Botelho on De Palma: My Favorite Set Pieces

*Editor’s noteOur good bud, Derek Botelho (author of the GREAT book, The Argento Syndrome) is a big De Palma fan and really, aren’t we all? The guy has such a great filmography and Botelho thought he’d provide you fright fanatics with some of his favorite De Palma moments! –Jerry

de_palmaWith the recent release of the documentary De Palma by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, I got to thinking about why I admire De Palma’s work as much as I do. His technique is so singular and instantly recognizable, that to merely pass him off as a tin pot Hitchcock is doing both himself and Hitchcock a severe disservice. Whether it’s a ridiculously intricate spit screen, a rear projected psychic “flashback”, or a glorious whirling dervish around a room to tell you vital information, he’s always up to something, and never one to give you the easy way out (or in). Granted, I haven’t seen the documentary yet, but the idea of watching De Palma talk about his career for two hours seems thrilling to a student/fan of cinema, and even if you’re not a massive admirer, there must be something there to entertain or enlighten nearly everyone. Admirer or detractor, he’s got a talent that can’t be denied, and there’s probably at least one of his movies you love, Carrie, perhaps, and a few more you’d forgotten he’d made, Dressed to Kill, Mission Impossible, Scarface, or The Untouchables, that you’re up to watching right this very minute. I’m usually not one for lists, but here are a few of my favorite set pieces from Brian De Palma’s incredible body of work.






SISTERS (1973) Not only does this boast the film debut of Olympia Dukakis (look for her in the bakery), but it features a split screen sequence surrounding a murder that is so jaw dropping, I don’t know that he’s done it better, and he’s done them a lot! Our poor victim is trying to signal to someone in the building across the way, while our killer is dealing with not being caught, and on top of it, the killer’s doctor is on the way over to see his patient. It’s hard to explain, but amazing to watch. If you haven’t seen this one, as of now it’s streaming on Hulu as part of the Criterion Collection.



 FEMME FATALE (2002) This one has a title that puts you in mind of a film noir, and references Double Indemnity pretty early on, but try and put your preconceived notions away, because you’ve got no idea where this one is going, at least I hope not. My nomination for the film’s best sequence is the opening which takes place at the Cannes Film Festival and involves a jewel heist in the woman’s bathroom. And it’s strangely sexy as hell. All on its own, this could be a great short film, and it’s only the beginning of something so nuts, that I can’t help but love it. It’s surprisingly low on the meter of most people’s lists in terms of DePalma’s output, but I’ve always found it nothing short of mesmerizing. To tie this entry, the opening of Mission Impossible is maybe as good.



BLOW OUT (1981) The whole movie. For some reason, this may be my favorite film DePalma has made (yet). Yes, I love Carrie, and I’ve probably watched it more than any other in his canon, but Blow Out is so insanely well crafted, from the opening sequence during the shooting of a horror movie, to the final ironic sting that I can’t seem to pick out a single thing to highlight. Nancy Allen is charming as ever, and Travolta really earns his paycheck. He was already a huge star, but somehow he became another kind of actor, and a better one, with this role. I’d love to see/hear him talk about the movie sometime.


I’d like to take a moment to discuss the critics, both amateur and professional who seem to see DePalma as nothing but a Hitchcock imitator. I’ve seen several people on IMDb specifically moaning about DePalma and his free use of Hitchcock, as if he’s trying to pull something over on the audience, but DePalma is very aware of his use of Hitchcock’s story elements and ideas. As he’s stated and I would agree and argue for, is that he’s only trying to expand upon what Hitchcock laid down visually in his films and use these themes and visual ideas in a different way. For me, it works, and it’s always worked, and I’m not alone. In an interview with Bret Easton Ellis, Quentin Tarantino stated “I’m not the biggest Hitchcock fan and I actually don’t like Vertigo and his 1950s movies—they have the stink of the 50s which is similar to the stink of the 80s. People discover North by Northwest at 22 and think it’s wonderful when actually it’s a very mediocre movie. I’ve always felt that Hitchcock’s acolytes took his cinematic and story ideas further. I love Brian De Palma’s Hitchcock movies.” I’ll just leave that right there and walk away into the sunset, with a Pino Donaggio song in the background of course.


Post Script:

As the author of a book on the films of Dario Argento, The Argento Syndrome, I can’t pass up the opportunity to comment on DePalma’s Raising Cain (1992) and the end of the film where John Lithgow has a moment reminiscent of a scene at the end of Argento’s Tenebrae (1982). I won’t spoil what the shot is for those who haven’t seen either film, but I find it interesting that DePalma had for years apparently denied any connection between the two, and then finally broke down and admitted his “plagiarism” only to boast that he had “done it better”. I’ll leave that judgment to the public, but will state that I have absolutely no problem with one artist borrowing from another. The simple fact is that people influence each other all the time, in every way, whether consciously or not, and there’s no reason to get offended by such a move. To me, it merely shows that one is paying attention to other artists and is engaged in a cultural conversation that is taking place in one’s chosen medium. So, to that, I say enjoy the films! And please, send your comments! Thank you for reading.

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