Posted by Matthew Caron
The middle of April finds BAMcinématek taking a fond look at the work of filmmaker Brian De Palma with the ten-film retrospective De Palma Suspense, which includes appearances by self-professed fan Noah Baumbach and Ed Pressman who produced many of the films being exhibited. It includes at least two masterpieces, a few very good films and at least two confirmed turkeys, all of which are well worth checking out in glorious 35mm.
Brian De Palma’s films are about either amateur detectives or monsters. Without conducting a poll or consulting the grosses, my gut tells me that the monster movies have been more successful at imprinting themselves on the culture and enriching their investors. Among these, Scarface and Carrie have surely left the deepest impressions, for they are films in which every single character manages to take a turn at being a violent grotesque. Tony Montana isn’t simply a guy who sold and snorted too much coke before getting his head blown off, he’s a folk hero who gets to hang out at the top for a minutes, while Carrie White presents the ultimate sad-sack teenager who gets to off her mom and the kids at school in a great big fireball of justified pyrohormonal rage. Like all great monsters, they destroy all they they encounter until they self-destruct.
Scarface is absent from the BAM program, but 1976‘s Carrie is included, although I think it is not really a suspense film at all on account of its blatantly supernatural premise; it’s a kind of revenge comedy, really. I feel the same way about The Fury, a 1978 attempt at reproducing Carrie’s telekinetic teen hysterics and their hysterical success at the box office. The Fury is no Carrie, but it’s nice to see the likes of Kirk Douglas, Amy Irving and John Cassavetes breathlessly competing to see who can turn in the loudest, broadest performance. Another lesser monster picture featured in the program is 1993’s Raising Cain, a thoroughly miserable time featuring John Lithgow in several roles as a serial killer’s multiple personalities with the rubbery shrillness of Eddie Murphy doing the Klump family in The Nutty Professor.
From the creative and aesthetic low point of Raising Cain, one can only look back at De Palma’s 1973 breakthrough, Sisters, and marvel that somehow it is same director telling nearly the same story of split personalities and siblings, as if one film was the good and the other the bad seed. Sisters (of which there are only two 35mm prints in existence, and just one precious screening scheduled in this series) remains a high-water mark not just for De Palma’s individual style but for the American thriller. With a Psycho-inspired first act that climaxes in a murder witnessed from an adjacent building in the fashion of Rear Window and a body hidden in the middle of the action á la Rope, Sisters incorporates themes and scenarios from Hitchcock in the service of a story that is fresh and surprising, making spectacular use of the split-screen segments and dream sequences that would become signatures of his style. This mode continues in 1976’s Obsession, notably written by Paul Schraeder and scored by Bernard Herrmann, an inspired pairing of script and music that would be used to even greater effect in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver the very same year. Conceived as an homage to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Obsession is the story of a man who loses a wife and daughter, only to later find them reincarnated in a mysterious young Italian woman. It’s no Vertigo, in part because it lacks any real of sense of romance and suffers from a serious lack of depth and motivation where the female characters are concerned, but it is genuinely surprising and is in nearly the same league as Scarface and Carrie in the department of great endings.
Between these two Hitchcock totems, De Palma managed to turn out a bizarre rock n’ roll musical phantasy called Phantom Of The Paradise, starring the ungainly William Finley as the titular Phantom and Paul Williams, who also wrote and recorded the film’s songs, as a demonic music biz poobah named Swan. Phantom is at once a better movie than either Sisters or Obsession in that it has real moments of fuzzy, screwball only-in-The-Seventies weirdness that are not comparable to any other films with the possible exception of Jim Sharman’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It is also a worse movie for being a touch clumsily made and more clumsily acted by all parties involved. Even the weirdly compelling Jessica Harper, who is electrifying in other cult films from the time such as Dario Argento’s Suspiria and John Byrum’s Inserts, never really gets around to developing a character in her role as Phoenix, The Phantom’s immortal beloved. De Palma either couldn’t or wouldn’t dive into the camp and glitter with anything approaching the abandon of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and was working with weaker material anyhow. Furthermore, it’s not much of a suspense film: the opening coda states plainly that what we’re about to witness is a tragedy in which everyone dies and the hero loses the girl. Nonetheless, it is a hoot and should be seen at least once by all connoisseurs of weird shit. It’s also worth mentioning that portions of Phantom Of The Paradise were filmed in and around the BAM Opera House, and a quick walk around the premises after the film lets out should yield a few recognizable locations.
Moving ahead a few years, 1981‘s Blow Out stars John Travolta as a sound effects artist who accidentally records a political assassination and finds himself at the center of an enormous cover-up. Blow Out plays like a more playful take on Coppola’s The Conversation or Antonioni’s Blow Up and finds Travolta is at his very best. The audio voyeurism that takes place in Blow Out is also far more suspenseful and interesting than De Palma’s earlier exercises in 1980‘s Dressed To Kill, a film which I find hard to speak about at all without destroying the tension of its nearly silent first act. Suffice to say: it offers further confirmation that the director enjoys mirrors, knives, and watching women shower. Both films confirm that De Palma and the suspense mode are most effective when words are set aside and the camera is relied upon as the primarily narrative vehicle.
In 1985’s Body Double stars character actor Craig Wasson as Jake Scully, a man who suffers from a chronic failure to act: we meet him in the process of a losing a role as a punk rock vampire in a low-budget film on account of the crippling claustrophobia he experiences when placed in a coffin. So begins a rapid spiral of small-time Hollywood failure and defeat that leaves Jake single, unemployed and without a home. A mysterious fellow actor named Sam Bouchard appears on the scene to offer Jake a place to live as a house-sitter, which turns out to be a magnificent UFO-like structure in the Hollywood Hills* with a stunning view. Sharing a drink in this dream tower, the men toast “To Hollywood!” as they use a telescope to check out a gorgeous neighbor performing a striptease in the window of a neighboring mansion, an event which Sam promises Jake happens “every night like clockwork”. Sam Bouchard departs and leaves Jake effectively stranded in this observation-deck palace by a lack of anything else to do, much like James Stewart in Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Through the telescope’s peephole, Jake is drawn into a drama of exhibitionism and voyeurism which leads him to the Other Hollywood: Pornography. At one point Jake is warned by an LAPD detective that spying on people is a criminal act, but in the peephole universe of porn, voyeurism is rewarded and encouraged. Uniquely, Body Double is a mystery where pornography is presented as an answer: it presents itself the place where Jake can solve the murder, get the girl, and reinvent himself in a the Other Hollywood where the function of the voyeur is recognized and valued. In this way, it shares major themes with David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (the voyeur as detective) and Lost Highway (the home as a surveillance camera, Hollywood as a living nightmare populated by monsters who eat struggle actors) and with Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (the failed artist who will do anything to remain in Hollywood, who exists tucked away in someone else’s lonely mansion). Among all of De Palma’s films, it presents the richest exploration of the horrors and complexities of voyeurism, and is the film that seems most in need of reexamination and critical rehabilitation.
Leaping ahead in time to 2002’s Femme Fatale finds De Palma telling the story of another voyeur turned detective, a photographer played by Antonio Banderas who sells a photograph of a famously mysterious woman and is soon threatened by powerful people to get the image back, or else. Interestingly, the story is told from the point of view of the mysterious woman. Uniquely for a De Palma film, the viewer knows far more than the protagonist, and the suspense is largely drawn from worrying over how he will navigate a dangerous terrain that is invisible to him. The films most entertaining and cinematic moments arrive early on in a glossy diamond heist at the Cannes Film Festival that recalls Tom Cruise’s high-tension antics in De Palma’s 1996 blockbuster Mission: Impossible. In addition to the M:I franchise, the heist itself feels inspired in part by M:I 2 director John Woo’s comic heist film Once A Thief, and the mixture of humor and cocksure attitude Banderas carries feels borrowed from Chow Yun-Fat’s turn in that film. Meanwhile, Rebecca Romijn’s turn as the titular Femme Fatale feels indebted to The Matrix; clad in black trenches and sunglasses in a critical scene in which she flies through a sheet of glass and winds up wholly transformed. She also feels miscast, and my bet is that if this film had happened only two years later it would’ve have been Angelina Jolie wearing the boots. In spite of a title which evokes the noir films and earlier era, De Palma’s Femme Fatale stands out as a film that exists in conversation with its contemporaries in the field of action and suspense, rather than in homage to its antecedents.
A final note: De Palma is currently in production on a new film in Europe right this moment, which is to say that the final twist in his long and strange relationship with cinematic suspense has not yet been revealed. In the meantime: go to BAM.
* The house in Body Double is The Chemosphere, an octagonal structure designed in the 60s by Rem Koolhaas and inhabited in real life by publishers Benedikt and Angelika Taschen.