A Furious Passion: The DePalma Way

Article by Darrell Buxton

During spring and summer of 2016, QUAD will be bringing you a short season of films by Brian De Palma, one of the most talented but least appreciated figures in American cinema, and a genuine auteur.

If De Palma has been noticed or recognised, it’s often been through the proclamations and protestations of those taking a negative view  – Brian’s immense artistry, matchless skill at operatic visual set-pieces, spectacular use of close-up/split-screen/slow motion, and general mastery of his chosen medium, have frequently been ignored or trampled upon by those keen to accuse him of excess violence, misogyny, or plagiarism. In showcasing some of the finest, most breathtaking examples of his unique style, we hope to redress the balance and bring this major player back into the limelight.

And ‘player’ is an apt description in more ways than one, since Brian has proven himself as a true puppetmaster over the years, able to toy with audience expectation, pull out the rug from beneath us on countless occasions and still manage to catch us on the hop every time, to simultaneously elicit sympathy and evoke utter terror, and to startle with camera tricks and surprise via the most basic methods.

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QUAD will be showing De Palma’s still-controversial murder thrillers DRESSED TO KILL (1980) and BODY DOUBLE (1984); his satirical study of the Faustian maelstrom that is the music business, the baroquey horror show PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974); and two of his diverse occasional excursions into gangsterism, the classics SCARFACE (1983) and THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987). In common with much of his work, each of these titles is a dazzling individual entry into its own self-contained universe, while at the same time providing a piece of the total De Palma puzzle, a world in which characters and events are rarely what they initially seem.

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De Palma was working regularly with Robert De Niro before most in Hollywood even knew that Bob existed. He was the first person to film a Stephen King novel (1976’s astonishing CARRIE, transforming King’s potboiler into a whirlwind of emotive mayhem), and spotted the post-70s-superstardom John Travolta’s potential as a dramatic leading man (in his supercharged 1981 political-conspiracy-cum-slasher-opus BLOW OUT), years before PULP FICTION or GET SHORTY took the same route. He cast CARRIE while sitting alongside his friend George Lucas, the two overlapping and auditioning the same actors (several of whom wound up in Lucas’ production, a little space adventure named STAR WARS). He also kickstarted the wildly successful MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE franchise, and gave Sean Penn one of the most memorable roles of his troubled career in the Al Pacino starrer CARLITO’S WAY.

He’s regularly called out as being nothing more than a second-rate Hitchcock, but Brian revels in such seemingly damning comparison and thieves from the Master of Suspense in a boldly blatant manner  – in 1984, just as five long-unseen Hitchcock gems were re-released to an almighty clamour from filmgoers worldwide, De Palma’s response was to craft the staggering BODY DOUBLE (his masterpiece, no question) by rudely shunting the plots of VERTIGO and REAR WINDOW together, as though to inform us “I’ve been learning from these pictures for years, and wait till you see what I’ve done with all that education”.

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The thrilling tableaux he presents in films such as THE BLACK DAHLIA, THE UNTOUCHABLES, OBSESSION, SISTERS, FEMME FATALE, RAISING CAIN, THE FURY and PASSION  – whipping up a vibrant, exhilarating mood once famously referred to by critic John Brosnan as “the rush”  – are dynamic, like little mini-movies within their own host features, and, almost without exception, are the bits you find yourself discussing on your journey home.

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His quirky, rebellious sense of humour dominates many of Brian’s less well-known works (GREETINGS, HI, MOM!, GET TO KNOW YOUR RABBIT, HOME MOVIES, WISE GUYS) but also pops up unexpectedly right in the middle of his horror films and thrillers, to disconcerting and refreshingly unusual effect.

The expanse of a cinema screen is really the only place to fully experience Brian De Palma at his best  – so join us at QUAD, to pay tribute to one of America’s unsung, maverick movie legends. And watch out for those twist endings…

 

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