So having seen the documentary ‘De Palma’ I thought now would be the best opportunity to give a quick rundown of my top five films from the acclaimed director. There isn’t really anything else to say other than a few honourable mentions, the first being ‘The Untouchables’ which may be surprising but maybe that just goes to show how tough the competition is that De Palma’s prohibition epic didn’t quite make the cut. It’s still a fantastic and layered film, with David Mamet’s sharp script, Ennio Morricone’s invigorating score and an Oscar winning performance by Sean Connery, as far as I know it’s still the only Oscar winning film in which someone is beaten to death with a baseball bat. I’d also be remised if I didn’t give a shout out to ‘Body Double’, ‘Dressed to Kill’, ‘Sisters’, ‘Phantom of Paradise’, ‘Passion’, ‘Mission: Impossible’ and if I can forget the rest of the movie happened then I’ll also include the opening shot of ‘Snake Eyes’ But now onto the top five.
5: Carlito’s Way
In 1993 De Palma reunited with Al Pacino to craft a their second gangster epic together, in which Pacino plays an aging criminal recently sprung from prison by his lawyer, played by Sean Penn in one of his best performances, and decides to give up the lifestyle once and for all, only to be dragged back in against his will. Like ‘Scarface’ it’s a large and sprawling portrait of a criminal and the world he inhabits, but ‘Carlito’s Way’ is perhaps more mature and restrained. It’s fascinated by the reasons why men are drawn back to their origins, why the violence and betrayal of the criminal world somehow keeps its hold on Carlito despite his intentions to leave it behind, a compelling portrait a man who wants to be better than he is. It also features some of the finest set pieces of De Palma’s career, especially its spectacular finale.
Having created a storm on the underground indie circuit De Palma finally secured his breakthrough hit with his 1976 adaptation of Stephen King’s bestselling novel, ‘Carrie’. This is a real horror film, not made up of the recycled parts of classics, not relying on cheap jump scares or flashy special effects. ‘Carrie’ builds its terror through a study of its characters, by creating a poignant human portrait and though it doesn’t go completely off the rails until it’s last twenty minutes, that climax is earned through making its title character as fleshed out as possible, creating a conclusion that is as tragic as it is satisfying. Not only was the film a box office hit that well and truly launched De Palma’s career, it also earned Oscar nominations for its stars Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, a feat unheard of in the horror genre.
3: Femme Fatale
Possibly the most purely De Palma film of them all, not only is it a superb showcase of style and craftsmanship, but the way the movie unfolds and takes you on a rollercoaster ride of twists and turns, defying expectations, deceiving and surprising you with each new plot thread. After pulling off a daring heist during a gala premiere at the Cannes Film Festival and double-crossing her colleagues, a thief (Rebecca Romijin) leaves for a new life in America only to find herself the target of an ambitious photographer (Antonio Banderas) and her recently released former partners. Like the best of De Palma’s movies it’s smart, sexy and stylish, anchored by a set strong and layered characters all portrayed brilliantly by their respective actors. ‘Femme Fatale’ is filmmaking at its purest.
Everyone has quoted Pacino’s iconic last stand, whether they know they are reciting ‘Scarface’ or not, at some point everyone has uttered those magic words. Chronicling the rise and fall of a ruthless Cuban drug dealer Tony Montana (Al Pacino) this may be the most spectacular, stylish and excessive project of the directors career. With a script penned by Oliver Stone the movie is aggressive and violent for an aggressive and violent era of American history, brimming with greed and indulgence. Pacino’s performance is legendary, over the top, bouncing from wall to wall and completely engrossing. Under De Palma’s direction the film has an energetic and almost wearying sensibility to it, hyper stylised and features some of the bests scenes of his entire career from the infamous chainsaw torture sequence to the explosive attack on Montana’s compound (one shot of which was directed by Steven Spielberg), featuring multiple explosions, wave after wave of attackers being gunned down and of course Pacino familiarising us with his tiny associate.
1: Blow Out
De Palma’s masterfully crafted thriller stands as one of the greatest thrillers outside of Hitchcock’s calibre, in fact scratch that because with this De Palma made a suspense film worthy of Hitchcock himself. John Travolta plays a movie sound effects technician who, while recording sounds for a low-budget slasher film, inadvertently records audio evidence of an assassination involving a presidential hopeful. ‘Blow Out’ is a film fuelled by obsession, one that plays out in an enthralling and visceral manner, but also one of surprising maturity and thoughtfulness. It is permeated by real cinematic intelligence and has a number of great performances to accompany it, with Travolta at his best as well sympathetic Nancy Allen and sleazy John Lithgow. It’s a challenging, stimulating and impeccably designed film that stands as De Palma’s masterpiece.