The Great Wall
Unlike any American blockbuster you've seen, a conservative movie with action set pieces that are actually inventive and thrilling enough to be worthwhile.
More than just a big-screen fetish object for Brian De Palma’s still-loyal cult, "De Palma" is one of the essential documentaries on Hollywood. This feature-length interview with the controversial filmmaker responsible for “Carrie,” “Dressed to Kill,” “Blow Out,” “Scarface,” “The Untouchables” and “Femme Fatale” serves not only as a guide to one of the most fascinating filmographies of our time, but a thoughtful and often hilarious look at the ups and downs of the American film industry over the last half-century, as seen through the eyes of one of its most idiosyncratic participants.
Born in Philadelphia in 1940, De Palma was a science guy until a viewing of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”—which he considers to be not just one of the greatest films of all time, but a spot-on metaphor for the filmmaking process—inspired an interest in directing. After making a couple of award-winning shorts, he would make his first feature in 1963 with “The Wedding Party,” a film also notable for featuring the first lead performances from the then-unknown Robert De Niro and Jill Clayburgh. After a couple of additional documentary shorts, he would make another feature, the weird thriller “Murder a la Mod” (1968), before having his first taste of success with the underground hit “Greetings” (1968), a dark comedy that first brought to focus a number of elements that he would return to again and again throughout his career—voyeurism, conspiracies and assassinations among them. After the loose ‘Greetings” sequel “Hi Mom!” (1970), he would go off to Hollywood to make a studio version of a counter-culture comedy entitled “Get to Know Your Rabbit,” an experience so harrowing that it convinced De Palma that he would never make it working for the major studios.
After spending a few more years in the indie trenches making such films as the stylish horror hit “Sisters” (1973), the hilarious horror-musical-comedy “Phantom of the Paradise” (1974) and the “Vertigo” riff “Obesssion” (1976), De Palma decided it was time to try to channel his unique personal vision into something that a mass audience might also be able to embrace. The result was “Carrie” (1976), an adaptation of the Stephen King novel about a teenage outcast (Sissy Spacek in one of her finest performances) with astounding powers that she unleashes during a fatal trip to the prom. Merging his spellbinding cinematic technique (including his deft use of split-screen and slow-motion imagery) with a genuinely likable central character, he came up with a film that was embraced by critics and audiences alike and which contained one of the most unforgettable scares in screen history. After another telekinetic thriller, “The Fury” (1978) and the ultra-low-budget experiment “Home Movies” (1979), which he made as part of a filmmaking class he was teaching at Sarah Lawrence, he had another hit with the controversial thriller “Dressed to Kill” (1980), a film that took “Psycho” as its leaping-off point for one of his most audacious blends of sex, violence, dark humor, current events, technological advances (both mechanical and human) and spellbinding set pieces.
From that point on, however, De Palma’s oftentimes dark and overly violent and sexual works would find less favor in an increasingly conservative cinematic climate. There would be controversies such as the uproars over screen brutality inspired by “Scarface” (1983), “Body Double” (1984) and “Casualties of War” (1989). There would be box-office flops such as “Wise Guys” (1986), “The Bonfire of the Vanities” (1990), “Mission to Mars” (2000) and films that barely managed to get released like “Redacted” (2007) and “Passion” (2013). There would be a couple of huge hits in the big-screen adaptations of the television shows “The Untouchables” (1987) and “Mission: Impossible” (1996) and ones that deserved to better than they did like “Rasing Cain” (1992), “Carlito’s Way” (1993) and “Snake Eyes” 1998). There were even a couple of bonafide masterpieces as well in “Blow Out” (1981), a film that was rejected in the day for being a bleak thriller with an enormous downer of an ending but which is now regarded as his finest work, and “Femme Fatale” (2002), a run-through of his pet dramatic and stylistic obsessions that is perhaps the ultimate De Palma film.