The Many Quirks and Flourishes of Brian De Palma: Pyrotechnics

I’ve been watching a lot of Brian De Palma films recently. As a brief summary of his work, let me say: he is a technical master. He is extremely adept at manipulating the visual and aural aspects of film to create a heavily sensory viewing experience. Unfortunately, he also has plenty of faults. He relies on genre in nearly every instance, and so his films often end up resembling glorified genre entries rather than the works of a true auteur.

I will be posting on various aspects of his work as a director, mostly focusing on his work in the early 80’s, when he seemed most comfortable as a filmmaker. He had not yet embarked on grandiose projects like “The Untouchables,” and he was content being a striking new voice, churning the Hollywood mill in his own subtly unique ways. In the genre he most frequently operated within during this time – the thriller – he had carte blanche to do whatever he felt with the medium. If the object of a film was to thrill, he was eminently capable of doing so, whether or not the thrills were organically generated by a compelling plot or character study. Very often, he generated thrills through trickery of visual style and plot circuitousness.

In his originality, De Palma was strangely predictable. Many of his plots were Hitchcockian, and he worked largely in archetypes when it came to his characters. Some of the aspects of what is generally considered “good” filmmaking – character development, lucidity, dialogue – De Palma ignored in favor of unrelenting flashiness and cinematic bravura. Over a series of posts, I will characterize De Palma as a director during this period in the 80’s.


With his unabashed interest in thrilling us, De Palma was happy to include external forces to heighten the mood. Examples include:

“Carrie”: The climax features the conflagration of a prom dance. De Palma bathes the entire frame in red and orange; first, pig’s blood pours over Carrie, and then she starts using her mental telepathy to ruin everyone else’s party. Using her mind, she slams the shutters shut, and sparks a blaze that encompasses the entire school gym where the scene takes place. When she retreats to her home, her mother, who has been hounding Carrie zealously throughout the film from her frighteningly pious matriarchal perch, attacks Carrie once again. Carrie causes the entire house to cave in, killing herself and her mother.

“Dressed to Kill”: The climax takes place in a psychiatrist’s office during a thunderstorm. This scene is notable for the lightning, which is constantly lighting up the faces of the performers at this climactic moment. It’s merely a visual flourish, rather than an all-out intrusion of the environment into the plot (as in “Carrie”), but it is notable nonetheless.

“Blow Out”: The climax takes place during a Liberty Day parade in Philadelphia, with the ultimate thrill located on a platform directly beneath the fireworks as they ignite. John Travolta’s face is lit up by the fireworks, as he murders the psycho and then discovers that his lady crush, played by Nancy Allen, is already dead. The shot of Travolta’s illuminated face, against the backdrop of an American flag, is a triumph.


In these examples, De Palma imposes large-scale set pieces into each film with the simple intention of heightening the excitement. While this makes for some memorably explosive conclusions, it doesn’t change the fact that he’s inserting these pieces artificially, to intensify the mood. One gets the feeling that, because he is relying so much on these effects, he perhaps feels insecure about his inability to craft a genuinely moving film without these pyrotechnics.

On the other hand, De Palma clearly enjoys the art of filmmaking so much, and exercises such a bizarre artistic muscle in making films, that we should just be happy for his daring. We watch movies to get tricked anyway – tricked into feeling emotions that aren’t really there – so who cares if De Palma exercises such trickery in full view of the audience, and with relish towards every precious external detail of his films?

During De Palma’s more conventional years, he had to abandon his unabashed nerve. In “Scarface,” for example, he wasn’t going to get away with tossing a random happenstance into the plot just for visual effect. This is what I love about this particular phase of his career: despite the inherent limitations of the genre of “thriller,” De Palma created some truly kinetic, visceral films. They are among the most technically interesting films I have ever seen, and despite their paucity of substance, they are largely delightful.

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