Brian De Palma

Brian De Palma

Infobox Actor
name = Brian De Palma

imagesize = 200px
birthdate = birth date and age|1940|09|11
location = Newark, New Jersey, U.S.
birthname = Brian Russell DePalma
yearsactive = 1960-present
spouse = Nancy Allen (1979-1983)
Darnell Gregorio-De Palma (1995-1997)
awards = Best Director Silver Bear
1969 "Greetings"
Best Director Silver Lion
2007 "Redacted"

Brian De Palma (born Brian Russell DePalma on September 11 1940 in Newark, New Jersey) is an American film director. In a career spanning over forty years, he is probably best known for his suspense and thriller films, including such box office successes as "Carrie", "Dressed to Kill", "Scarface", "The Untouchables", and "".

De Palma is often cited as a leading member of the New Hollywood generation of film directors, a distinct pedigree who either emerged from film schools or are overtly cine-literate. His contemporaries include Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, John Milius, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, and Steven Spielberg.

De Palma's artistry in directing and use of cinematography and suspense in several of his films is often compared to the work of Alfred Hitchcock. [cite web|url=,0,6512079.story|title=The Director's Craft: The death-deifying De Palma|accessdate=2007-12-26|first=Peter|last=Rainier|publisher=Los Angeles Times Calendar]

Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, De Palma worked repeatedly with actors Jennifer Salt, Amy Irving, Nancy Allen (his wife from 1979 to 1983), William Finley, Charles Durning, Gerrit Graham, cinematographers Stephen H. Burum and Vilmos Zsigmond (see List of noted film director and cinematographer collaborations), set designer Jack Fisk, and composers Bernard Herrmann and Pino Donaggio. De Palma is credited with fostering the careers of or outright discovering Robert De Niro, Jill Clayburgh, John C. Reilly, John Leguizamo, and Margot Kidder.

De Palma has encouraged and fostered the filmmaking careers of directors such as Mark Romanek and Keith Gordon. Terrence Malick credits seeing De Palma's early films on college campus tours as a validation of independent film, and subsequently switched his attention from philosophy to filmmaking.He was with Amy Irving for many years but rumors that they were engaged are untrue.

Early life

De Palma, whose background is Italian Roman Catholic, was raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire in various Protestant and Quaker schools. He won a regional science-fair prize for a project titled "An Analog Computer to Solve Differential Equations."

1960s - The American Godard

Enrolled at Columbia as a physics student, De Palma became enraptured with the filmmaking process after viewing "Citizen Kane" and "Vertigo". De Palma subsequently enrolled at the newly coed Sarah Lawrence College as a graduate student in their theater department in the late 1960s, becoming one of the first male students among a female population. Once there, influences as various as drama teacher Wilford Leach, the Maysles brothers, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard, Andy Warhol and Alfred Hitchcock impressed upon De Palma the many styles and themes that would shape his own cinema in the coming decades. An early association with discovery Robert De Niro resulted in "The Wedding Party", codirected with Leach and producer Cynthia Munroe. The film was shot in 1963 but remained unreleased until 1969, when De Palma's star had risen sufficiently within the Greenwich Village filmmaking scene, though De Niro's remained low enough for the credits to display his name as "Robert Denero". The film is noteworthy for its invocation of silent film techniques and an insistence on the jump-cut for effect. Various small films for the NAACP and The Treasury Department followed.

During this decade, De Palma began making a living producing documentary films, notably "The Responsive Eye" (1966) about The Responsive Eye op-art exhibit curated by William Seitz for MOMA in 1965. In an interview with Gelmis from 1969, De Palma described the film as "very good and very successful. It's distributed by Pathe Contemporary and makes lots of money. I shot it in four hours, with synched sound. I had two other guys shooting people's reactions to the paintings, and the paintings themselves." [ cite book |last= Gelmis |first= Joseph |authorlink= |title= The Film Director as Superstar |year= 1970 |publisher= Doubleday & Company, Inc. |location= Garden City | pages =24|]

"Dionysus in '69" (1969) was De Palma's other major documentary from this period. The film records The Performance Group's performance of Euripdes’ “The Bacchae”, starring, amongst others, De Palma regular William Finley. The play is noted for breaking traditional barriers between performers and audience. The film's most striking quality is its extensive use of the split-screen. De Palma recalls that he was “floored” by this performance upon first sight, and in 1973 recounts how he "began to try and figure out a way to capture it on film. I came up with the idea of split-screen, to be able to show the actual audience involvement, to trace the life of the audience and that of the play as they merge in and out of each other." [cite book|last= Knapp | first= Lawrence |title= Brian De Palma Interviews |year= 2003 |publisher= University Press of Mississippi | location= Jackson|pages= 26]

De Palma's most significant features from this decade are "Greetings" (1968) and "Hi, Mom!" (1970). Both films star Robert De Niro and espouse a Leftist revolutionary viewpoint common to their era. His other major film from this period is the slasher comedy "Murder a la Mod". Each of these films contains experiments in narrative and intertextuality, reflecting De Palma's stated intention to become the "American Godard" while interrogating several of the themes which permeated Hitchcock's work.

"Greetings" is about three New Yorkers dealing with draft. The film is often considered the first to deal explicitly with the draft. The film is noteworthy for its use of various experimental techniques to convey its narrative in ultimately unconventional ways. Footage will be sped up, rapid cutting will distance the audience from the narrative, and it is difficult to discern with whom the audience must ultimately align. "Greetings" ultimately grossed over $1 million at the box office and cemented De Palma's position as a bankable filmmaker.

After the success of his 1968 breakthrough, De Palma and his producing partner (Charles Hirsch) were given the opportunity by Sigma 3 to make an unofficial sequel of sorts, initially entitled "Son of Greetings", and subsequently released as "Hi, Mom!." While "Greetings" accentuated its varied cast, "Hi, Mom" focuses on De Niro's character, Jon Rubin, an essential carry-over from the previous film. The film is ultimately significant insofar as it displays the first enunciation of De Palma's style in all its major traits – voyeurism, guilt, and a hyper-consciousness of the medium are all on full display, not just as hallmarks, but built into this formal, material apparatus itself.

These traits come to the fore in "Hi, Mom!"'s "Be Black, Baby" sequence. This sequence parodies cinéma vérité, the dominant documentary tradition of the 1960s, while simultaneously providing the audience with a visceral and disturbingly emotional experience. De Palma describes the sequence as a constant invocation of Brechtian distanciation: “First of all, I am interested in the medium of film itself, and I am constantly standing outside and making people aware that they are always watching a film. At the same time I am evolving it. In 'Hi Mom!" for instance, there is a sequence where you are obviously watching a ridiculous documentary and you are told that and you are aware of it, but it still sucks you in. There is a kind of Brechtian alienation idea here: you are aware of what you are watching at the same time that you are emotionally involved with it.”

"Be Black, Baby" was filmed in black and white stock on 16 mm, in low-light conditions that stress the crudity of the direct cinema aesthetic. It is precisely from this crudity that the film itself gains a credibility of “realism.” In an interview with Michael Bliss, De Palma notes “ [Be Black, Baby] was rehearsed for almost three weeks... In fact, it's all scripted. But once the thing starts, they just go with the way it's going. I specifically got a very good documentary camera filmmaker (Robert Elfstrom) to just shoot it like a documentary to follow the action.” Furthermore, “I wanted to show in Hi Mom how you can really involve an audience. You take an absurd premise – “Be Black, Baby” – and totally involve them and really frighten them at the same time. It's very Brechtian. You suck ‘em in and annihilate ‘em. Then you say, “It's just a movie, right? It's not real.” It's just like television. You’re sucked in all the time, and you’re being lied to in a very documentary-like setting. The “Be Black, Baby” section of HI Mom is probably the most important piece of film I’ve ever done.”

The Transition to Hollywood

In 1976, after several small, studio and independent released films that included stand-outs "Sisters" and "Obsession", a small film based on a novel called "Carrie" was released directed by Brian De Palma. The psychic thriller "Carrie" is seen by some as De Palma's bid for a blockbuster. In fact, the project was small, underfunded by United Artists, and well under the cultural radar during the early months of production, as Stephen King's source novel had yet to climb the bestseller list. De Palma gravitated toward the project and changed crucial plot elements based upon his own predilections, not the saleability of the novel. The cast was young and relatively new, though stars Sissy Spacek and John Travolta had gained considerable attention for previous work in, respectively, film and episodic sitcoms. "Carrie" became a hit, the first genuine box-office success for De Palma. Preproduction for the film had coincided with the casting process for George Lucas's "", and many of the actors cast in De Palma's film had been earmarked as contenders for Lucas's, and vice-versa. The "shock ending" finale is effective even while it upholds horror-film convention, its suspense sequences are buttressed by teen comedy tropes, and its use of split-screen, split-diopter and slow motion shots tell the story visually rather than through dialogue.

The financial and critical success of "Carrie" allowed De Palma to pursue more personal material. "The Demolished Man" was a novel that had fascinated De Palma since the late 1950s and appealed to his background in mathematics and avant-garde storytelling. Its unconventional unfolding of plot (exemplified in its mathematical layout of dialogue) and its stress on perception have analogs in De Palma's filmmaking. He sought to adapt it on numerous occasions, though the project would carry a substantial price tag, and has yet to appear onscreen (Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's "Minority Report" bears striking similarities to De Palma's visual style and some of the themes of "The Demolished Man"). The result of his experience with adapting "The Demolished Man" was "The Fury", a sci-fi psychic thriller that starred Kirk Douglas, Carrie Snodgress, John Cassavetes and Amy Irving. The film was admired by Jean-Luc Godard, who featured a clip in his mammoth Histoire(s) du cinéma and Pauline Kael, who championed both "The Fury" and De Palma. The film boasted a larger budget than "Carrie", though the consensus view at the time was that De Palma was repeating himself, with diminishing returns. As a film it retains De Palma's considerable visual flair, but points more toward his work in mainstream entertainments such as "The Untouchables" and "", the thematic complex thrillers for which he is better known.For many film-goers, De Palma's gangster films, most notably "Scarface" and "Carlito's Way", pushed the envelope of violence and depravity, and yet greatly vary from each other in both style and content and also illustrate De Palma's evolution as a film-maker. In essence, "Scarface"'s excesses contrast with the more emotional tragedy of "Carlito's Way". Both films feature Al Pacino in what has become a fruitful working relationship.



De Palma's films can fall into two categories, his psychological thrillers ("Sisters", "Obsession", "Dressed to Kill", "Blow Out", "Raising Cain") and his other commercial films ("Scarface", "The Untouchables", "Carlito's Way", and "Mission: Impossible"). He has often produced "De Palma" films one after the other before going on to direct a different genre, but would always return to his familiar territory. Because of their subject matter and graphic violence De Palma's films ("Dressed to Kill", "Scarface", "Body Double",) are often at the center of controversy with the Motion Picture Association of America, critics and the viewing public.

Critics have often pointed to Alfred Hitchcock as an influence that De Palma has used in his films. Elements from "Psycho" can be seen in "Sisters", "Dressed to Kill" and "Raising Cain". The main plot from "Rear Window" was used for "Body Double" while "Vertigo" was used as the basis for "Obsession". De Palma has been accused of borrowing other director's work during his career. Michelangelo Antonioni's "Blowup" and Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation" plots were used for the basis of "Blow Out". "The Untouchables"' finale shoot out in the train station was heavily influenced by the Odessa Steps sequence in Sergei Eisenstein's "The Battleship Potemkin".

Cast and crew

De Palma has collaborated with the same actor or crew member throughout his career. Robert De Niro starred in "The Wedding Party", "Greetings", "Hi, Mom!", and "The Untouchables". Nancy Allen had acting roles in "Carrie", "Home Movies", "Dressed to Kill" and "Blow Out". Other actors that De Palma has worked with on occasions include Jennifer Salt ("The Wedding Party", "Hi, Mom!", and "Sisters"), Charles Durning ("Hi, Mom!", "Sisters", and "The Fury"), Al Pacino ("Scarface" and "Carlito's Way"), John Lithgow ("Obsession", "Blow Out" and "Raising Cain"), Sean Penn ("Casualties of War" and "Carlito's Way"), Amy Irving ("Carrie", "The Fury"), and John Travolta ("Carrie", "Blow Out").

De Palma has used the same screenwriter, cinematographer, editor and composers throughout his films. Screenwriter David Koepp has worked with him on "Carlito's Way", "Mission: Impossible", and "Snake Eyes". His choice of cinematographers has included Vilmos Zsigmond ("Obsession", "Blow Out", "The Bonfire of the Vanities", "The Black Dahlia") and Stephen H. Burum ("Body Double", "Raising Cain", "The Untouchables", "Casualties of War", "Raising Cain", "Carlito's Way", "Snake Eyes", "Mission to Mars"). Composers that De Palma has worked with included Pino Donaggio ("Carrie", "Home Movies", "Dressed to Kill", "Blow Out", "Body Double", "Raising Cain") and Ennio Morricone ("The Untouchables", "Casualties of War", "Mission to Mars" and "Carpone Rising"). Editors of De Palma's choice have included Bill Pankow ("Body Double", "The Untouchables", "Casualties of War", "The Bonfire of the Vanities", "Carlito's Way", "Snake Eyes", "The Black Dahlia", "Redacted") and Paul Hirsch ("Phantom of the Paradise", "Carrie", "Raising Cain", "Mission to Mars").

Camera shots

Film critics have often pointed out De Palma's trend for camera tricks, good and bad, throughout his career. He often frames characters against the background using a canted angle shot. Split-screen techniques have been used to show two separate events happening simultaneously. To emphasize the dramatic impact of a certain scene De Palma has employed a 360-degree camera pan. Slow sweeping, panning and tracking shots are often used throughout his films. Split focus shots are used to emphasize the foreground person/object before focusing on the background person/object.


Feature films

*"The Wedding Party" (1969)
*"Murder a la Mod" (1968)
*"Greetings" (1968)
*"Hi, Mom!" (1970)
*"Get to Know Your Rabbit" (1972)
*"Sisters" (1973)
*"Phantom of the Paradise" (1974)
*"Obsession" (1975)
*"Carrie" (1976)
*"The Fury" (1978)
*"Home Movies" (1979)
*"Dressed to Kill" (1980)
*"Blow Out" (1981)
*"Scarface" (1983)
*"Body Double" (1984)
*"Wise Guys" (1985)
*"The Untouchables" (1987)
*"Casualties of War" (1989)
*"The Bonfire of the Vanities" (1990)
*"Raising Cain" (1992)
*"Carlito's Way" (1993)
*"" (1996)
*"Snake Eyes" (1998)
*"Mission to Mars" (2000)
*"Femme Fatale" (2002)
*"The Black Dahlia" (2006)
*"Redacted" (2007)
*"Capone Rising" (2008)
*"The Blue Afternoon" (TBA)
*"Toyer" (TBA)

hort films

*"Icarus" (1960)
*"" (1961)
*"Woton's Wake" (1962)
*"Jennifer" (1964)
*"Bridge That Gap" (1965)
*"Show Me a Strong Town and I'll Show You a Strong Bank" (1966)

Documentary films

*"The Responsive Eye" (1966)
*"Dionysus in '69" (1969)



* [ Brian De Palma bibliography] (via UC Berkeley)

External links

* [ Senses of Cinema: Great Directors Critical Database]
* [ Photos and discussion around the director]

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