When the Love Affair Ends

I had a healthy conversation the other day on Twitter (yes, that is possible, it just takes a lot of back and forth) about Brian De Palma.  I made an offhanded joke implying, rather unfairly, that De Palma had done nothing of value beyond Blow Out.   He has, of course, and through the conversation, many people, including friend and frequent Morlock commenter, Andrew, chimed in to name some (Andrew named The Untouchables, which I like a lot).   But what I was really saying was this:  At one point, De Palma held a lot of promise for me.  I thought after Blow Out that the sky was the limit and within a few years, who knows, maybe a Best Director Oscar was in the cards.  It wasn’t.   Despite liking a few movies here and there, nothing De Palma did after Blow Out, not even Carlito’s Way, which I also like very much, seemed balanced on the edge of greatness anymore.  It wasn’t the first time that happened with a director for me, and it won’t be the last.

Blow Out

Before and after Blow Out, De Palma did several movies I like.  He did Obsession, The Fury, Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Phantom of the Paradise, Greetings, Carlito’s Way and The Untouchables.  Most of those, you’ll notice, came from before Blow Out while a couple came after.  It was afterwards that the disappointment became palpable.  Scarface is a favorite of many but I don’t like it at all.  Scratch that, I can’t stand it.  Body Double, same feeling.  Wise Guys and The Bonfire of the Vanities are barely competent exercises in running film through a camera while people do uninteresting things in front of it.   And later works that some folks have a fondness for, like Mission to Mars, I watched with the feeling that either I was crazy or my friends were.  I mean, by the time I got to the end of that movie,  I was honestly wondering, and still kind of am, was it intentionally bad, like a modern take on Ed Wood.

These are strong opinions, I know, and you may have noticed something else:  I keep seeing Brian De Palma movies!  There’s a reason for that and now, if you’ll indulge me, I’ll attempt to explain it.  Here goes.

I think De Palma is a real talent and don’t agree with those who feel he’s a style plagiarist incapable of creating his own signature.  Yes, he clearly imitates to the point of preciousness sometimes (the Odessa steps/Railway station scene in The Untouchables is less a nod to Eisenstein than a “look, here’s the Potemkin sequence with different actors” setup) but he’s more of a film sampler, if that makes any sense.  In music, artists often sample from others, taking a refrain from one song but writing something completely different around it.  That’s what I see De Palma doing and it’s never bothered me, really.


He borrows techniques and style choices from Hitchcock in Blow Out, the movie I believe to be one of the best thrillers of the eighties, but he puts them in the service of something original and vigorous and filled with crazy energy.   He was and is a master of the split diopter, a half lens (think semi-circle) that attaches to the camera allowing the camera lens to focus on something in the background as well as the foreground.  No, it’s not deep focus photography, that’s all taking place using one lens, it’s different (slightly) and has a more immediate feel to it because it’s not just depth of field, it’s two different subjects, one extremely close, one further away, sharing the screen (Click here to see the diopter shots from Blow Out, including the owl shot at the top of the post, my favorite in the movie).

So I think De Palma has a lot going for him and really like his early work.  That’s why, when I make a joke about him on twitter, it’s a clumsy way of saying I once had a lot of hope for him to be one of the all time great filmmakers and, well, it just didn’t work out.  At the same time, I so admire some of his earlier work, especially Blow Out, that I keep returning again and again, hoping this next one will be the one to bring me back.   Some I need to give another chance.  I saw Casualties of War back in 1989 and despite Pauline Kael telling me it was best thing De Palma had ever done, I was underwhelmed.  Maybe another look all these years later will change that.  Mission: Impossible, Snake Eyes, Femme Fatale, The Black Dahlia, disappointments one and all.   He made two in the last seven years, neither I’ve even seen:  Redacted and Passion.  I got to the point where I gave up.  The love affair ended and I stopped trying.  Until that twitter conversation, that is, in which more than one person vouched for Passion as a great De Palma film.   I want to see it now and will very soon.  I’m reluctant.  I’m not sure I want to be disappointed again by De Palma.  It’s one thing to be disappointed by some hack you couldn’t care less for, it’s something else entirely to watch yet another movie by a director you once thought was going to go straight to the top and feel that once again, you got duped.


Like I said on twitter, De Palma’s operatic and I like that.  I like a director not afraid to try something new each time out.  I like a director who’s willing to play up emotions and play the visuals to the back row, in a manner of speaking.  I like a director who isn’t afraid to freely sample and create something new around something established.  I like the director just fine.  Now, I want to like the movies again.

30 Responses When the Love Affair Ends
Posted By Ghijath Naddaf : June 18, 2014 2:09 pm

I like De Palma when he goes over the top.
So yeah,i liked Scarface,even if that movie is more Oliver Stone
than De Palma.
I also like Carrie, and the exploding Cassavetes in The Fury,
always puts a smile on my face.
But i dont know his latest films. The Black Daliah was the last
one i saw.

Posted By Dan Heaton : June 18, 2014 2:18 pm

I’ve felt very similar about De Palma and figured that maybe something had changed in the way that I view his films. Mission Impossible is an okay spy film, and The Untouchables and Carlito’s Way are solid, but he seemed to have a lot more promise.

I’m with you on disliking Scarface and think many just remember the last scene and Pacino’s famous lines. Others like Snake Eyes have great sequences but fall apart by the end. He seems to have the ability to direct an energetic scene, but pulling an entire movie together is something different. The Black Dahlia was the low point, and that’s saying a lot.

Posted By Ben Martin : June 18, 2014 2:24 pm

Underwhelmed by Casualties of War. Well…
It rattled me to my very core -i cant begin to tell you what a high opinion i hold for that movie. I am one who must live with the belief that Oliver Stone’s noisy claptrap Platoon is the most overrated war movie ever made and Casualties of War the most underrated.
But De Palma disappoints as well as you so articulately state above (i had to read The Devils Candy as a kind of recovery program from Bonfire of the Vanities) but like Wise Guys and many others you mention a lot. Soooo, yes, what happened – a fascinating director who seems to be in step only with himself.

Posted By gregferrara : June 18, 2014 2:28 pm

Ghijath, there’s something to be said for over the top and that’s why I like De Palma. That’s what I’m referring to with the term “operatic” at the end. Even if I don’t like Scarface, it’s far better than The Black Dahlia.

Posted By gregferrara : June 18, 2014 2:29 pm

Dan, that’s a good observation. Even in his best films, sequences will often stand out over the whole film standing out. Like the elevator sequence or lost glove in the museum sequence, both in Dressed to Kill, stand out much more than the movie does.

Posted By gregferrara : June 18, 2014 2:36 pm

Ben, you don’t know how happy your comment makes me. While I fully acknowledge, and did so on twitter, the need to see Casualties of War again because there are several parts that stuck with me, Platoon is a movie that I find unbearably awful. When I saw it in the theater I thought it was excellent. Then, years later, saw it again and thought, “This seems pretty sophomorically constructed.” You know, the easy – scratch that – lazy character signposts (Pot smoking = good, Liquor drinking = bad) and high school level moralizing about right and wrong. I thought it was fairly mediocre. A couple of years ago, I gave it one more chance and by this point found it laughably bad. Which opened up a whole new set of questions for me. The main one being, “Well, okay, I was a teenager when I saw it the first time. Of course I was taken in by it. Now I’m older and can see how shoddy it is. But wait, how does that explain all the older critics who loved it?” I don’t want to know the answer.

Posted By Andrew : June 18, 2014 3:00 pm

I am not sure if this theory holds up completely but it seems as though he is a better movie maker than story teller. Carrie was based on a Stephen King novel that translated easily to a movie, David Mamet wrote The Untouchables, Oliver Stone wrote Scarface. (While I understand folks not liking it, I do think they successfully told that story.) David Rabe wrote Casualties of War. Maybe I am being selective in vision.

Posted By Adam R : June 18, 2014 3:14 pm

I like OBSESSION too and I think it’s one of the rare movies that’s truly underrated, because I almost never see any mention of it anywhere, and it’s very good. As for PASSION, I went into it with similar expectations as yours and came away very disappointed (but I’m interested in what you think of it).

Posted By swac44 : June 18, 2014 3:28 pm

Maybe he should go back to comedy, he might have another Get to Know Your Rabbit in him!

Posted By Ben Martin : June 18, 2014 3:39 pm

Greg Thank you – “Platoon = unbearably awful.” I was older than you when i first saw Platoon and i was offended by it in the ways you just describe – it’s a lazy stacked deck from beginning to end. SPOLIER: By the time Sheen blows Berringer away i wanted to throw things at the screen. (Isn’t that what John Wayne would have done in the movies he claims to despise?) But critics love it. And so do audiences. And the Academy.
I do hope you find time to give Casualties of War another chance.
Thanks again – Ben

Posted By gregferrara : June 18, 2014 3:41 pm

Andrew, that could be a part of it. Although he wrote and directed BLOW OUT which is why his decline disappointed because I thought he had more in him. Actually, directing someone as precise as Mamet probably was a great thing for him. Mamet’s writing is so wordy that it helps to have a visual maestro like De Palma at the helm. I felt like HOUSE OF GAMES, GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS and THE SPANISH PRISONER were lacking because they came off as filmed plays rather than cinematic events. He could have used De Palma on those as well.

Posted By DevlinCarnate : June 18, 2014 4:43 pm

I actually fell asleep watching Black Dahlia in the theater,obviously it was a cash in on LA Confidential,which i wasn’t crazy about either although I’m a fan of both the novels…but for some reason,maybe it was Nick Cage and Gary Sinise,I liked Snake Eyes…nothing special,predictable,but it didn’t put me to sleep

Posted By swac44 : June 18, 2014 5:16 pm

I should revisit Snake Eyes one of these days, I remember liking stuff in it, but found it didn’t really all come together. The film is probably also hampered by the fact that it lost its original ending, a massive storm sequence that the script seemed to be building up to, so the whole thing just feels kind of anticlimactic.

Posted By Jeb : June 18, 2014 8:22 pm

I recently watched Femme Fatale, and I would recommend that one to any fan of the old De Palma. A nice, and relatively tight story (esp. for De Palma) that had some fun twists and turns.
Also, I revisited Raising Cain recently, having seen it when it first came out and not thinking too much of it at the time. It’s a lot more fun than I remembered. Maybe you just have to be in the right mood some of De Palma’s films.

Posted By Geoff : June 19, 2014 1:31 am

While I enjoy the films De Palma has directed from the screenplays of others (in fact, CARRIE is my favorite De Palma), the ones I look forward to the most are the ones he writes himself. Those are the ones that go full tilt on the De Palma sensibility, wind-up toys full of sardonic wit and the most fascinating visual ideas. They are his most personal films. Even though PASSION is a remake, I include that one in that category, as De Palma took the original film, and really made it his own. FEMME FATALE is an exquisite masterpiece.

Posted By Ghijath Naddaf : June 19, 2014 7:51 am

Yeah,Femme Fatale was great.

Posted By Pete R. : June 19, 2014 12:14 pm

I dont know how someone could be underwhelmed by Casualties of War. Thats probably his most intense and harrowing films. One of his best too imo.

I love all of DePalma’s films from Hi Mom! right up to Snake Eyes. Femme Fatale, Black Dahlia and Passion was where I kinda tuned out. Maybe its the stories or subject matter but they’ve failed to interest me like his older films.

Posted By Bill N : June 19, 2014 7:09 pm

Like others, I agree about FEMME FATALE being great.
If you are worried about another DePalma disappointment then do NOT see PASSION!! I repeat. Do NOT see PASSION! It will only disappoint you!!!

Posted By Christine Hoard-Barre : June 20, 2014 5:09 pm

I thought I was the only one in the world who thought PLATOON was way over rated. I thought CASUALTIES OF WAR was better. Back to DePalma: I, too, used to really look forward to his movies and agree with much of what you say. I liked his early stuff like SISTERS (surprised it wasn’t mentioned) and CARRIE, BLOW OUT, etc. Andrew made some interesting points about the script writers. Why do some directors start off so well, do interesting stuff, and then kind of fall off the cliff (e.g. Bogdanovich)?

Posted By swac44 : June 20, 2014 5:30 pm

I’m guessing that as they become bigger players, they’re less likely to surround themselves with people who are going to tell them that an idea is a bad one, or if it needs more work. (I think of this as George Lucas Syndrome.)

Posted By Tommy Gibbons : June 20, 2014 8:17 pm

I agree with Christine. “Sisters” is a major player in his filmography and the film (along with “Dressed to Kill”) that attracted me to his stylings (of course scores by Herrmann and Donaggio didn’t hurt!)

Posted By george : June 20, 2014 10:00 pm

PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE was the first De Palma movie I saw in a theater, and it had a big impact on me. I loved it. And I fell in love with Jessica Harper, as did most of the guys who saw it.

I’d have to rank it near the top. I even had the soundtrack — on vinyl!

Posted By george : June 20, 2014 10:18 pm

I was also impressed by BLOW OUT when it came out. For years I was a voice in the wilderness, telling people this was a terrific movie. It was considered a box-office flop (by Travolta movie standards at the time) and received a lot of scornful reviews in 1981.

Pauline Kael was one of the few who praised it — one of the rare times I totally agreed with one of Kael’s reviews. And it’s supposedly one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite movies.

Posted By gregferrara : June 21, 2014 2:52 am

I can’t understand the negative reviews for BLOW OUT. Everything about it works for me.

Posted By george : June 21, 2014 3:48 am

The gripe was that De Palma had ripped off BLOW-UP. They could have said the same thing about THE CONVERSATION, but Coppola got a free ride.

I think THE CONVERSATION, BLOW-UP AND BLOW OUT are all great movies. Surveillance and paranoia aren’t the exclusive properties of any one director.

Posted By gregferrara : June 23, 2014 5:21 pm

Exactly! I love when someone uses a similar story line and somehow that’s ripping off another director. As if similar story lines can’t exist in our world. How many westerns have used the same rough plot lines? Action-adventure? Comedy? Drama? I mean, how many “relationship in distress” dramas are there? 28,000? As George says, all three (CONVERSATION, BLOW UP, and BLOW OUT) are great movies approaching their stories in different ways. To say BLOW OUT is a rip off of BLOW UP (oh my God, their titles are really close!) is to ignore the fact that they are 99% different. BLOW OUT is full-on political intrigue/thriller while BLOW UP is anything but. It’s an existential rumination on film, not a thriller. Someone chastised this piece on twitter for failing to mention BLOW UP. I didn’t mention BLOW UP because they’re two completely different movies! It’s like criticizing someone for writing a piece on DEATH WISH for not mentioning THE BIG HEAT because they both involve vigilantism over a murdered wife. Even though they have nothing else in common!. Aaarrrggghhh!!!

Posted By jbryant : June 23, 2014 7:14 pm

Well, it is at least a little bit disingenuous to leave BLOW-UP out of a discussion of BLOW OUT, simply because the latter’s plot gimmick was clearly inspired by the former’s, substituting sound recording for photography. Other than that, I take your general point.

Count me among those who believe FEMME FATALE was a return to form for De Palma. I had hoped PASSION would match it, but it was just okay. I’ve avoided the more recent ones that got horrible reviews, but I always hold out hope that he’s got more great ones in him.

Posted By Doug : June 23, 2014 9:31 pm

My unfair beef with De Palma: I love movies made with a poet’s soul, and De Palma is more akin to a vulgar toilet stall scribbler.
It isn’t that I’m a blue nosed “cultured” tut-tutter who demands
meaning and heartfelt whatever in films. I just wish that some, including De Palma, would aim a little higher than “lowest common denominator film making”.
The more that shocking language and images are used, the less they shock. Film makers whose entire career is built on shock/sex/nudity/profanity/violence eventually prove less interesting than a poet with a camera. Tehy make themselves irrelevant.
David Lynch has used all of those darker, violent tones on his palette, but not relied on them to sell his movies.
If his films had not a single bit of nudity or profanity, I daresay they would still be popular because what he is saying as an artist is interesting.
De Palma? Not so much.

Posted By Geoff : July 5, 2014 3:47 pm

Comparing Lynch to De Palma, I would say that Lynch’s films are actually a bit more vulgar (and I don’t mean that in a negative way, either). De Palma’s cinema is not built on shock/sex/nudity/profanity/violence, it’s just that when he does use those things, he does so very effectively, which is why they stand out. But De Palma is has a keen ability to find beauty amidst chaos, and one could argue that is where the true heart of his films is buried.

Posted By robbushblog : July 11, 2014 5:26 am

Carrie is great. Obsession and Sisters seemed overwrought and laughable in some spots. Sisters because it’s gimmicky. Obsession because it wants to be like Vertigo and has over the top music. Not that Vertigo didn’t, but by the time Obsession came out, the music didn’t fit. Blow Out is pretty damn great. Dressed to Kill is not bad. I can’t hate the shower scene, and Michael Caine is creepy. I saw Body Double, but the only thing I can remember is some nudity and Craig Wasson. Right? Scarface is the most overrated piece of crap I’ve ever seen. I have buckets and buckets of love for The Untouchables. It’s one of my favorite movies from the 80s. I never saw Casualties of War in its entirety. I will rectify that. Snake Eyes has some fun moments and some cool camerawork here and there, but it’s not very good on the whole. Mission: Impossible will forever hold my scorn for making Phelps the bad guy. One or two cool action sequences cannot justify that terrible plot decision and it shall remain un-rewatched for all eternity. I heard Femme Fatale was good. Those people lied. The Black Dahlia was absolutely terrible. I had to apologize to my sister after taking her to see it. Carlito’s Way I liked very much. Mission to Mars was one of the most disappointing wastes of time ever. And finally, The Bonfire of the Vanities was a big letdown of a mess. Who could have steered Tom Hanks so wrong? Brian De Palma. That’s who.

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