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Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things movie.

Dominic Corry: The odd genius of Brian De Palma

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Dominic Corry assesses the more salacious work of Brian De Palma.

Director Brian De Palma. Photo / Robyn Harper
Director Brian De Palma. Photo / Robyn Harper

It was when I discovered the work of Brian De Palma as a nascent teenager that my youthful passion for cinema began to calcify into a lifelong obsession. His films are just so darn ... cinematic. They invite close examination, and reward it.

De Palma has always combined a film historian's love of the craft with a showman's desire to manipulate his audience. And nobody does it better.

He came of age amongst the legendary original "film brats" (Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas), but has never quite achieved their broad populist success. I think De Palma sees this as a point of pride.

Most people have seen the popcorn blockbusters that dot De Palma's oeuvre (1987's The Untouchables; 1996's Mission: Impossible) or at least his early cult smash hits (1976's Carrie; 1983's Scarface), but his body of work goes much deeper than that, and includes several legendary turkeys as well as the music video for Bruce Springsteen's Dancing In The Dark.

An examination of De Palma's entire output couldn't possibly be contained in a single blog entry, so today I'm going to focus on a couple of his seediest, nastiest films. They are awesome!

This (dominating?) aspect of his filmography is specifically recalled by his latest movie, Passion, which just came out on DVD in New Zealand after bypassing cinemas here. While it's not a masterpiece, it demonstrates that De Palma is still a vital director who enjoys pushing things forward.

A remake of the 2010 French film Love Crime, Passion stars Rachel McAdams (The Notebook) and Noomi Rapace (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo; Prometheus) as frenemy executives at a high end Berlin advertising agency.

When McAdams takes credit for an idea of Rapace's that proves popular with the high-ups, it sets off a sequence of deceptions and collusions that inevitably turn murderous.

It's all pretty ridiculous, and McAdams delivers a weirdly over-the-top performance that constantly breaks the reality of the film. But it's also quite a lot of fun if you like this sort of thing.

De Palma's filmmaking techniques lean toward to the garish, which makes it easy to get on the wrong side of his movies. But if you're willing to go along with his operatic, Grand Guignol stylings, there's no better fun to be had.

The motif of having his characters viewed through a camera lens is one of the strongest threads running through his work, and it enhances the idea of De Palma as a filmmakers' filmmaker. It's very present in Passion, which manages to factor cell-phone cameras; security cameras; Skype and even YouTube into its convoluted machinations. I enjoyed this aspect of the film.

But most of all, I enjoyed how it evoked my two favourite Brian De Palma movies - 1980's Dressed To Kill and 1984's Body Double.

The term "erotic thriller" didn't really enter the general parlance until the release of Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct in 1992, but De Palma arguably invented the genre twelve years earlier with Dressed To Kill - it's a film so tawdry, so salacious and so gosh darn shameless, it makes Basic Instinct look like The Princess Bride.

De Palma is famous for borrowing from Hitchcock, and Dressed To Kill is his Psycho (the first true erotic thriller?). The plot involves an adulterous housewife (old school screen siren Angie Dickinson), her camera-nerd teenage son (Back To School's Keith Gordon, who would ironically go on to become a director himself); a prostitute witness (played by De Palma's then wife, Nancy Allen) and a psychiatrist played by Michael Caine.

The story was apparently inspired by an incident in which the teenage De Palma stalked his father - whom he suspected of being unfaithful to his mother - with recording equipment.

Brian De Palma's 'Dressed To Kill'.
Brian De Palma's 'Dressed To Kill'.

Dressed To Kill is a twisted; gauzy thriller with more than a couple of spit-out-your-drink moments of craziness. I love it.

The marketing for Dressed To Kill played up De Palma's role as the successor to the all-time master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. This no doubt help inspire some of the vitriol hurled at the then-controversial filmmaker, but many critics understandably took issue with the experiences of his female characters.

De Palma's next film once again starred his wife as prostitute, and features one of John Travolta's most well-regarded performances. 1981's Blow Out has enjoyed a vocal fan in Quentin Tarantino, and it's a ingeniously conceived thriller with a nasty edge. But I hesitate to lump it with the movies I'm focusing on here. Despite a truly ominous bad guy performance from John Lithgow, it's not quite seedy enough.

De Palma's follow-up, Scarface, would once again generate considerable controversy regarding the portrayal of violence, but its commercial success allowed the director to really indulge himself on his subsequent effort - 1984's Body Double.

In many ways the spiritual sequel to Dressed To Kill, Body Double stars the never-heard-from-again Craig Wasson as an aspiring actor who lucks into a sweet gig house-sitting an amazing Hollywood Hills pad. Where there happens to be a telescope. Through which he happens to notice a woman sexily dancing for nobody in particular...

Initially appearing to be riff on Hitchcock's 1954 classic, Rear Window, Body Double ends up much more closely aligned with 1958's Vertigo, which De Palma had already pilfered from considerably for his 1976 thriller Obsession.

If that wasn't enough, De Palma cast a young Melanie Griffith, daughter of Hitchcock leading-lady Tippi Hedren, in one of the lead roles. She plays a porn actress named Holly Body.

Even with all the Hitchcock, er ... honouring going on, Body Double very much has a style of its own. Plus it features one of the best moments of movie/music synergy ever when Frankie Goes To Hollywood shows up to perform their most famous song in this amazing sequence.

Body Double is a wonderfully over-the-top thriller. It's pretty mental, but my love for it remains unironic. It's almost as if De Palma took onboard all the criticism he'd received for Dressed To Kill and decided to double down.

Passion is much tamer than both of these films, but I enjoyed seeing De Palma at work in this arena once again. He's famous for experimenting with extra long tracking shots and split screens, and both techniques appear in Passion, to varying affect. The heightened sense of reality that defines De Palma's more personal films is also present, even if its not employed as dramatically as in some of his earlier works.

Watching Passion made me want to revisit both Dressed To Kill and Body Double again. If you've never seen either of them, I heartily recommend that you do.

Make no mistake however, these are seedy movies. But what splendid seediness it is!

* Do you like Brian De Palma movies? Which ones? Hands up if you've seen Raising Cain more than once! Can I get a high-five for Mission To Mars? Comment Below!

Dominic Corry

Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things movie.

One of New Zealand's most vocal and enthusiastic film critics for over ten years, Dominic's cinematic opinions can also be heard on radio and seen on television. His list of favourite movies is always evolving, but is generally likely to feature The Lady Vanishes (1938); Vertigo (1958); The Parallax View (1972); Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978); Aliens (1986); Midnight Run (1989); Metropolitan (1990) and Primer (2002). He also reviews snack food.

Read more by Dominic Corry

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