Film Review: De Palma

Directors: Noah Baumbach, Jake Paltrow

15 |  1h 50min | DocumentaryBiography | 23 September 2016 (UK)

RATIGNG: ★★★★★

Provocateur. Genius. Hack. Misogynist. Carrie and The Untouchables Director Brian de Palma has been called all of these things at various times, sometimes all at the same time by the same critic. But while everyone may have an opinion, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow simply let the man speak for himself here in this fascinating and comprehensive, but never exhausting documentary. If it proves anything, it is that even if you agree with some of the criticisms aimed at De Palma, and he has taken his fair share of flak, it cannot be denied that he has never made a dull movie.

De Palma, it also turns out, is a hugely engaging raconteur and a frank, self-critical and good humoured observer of his own work. As a result, Baumbach and Paltrow are able to stick to a simple formula for their film. They seem to have simply sat De Palma down in his living room, and let him talk chronologically through his entire career, reflecting on everything from the creative highs to the commercial lows with an irresistible and disarming candour and articulacy, his recollections peppered with frequent “holy mackerel” exclamations that seem amusingly demure for a director notorious for cinematic bloodbathery and profanity. Interspersed with De Palma’s narration, as you’d expect, are film clips and other archival material with no period of his life seeming to have been overlooked, all adding up to a comprehensive survey that suggests the two directors really did their homework, like the fans they so obviously are.

What certainly comes over is how visually arresting De Palma’s work has always been, and footage from and discussion about his early work- when he was working on the film programme at Sarah Lawrence college in New York after dropping out of Columbia - show a director rarely content to just let the camera sit there. He was undeniably a hard worker too, prepared to slum it to get films made, grinding his way through low budget and experimental films in his early 20s, so he could learn from the ground up. One of his early associates during this period of low-fi, freewheeling filmmaking was one Robert de Niro, who he would collaborate with again and who would ultimately grace the filmmaker with an oversized turn as the notorious Al Capone in De Palma’s critical and box office hit The Untouchables, many years later. This fortuitous meeting of De Niro before either became famous serves as a reminder that success is part timing and part location, and De Palma was lucky to have started his career at a time when Hollywood was about to open up a brief window where, as De Palma itself puts it, directors like him and stars like De Niro were allowed to get a foot in the door of the flailing studio system and mess it up. At one point, Baumbach and Paltrow show us an old photo of De Palma seated at a table with the cream of the “New Hollywood” movie royalty - Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola and Lucas - truly one for the mantlepiece. De Palma admits it was an immensely supportive group to be around.

Even as De Palma developed his baroque and kinetic visual style (even his more pedestrian films like Carlito’s Way, for example, showcase his flair via some impressively-handled long tracking shots), naysayers would label him a Hitchcock imitator. De Palma has absolutely no shame in admitting his love of the thematic and formal qualities associated with Hitchcock at all though, stressing that although the great director is frequently seen as the patron saint of auteurs, he takes his devotion more seriously than most. Vertigo is revealed (unsurprisingly, if you know De Palma’s work) to be touchstone film for him, the narrative of which he describes lovingly as a neat allegory for what filmmakers actually do: build up impossibly tempting illusions, only to destroy them in front of the audience. This all sounds pretentious in print, but in person De Palma comes off like he really means it, and his unabashed love for the "Master of Suspense" is quite touching.

His hits - from breakout horror success Carrie, to the gritty gangster flick The Untouchables and on to the blockbuster Tom Cruise vehicle Mission Impossible - are covered in detail, with De Palma frequently throwing out some eyebrow-raising and hilarious anecdotes about how he wrestled them onto the screen. The presence of the megastar Tom Cruise should have made the production of 1996’s Mission Impossible smooth sailing, you would imagine, but De Palma remembers it being a crazy experience, with his preferred screenwriter David Koepp being fired from the picture to be replaced by the inferior (in De Palma’s mind) Robert Towne. At one point De Palma had both screenwriters working on the same film in different hotels whilst production was rolling on, a schizophrenic scenario which left him wondering if he’d ever use half the sets he was building.  De Palma also discusses running lines with De Niro until he knew them on the set of The Untouchables, whilst the actor wore the same silk underwear Capone would have worn, while in character.

Despite these highs, there were plenty of lows, with the critical bomb that was his 1990 adaptation of Bonfire of the Vanities being one example that does not escape attention. Yet even as he honestly assesses where that film- and his other flops - went wrong, you sense De Palma has a keen insight, which served him well more often that not. His take on Bonfire is that he thinks it should have been a more abrasive work; more in tune with The Magnificent Ambersons or The Sweet Smell of Success, films regarded as classics now. De Palma is probably right on that count. He doesn’t shy away from addressing the accusations that his films have been problematical in their portrayal of women either, but his response seems one of surprise rather than anger or hurt, arguing that the subject matter always demanded it. No doubt some viewers will find that a bit of a stretch to buy into when viewing the footage of a 5-foot drill ploughing through the body of a woman in that notoriously over the top murder scene in Body Double.

Yet it is hard to deny that De Palma’s instincts, when it comes to crafting compelling cinema, have frequently been right first time. It was his decision to cast Sissy Spacek in the iconic role of Carrie for example, when the odds were against her. Likewise the unforgettable Odessa Steps homage shootout in the final act of The Untouchables was not originally part of the screenplay (David Mamet originally scripted a complex race against Chicago traffic, which the studio refused to pay for on top of De Niro and all the trimmings), and had to be reworked into the Union Station setting late in production. That explosive scene is now widely considered a masterclass in how to build tension and then choreograph exciting and coherent cinematic action. 

De Palma the filmmaker concludes however, that now is no longer the time for directors like him, and it has been a while since he was last gifted a big US blockbuster (his 2000 flick Mission to Mars was not a happy experience and was his last US-shot project). But even if he should never make another film, De Palma the documentary confirms he used the time he did have behind the camera very well indeed.

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Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.