As a kid, Brian De Palma was obsessed with building computers. He studied physics in college and was on track to become an engineer. He intended to follow in his fathers footsteps as a man of science – his dad was a surgeon – but then he saw the movie Vertigo. This is something that commonly happens among filmmakers. It’s that one film that changes the trajectory. For Spielberg it was Lawrence of Arabia. For Richard Linklater it was Raging Bull. For DePalma it was Vertigo.
He became obsessed with Hitchcock. You can especially see that in the documentary De Palma, by Noah Baumbach. He is constantly referring to him. He was entranced by the way Hitchcock told the story, the cinematic language; the camera moves, the use of color, the way it was lit, the way it was cut. It fascinated him. He bailed on his engineering career and decided to follow his passion.
He enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College as a graduate student in their theater department and began digging deeper into Hitchock, the Maysles Brothers, Antonioni, Godard, and even Warhol — all of which inspired him to begin applying the lessons to his own short and independent films.
In his post-college years, he paid the bills by making small films and documentaries. He made one about an art exhibit for MOMA, another for the NAACP, and even one for the Treasury Department.
He eventually graduated to feature films and his first success to be noticed by Hollywood was the 1968 underground comedy Greetings starring a young Robert De Niro. It was about young men trying to avoid the Vietnam War, an issue De Palma was dealing with in real life. He would end up telling the recruiters he was a communist with homosexual thoughts in order to dodge the draft.
Greetings has a special place in the history of cinema. In 1968, the Motion Picture Association of America established the ratings system and Greetings was the first picture to ever receive an X.
The success of Greetings got him invited to Hollywood where he would truly begin his career. While having his fair share of difficulties dealing with the studio system it would be during this time that he would find his place as a member of the most legendary group of American filmmakers there ever was or will be: The Movie Brats. George Lucas, John Carpenter, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Steven Spielburg, Paul Schrader, David Lynch, Wes Craven, James Cameron, Joe Dante, Ron Howard, John Sayles, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, John Cassavetes, and Jonathan Demme were just a few of the names to come out of this decade of filmmaking genius.
De Palma would spend his entire career fighting against the ratings system. All of his movies are loaded with sex and violence. There is a reason this is Tarantino’s hero. However, it is what lies beneath this blood-soaked crowd-pleasing surface that makes Palma such a legend.
De Palma is a master of the build up. He relishes the moments before the action. If you have ever seen one of his movies you will know what I am talking about; the moments before Carrie takes over the dance, Tony Montana shoots it out in the mansion, or Agent Elliot Ness chases the baby carriage down the stairs.
He is a brilliant visual artist. He is famous for his iconic set pieces and despises the traditional shooting strategies. He never simply shoots coverage; wide shots, medium shots, close ups. He searches for the most meaningful, impactful, and cutting edge ways to make each and every shot in a scene.
He was a bold and unapologetic storyteller who explored the realities of war, violence, helplessness, the thrills of voyeurism, and the consequences of oppression throughout his films.
He was ahead of his time. Many of his movies were not appreciated by critics or successful at the box offices during their release, but have come to be widely accepted (at the very least) as cult classics and (at the very most) as cinematic masterpieces.
He was prolific. De Palma has directed over 40 movies, so we aren’t going to go through all of them here, but here is his top 10 greatest films according to Rotten Tomatoes:
Dressed to Kill 84%
Blow Out 91%
So, what’s your opinion? Is he a misogynistic, bloodthirsty, B-movie director? Or is he an artist and one of the all-time greats? Do you agree with the Rotten Tomatoes top ten list? What’s your favorite De Palma movie?