Brian De Palma and Steven Spielberg were for many years at the top of my list of favorite filmmakers. The two directors (said to be the best of friends) appealed to different facets of my adolescent self. Spielberg’s early thrill rides and sci-fi adventures, fun for the family, made you want to be a kid forever, and will always have that appeal. While De Palma’s movies, awash in blood, steeped in sex…well, like I said, different facets. They were almost like good and bad brothers, and I always looked forward to hanging out with them.
An anecdote. Expecting the usual kind of psycho thriller my mother and aunt took my 15-year-old self to see Dressed to Kill (1980). After about a minute, with Angie Dickinson’s luxuriant self-help routine in the shower, it was clear this was not going to be the usual kind of psycho thriller, and being a sensitive lad I was scarlet with embarrassment, as my mom and aunt chuckled nervously. There’d be a few more such moments throughout our viewing; when it ended I didn’t know what to say, and almost felt apologetic, as seeing it had been my idea. Nothing to regret–we all enjoyed our walk on the wild side.
What I’ll never forget is all that languid buildup to Angie Dickinson’s elevator murder. It’s tense in its own right, but slow…and with three different audiences (starting with my aunt) I’ve heard the same reaction, out loud, at the same exact moment just before the doors open: “This is getting dull…is something going to happen?” Then, slash, as Pino Donaggio’s great, once-lulling score springs a sonic trap, and you’re in the film’s grip for the next hour. Such extraordinary manipulation, almost clinically so, as befits a thriller from the son of a surgeon. (Next up is the rude, tension-relieving humor introduced by Dennis Franz’s cop character, and the establishment of a warm bond between Keith Gordon and Nancy Allen–but some critics, especially, resent the alleged coldness of De Palma’s Hitchcock-topping gamesmanship.)
This has been a good year for De Palma on Blu-ray. Dressed to Kill came out recently, with a transfer I’d call (ahem) razor-sharp, except that De Palma favored a softer look, which high-def can finally handle properly. UK-based Arrow Films, which does fine work with genre titles, has put out a definitive (and region-free) edition of his reworking of Vertigo, right down to its own (marvelous) Bernard Herrmann score, 1976’s Obsession. Written by Paul Schrader it’s at the end a minor film, and a letdown after the superior Sisters (1973) and the delightful Phantom of the Paradise (1974), another region-free Blu worth seeking out. It probably seemed stronger in its day, when Hitchcock’s film was out of circulation–and the late Cliff Robertson is no James Stewart in the lead, giving a terrible performance that much nimbler work by Genevieve Bujold and De Palma favorite John Lithgow can’t hide. But DP Vilmos Zsigmond’s extraordinarily delicate widescreen imagery shines and there are some nice extras, notably two early short films by De Palma that show a gathering talent. And the well-executed nod to Dial M for Murder points the way to the classic Carrie, released later in 1976, The Fury (1978), and Dressed to Kill.
Joining the summer of 81’s Prince of the City as one of the last “70s movies,” Blow Out is one of De Palma’s top-rank credits, and a Criterion Collection release that coincides with its 30th anniversary gives it its proper due. De Palma, a technophile and cineaste (and the rare director who attends film festivals to watch the work of others and not just stroll the red carpet), pours his devotion to the medium into every frame of Blow Out. His technique (I could watch his tracking shots and split screen effects, filmed by Zsigmond and wedded to another of Donaggio’s insinuating scores, all day) has never been more assured. Or purposeful. A political thriller that takes off from a Chappaquidick-type incident, Blow Out mourns an America gone sour, and as such matches our own troubled zeitgeist.
Everything is askew in the movie. Jack, a talented sound man with a past (John Travolta, in his last noteworthy performance until 1994’s Pulp Fiction) toils far from Hollywood in Philadelphia, in seach of the “perfect scream” for a (cleverly parodied) slasher movie, which one can read as a degradation of cultural values. (De Palma isn’t so condemnatory.) On assignment gathering audio effects (a perfectly choreographed sequence, with so many elements in play) Jack watches a car crash into a river and rescues one of the passengers, Sally (played by De Palma’s then wife, Allen). But Sally is no damsel in distress; rather she was in the car as a setup, to frame the deceased passenger, a prominent politician, with lurid photos. That the frame turned somehow deadly is the center of the mystery, as Jack matches his sound recording to a series of still photos of the “accident,” which reveal a suspiciously blown tire. Its heart is the developing relationship between the anguished couple, which is threatened by an assassin (Lithgow) who is at large in the city, slaying prostitutes like Sally to tie up loose ends in a political conspiracy. It ends despondently, with Jack finding his “perfect scream.”
But the movie, less concerned with existential matters than Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966), has too much pizazz to be entirely downbeat. The movie is energizing to watch, and the gorgeous transfer (1080p AVC, 2.40:1 aspect ratio) and strong soundtrack (English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0) give it the strongest pulse of any De Palma on disc. The supplements, including a one-hour talk with De Palma conducted by fellow director and provocateur Noah Baumbach (Greenberg) and an interview with Allen (unfairly maligned for her poignant portrayal of an initially irritating character), are revealing, and the disc contains one of De Palma’s earliest features, Murder a la Mod, which shows him working in a collage style that still informs his work. The booklet includes Pauline Kael’s review for The New Yorker. “It’s a great movie (and probably the best of all American conspiracy movies),” she raved. I wouldn’t disagree.
It was not, however, a hit. For his next film, Scarface (1983), he largely abandoned his signature style and stock company; the tracking shots and split screens are there, but at the service of a more grandiose vision, which follows the line of the 1932 original then veers into outrageous extremes. With its huge influence on screen violence (John Woo’s Hong Kong mob movies begin where Scarface ends) and hip hop Scarface, somewhere between camp and cult and thoroughly gangsta, needs no introduction here. To think, though, that it was targeted as a Christmas “prestige” picture, where it fell wide of the mark, alienating critics (Kael, a fervent De Palma fan, hated it) and general audiences (put off by the swearing and brutality), only to find more appreciative followers on cable and home video. Include me in–it’s one of those movies I’ve owned in every format, right from the two-tape, full-frame VHS.
What’s the fucking attraction? Not necessarily De Palma; it’s his show, but he’s as much the ringmaster for its compulsively entertaining components, letting them perform for him as well as us. (He’s more in command of the masterly The Untouchables, four years later.) A short list includes: Its voluptuous “Miami” look, anticipating Miami Vice by a year; Giorgio Moroder’s brooding, last call at the disco score; and Oliver Stone’s screenplay, his tangiest outside of his own Salvador (1986). (Criticized for excess, when stacked up against the real-life horrors of the drug trade it seems positively timid; its use as a touchstone in 1991’s New Jack City suggests its impact outside the movies.) Mostly, though, it’s its cast. Sure, Al Pacino, saying to hell with Corleone restraint and running amuck, a warts-and-nothing-else performance that is dubiously iconic. (The discipline returned in De Palma’s underrated Carlito’s Way in 1993.) But really a gallery of wonderful actors chomping into red meat and letting the juice run out all over the screen for three hours–Robert Loggia (outstanding), F. Murray Abraham, Paul Shenar, and, oozing corruption, Harris Yulin (“Every day above ground is a good day.”) Making a scorched earth impression is a hard-as-brass Michelle Pfeiffer, simply breathtaking–and, for all her cynicism, the one character who sees through the false values (“I have Nick, the Pig, for a friend!”) and the one survivor. Maybe De Palma and Stone were afraid to bump her off. (I like to imagine her Elvira, 30 years later, holding forth on a Real Housewives show.)
With this Limited Steelbook Edition of Scarface on my shelf has my search for the perfect version ended? In a way, yes–it collects the supplements from a 20th anniversary DVD (including, on a separate DVD, the Howard Hawks original, still in standard def, which needs to be sprung from its captivity and released on its own) and adds a few more, notably an interesting picture-and-picture feature exploring various facets of the movie and a “ScarfaceScoreboard” totaling the number of “fucks” and bullets (“Can’t you stop saying ‘fuck’ all the time?”). In a way, no–the image quality (1080p/VC-1; 2.35:1 aspect ratio) is inconsistent, with strong daylight passages giving way to weaker nighttime segments and a barrage of edge enhancement and other ills occasionally interfering. It’s serviceable, and a cut above the DVD, if not the quantum leap I expected.
A postscript. De Palma turned 70 on Sept. 11. I interviewed him about Redacted (2007), a collage picture for the web era, for Cineaste magazine. He was clad in his usual safari jacket and, as I figured, wasn’t a smiler or a laugher. He was, however, open about all the water under the bridge in his career, which following Scarface saw great success (The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible) and devastating lows (The Bonfire of the Vanities). Spielberg has two movies coming out at Christmas; surely De Palma has a few shocks to our systems left in him.