Despite often being talked about as a great director, it’s fair to say that Brian De Palma is also a controversial one whose greatness occasionally requires reconsideration and qualification. Few would argue against the merits of a film such as Carrie, which stands as De Palma’s international calling card and, for the most part, one of his most enduring films. But there are a host of detractors who would argue that his later work was outrageously provocative, and fetishised a particular brand of cinematic misogyny that emerged in the 1970s and ’80s; a period famed for erotic and violent excess both on and off the screen.
Though followed by arguably greater Stephen King adaptations, Carrie has the singular honour of being the first. Adapted from King’s first novel, Carrie tells the story of a bullied young girl whose telekinetic powers grant her a means of taking revenge upon the world. The film boasts two Oscar-nominated performances, from its lead, Sissy Spacek, and Piper Laurie, who plays the titular antihero’s tormenting mother. In a decade of great American movies and great horror in particular, Carrie remains a classic of New Hollywood.
One of the great influences on De Palma is, of course, Alfred Hitchcock. Comparisons between the two have been made throughout De Palma’s career, not least in regards to his more typically suspenseful films. Early works such as Sisters and Obsession in particular demonstrate the filmmaker’s debt to the British master of suspense, with the latter representing a rather on-the-nose homage to Vertigo.
The most formally accomplished and yet problematic of De Palma’s odes to Hitchcock, however, remains the 1980 Psycho update Dressed to Kill. Despite a series of virtuoso murder setpieces that must have made fellow provocateur Dario Argento proud, the film boasts some unpleasantly exploitative moments and a message about gender identity that is nothing less than dangerous. (For more of the same one needn’t look further than 1984’s Body Double, an equally troubling erotic re-tread of Rear Window.)
Dressed to Kill was quickly followed by what might be De Palma’s masterpiece: the 1981 conspiracy thriller Blow Out. Starring John Travolta as an obsessive sound technician investigating a possible murder, the film wore its influences on its sleeve – this time channeling the works of Michelangelo Antonioni and fellow New Hollywood icon Francis Ford Coppola (Antonioni’s Blow-Up and Coppola’s The Conversation effectively provide a blueprint) – but nevertheless carried the themes of New Hollywood – violence, paranoia, authority, sex and voyeurism – into the 1980s.
The status of De Palma’s next film, Scarface, has improved in the years following its initial, somewhat negative critical reception. The ultraviolent update of Howard Hughes’ crime classic boasts a typically larger-than-life Al Pacino performance and has provided an iconographic template for both hip-hop and the Grand Theft Auto video games. Despite its tendency to revel in the excesses of its protagonist – imagine a more trigger-happy version of The Wolf of Wall Street – the film’s legacy is undeniable.
Beside Scarface, De Palma’s other major hit of the 1980s was another gangster thriller, The Untouchables, which charts the investigation into and fall of Al Capone. The Untouchables starred Robert De Niro as the famous gangster alongside Kevin Costner as the officer in charge of the investigation; it made $76 million at the US box office and won Sean Connery an Oscar in support. De Palma’s ’80s were capped off with Casualties of War, a vivid and troubling portrait of the Vietnam conflict.
After a flop adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, for which he received a Golden Raspberry nomination (note: he has not yet received an Oscar nomination), in 1993 De Palma reunited with Pacino for gangster thriller Carlito’s Way. The film, about an ex-gangster’s attempts to go legit, split the critics at the time of its release but has since developed a cult appreciation.
De Palma’s following film, 1996’s Mission: Impossible, sadly marks the director’s last major hit, although it did launch Tom Cruise’s action franchise (make of that what you will). Since Mission: Impossible De Palma’s career has seen a succession of flops including Snake Eyes, Mission to Mars, The Black Dahlia, Redacted and Passion, which stand as clear evidence of the hit-and-miss nature of his career. A reevaluation seems to be on the way, however; since its premiere at last year’s Venice Film Festival, De Palma, a new documentary directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, has been generating strong praise from critics.
Perhaps it will provide the final word on one of film’s most implacable directors but, then again, perhaps it won’t. Therein lies the beauty of film. De Palma is certainly a divisive director: at times an awful one, and sometimes even a dangerously provocative one as well. But he is nevertheless, occasionally, a truly great one.