SINCE the early seventies director Brian De Palma has crafted many intense and highly cerebral thrillers.
Alas, such efforts are often dismissed by critics as being overly imitative of Alfred Hitchcock’s films and style rather than praised for their own finely-developed sense of inter-textuality and intellectual gamesmanship.
In short, De Palma is much more than either “The New Hitchcock” or — as he is sometimes known — “The American Godard.” Instead, this uber-formalist is a deeply film-literate director who mines the visual canon of established masters (including Kubrick, Eisenstein and Antonioni) and co-opts their most famous imagery for new, and often highly imaginative purposes.
Although the artist is often tagged for perceived misogyny in his violent thrillers, De Palma’s best thrillers merge social commentary (often encoded in the visuals) and a critique of the medium of film itself, a technological art form which, in De Palma’s lexicon “lies” 24 frames-a-second.
What many critics detect as “voyeurism” is actually an exploration, instead, of the way that film allows us to see, experience, and interpret a narrative, or perhaps competing narratives.
In De Palma’s work, seeing and “knowing” are often two vastly different things, and sight and knowledge are frequently confused by the protagonists. We see this duality explored in many acknowledged and well-received De Palma thrillers, including Dressed to Kill (1980) and Blow Out (1981), but also in the films that have not been as warmly welcomed.
With that description in mind, here my five selections for the most underrated De Palma thrillers.
This visceral low-budget thriller is too often described as a knock-off of Psycho (1960) and Rear Window (1954), or as a run-up to one of De Palma’s acknowledged classics: Carrie (1976). But in fact, Sisters remains a perfect embodiment of Godard’s aesthetic that ‘it’s not where you take things from, it’s where you take them to.”
In Sisters, a model named Danielle (Margo Kidder) is a guest star on the TV program Peeping Tom, and goes out on a date with the winning contestant, Phillip Wood. Very soon, however, things turn ugly as Phillip is murdered in Danielle’s apartment after he hears his date talking to her (off-screen) sister, Dominique.
An investigative reporter, Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt) observes Phillip’s violent murder from her apartment window across the street, but can’t get the police to believe her story. When she investigates further, Grace learns the bizarre story of two conjoined twins…
Sisters commences with two familiar ideas that we recognize from Hitchcock’s oeuvre, namely schizophrenia and the voyeuristic impulse. But where Hitchcock takes great pains to restore “sanity” and order at the end of Psycho, Sisters determinedly eschews such closure, and instead ends with the protagonist, Grace, confused and even amnesiac about the film’s important events. The “safe” world is not re-established for Grace, or for the audience. The film’s terror, in essence, lingers beyond the closing credits because the world is not set right again. In the early 1970s, the Era of Vietnam and the Watergate Scandal, Sisters thus mirrored the anxieties of the time.
Furthermore De Palma utilizes split-screen visualizations in Sisters not only to suggest the doubling of Danielle’s mind (the schizophrenia, in essence) but the two-fold nature of sight. Grace can spy a murder from her apartment, and the believed perpetrator of the crime, but she can’t actually know what is happening in the murderer’s mind, and who that murderer thinks she is. In Sisters, therefore, “sight” fails to equal “reality.”
De Palma’s latest thriller, Passion was met with savage reviews last year, largely by critics who refused to engage with the material, or meet the film even half way. Many such critics seem to be out of practice interpreting visuals, or “reading” the film grammar of an accomplished master such as De Palma.
In Passion, an employee at Koch Image International, Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) is betrayed by her boss, Christine (Rachel McAdams) when she blatantly steals her work for an advertising commercial. Convinced that this is how the game is played, Isabelle strikes back against her former mentor, and gets the promotion that Christine coveted.
When Christine is brutally murdered by a masked killer, Isabelle is the prime suspect, but she also has an ironclad alibi: her attendance at the ballet, at Afternoon of a Fawn, at the time of the murder.
Set in the age of sex tapes, iPhone cameras, web-cams, and YouTube, Passion is a thriller concerning careers, relationships — and blackmail — in the age of the “Send” or “Upload” button.
In this world, reputations are made and broken with the push of a button, or the first playback of a “viral video.” The undercurrent of this Web 2.0 Era is, surely, narcissism, and our idea to “see” ourselves in both a positive and public light.
This idea plays out in Christine’s character, who reveals that after the death of her twin (see: Sisters), Clarissa, all she wanted to do was “see herself.” Her behavior towards Isabelle, in some sense, is about remaking her twin — and that image of herself — she so desperately desires to see reflected.
Isabelle learns Christine’s lessons too well, perhaps, and the diabolical game between these two women is played out in Passion on monitor screens, on surveillance screens, on phone screens, and so forth…all to remind us of just how easy it is to rise and fall, live and die, in the public eye.
But again, all is not as it seems, and even with portable technology in hand, sight and knowledge are never the same thing.
Raising Cain (1992)
Not content to deal with two personalities in one body, De Palma’s Raising Cain explores the idea of a man saddled with multiple personalities. The film tells the story of mild-mannered Carter Nix (John Lithgow), the son of a famous psychologist who has given up his own career in the same field to be a stay- at-home Dad.
But Carter suffers from “dis-associative identity disorder” and frequently changes from one personality to another, depending on his circumstances. One such identity is Cain, a disreputable fellow who does Carter’s dirty work. Another is Margo, the protective “older sister.”
The film revolves around Carter’s responses when his wife, Jenny (Lolita Davidovitch) has an illicit affair with another man (Steven Bauer), and a dark figure from Carter’s past abducts Amy, his beloved daughter.
A caustic satire as well as a thriller, Raising Cain concerns the 1990s crisis in masculinity in America. Suddenly we had a First Lady intent on using her maiden name (Hillary Rodham Clinton), new rules about sexual harassment in the workplace, and terms such as “Mr. Mom” had entered the pop culture. Political correctness was a “buzz” term of the age, and it precluded, some white men believed, their privilege to be offensive boors.
But more to the point, if a man was no longer to be the hunter-gatherer and provider of the family unit, what was he to be instead?
Raising Cain offers some amusing answers to that quest. It is the story of a milquetoast man who must decide between being the violent cave-man (Cain) or the evolved nurturer (Margo). But ironically, to become that nurturer, Carter must forsake his very male identity. And that is Carter’s final destination. His act of self-improvement and self-actualization involves taking on a female persona, a comment, essentially, about the “feminization” of the culture.
Raising Cain can also be interpreted in terms of De Palma’s obsession with appearance of reality and reality itself. Carter “becomes” several different characters (including the timid Josh, a fearful child), and therefore we cannot know, in every single instant, who he really “is,” or what impulses drive him. This idea is reflected in a virtuoso scene set at a busy police station. The scene is filmed by De Palma in one elaborate tracking shot of roughly five minutes duration. A psychologist explains Nix’s troubled family history as the shot progresses, and the details of this “case” (and of Carter”) seem labyrinthine, impenetrable, never ending.
Femme Fatale (2002)
This 2002 film is another one that has frequently been misinterpreted. The film concerns a woman, Laure (Rebecca Romjin), who, in the first act, engages in a daring jewel heist. Later, she seems to manipulate the men around her, including a photographer (Antonia Banderas) and an ambassador (Peter Coyote).
Yet once more, this Brian De Palma film is all about sight, which is why the director provides the audiences multiple views of certain scenes (providing different perspectives of them), and why he brazenly offers a third act re-boot of the story, essentially providing a new way to interpret Laure’s character.
And finally, De Palma’s obsession with sight is even the reason why we end up seeing a Parisian avenue in two competing ways, both in reality and as a work of art. Laure herself is either a “femme fatale” (a deadly or dangerous siren) or a victim rather than the victimizer. Again and again, the film demands that the audience explore the riddle of Laure, and view her from more than one angle.
How we ultimately view femme fatale Laure (and how others view her) is crucial to an understanding of this film, and De Palma makes certain that our glimpses of this woman’s nature, are — to put it mildly — diverse (not to mention ambiguous). In one instance, we view Laure from behind the opaque glass of a bathroom stall, where she makes love to a “mark” during a caper. In another, we watch Laure in long shot, conducting secret business, via the distancing eye of a camera’s telephoto lens.
When we first view Laure, in fact, it is her reflection (her opposite…) we see displayed on a television set; one not coincidentally broadcasting the classic film noir Double Indemnity. At other times, we see Laure through the water of a fish tank, and this view is, like the truth itself, “murky.
In many of these cases, De Palm simultaneously reveals Laure and hides Laure. In the bathroom stall love scene (in which a sexually androgynous Laure seduces a gorgeous female model), for instance, we almost don’t get to the scene’s most important narrative question: what is glass and what is diamond?
Like a masterful magician, De Palma misdirects our attention throughout the film.
The Fury (1978)
After Carrie, De Palma made another film about people with psychic powers, and one that has never emerged fully from Carrie’s shadow.
In The Fury, Robin Sandza (Andrew Stevens) is tricked into believing that his father, a government agent, Peter (Kirk Douglas) has been killed in a terrorist attack. Now in the care of Peter’s ruthless partner, Childress (John Cassavetes), Robin is trained to be a psychic assassin, his powers held in check by Dr. Susan Charles (Fiona Lewis), his lover. Meanwhile, Peter seeks the help of another powerful psychic, Gillian (Amy Irving) to find his misguided son, but the quest ends in tragedy.
Once more, a De Palma film involves reflections, mirrors or “doubles.” In this case, Gillian and Robin are both innocents who are drawn into a battle not their own. Angry, resentful and alone, Robin becomes a murderer, one whose very attention can kill. He uses his second sight to pay back those whom he perceives has wronged him.
By contrast, Gillian is driven by empathy, and her desire to both help Peter and understand Robin, a kindred spirit and someone like her so far as her psychic abilities.
In the end, however, Gillian, like Peter before her, loses her innocence and strikes out with extreme violence against her enemy, Childress. The idea, in the age of Vietnam and Watergate, again, seems to be that there are no real good guys anymore, at least not for long.
Instead, disillusionment and resentment are all that the young generation of the day can look forward to. Such emotions corrupt even the best of them, like Gillian. The film’s last scene, a wicked and gory joke suggests that when the young generation awakens — as Gillian’s psychic powers do — the Establishment will have much to worry about indeed.