Brian De Palma – Master Of Suspense

The great Brian De Palma was born on 11 September 1940. He has always been a director that defies convention. He’s an outsider that managed to get into the Hollywood system and subvert it. In the early days his love of the thriller led to him being accused of ‘borrowing liberally’ from Alfred Hitchcock. However, this ‘Hitchmock’ label is pretty unfair – sure he’s a masterful thriller director, but he has also dabbled in many other genres, delivering some pretty great films in the process.

De Palma has been compared to Alfred Hitchcock throughout his career. However, he has never been more Hitchcockian than he was with Sisters. It plays like a greatest hits package of the Master of Suspense’s finest moments as De Palma takes pieces of Psycho, Rear Window, Vertigo and North By Northwest and stitches them all together to create an intriguing thriller. It even has a score by Hitchcock’s favourite Bernard Herrmann.

De Palma’s thriller is built around the concept of Siamese twins having radically different personalities, but the rest of the film features enough twists and turns and tense moments to satisfy fans of genre. Margot Kidder and Jennifer Salt lead the cast – the former playing a French-Canadian model and the latter as a tough, loose cannon reporter. They’re both solid in their performances, but this is really De Palma’s film and if anything helps illustrate the director’s cinematic interests and influences then it’s this. You only need to watch Sisters to see the auteur theory in full effect. This is full-on Brian De Palma with split-screen shoots, camera tracking and a focus on character duality.

The plot and character motivations behind Sisters doesn’t really hold-up under scrutiny. Everything that happens in the film is incredibly far-fetched, but that doesn’t stop it being a great piece of cinema. It was the film that saw De Palma hit his stride, cementing his reputation as one of the ‘70s ‘Movie Brats’ and launching his career as a mainstream filmmaker. It may not be his best film, but it synthesises many of the elements that would become familiar De Palma’s trademarks.

1974’s Phantom of the Paradise attacks the entertainment industry with ferocity. The film’s phantom is Winslow Leach (William Finley), singer-songwriter (in the ‘70s Billy Joel/Albert Hammond mould) who is screwed-over by a powerful producer Swan (Paul Williams). Imprisoned and deformed in a freak record printing press accident (!) Leach tries to take revenge on Swan, but he ultimately makes a deal with him so that he can bring a pop-musical version of Faust to the stage. Little does Leach know, that making a deal with Swan is like making a deal with the devil – and the devil never plays fair.

Phantom of the Paradise is Brian De Palma firing on all-cylinders. It has that devil-may-care attitude (literally) only a auteur-director in the 1970s could have. He openly mocks the entertainment industry and how they take advantage of the artist, not caring who they hurt in an attempt to make a quick buck. De Palma is using Hollywood’s own mouth to bite the hand that feeds him.

Bold and ballsy, Phantom of the Paradise is a movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously while taking a swipe at the business side of show business. It’s over the top, but it’s over the top in that Brian De Palma way – which is never a bad thing.

1981’s Blow Out is a first rate thriller from the masterful director – it’s one of his best. John Travolta delivers a great performance as the movie sound man who thinks he has recorded a murder, while there’s wonderful support from John Lithgow, Nancy Allen and Dennis Franz. 

Shot with De Palma’s trademark over-the-top style, Blow Out is gloriously filmed by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond with a great soundtrack from Pino Donaggio.

Switching booze for cocaine and transposing the action from Chicago to Miami, Scarface updates the Howard Hawks/Howard Hughes gangster movie from 1932 and delivers an iconic piece of cinema which has now surpassed the original in terms of legacy.

Written by Oliver Stone, directed by Brian De Palma, and starring Al Pacino, the 1983 film follows Cuban refugee Tony Montana as he rises to the top of the illegal drugs industry in Miami during the early 1980s. It’s a story  – and a film filled with excess. The general belief is that remakes are a very bad thing but Scarface proves that sometimes you can get great results if you spruce-up something old.

You were always going to get a bombastic movie once you combined De Palma, Stone and Al Pacino and Scarface doesn’t disappoint. It’s an epic piece of filmmaking, filled with energy and fulled with an excess which could only have been made at a certain juncture in time. Pacino is on energetic form, giving Tony Montana a swagger and paranoia that few could muster, while Michelle Pfeiffer also delivers in her break-out performance.

De Palma directs with his usual flair and bombast, using sweeping camera takes to deliver an operatic and glorious looking film which helped inspire the visual style Michael Mann’s Miami Vice. Giorgio Moroder’s sumptuous synth score perfectly complements the brilliant cinematography by John A. Alonzo – Scarface is filled with true cinematic artistry.

De Palma’s riff in The Untouchables on the Odessa Steps sequence from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film The Battleship Potemkin is the highlight in a movie filled with many great moments. Here’s a behind-the-scenes image from the shooting of the scene were Eliot Ness takes down a bunch of Al Capone’s thugs whilst on baby-sitting duty.

Just a reminder that cast of 1987’s The Untouchables includes Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Robert De Niro, Charles Martin Smith  and Patricia Clarkson. It was composed by Ennio Morricone and written by David Mamet. Is it any wonder it’s great?

Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities is an epic tome chronicling a diverse set of issues in 1980s New York. Sly, wry and filled with zing, Wolfe’s work is one of the great literary works of the 20th Century.

The near 700 page novel (first published in 1987) was made into De Palma’s much maligned 1990 film starring  Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis and Melanie Griffith. With a two hour running time De Palma’s film only scratched the surface of Wolfe’s tale and the film is mainly known for the many behind-the-scenes stories stemming from Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy (worth reading).

The Bonfire Of The Vanities is hugely underrated adaptation of Tom Wolfe‘s epic novel – and one of De Palma’s best films.

Is it as good as the book? Of course not, but this is still and enjoyable romp. The tone of the film might be different from Wolfe’s tome, but this is a slick piece of Hollywood moviemaking. 

Contrary to popular opinion, I believe that Bruce Willis gives a wonderful performance as sleazy journalist, Peter Fallow and that Tom Hanks is great as Sherman McCoy, The Master Of The Universe. The rest of the cast is also great. 

The Bonfire Of The Vanities keeps getting better with age and it doesn’t really deserve its soiled reputation. It comes highly recommended and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. Having said that – maybe it’s not for everyone.

Mission: Impossible sees Brian De Palma take the classic 1960s spy series and update it for the 1990s. It’s an incredibly stylish piece of big screen espionage, which has echoes of the genres ’60s origins. This new incarnation of Mission: Impossible is very different from the original show, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless. Tom Cruise is excellent as Ethan Hunt, the spy on an impossible mission who is searching for an undercover ‘mole’. The rest of the cast impress too (Jon Voight, Emmanuelle Béart, Ving Rhames, Jean Reno and Henry Czerny).

When Mission: Impossible hit screens back in 1996, we didn’t know that the series would still be going strong 26 years later. The Brian De Palma directed action-thriller was part of a wave of TV series adaptions which hit the screens in the 1990s (The Fugitive, Maverick, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Brady Bunch, The Avengers, The Saint, Lost In Space) but it’s the only one which is still a going concern decades on (Mission: Impossible 7&8 are currently in production). 

Snake Eyes is an entertaining thriller from the genre master. This 1998 film a slick and stylish conspiracy thriller with an impressive cast led by Nicolas Cage and Gary Sinise.

The film is a bit contrived and it makes little sense, but De Palma has fun with the whole endeavour and he uses some of his favourite technical tricks. Cage also seems to be enjoying himself and he takes his performance to the very limit of over-acting. He almost goes there but doesn’t. Snake Eyes is no classic, but it’s entertaining nonetheless. 

 Brian De Palma’s Passion is a return to his ‘80s erotic thriller heyday. However, the master of suspense appears to have lost his touch and the 2012 film fails to hit the mark.

Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace star as a pair of advertising executives, who are working together on the launch of a revolutionary mobile phone. Their professional relationship soon spills over into their personal lives, which eventually leads to murder. De Palma should be having a field day with this material (he wrote the script, adapted from the French film, Crime d’amour), but even the director’s trademark visual flourishes can’t help Passion rise to the occasion.

Passion comes across as a film made by a director who just wants to make a hassle-free production, playing it safe in all areas to appease the money men. The problem with this is that the film is so generic, like a ‘90s cable thriller that’s aping De Palma’s style. Young audiences will find it boring, while the more mature filmgoer will find it like a flaccid copy of something they’ve already seen. Sadly, it’s far from peak De Palma.

It’s a serious shame that Domino feels like the master has had his edges shaved, leaving something of a generic thriller that fails to really register. Often seen as the enfant terrible of the 1970s Movie Brats, De Palma’s grandiose and operatic movies are often exercises in style over substance. Domino though is a movie that lacks substance and style, with just a few of De Palma’s trademarks left in place after a difficult shoot and an even more difficult post-production process. 

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau plays a Danish cop hot on the tail of the Eriq Ebouaney’s terrorist who killed his partner. (Søren Malling). He’s teamed with Carice van Houten’s fellow cop as he tracks the killer across Europe. Guy Pearce’s shady CIA agent throws complications into proceedings, playing both sides for his own gain.

Brian De Palma makes his literary debut (alongside co-writer Susan Lehman) with Are Snakes Necessary?, a deliciously pulpy novel filled with many of the famed director’s favourite tropes. Political intrigue, murder, voyeurism and Hitchcock fill the pages of this immensely readable, albeit very shallow thriller.

You could never in all fairness call Domino a great movie or even a good one. Much of it just sits there limply, with the occasional flourish reminding you just how great Brian De Palma was in his prime. You could argue that the director’s vision was compromised by producers and that might well be the case, but it’s sad to see the man behind such operatic classics as The Untouchables, The Phantom of The Paradise and even the over-blown but lusciously beautiful The Bonfire Of The Vanities reduced to something so…average. 

De Palma made his literary debut (alongside co-writer Susan Lehman) with Are Snakes Necessary?, a deliciously pulpy novel filled with many of the famed director’s favourite tropes. Political intrigue, murder, voyeurism and Hitchcock fill the pages of this immensely readable, albeit very shallow thriller.

Are Snakes Necessary? follows political fixer Barton Brock as he helps Republican Senator Lee Rogers during his re-election campaign. Brock’s work is made difficult because Rodgers is having an affair with his 18-year-old intern, Fanny Cours. Meanwhile, the story follows Elizabeth Diamond, a former associate of Brock and Rodgers who is fleeing from an abusive marriage. Elizebeth’s ex-boyfriend Nick Sculley is licking his emotional wounds by hanging out in Paris as a set photographer on a French remake of Vertigo

Clean prose and short chapters mean that the book is a fast read and you’ll be able to fly through it in short order. In fact, the novel reads like an adaptation of a screenplay and it’s very easy to see De Palma’s visual stylings in your mind’s eye – the denouement at the Eiffel Tower is calling our for split screen and slow motion.

Brian De Palma has always been an auteur, a man only interested in making ‘Brian De Palma movies’. Those movies may be filled with all sorts of excess and violence, but they’re unmistakably the work of one man’s singular vision. He is a true cinematic master, a true master of suspense.