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10 Reasons Why Brian De Palma is One of the Most Underrated American Filmmakers Ever

19 November 2016 | Features, Other Lists | by Shane Scott-Travis

best brian de palma films

One of the most controversial American directors in the history of cinema, Brian Russell De Palma also remains one of the most divisive and poorly understood. Part of the influential New Hollywood wave of filmmakers, De Palma has been perfecting polemical and exhilarating cinema since the 1960s.

To his critics he’s been labelled a misogynistic chauvinist, a sell-out, and a poker-faced plagiarist of Hitchcock. To his admirers and to the critical establishment outside of America he’s regarded as an auteur, an avant-gardist, an au fait satirist, a passionate independent iconoclast and an articulate intellectual.

In a career now spanning close to 50 years De Palma has proven to be an architect of intensely personal and analytical films, awash in stylistic flourishes, and dazzling technical strut.

A quick glance at his diverse and pervasive filmography reveals comedies like Hi Mom! (1970), and Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972), midnight rock opera excesses like Phantom of the Paradise (1974), prestige horror like Carrie (1976), psychological suspense thrillers like Sisters (1973), Dressed to Kill (1980), Blow Out (1981), Body Double (1984), and Femme Fatale (2002) along with celebrated crime pictures like Scarface (1983), The Untouchables (1987), and Carlito’s Way (1993) and action-driven blockbusters like Mission: Impossible (1996).

While De Palma’s outstanding oeuvre truly does speak for itself the following list will detail several more unshakable reasons why this is a director that demands your esteem and applause.

 

10. Not only does De Palma ascribe to auteur theory, he validates it

Carrie

“De Palma was actually the first American auteur of the New Hollywood to emerge, but the last to come to prominence… He is also the most gleefully, perversely derivative of them all, and perhaps for this reason the most in tune with the times. De Palma may be the only one of these auteurs—Altman, Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg—from whom we might still hope for miracles…”

– Jake Horsley, ‘The Blood Poets’

Because of his persistence, tenacity and longevity De Palma has carefully amassed a body of work that is introspective, recalcitrant, and verifiably stylish. The fire and the perceptivity of his films guarantees that any deliberation of his works moves beyond deliberation of cinema and into a wider discourse on the stirrings of human nature, and the zeitgeist in which it was created.

De Palma fearlessly examines and reexamines his obsessions with such determination and with an aversion to abandon his principles. Always and forever De Palma holds to a dicey set of ideas, enduring evolving sensitivity and insight.

Films like Carrie (1976), Dressed to Kill (1980) and Blow Out (1981) were originally released to moral outrage and cries of misogynistic objection but over the years it’s easier to dismiss and scrutinize such claims due to audiences becoming progressively more sophisticated.

People can draw a line from what antiheroes and morally questionable characters represent and what the director’s objectives are. In the same way that Jean-Luc Godard, Alfred Hitchcock, and Stanley Kubrick outgrew their classifications and their circumscribed labels, so too has De Palma his.

 

9. De Palma is the master of many genres

Mission Impossible (1996)

“De Palma deserves more honor as a director. Consider these titles: Sisters, Blow Out, The Fury, Dressed to Kill, Carrie, Scarface, Wise Guys, Casualties of War, Carlito’s Way, Mission: Impossible. Yes, there are a few failures along the way (Snake Eyes, Mission to Mars, The Bonfire of the Vanities), but look at the range here, and reflect that these movies contain treasure for those who admire the craft as well as the story, who sense the glee with which De Palma manipulates images and characters for the simple joy of being good at it. It’s not just that he sometimes works in the style of Hitchcock, but that he has the nerve to.”

– Roger Ebert

While it’s true that De Palma’s lengthy filmography zigzags enthusiastically from genre to genre, it’s also nameable and unique that he’s gutsy when it comes to interchanging arrangements from one genre to another, transcending category as he goes.

To wit: The Untouchables is a cop film in Western garb and Oscar bait accoutrements; Mission: Impossible is an espionage thriller with Shakespearean tragedy frills; The Phantom of the Paradise is a rock opera with comedic froufrou and horror movie fandangle; Carrie and Dressed to Kill may both fall under horror taxonomy but that really does nothing to elucidate the pliable and multiform content.

De Palma’s films regularly result in film critics and theorists at odds for decades attempting to label and classified his weighty and varied works.

 

8. De Palma takes great risks in nearly all of his projects

Scarface (1983)

“Critics—no maybe I should call them ‘reviewers’ instead of critics—are looking for the latest thing rather than the truest thing.”

— Armond White, discussing the critical abandonment of Brian De Palma

At many times in his career De Palma has been at the center of controversy. The already discussed cries of misogyny in films like Carrie, Dressed to Kill, and Body Double, his orgiastic glorifications of violence in films like Scarface and The Untouchables, to his harsh anti-American polemic in challenging war films like Casualties of War and Redacted.

In her best-selling book “The Devil’s Candy”, Julie Salamon details much of De Palma’s digressions and ventilations in dealing with antagonistic critics and special interest groups, writing; “At first De Palma was startled by the attacks, and then invigorated by them. He willingly, sometimes gleefully, went head to head with journalists eager to denounce him for the violence and violent sexuality in his movies.

People were almost always thrown off guard when they met the well-spoken graduate of a Quaker school in Philadelphia, Columbia University, and Sarah Lawrence. Articulate and convincing, De Palma could defend himself very well indeed.”

While De Palma wouldn’t always have box office success, with very few exceptions so many of his films were and are made on his own terms, and the years have been kind to his legacy, his risks reaping substantial and long-lasting rewards.

 

7. De Palma introduced and popularized numerous now iconic actors

hi-mom-1970

It might be a minor detail in De Palma’s progression but he did give breaks to a lot of actors that would skyrocket to fame––his early comedies were Robert De Niro’s first films, Carrie made Sissy Spacek a sensation, and John Travolta was just a TV actor before appearing alongside Spacek. De Palma also helped some stars mount significant comebacks from relative obscurity like Al Pacino’s titular role in Scarface and Sean Connery’s Oscar-winning reinvention in The Untouchables.

Similarly, De Palma introduced Martin Scorsese to screenwriter Paul Schrader, suggesting that Marty and not himself, would be the right director for his ambitious little script called “Taxidriver”. And prior to that it was De Palma who introduced Marty to De Niro, who promptly cast him in Mean Streets and from there, well, you know the rest.

De Palma’s characters, the phrases they utter (“Say hello to my little friend”, “They’re all gonna laugh at you”, “Brings a knife to a gunfight”) and the ideas they represent have been eagerly absorbed into popular culture’s vocabulary.

 

6. De Palma has never been afraid to make confrontational and unsafe cinema

Casualties Of War

“I am constantly standing outside and making people aware that they are always watching a film… At the same time, you are deeply and emotionally involved in it.”

– Brian De Palma

In the early days of his career De Palma was very much a politically motivated filmmaker with a Godard-like obsession for radical narrative cinema. His films of the late 60s like Greetings and Hi Mom! Confronted an image-manufacturing culture that crassly objectified women, redefined racial unrest, and the Vietnam War.

This Brechtian alienation and adversarial satire would be revisited in Bonfire of the Vanities while the more poignant and personal anti-war and arguably anti-American affectivity would also infuse Casualties of War––which Pauline Kael described as leaving her “simultaneously elated and wiped out,” in her staggering, filibuster-like eight-page review in The New Yorker––to his late period Iraq war polemic, Redacted.

The latter, Redacted, is a scathing indictment of U.S. soldiers’ brutalization of an Iraqi family under their occupation, terrified audiences with some of its shocking imagery and a montage sequence which De Palma himself was outraged about when Magnolia executives had it drastically cut. “I find it remarkable. ‘Redacted’ got redacted. I mean, how ironic,” De Palma remarked repeatedly during junkets promoting the film. And Venice still gave him the Silver Lion for his fearless direction.

 

 

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  • I like De Palma, but he is very underrated

  • Having seen the documentary on DePalma, there is no question he is one of the great filmmakers in cinema. He is a master storyteller. Even his bad films are actually more interesting than a lot of other people’s films which makes him an exception of sorts when it comes to the greats. Plus, I think he is one of the few that really gets Hitchcock and understands what he does and more. Yet, he is able to use to develop a style that is part-homage but also something that is his own thing. I’m totally eager for what he will do next whether it’s good or not.

  • D Train

    De Palma is cinema’s Jesus.

  • Brandon Thompson

    If people are going to concentrate on the bad De Palma films as to why he isn’t a great director, I would like to remind you that Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas, Altman, Lumet, Nichols, Lynch, Polanski and Allen all have made duds through out their respective careers too.

  • Deepesh

    Actually De Palma is overrated. I have seen his “masterpieces” Scarface, The Untouchables and Blow Out. I found all of them too much mainstream and irritating. Scarface can be said little good though.

    • D Train

      Well guess what? De Palma diehards and the good people at Criterion will tell you his masterpieces are Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise, Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Body Double, Carlito’s Way and later on Femme Fatale. So think about that before concluding his populist mainstream fare is all anyone talks about because this is false.
      Also, did you read the article or just decide to comment?

      • shane scott-travis

        Thanks D Train.

      • Deepesh

        Just decided to comment, of course, since I didn’t like the director’s most famous films. Which film can change my views about him from your point of view? Just name his one “greatest” film.

        • D Train

          Blow Out

          • Deepesh

            Well, then I don’t think I will like him since I have already seen it.

          • D Train

            See the documentary by Baumbach and Paltrow on him “De Palma”. Also read this article maybe? Seems strange you’d comment on an article you haven’t read. Have you seen Carrie? Body Double? Dressed to Kill? Sisters? Phantom of the Paradise? Carlito’s Way? These films are all so different.

        • shane scott-travis

          Deepesh, are you a genre fan? If you like Hitchcockian thrillers or prestige horror or erotic thrillers then De Palma is your man. Maybe you’re too uptight for some of that, hmm? What about midnight movies? See Phantom of the Paradise at a late night showing in a rep cinema and then you’ll be convinced of De Palma’s genius. Or not. Why comment if you don’t care? Odd…

          • Deepesh

            It’s not odd to comment when I didn’t even like the title of the article and if I have seen the director’s “classics” but I can respect your taste.

            Yeah, I’m a genre fan. I do watch a lot of films of genres you mentioned. What I didn’t like about De Palma is his style. Too much mainstream for me. I’m a huge fan of Lang and Hitchcock, FYI.

  • Nikos Ikonomidis

    Excellent article! It is becoming a De Palma year,it seems.Personally, I have been a devoted De Palma films lover since the age of 13, and now in my 50s I still consider him, together with Carpenter and Polanski, my favorite director.The article catches very well the greatness of De Palma’ s cinema. My personal attachment to him,though, is with films like The fury, Carrie, Body double, Blow out, The phantom of paradise, Dressed to kill, Obsession, Sisters,Femme fatale and Mission impossible, whereas Carlito’ s way, for example,perfectly directed though it is, leaves me totally cold.And, by the way, Passion was unfortunately, in my opinon his first misfire in his own field.

  • Gavin Lawson

    We are talking about him, lots of articles talk about him, a documentary came out this year about him, his films get released by Criterion….hardly underrated. Alan Rudolph on the other hand…

    • D Train

      It’s fair to say that De Palma’s doesn’t and has never––with very few exceptions––gotten any respect from American critics and by and large American audiences. He hasn’t made a film in Hollywood since Mission to Mars and while films like Femme Fatale, Redacted and Obsession perform well and get accolades overseas he’s largely undervalued in North America.
      Yes, Alan Rudolph is unsung, why don’t you write a piece on him for Taste of Cinema Gavin? I’ll read it! 😉

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