Brian De Palma may be popular among cineliterate enthusiasts but he’s never had the same popularity elsewhere. When you list his movies, it’s easy to imagine audiences being taken aback by the sheer quantity of classics he has under his belt.
Carrie, Scarface and Mission Impossible are difficult to group together, spanning vividly different genres, and yet they fall under the impressive banner of Brian De Palma. De Palma, jointly directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, is primarily an interview, but it fills the screen with footage from each of his movies (and the classics that inspired them) and weaves this chronological canon together effortlessly.
Discussing each and every film in his eclectic filmography, De Palma is affably honest. He’s outspoken in his relationships with cast and crew – and he’s worked with the best. His direction of “Bobby” De Niro in Greetings, The Wedding Party and Hi, Mom! illuminates a side to the actor in an era beforeTaxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle. De Palma was also part of a directors gang that redefined cinema in the 1970’s. Between Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Brian De Palma, cinema became the blockbuster monster that it is today. De Palma has no Star Wars or The Godfather in his catalogue and, in the 1970’s, he had to contend with box-office bombs and failures that, though shrugged off now with a chuckle, must’ve been heartbreaking at the time.
He begins with, and returns regularly to, Vertigo and Hitchcock. This particular film weighs heavy on his mind as it encapsulates his obsession and love of filmmaking. Equally, he acknowledges the impact of Godard and Truffaut in an early film, Greetings. Conversations in coffee shops and doe-eyed girls looking to camera, and undressing, ooze the charm of those established auteurs.
Between his “Holy Mackerel!” exclamations and appreciation of “pretty girls”, this is still an informative documentary that only elicits enormous respect for this influential man. You’ll be taking notes, and making damn sure that certain films you’ve missed are stuck firmly on the to-watch list (Dressed to Kill and Casualties of War are at the top of mine). As a review, I’m wary about giving away the revealing anecdotes and tales from behind the camera that De Palma sniggers about when recalling. How Robert De Niro and Orson Welles, iconic figures and exceptional actors, failed to live up to De Palma’s reasonable expectations. In another instance, when casting The Untouchables, De Palma had to call his mates (Spielberg included) to confirm whether his leading man is a strong choice. There’s also a surprising reason as to why the infamous final shootout in Scarface, with Spielberg assisting behind a camera, continued for as long as it did.
What remains so fascinating about Brian De Palma is the crucial era he emerged within – and remained a part of. While Bernard Herrman, composer for Citizen Kane and Psycho, worked with De Palma in his final years, the same director was chosen by Tom Cruise for his first Wagner/Cruise production (and forged the immensely successful beginning of the Mission: Impossible series). Few filmmakers can talk so candidly about their work and it is deeply refreshing. This all-encompassing, charming documentary is a must-see interview for film fans – I only hope Baumbach and Paltrow has Woody Allen and Steven Spielberg lined up for the future.
This review was originally written for Flickering Myth in September 2016