Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s documentary film “De Palma” is as informative and entertaining as you can expect from the illustrious career of Brian De Palma, who surely deserves to be called “the Master of the Macabre” for many of his films which are as distinctively personal and stylish as Alfred Hitchcock’s. Looking around the filmmaking career spanning no less than six decades, the documentary puts De Palma in front of the camera, and he does have plenty of interesting things to tell us.
During the first part of the documentary, De Palma talks about his early life. While he was your typical science nerd not so different from Keith Gordon’s character in “Dressed to Kill” (1980), he became interested in making movies after enrolling at Columbia University, and he tells us how much he was impressed by “Vertigo” (1958) when he happened to watch it at the time of its initial release in US. After watching that great film, he became more aware of filmmaking techniques and personalities behind them, and his interest in filmmaking grew further while he subsequently enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College.
During the 1960s, he made a number of short films in addition to documentary film “The Responsive Eye” (1966), and then he made his first three feature films “Murder a la Mod” (1968), “Greetings” (1968), and “The Wedding Party” (1969). In case of “Greetings” and “The Wedding Party”, they were also two early movies in Robert De Niro’s acting career, and De Palma fondly remembers how De Niro caught him off guard with a sudden demonstration of acting during their meeting.
After Pauline Kael gave an enthusiastic review to “Greetings”, things looked promising to De Palma at first, but then he went through the problematic production of “Get to Know Your Rabbit” (1972), during which he often clashed with not only its lead performer Tom Smothers but also Orson Welles, who was not very cooperative during the shooting of his scenes. Fortunately, De Palma bounced back with “Sisters” (1973), and that little thriller film was where he showed more of the influences from Hitchcock’s films while also skillfully mixing them into his own distinctive personal style.
One of the definite Hitchcockian touches in “Sisters” was the chilling score by Bernard Herrmann, who composed a number of unforgettable scores for Hitchcock movies during the 1950-60s. Herrmann was going through his few remaining years as a fragile but irascible old man when De Palma sought for his service, but he surely delivered far more than De Palma expected, and he later worked with De Palma again in “Obsession” (1976), another movie heavily influenced by Hitchcock films. While talking about “Obsession”, De Palma confirms what I read from the autobiography of John Lithgow, who played one of supporting characters in that film. He had to cast Cliff Robertson in the lead role for getting it produced, but Robertson frequently inhibited the shooting process just because his co-star Geneviève Bujold looked more prominent than him, and that certainly exasperated De Palma and others in the production.
“Sisters” was followed by unforgettably bizarre musical movie “Phantom of the Paradise” (1974), and then, after “Obsession”, there came “Carrie” (1976), one of the most critically and financially successful movies in De Palma’s career. The 1970s was indeed a great time for him and his close filmmaker friends Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Paul Schrader, and De Palma recollects how freely and successfully he and his friends could make something not only entertaining but also personal during that wonderful period – until Hollywood eventually became more business-minded.
During the 1980s, De Palma went through a fair share of ups and downs. He gloriously started with “Dressed to Kill”, but then it was followed by the commercial failure of “Blow Out” (1981), which is now regarded as one of his best works. His excessively stylish approach to sex and violence in “Scarface” (1983) and “Body Double” (1984) caused lots of controversies and troubles which could have sunken his career, but then he rose again with “Wise Guys” (1986) and “The Untouchables” (1987), which were then followed by a fiasco named “Bonfire of the Vanities” (1990) as he entered the 1990s.
This bumpy career trend of his was repeated throughout the 1990s and the 2000s. After “Raising Cain” (1992), he made “Carlito’s Way” (1993), and then he was luckily hired to direct “Mission: Impossible” (1996). After the failures in “Snake Eyes” (1998) and “Mission to Mars” (2000), it looked like his career was coming closer to the end, but then there came “Femme Fatale” (2002), which may be his best film during last 20 years.
After “The Black Dahlia” (2006) and “Redacted” (2007), De Palma had been rather silent for several years, but then he delightfully surprised us with “Passion” (2012), a modest but enjoyable film which showed De Palma back in his element as usual. According to IMDB, he is planning to make his next film which will probably be released around 2017, and I cannot help but admire him more than before as observing how he still remains to be passionate about filmmaking.
Will “De Palma” be another interesting turn in De Palma’s eventful career? I cannot give a definite answer for that question, but I can tell you that Baumbach and Paltrow give us a compelling summary of his career deliciously peppered with considerable amount of insights, and I thoroughly and gleefully enjoyed it as an admirer of many of his notable works. Please keep going, Mr. De Palma, you dirty old man.