they made in their thirties, forties and fifties, and I always thought Hitchcock was a great example of that.” De Palma said. He further added on the process of directing, “People in your life can be threatened by your intense concentration; your complete immersion in what you’re doing. My true wife is my movie, not you.”

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