Brian De Palma has been making films for over fifty years; he discovered Robert De Niro in The Wedding Party (1969, shot in 1963) and John Travolta in Carrie (1976). His style is heavily influenced by Alfred Hitchcock, but this makes his own films no less original with one stunning set-piece after another.
- Mission: Impossible (1996)
The first Mission: Impossible film from 1996 is a wonder of spectacle with Tom Cruise as IMF agent Ethan Hunt. De Palma’s action set-pieces rival the very best of Hong Kong cinema. Each set-piece is given such care and precision; aquariums exploding in a restaurant, Cruise hovering through a secret vault on a rope and a climatic fight on the roof of a train. As Nicole Brenez notes; Hunt never kisses a woman in this film, he’s a Jimmy Stewart type for modern times with his heart on his sleeve (think of Stewart’s westerns); he is precise and keen to get the job done.
- Blow Out (1981)
Blow Out is De Palma’s homage to Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966). It’s centred on B-film sound recordist Jack Terry (John Travolta) who is trying to solve the puzzle of a murder with a sound he recorded during working hours at night. The murder victim is a senator; a political agenda hovers over the film. De Palma has the most fun using 360 camera turns as Travolta pieces the puzzle together. Nancy Allen’s character of Sally is a weak point for the film but De Palma makes up for it with his mastery of suspense. Pino Donaggio’s score is haunting and bittersweet.
- Dressed to Kill (1980)
Dressed to Kill is De Palma’s homage to Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Maybe the finest De Palma moment occurs in a lift when a murder has been committed; De Palma slows down time so that every gesture is given the greatest precision, care and unreality that is the cinema. And that whirling sound design is hypnotic on its own.
- Carrie (1976)
Carrie (1976) was De Palma’s first Hollywood film. It was based on Stephen King’s first novel of the same name from 1974. De Palma uses the precision of time in the prom sequence when a character discovers a bucket of blood above the stage. De Palma focuses on faces, hands and the mouth of the culprit in devious delight over the prospect of humiliating Carrie.
- Scarface (1983)
As Mark Cousins pointed out, De Palma’s use of large tacky sets to make Cuban drug lord Tony Montana (Al Pacino) look small serve their purpose in Scarface. Giorgio Moroder’s score hypes up the tempo of 1980s Miami. With a script from Oliver Stone, Montana’s rise to the top of drug distribution has its shortcomings. The close-ups of Pacino’s raging eyes are mesmerising.
- Sisters (1973)
Sisters is a complex psychological thriller with harrowing performances from Jennifer Salt, Margot Kidder and William Finley. De Palma tests the virtues of split screen in Sisters; he would later use this in Snake Eyes (1998). The unusual point of view shots are unforgettable, conveying anxiety and distress. Bernard Herrmann’s score adds another layer of intensity. Its ending has mystified audiences for over forty years.
- Body Double (1984)
De Palma’s 80s Hollywood fable of betrayal features Relax by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. The song appears in a sequence which is a music video in itself. It is the favourite film of American Psycho protagonist Patrick Bateman. De Palma takes great pride in the shopping mall sequence which is amongst the longest of his set-pieces lasting around ten minutes. The censors objected to a scene involving a murder with a drill which goes through the floor above the lead character Jake Sully (Jack Wasson) as he is attacked by a dog. De Palma’s reason was simple ‘the drill was so large so that the protagonist could see the drill go through the floor’.
- Carlito’s Way (1993)
Carilto’s Way is a favourite of many De Palma fans; it features Al Pacino as a drug dealer attempting to go straight after five years in prison. De Palma recalls seeing it with an audience at the Berlin Film Festival and thinking it’s the best film he could ever make. The finale sequence at Grand Central Station in New York is a stunning piece of cinema as De Palma uses real time to watch Carlito as he flees a gang of mobsters. The sequence has almost a western feel to it.
9. Raising Cain (1992)
After the disaster of 1990’s The Bonfire of the Vanities and De Palma’s disappointment with the reaction of Casualties of War (1989), De Palma went all out with Raising Cain starring arguably De Palma’s favourite actor John Lithgow. It’s a psychological-thriller which is essentially a black comedy. It features a classic De Palma dream sequence and a startling final shot which De Palma would use as inspiration for his latest film Passion (2012).
- Femme Fatale (2002)
Many of the most devoted De Palma fans, including Adrian Martin have argued that this is De Palma’s best film. After the disaster of Mission to Mars (2000) De Palma vowed never to work in Hollywood again. Femme Fatale was shot entirely in France, using many Paris locations. It opens with a jewel heist at, where else? The Cannes Film Festival! Rebecca Romijn and Antonio Banderas star in De Palma’s essential mystery thriller featuring a finale that only De Palma’s brilliant, outrageous and sardonic mind could put to the screen.