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Big Time Directors! The Brian DePalma series

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Most of my favorite big time directors have a deep catalog of varied movies. Like most people, I have seen what is considered their “important work.”  But what about their other movies?  What about the movies that hide on their IMDb pages, snuggling in between their hits?  So here are a few omissions that I aim to rectify.  There is no real reason that I have missed these movies until now; they have just slipped between the cracks.

Until now.

The first director I’m grabbing for my “Big Time Directors” series is Brian DePalma.  DePalma is a director who came of age in the golden 70’s, along with Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, and Lucas.  However, he doesn’t get the same respect that those names get today, even Coppola. Why is that?  He did some really interesting movies early on, and then started making… well, other interesting movies, but not for the right reasons.

His trademark movie is a psychological thriller, which makes sense since he fancies himself an heir to Hitchcock’s throne.  He likes to throw fancy camera tricks into his movies, along with extensive use of the split screen. There are a bunch of DePalma movies I haven’t seen from all points of his career, but before we discuss the three I picked to examine, let me give you an idea on how I feel about the DePalma movies I have seen.

Loved:  Carrie, The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way

Liked:  Sisters, Dressed to Kill, Body Double, Scarface, Casualties of War, Mission:Impossible

Hated:  Raising Cain, Snake Eyes, Mission to Mars, The Black Dahlia

So lets take a look at Blow Out, Phantom of the Paradise, and Wise Guys.

Blow Out (1981)


A movie sound man, out recording sound effects for a low-budget horror movie, records a car accident that may or may not be murder.

Actually, the audience learns fairly early that the sound man, played by John Travolta, is not insane and there was, in fact, foul play afoot.  This is great Travolta, too, by the way. After Saturday Night Fever and Urban Cowboy, Blow Out is the last great Travolta movie before his comeback in the mid-90’s. He comes off as constantly irritated, his washed-out pale skin contrasting against what seems to be exclusively fire-engine red shirts.  Remember, Travolta was the most popular actor of the time, so it says something that he can disappear into the role.

As for DePalma, his signature camera bravura is in full-effect here. For a movie mostly about sound, the visuals here are insane.  The camera seems to be everywhere here, giving the audience multiple points of view throughout.  It must be said that it never seems to be fancy camera trickery just for the sake of it; every shot gives multiple bits of information, all vital.  If you want to see why DePalma is revered, start here.

I thought this movie was great in every way. Not only is Travolta top-drawer, John Lithgow shows up as a creepy assassin, Dennis Franz appears in what can only be called “The Dennis Franz” role, and Nancy “Robocop” Allen gives you the hooker with the heart of gold.  See this movie.

Rating:  Loved

Phantom of the Paradise (1974)


Holy shit, have you seen this movie? If you think you have the “Brian De Palma” experience figured out, watch this and have your universe collapse in on itself.  A cross between… well, The Phantom of the Opera, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Grease, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and Oh God! You Devil!, Phantom of the Paradise has to be seen.  I was going to say “seen to be believed,” but I just think “seen” is enough.

This is pretty much the same story as Phantom of the Opera, but instead of gothic grandeur, De Palma drops you into the most campy, glammy, uncomfortable, need-to-take-a-shower scenarios you’re likely to ever see in a movie.  Let me try to describe the goings ons:

Paul Williams, he of Smokey and the Bandit and The Muppet Movie, stars as an evil record producer who has made a deal with Satan to never grow old.  In preparation to open his awesome new theater, The Paradise, he steals a talented young composers work, has him framed, arrested, and has all his teeth pulled out and replaced by shiny silver fangs.

When the composer returns to have his revenge, he is fucked up even more, disfiguring him permanently.  He dons a mask that looks like Hawkman from The Justice League or the Tony Hawk logo, and becomes… well, the Phantom of the Paradise.

There is also a girl named Phoenix, three or four more deals with Satan, and a bunch of music.  And a flamboyant rock star named Beef, who pretty much steals the movie.

Even in the midst of all this, you can tell it’s a De Palma movie.  Ever present are his Point of View tracking shots, his use of split screen, and his homages to Hitchock (actually attempting The Shower Scene here, with a toilet plunger instead of knife).

Rating:  Liked (but you really need to see it at least once.  Believe me.)

Wise Guys (1986)


A lot of your enjoyment of Wise Guys depends on how excited you get when you see the names Dan Hedaya and Captain Lou Albano in the opening credits. Me, those names brought a big, fat  smile to my face immediately, and the addition of Danny DeVito and Harvey Keitel only increased the anticipation for Brian DePalma’s foray into the choppy waters of mob comedy.

Yeah, those waters are a bit choppy, huh?  Analyze This/ThatMickey Blue Eyes?  I think mob movies come with a bit of comedy built in anyway, so trying to parody that is a bit of a fool’s errand. There has been some success- Married to the Mob and Johnny Dangerously come to mind- but a movie like Goodfellas is as funny (at least to me) as it is dramatic.

Hey, I mentioned Johnny Dangerously!  Joe Piscopo is also in Wise Guys!  Man, what happened to Joe Piscopo?  Remember when he was on equal star footing as Eddie Murphy during their SNL days?  Since then, he has all but disappeared from show business, instead going into body building or some such.

Wise Guys has a non-buff Piscopo teaming up with DeVito as low-level mob flunkies scraping by in New Jersey.  How low-level?  Piscopo’s job is to test out bulletproof blazers by taking a few bullets, and DeVito has to start the mob boss’s car to test for explosives.

They go on to double-cross the mob at the horse track which leads to a chase to Atlantic City,  where more double-crosses ensue.  Throughout, DePalma loads this with Italian stereotype after Italian stereotype.  The mob depicted here is full of stock mafia characters from a whole bunch of earlier movies, the most obvious being the guy who played Frank Vincent in The Sopranos.  The Italian mothers in this exist to cook pasta and shout at their sons. You know, it’s a New Jersey mob movie.

Captain Lou?  I’m not sure how his performance got by.  He screams every single one of his lines.  Every single one.  And he is usually eating a hoagie or having his toenails clipped by a lacky while doing it. He really is terrible in this; maybe he needs the rubberbands in his beard to give him the verisimilitude to exist in real movie with real people.  His final line of the movie is “Who farted?”  I think that says it all.

So yeah, its not a subtle movie.  There is a lot of mugging, with Piscopo being the main culprit.  When the main characters are driving in a pink Cadillac, Springsteen’s song “Pink Cadillac” plays on the soundtrack.

Of the three DePalma movies I watched here, this was the least DePalma-y.  There were none of his trademarks at play here- no split screen action, no psychological mindfucks.  Just an amiable comedy which I liked.  I know, this review seems pretty negative, but I found this to be a pretty funny little comedy.

Rating:  Liked

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