Brian De Palma, more than just a Hitchcock wannabe

Brian de Palma

Celebrated, vilified, called auteur, genius, and thief, Brian De Palma was one of the few directors of the late 20th century whose name on the credits could ensure success at the boxoffice. His rise to fame through the use of innovative camera techniques, a penchant for violence, and an undisguised adoration of Alfred Hitchcock led to some of the biggest hits of the 1980s. Yet he began the 1990s with a famed dismal failure and was forced to reevaluate his career before slowly returning to the ranks of top director.

Born in New Jersey in 1940 and raised in Philadelphia, De Palma claims to have come by his interest in blood and guts by watching his surgeon father operate on patients and his penchant for voyeurism a result of following his dad around with recording equipment in an effort to gather evidence of his infidelity. De Palma attended Columbia University as a physics major before he began making his own 16mm films and earning a fellowship to Sarah Lawrence College, where he filmed his first movie, The Wedding Party, in 1964 (unreleased until 1969) with a young unknown named Bobby DeNiro as part of the cast.

The young director gained increasing recognition through a series of small low budget films including Greetings (1968) and Hi Mom! (1970), both of which starred DeNiro, before breaking through with Sisters (1973) and the cult classic The Phantom of the Paradise (1974). His Hitchcock homage Obsession (1976) was a virtual remake of Vertigo (and reportedly did not please the old master) but that same year De Palma struck gold (or pig’s blood) with Carrie, his adaptation of the Stephen King novel.

Brian de Palma

De Palma began to draw criticism and accusations of misogyny with the stylish thrillers Dressed to Kill (1980) and Blow Out (1981) (the latter undoubtedly one of his best films), criticism that continued with the ultra violent Scarface (1983) and the controversial Body Double (1984). His ode to great filmmakers reached a pinnacle of sorts with his recreation of Sergei Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps scene from The Battleship Potemkin inside Chicago’s Union Station in The Untouchables (1987).

The film was a huge hit, propelling Kevin Costner to superstardom and earning Sean Connery a long overdue Oscar. Though his 1987 follow-up Casualties of War, was highly praised, his next film, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), was savaged by critics and audiences alike. Throughout the decade that followed, De Palma would make only a handful of films, but he slowly reestablished his good standing, culminating in one of the biggest moneymakers of the decade, Mission: Impossible (1996).

At one time married to actress Nancy Allen, De Palma’s other credits include Raising Cain (1992), Carlito’s Way (1993), Snake Eyes (1998), Mission to Mars (2000) and Femme Fatal (2002). Recent films have been few and far between, there was the excellent noir thriller The Black Dahlia in 2006, war movie Redacted in 2007 and 2012 thriller Passion.

Despite his share of hits and misses De Palma continues to fascinate.