De Palma on De Palma

A new documentary looks back at the career of Brian De Palma, one of the most exciting directors of the modern era.

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At the outset of De Palma, the new documentary on the life and work of visionary director Brian De Palma, the auteur draws a direct line from his oeuvre to its inciting influence: Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. Vertigo is, at its heart, a tale of obsession in which its detective protagonist John Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) attempts to overcome the traumatic moment that left him with vertigo. For De Palma, it serves as the perfect allegory for what it is to be a director.

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It makes complete sense that Vertigo, one of the best suspense films of all time, would serve as the blueprint for De Palma's career. In the documentary, co-directed by Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha, While We're Young) and Jake Paltrow (The Good Night, Young Ones—and, yes, brother of Gwyneth), De Palma states in no uncertain terms that he considers himself the only director carrying Hitchcock's legacy forward, and it's hard to argue with him: the sumptuous visual styling, the grandiose cinematic movements, the abundance of femme fatales—it all lives on in De Palma's work.

De Palma, flanked by the film's co-directors, Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach.
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Throughout De Palma, all information comes to the viewer straight from the mouth of the film's subject—De Palma speaks directly into the camera—and via clips of both his films and the works that influenced him; not a single other person is interviewed. This technique empowers De Palma to personally walk us through the arc of his career as he sees it, and firmly establishes the film as an unabashed love letter to the man's work.

The director likely teaching Pacino just the right way to introduce the audience to his little friend.

Baumbach and Paltrow's documentary takes us through De Palma's hits (Carrie, The Untouchables), the misses (Bonfire of the Vanities, Mission to Mars), and all of the exciting and risky cinematic exploration between—including an ongoing battle with the ratings board due to the director's fondness for two classic moviemaking ingredients: sex and violence. Through it all, he remains ever the meticulous filmmaker, one of both technical prowess and thrilling narrative sensibility.

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Here, a list of the director's 10 best films—and, in honor of his love of Hitchcock, a look at each of their most suspenseful moments.

Sisters (1973)

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This tale of twins—one pure of heart and one evil to the core (both portrayed by Margot Kidder)—is De Palma's first foray into the world of thrillers, the genre for which he would become best known.

Moment of Peak Suspense: De Palma brilliantly uses split-screen to show the police in pursuit as Danielle (Kidder) furiously tries to clean up a crime scene before they arrive. 

Carrie (1976)

While overtly a "horror" film, De Palma's adaptation of Stephen King's book about a bullied girl with telekinetic powers dips its toe in various genres (e.g., drama, romance, coming-of-age story). The end result is an unflinching allegory about what it is to be young and an outsider, painted in the boldest of strokes.

Moment of Peak Suspense: The almost unbearably drawn-out run-up to the film's classic, climactic scene: prom night.

The Fury (1978)

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Starring Kirk Douglas, John Cassavetes, and Amy Irving, The Fury is a sci-fi suspense film featuring the C.I.A., psychics, and another healthy dose of telekinesis. Clearly another can't-miss.

Moment of Peak Suspense: Gillian's (Irving) escape from the institute, a frantic moment played out gloriously, and counterintuitively, in slow-motion.

Dressed to Kill (1980)

Dressed to Kill has all the markers of classic De Palma: sexual frustration, cold-blooded murder, and psychiatry, all set to a simmering score by the great Italian composer Pino Donaggio.

Moment of Peak Suspense: An unforgettable chase scene through moving train cars in the New York City subway.

Blow Out (1981)

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Blow Out, the film some have deemed to be De Palma's finest, chronicles the fallout after audio engineer Jack Terry (John Travolta) happens to record evidence of a political assassination as it unfolds.

Moment of Peak Suspense: The moment in which Jack (Travolta) returns to his studio to find that someone has broken in. The camera begins to spin, mimicking the film turning on the studio's reels (as De Palma explains in the documentary), and building tension with every rotation.

Scarface (1983)

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De Palma takes Howard Hawks's source material (the 1932 film of the same name) and moves the gangster drama from Chicago to Miami. Al Pacino stars as Tony Montana, and while you've likely already heard all of the quotable moments, as with all things De Palma, this update is  weirder and better than you think. Also of note: Michelle Pfeiffer's breakout role as Montana's wife and an unforgettable soundtrack by Giorgio Moroder.

Moment of Peak Suspense: Though there are countless classically suspenseful moments in this film, the scene in which Pacino chases Pfeiffer onto the dance floor for a romantic dance-off of sorts is equal parts goofy, tense, and menacing. Jury's still out on who won that battle.

Body Double (1984)

One struggling actor's life is sent into a tailspin after he witnesses a murder, and subsequently can't avoid falling deeper and deeper into the web of mystery behind it. This bombastic look at the seedy underbelly of Hollywood features Melanie Griffith in a breakout role as adult film star Holly Body.

Moment of Peak Suspense: In another homage to De Palma's spiritual forefather, Alfred Hitchcock, the film's protagonist Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) stares out of his window and into a nearby building, catching a murderer approaching his would-be victim—all through the lens of his telescope, à la Rear Window.

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The Untouchables (1987)

De Palma's take on the tale of the notorious gangster Al Capone stars Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, and Robert De Niro, and features a score by legendary composer Ennio Morricone. With The Untouchables, De Palma gives us a blockbuster gangster film while staying true to his idiosyncratic style of direction.   

Moment of Peak Suspense: A mother loses control of a baby carriage on the stairs of a train station, sending it careening down the steps in the middle of a full-blown gunfight.

Carlito's Way (1993)

Al Pacino, Sean Penn, and Penelope Ann Miller star in this story about a New York City gangster (Pacino) reacquainting himself with life on the outside after a 30-year stint in prison.

Moment of Peak Suspense: Cameras snake down a corridor in hot pursuit of Kleinfeld (Sean Penn), finally landing on him at the very moment he realizes he may have walked into a hit.

Mission: Impossible (1996)

In a simultaneously sensible and totally unpredictable career move, De Palma is asked to helm the first installment of a soon-to-be mega-franchise, and the result is a big-budget thriller at its most explosive.

Moment of Peak Suspense: In one of the greatest heist scenes in film history, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) swoops down from the ceiling of a vault in C.I.A. headquarters, avoids countless laser beams, and stays completely silent while grabbing a top-secret file—the key to restoring his good name!—so as not to trigger the alarm.

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Share this with anyone you know who could use a little more suspense in their movie diet.

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