RELEASED OCTOBER 31, 1974 - STILL GAINING IN POPULARITY TODAY
Hello and welcome to the unofficial Brian De Palma website.
Here is the latest news:
a la Mod:
"By now, far more well-versed in De Palma's filmography (beyond, of course, my personal favorite, The Untouchables), this time around, I found myself far more easily caught up in the Montana family circus than before. The satiric epitome of the Me Decade as well as just a terrific gangster picture that comes (as they all do) with a warning against flying too close to the sun because you crave the feeling of warmth that you get from its rays, Scarface works extraordinarily well on a number of levels."
Earlier in the essay, Johans contrasts the ways Tony Montana interacts with Elvira and Gina:
When Manny makes the mistake of saying aloud that Tony's sister is beautiful, we learn that the Achilles' heel of 1983's Tony is the same as it was back in 1932. Taking the conversation from a two to a ten in seconds, Pacino's Tony shouts, "you stay away!" before warning Manny that "she is not for you."
Needless to say, that definitely telegraphs the future for would-be forbidden lovers, Manny and Gina. Yet it also reveals that, although paternalistic, in place of their American father who ran out on them years earlier, Tony's need to protect the chastity of his sister borders on an obsession that De Palma frames in a creepily romantic light from their very first scene together.
From the knock on the door to Gina running after him into the night, the moment plays less like the return of a black sheep son and more like a boyfriend who's been banned from the house since he's not the kind you take home to mama. And although this incestuous undercurrent ran through the original as well, between Tony and his sister in both versions of Scarface and James Cagney's character's obsession with his mom in White Heat, you get the impression that Freud would've had a field day with these gangsters and their Madonna-whore hang-ups.
Still, while his love for Gina is covert, Tony's most overt object of romantic obsession in Scarface is undoubtedly Elvira, the blonde, leggy goddess played by then-newcomer Michelle Pfeiffer. The girlfriend of Robert Loggia's character Frank who, incidentally, is his boss, when Tony first sees Elvira, she wears a backless teal gown that, depending on the light, flashes green like money or as blue as the ocean he crossed on his way from Cuba. Pacing with her back to him inside a glass elevator like a caged tiger, even before he sees her face, Tony knows he has to have her.
A thing to be acquired that's much too wild for him, like the chainsaw used in a bathroom in an early drug buy scene that's straight out of a horror movie or an actual tiger that he brings home as a pet, Elvira is something he feels that needs to be tamed. And sure enough, when Tony makes an early play for her, Elvira asserts her dominance like a predator by telling him not to call her "baby" before swatting him away with her paw.
Finally, "freeing" her from her gilded cage of life with Frank by (of course) taking him out because this is the law of the jungle after all and only the strong survive, Tony pulls back the sheet on her bed in the middle of the night with her deceased boyfriend's blood still on his hand to tell her she's coming with him. Having never even kissed her (consensually), unlike the scenes where Tony gives his sister an engraved heart shaped locket or watches Gina try on clothes, throughout Scarface, there's nothing romantic about his interactions with Elvira.
Not sure what to do with her once he's gotten her, since it was most likely the thrill of the chase that was his strongest aphrodisiac, we realize even before Tony does just how incompatible the two are as lovers. In their first dance together, Tony insults her while trying to size up her sex life with Frank, which is intriguing because we're not exactly sure she's better off with him since, despite the fact that Tony talks a good game in front of Manny, for all we know, the two seldom make love as it's never shown.
For a film that's known for its excess, the lack of a love scene in Scarface is significant. In fact, the only time sex is even mentioned is when Tony and Elvira fight, which doesn't bode well for their satisfaction in that department. Tony wants her to have his children but there's a reason why animals don't mate in captivity (and that's before an avalanche of cocaine is added to the mix). Proposing marriage by tying it into his rise to the top only confirms this isn't a courtship, it's a business deal, after all. Tony takes her out of one cage and puts her right into another.
By then, however, he's as addicted to power and status as she is to cocaine. But as the film continues, he matches her enthusiasm in that as well, at one point snorting so much from a mountain of coke on his desk that the drug sits on his nose like a dollop of whipped cream, making him feel even more paranoid and invincible than before. Right on cue, of course, that's when the bullets really start flying.
Pressman describes the feeling prior to release as one of excitement before it opened to disappointing reviews, feeling a lot of that stemmed from “people [confusing] it with Rocky Horror Picture Show,” with the mix of genres of comedy, horror, musical and a love story.
“It was a lot of things combined in an original way,” Pressman said. “I never thought it would last. We did make a serious attempt to revive the film in the last five or six years after it opened and we re-released the film ourselves and created our own posters. We went to Little Rock, Arkansas and it worked and we went to Memphis and it worked again, and then we went to Dallas, and we re-established the film so that Fox was willing to re-release it. At that time, that was a major accomplishment.”
Despite the film’s lackluster reviews from critics and box office failure early upon release, the film found a major following in both Winnipeg and Paris, with the soundtrack selling over 20,000 copies in Canada alone and becoming certified gold. Williams recalled visiting Paris “maybe four or five years ago” and finding it at a theater, where he learned Phantom disappears for a while before returning for screenings 45 years after its release.
While Williams and Pressman love the impact the film has made over the years, writer/director de Palma has kept quiet on the film since its release, even being absent from the documentary surrounding its cult following, but Pressman assures he is not distancing himself from it.
“I talked to Brian as late as last week, he’s a fan of the film,” Pressman said. “He was very happy to hear that the film is going to be brought back with the original cut, and he wrote a letter to try to help make that happen. I think he definitely has a warm feeling to the movie.”
Though the film mostly holds a positive legacy, with critics warming up to the project over the years, one hitch it has seen over the years has to do with the name of Swan’s media conglomerate “Swan Song Enterprises,” as Led Zeppelin had a label of the same name at the time and all references had to be deleted from the film, aside from background visual references, but now a movement is underway to get the rights from the classic rock band to correct this and add it all back in.
“The remaster is done and we just need to get Led Zeppelin to sign off on it,” Pressman said. “So that’s what Brian de Palma wrote a letter along with Edgar Wright and Brett Easton Ellis and a number of other luminaries, Paul Williams, obviously, to try to get them to end this 40 year standoff.”
In exploring the possibility or doing an updated version of the rock opera for modern audiences, both Pressman and Williams believe it would be great to see and have cited the Baby Driver director as the perfect person to helm the project.
“If anybody was going to do Phantom and bring it up to date and all, I love Edgar,” Williams said. “I think that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, 30 years from now will have the same kind of fans that Phantom does right now. I saw Shawn of the Dead and I loved it. I mean, Baby Driver, the fact that he shot the film to the songs, that he cuts on it and it’s also that it’s imperceptible. You don’t realize it. I never got lost in that. Then I met him and turned out he had done Bugsy Malone, it’s like Grease here in London.
Beerman's essay is illustrated with many frame captures from De Palma's films, so it is best to read it as-is on the 25YL site. That said, here's one small passage:
In one segment of The Responsive Eye, de Palma’s traveling camera captures a perspective shift—a complex work of pointillism that appears to change from 3D to 2D based on the proximity of the observer. Famed art theorist and perceptual psychologist Rudolph Arnheim touches on the shift that happens to the witness spectator: “Partly you are the victim of it, partly you are the rebel against it.” Because in a de Palma film, even a documentary, perspective changes everything.
De Palma’s witnesses are both victim and rebel. The more their positions shift relative to their original “seeing,” the harder it is to know what’s real. In Blow Out, a past tragedy drives Jack Terry to become a sound engineer who ultimately records a fateful car accident. Sally too starts as a victim. When she realizes she’s been duped by Manny she rebels, shifting from unwitting participant to truth seeker. The closer Jack and Sally get, the harder it gets to prove the truth as McRyan’s killer steals the incriminating film. Jack tears his studio apart, only to find his sound library—the entirety of his professional life—has been erased. Any hopes of a stable state are gone. De Palma captures that through two other techniques: spinning panoramas and a final overhead shot of Jack surrounded by whirring machines, piles of blank tape and empty cases.
It’s an almost pointillistic vision, like the one at the MOMA. We have detail. We have perspective. But we don’t have the truth, not a way to prove it anyway. Certainty is replaced with shock, disbelief, and betrayal. The obvious detour here is Blow–Up, the 1966 Antonioni film about a photographer who, in developing his film, discovers he’s captured a murder. To uncover the truth, he enlarges the image until there’s no image left, only pixel and shadow. When he returns to the crime scene, the body is gone.
Indeed, watching Palmetto, it is easy to see there is much there for De Palma to play with: a straight arrow reporter whose moral compass is compromised after being framed, staged kidnappings, ransom notes, drop offs, bodies in trunks, recordings of conversations, erotic frisking for wires, femme fatales, plenty of sex, and wigs galore. The film even opens with Woody Harrelson's somewhat Carlito-like stance toward a judge after his conviction is overturned.
Definitely could be fun for De Palma. For a bit more context regarding Schlöndorff's film version, which was not so well-reviewed upon initial release, here's Peter Rainer's review from 1998:
Palmetto is a film noir set in a torpid seaside Florida town. It's based on the James Hadley Chase novel Just Another Sucker, and when we first see Harry Barber (Woody Harrelson), he fits that moniker exactly. He looks dazed and confused--a sucker incarnate. Suckers are, of course, integral to noir--they provide the blood supply for the genre's predatory vamps. It's been said that a thriller is only as good as its chief villain, and, in the same way, most noirs are only as good as their suckers.
Palmetto has a good sucker but not much else. Harrelson is everything one could hope for, but he's surrounded by a cast, including Elisabeth Shue, Michael Rapaport, Chloe Sevigny and an underused Gina Gershon, which appears to have seen too many noirs--bad noirs. Their elaborate machinations are so transparently base that they might as well be camping it up for the cameras. The trick to getting noir right is to play it absolutely straight; the looniness and the greed may appear absurd to us, but they have to be deathly serious to their practitioners. Palmetto isn't a takeoff on noir, and yet it has that unintended effect. It appears to be winking at the audience when, instead, it should be trying to stare it down.
Part of the phoniness of Palmetto can be traced to its director, Volker Schlsndorff (The Tin Drum), being a German director adapting a novel by a British pulp novelist who wrote about America without ever spending any time in it. (Chase was the pseudonym for Rene Raymond.) There's an uncomfortably twice-removed quality about the movie. Screenwriter E. Max Frye (Something Wild) sets out all the proper pulp/noir place settings, but Schlsndorff doesn't really provide a meal.
The film's press notes carry an interesting quote from the director: "My friend (filmmaker) Bertrand Tavernier asked me why I didn't ever make the kind of movies I like to watch myself, a real 'movie' movie. I decided it was time to take a break from the heavier subject matter and have a little fun." But it's one thing to be a fan of noir, quite another to render it effectively. Palmetto is a fan's movie, and it has the kind of gaga unreality that a giddy cineast might bring to it.
Harrelson has always had a look of sozzled lewdness that makes him perfect for roles ranging from Larry Flynt to the deranged vet in Wag the Dog. But Harrelson's lewdness doesn't have many levels. What you see is often what you get. In Palmetto, he brings some softness into his usual slouch. Being a victim becomes him. His Harry Barber is a journalist released after two years in prison; it's been discovered he was framed for trying to expose civic corruption. Angry, aimless, he drifts into a kidnap-for-ransom scheme engineered by Rhea Malroux (Shue), a curvy bundle apparently married to a wheezing millionaire (Rolf Hoppe) with a trampy daughter (Sevigny). Harry becomes the bad guy he was mistakenly believed to be, and he can't quite live up to the billing. When the police, attempting to track down the kidnapers, put Harry on the job as their press liaison, he finds himself double-whammied. Once a sucker, always a sucker.
If the filmmakers had concentrated on this comedy of suckerdom, they might have come up with something piquant. (Harrelson certainly was up for it.) But Harry is surrounded by scenery-chewers. Shue is the worst offender, but Rapaport, playing Rhea's husband's bodyguard, is a close second. He's not playing a bad guy; he's an actor playing a bad guy.
Shue impressed a lot of people in Leaving Las Vegas because she brought a sensual bleariness to her patrician cool; she was a clean-cut slut with a heart of fool's gold. She hasn't been nearly as effective since. As the brainy scientist in The Saint, this Radcliffe graduate actually seemed rather dim; in Deconstructing Harry, she was part of the female foliage with which Woody Allen adorned himself. In Palmetto, spilling out of an assortment of clingy dresses, Shue is so unconvincing in her wiles that you can't imagine even a stupe like Harry getting stung.
Palmetto might not have been appreciably better even if it were more skillful. At this point in film history, it's not enough anymore just to go through the same old noir paces. Something new must be added to the mix. That's what John Dahl attempted to do with Red Rock West and, to a lesser extent, The Last Seduction. It's what Curtis Hanson does so successfully in L.A. Confidential--he dramatizes his own ambivalence about the pulp conventions he expertly executes. If Schlsndorff has any feelings about noir, you'd never know them from Palmetto. He's just happy to be orchestrating the nastiness. But we've heard this score before.
The conversation event that took place at the festival last weekend opened with a montage of scenes from De Palma's films, scored to Ennio Morricone's music from Casualties Of War, which Baldwin mentioned during the conversation. The East Hampton Star's Mark Segal wrote an article about the event:
During their conversation, Mr. Baldwin noted the many stars Mr. De Palma worked with at the apex of their careers, among them Al Pacino, Kevin Costner, and John Travolta, who starred in the 1981 film “Blow Out,” which was shown Saturday at the East Hampton Cinema.
“I wrote ‘Blow Out’ after ‘Dressed to Kill,’ which was a big hit, so suddenly I was a genius,” said the director. After Mr. Travolta signed on to the project, the budget went from $6 million to $16 million, “and everything got bigger.”
Mr. De Palma said that making a $5 million movie is more or less the same for him as making a $100 million film. “Obviously there are more people around,” he said. He added that to do the elaborate set pieces for which he is known, he needed the top technicians, and they are in Hollywood. “They always said about Orson Welles that he lost the ability to use all those great technicians, and it showed in his work. I think that’s true.”
While Mr. De Palma has written many of his own films, he stressed the value of also working “in other people’s ballparks. That’s why I’m attracted to really great writers. It enlarges you because you have to tell their story with the techniques you’ve developed yourself.”
Of “Carlito’s Way,” which was written by David Koepp, he said “I was watching it at the Berlin Film Festival and I said to myself that I can’t make a better picture than this. And it wasn’t a big success. It killed me. I decided I was going to go out and make a success.”
Soon after, he heard from his agent, Mike Ovitz, that Sydney Pollock, who was working on “Mission Impossible,” wanted out of the project. “So Mike asked me if I would be interested. And I said, ‘Tom Cruise! ‘Mission Impossible’? You bet!’ It was the biggest hit of my career.”
Though often cited for his stylistic ingenuity, Mr. De Palma stressed the importance of actors. “You’ve got to get great actors to make these stories work, because if the actors aren’t good, you aren’t good.”
Mr. Baldwin said, “None of your peers — Steven, Marty, George — has anything on you when you shoot these things you shoot,” referring to his elaborate set pieces, dramatic camera angles and compositions, panning and tracking shots, and precisely choreographed long takes.
“Needless to say, Marty and Steven are very skilled at those kind of sequences,” said Mr. De Palma. “I think the difference is that Steven always used the same composer, John Williams. And Marty uses rock and roll basically. I used a variety of the best composers who were writing during my era, and that may be why my sequences stand out. Ennio Morricone’s score for ‘Casualties of War’ will tear your heart out.”
Mr. De Palma has also worked with many of the top cinematographers. Asked if he preferred shooting and cutting film to working digitally, he said, “I’m a science brat. I love the new technology. When I shoot digitally, the key thing is to get a cameraman who knows how to light it. It doesn’t have to look like that brown crap you see all the time.”
As much as he is recognized for his psychological thrillers, Mr. De Palma is also known, and sometimes criticized, for his depiction of violence. He discussed his battles with the old motion picture ratings board, which started with the masturbation scene in the shower in “Dressed to Kill.”
“Scarface” was X-rated at first. He made a few cuts, sent it back, and it was returned with an X. He made several subsequent cuts of violent material without appeasing the board. “I finally said, ‘What?’ They said, ‘It’s the clown getting shot!’ The clown getting shot? It was too much.” Over the objections of the studio head, he resubmitted the original cut to the full board, and it was eventually approved.
Of the scene in “Scarface” where Mr. Pacino appears with his gun and says, “Say hello to my little friend,” Mr. De Palma explained why so many people are shot in it. “When we went on the set to film that sequence, the set burned down. Then, when Al was using that gun, he grabbed it by the barrel, and it was so hot he burned himself severely.”
“The set burned, then Al burned?” interjected Mr. Baldwin.
“He went to the hospital for two weeks. So here I had a set, no Al, but I had a lot of Colombians. So we spent those two weeks shooting Colombians.” Of Mr. Pacino, he said, “Al can hold the screen with that incredible face and voice; you just sit there riveted. And he’s not only a great actor, he moves so gracefully.”
He cited Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” as two recent films he admires. “We’ve got some good directors working,” he said, moments before his daughter, Piper De Palma, came onstage to give him the festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Early in Domino, Copenhagen cop Nikolaj Coster-Waldau bungles a routine call-out and gets his partner stabbed. As he’s dangling from a gutter à la James Stewart in Vertigo, accompanied by a lush orchestral Pino Donaggio score, this seemingly typical Scandi-noir is revealed as unmistakably the work of itinerant ex-‘movie brat’ Brian De Palma. A found footage sequence combines elements from Redacted (De Palma’s most interesting 21st century work) and Femme Fatale (his flat-out craziest/most fun) as a chic, brainwashed terrorist livestreams a gun attack/suicide bombing on the red carpet of a swanky European film festival. Sadly, thanks to budget cuts and a never-really-there script, Domino proceeds to fall over, but flashes of genius make it a more interesting watch than the professional plod of most direct-to-anything-but-a-cinema thrillers.
Well, I'm interested in new styles of telling stories. I do have a kind of horror film I'd like to make. And also diferent genres, and an adaptation of an old classic noir picture called Palmetto.