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If Obsession was de Palma’s riff on Vertigo, this is his riff on Rear Window, if, at first at least, from a different perspective. The film opens with a strange ‘Peeping Tom’ quiz show in which a real person is tricked into a compromising situation involving opportunities to prey on a vulnerable woman, here played by the iconic Margot Kidder. She pretends to be a blind woman for the show, and in a secretly filmed scenario, contestants have to guess whether the person being covertly filmed is going to grope her or not as she undresses, supposedly unaware of his presence. He doesn’t, and respects her privacy. After the airing of the game show they have a date together that’s going great until Kidder’s ex-husband, played by the phantom himself William Finley being, stupendously creepy, shows up.
What follows is a 45 minute set piece that plays like a one act play for half the movie. It involves a slow build to murder and then an investigation when a neighbouring journalist sees the murder. It is unquestionably one of the most tense things I’ve ever seen as de Palma utilises his trademark split screen with the utmost aplomb with amazing visual storytelling. It at many moments plays out like the opening of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, which de Palma had already homaged in his movie Phantom of the Paradise, except it uses edits to juxtapose two separate plotlines playing out tangentially in real time, (where Phantom of the Paradise uses much longer takes), this lets the audience make the sums in their head as to who will get away with what, winding the tension like a ratchet. The actual editing on show here, by Hollywood legend and editor of Star Wars, Paul Hirsch, is astonishing. If you know anything about Star Wars‘s making, Paul Hirsch and Brian de Palma, amongst several other people who are not George Lucas, are the sole reason Star Wars is a well edited film, and their skill comes together here in a showcase of some of the best editing you will ever, ever see. I almost think this would be my favourite de Palma if the whole movie played out like this first half, keeping in one apartment, as a journalist who has justifiably criticised the police force is constantly ignored by them until she can uncover murder, which is what the plot of this first half is, and it’s insane and it’s intense.
The rest of the movie is still par excellence as you’d expect from de Palma. It plays out for a time almost like a preemptive to Argento’s Deep Red, with our protagonist trying to make it as a female journalist and bumping up against colourful characters who she negotiates to try to get to the bottom of this mystery. She eventually makes it to a mental ward where Margot Kidder is now becoming institutionalised and things get… weird…
So where to describe the appeals of this movie? In order to do that you somewhat have to talk about it as two different movies.
In the movie it is for most of its runtime and first, it’s a tense, knuckle-whitening thriller that explores typical de Palma themes of police corruption. Part of the reason the cops are loathe to investigate this murder is that it’s the murder of a black man, reported by a woman who we are introduced to, looking for all the world like Jane Fonda in the middle of her revolutionary period, with columns pinned on the wall about how police have failed at their jobs and suppressed people of colour in America. The storytelling is impeccable, making sure, in the way that de Palma does, that each and every element is kept track of for the audience at every moment. It means that as an audience you have to do virtually no work but it’s still at atmosphere you could cut like a knife, in part because you’re wondering how this all plays out, but also because it just plays out like a Swiss watch in how each element moves absolutely perfectly. Margot Kidder as usual plays beautifully with a challenging role in a genre picture, making the most of some very difficult scenes. Even after the first 45 minutes end and we follow a more conventional mystery narrative, the storytelling is beautifully maintained, leading up to the climax, at which point very few of the remaining threads matter too much as it takes on a whole new tone…
So, I want to talk about the third act, but to do so would be majorly spoiler heavy, so I’m going to try to keep this brief and vague. The third act gets… psychedelic. It changes to flashbacks filmed in black and white that, while trying to evoke real photography we’ve been shown earlier in the picture, takes place entirely in the mental space of a character. So much of the third act revolves around breaking down the boundary between reality and fantasy. Breaking down the boundaries between what is imagined and what is real, and how much that boundary even matters. It involves hypnosis leading to not one, but two fascinating and haunting codas. What’s fascinating about this climax is how much it moves into pure psychological space. It’s a film that starts as an incredibly grounded riff on The Bird With The Crystal Plumage via Rear Window, and ends more like Carnival of Souls… It’s mildly astonishing, if over-exposited for my tastes, and made with a killer eye to style, within quite low budget confines.
So that’s Sisters, it’s the first movie where de Palma tried to make a movie with the kind of polish that he’d make his own and it is the perfect meeting between the anarchist, revolutionary, unconventional and difficult de Palma that I love, and the more straightforward and stylish de Palma that I like and everyone loves. Its appeals are hard to describe in words, because they are purely visceral. Sisters is a film you watch, not explain, so go watch it. It’s [f**king] great.
Meanwhile, the blogger CineMama, disappointed with Wonder Woman 1984, picks three movies to watch instead: Mike Nichols' Working Girl, Christopher Landon's Happy Death Day 2U, and Brian De Palma's Scarface. "Like many viewers impressed by Wonder Woman 1984‘s marketing campaign," CineMama begins, "the actual film disappointed me. Potential for both an ’80s working comedy (the kind with big hair and sexist bosses) and an epic tearjerker fell by the wayside and left me craving movies with a clearer vision. These three movies each include plot or style elements similar to WW84‘s, but where WW84 stumbles, these movies soar."
CineMama adds, "A side note: I enjoy the 'before/after/instead of' format because instead of focusing negative energy on just tearing a film apart or writing a 'review' that solely compares a movie to other movies, I focus on the parts that most resonate with me and build upon that by lifting up other films."
Regarding Scarface, then, CineMama writes:
In WW84, the lead villain, Max Lord (Pedro Pascal) trades his physical well-being to a “Dreamstone” for the ability to grant wishes. He announces to Wonder Woman at one point in his wish-fulfilling frenzy, “The world belongs to me!” which reminded me of the words that encourage and eventually taunt Tony Montana (Al Pacino) in Scarface: The world is yours.
A Cuban refugee working at a restaurant in Miami, Scarface‘s Tony Montana believes that he’s meant for more than his blue-collar existence and gets heavily involved in drug trafficking. He builds an empire of riches, but unsurprisingly, like a Faustian tale, he pays the bloody price for his success. The world is yours, but at what cost?
Similarly, Max Lord in WW84, born Maxwell Lorenzano, came from a poor background and wanted an immensely better life for himself and his son. Though he finds power through the Dreamstone, the abilities bequeathed to him cause massive chaos both personally and on a wider scale. Lord’s physical health deteriorates and the world descends into madness as he instructs anyone who will listen: “You can have it all; you just have to want it!”
Meanwhile, earlier today, Collider's William Bibbiani posted a chronological list of "The 25 Best Psychological Thrillers of All Time." In his introduction, Bibbiani explains that there was "only one caveat: there’s only one film from each director, because some filmmakers make a cottage industry of this genre, and it’s important to share as many brilliant films from as many different perspectives as possible." And so when it came to Brian De Palma, Bibbiani chose Sisters:
Brian De Palma crafted the majority of his career around acrobatically photographed, labyrinthine psychological, and frequently sexual thrillers. But although Dressed to Kill, Obsession, Body Double and Raising Cain are all stellar, whirlwind shockers, it’s his first foray into Hitchcockian suspense that stands out. Sisters is a twisted, grotesque, unexpected delight.
The story of Sisters takes many sharp turns, beginning with an amusing anecdote of voyeurism, segueing into young love and jealousy, careening into murder, and then returning once again to voyeurism. From there on out we’re in Nancy Drew territory, as a plucky young reporter, played by Jennifer Salt, investigating a murder she’s sure was committed by an aspiring actress, played by Superman’s Margot Kidder, or possibly her identical twin sister. That is, until De Palma’s Grand Guignol climax, where the rules go out the window and so does the mystery, as though the filmmaker couldn’t wait to show you just how disturbing and fascinating his imagination is.
If you can somehow manage to remove all your memories and knowledge of the book from your mind—which was somewhat difficult back when the film first came out since it was pretty much the novel of its time—there is another and somewhat more interesting movie going on at the same time, and this is largely courtesy of the decision to have Brian De Palma direct. Then and now, he was most famous for his wildly audacious and often controversial suspense thrillers. The announcement that he would be doing “Bonfire” raised many eyebrows, with many assuming that he only got put on the list of potential directors because “The Untouchables” not only made a ton of money but proved that even an iconoclast like him could utilize his gifts to make an across-the-board blockbuster if he actually put his mind to it.
However, before he became famous for making grisly and twisty thrillers, De Palma initially made a name for himself directing highly acerbic satirical comedies such as “Greetings,” “Hi Mom,” and his first studio effort, “Get to Know Your Rabbit.” These were films that took on the big issues of the time—race, sex, class, the war in Vietnam, the JFK assassination—and skewered them all in wild and oftentimes outrageous ways that not even the passing of the decades has managed to dim. (The only exception is “Get to Know Your Rabbit,” a film on which he feuded with star Tommy Smothers and was eventually fired by Warner Bros. marking the first and last time he worked there until “Bonfire” came along.) While those earlier movies, “Rabbit” excepted, were made on tiny budgets on the streets of New York and with largely unknown actors (including a pre-fame Robert De Niro), “Bonfire” allowed him the chance to return to those roots, albeit with tens of millions of dollars at his disposal this time around. Some of the funniest scenes in the film, such as the one in which Weiss insists to his staff that he is not at all racist while at the same time coming across as nothing but, could have easily come from those earlier films and also come the closest to hitting the edgy tone found in the original material.
In bringing the story to the screen, De Palma, along with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, utilized a highly stylized approach that favored the visual pyrotechnics for which he was famous. The film is full of elaborate camera moves (including an insanely intricate opening Steadicam shot of Fallow stumbling around backstage at a publishing party that runs for about five minutes without a cut) and weird closeups designed to make characters look even more grotesque than they already are. At the time, De Palma was criticized for employing such a seemingly unnecessary visual approach, but it actually fits the material. One of the key problems with anyone attempting to adapt Wolfe’s work to the screen is that it was his distinctive voice as a writer that made his work stand out so well, and it's that voice that's usually the first thing that gets lost during the adaptation process. While the screenplay awkwardly tries to invoke Wolfe’s prose by transforming it into narration from Fallow, De Palma’s visual gambits end up doing an unexpectedly effective job of finding a cinematic equivalent to Wolfe’s go-for-baroque literary style.
And while the film ultimately feels more like a collection of scenes from the book than a fully satisfying narrative, some of those scenes are quite good and entertaining. The opening Steadicam shot is, not surprisingly, a technical wonder but it also serves as an inventive introduction into the rarefied realm of the story, and Willis’ physical performance throughout the sequence is easily his most genuinely engaging bit in the film. The stuff involving the Weiss character is amusingly cynical and offers a real hint as to what the film might have been like had the material not been tamped down so much in an effort to make it more likable and accessible. And the scene in which Fallow has a fateful dinner with Arthur Ruskin is also quite funny, though I wish that it had gone on longer as it did in the book. Even the miscasting of Hanks winds up paying off nicely at one point late in the proceedings when he finds himself wrestling with the idea of lying in court about the origin of the fateful cassette—now that Hanks has long since established himself as contemporary cinema’s unquestioned patron saint of decency and moral uprightness, it's darkly funny to see him in a situation in which the only way for the truth to come out is to lie his ass off in court.
Considering how dated the once au courant material of "Bonfire" must seem to audiences today, the film's viewers are primarily those who have just finished reading The Devil’s Candy and are using it as a sort of visual guide to that book and not Wolfe’s. Hell, even when one looks at it solely on the basis of being a De Palma film, his most ardent supporters would be hard-pressed to put it in the top half or even the top two-thirds of his cinematic output to date. However, for all of its mistakes and miscalculations and moments of utter garishness (including one scene involving actress Beth Broderick and a photocopier that is almost astoundingly tasteless), "Bonfire" is not only more interesting than its reputation might suggest. In its best moments, the film demonstrates both a personality and a real live-wire charge, despite all of the efforts from above to eliminate such things from the proceedings. Those willing to look at it through fresh eyes and properly adjusted expectations may be surprised to discover it's not that bad after all.
Culp was assistant to Mr. De Palma on Snake Eyes (1998) and Mission To Mars (2000).
Merry Christmas! 🎄Here’s a portrait of director Brian De Palma that I drew while watching Noah Baumbach’s film “De Palma” about him on @mubi .
When Alonzo teamed up with De Palma in 1983 to shoot a remake of Scarface, the idea of a large electronic advertisement slogan, "The world is yours," was already a key moment in the original 1932 Howard Hawks version. To ask Alonzo to shoot that same slogan on a blimp about six years after shooting an ominous blimp for Frankenheimer's film is an in-joke that pays off, even if you don't get the reference, as one of the most memorable moments in De Palma's Scarface.
It is worth noting that the score for Black Sunday was composed by John Williams. The following year, Williams provided the propulsively dark music for De Palma's The Fury.
MEANWHILE, A FLASHBACK FROM 2004:
Posted April 13 2004
TARANTINO TALKS KILL BILL
EXPLAINS HIS "LITTLE BRIAN DE PALMA SCENE"
It seemed logical that the split-screen sequence in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1, where Daryl Hannah dons a nurse's uniform and whistles a Bernard Herrmann melody while carrying a deadly syringe down a hospital corridor, was inspired in great part by a combination of Brian De Palma's Sisters and Dressed To Kill. On the new DVD release of the film, Tarantino even calls it his "little Brian De Palma scene." But the filmmaker tells Premiere that this particular split-screen sequence was inspired by the trailer for a John Frankenheimer film-- a scene in the trailer that was cut and scored differently than it was in Frankenheimer's film. Tarantino explains that he does not duplicate other directors' shots when he references their films in his work, but rather "a feeling in the shot or an aspect about the shot I liked." He then explains how he has a collection of 35mm trailers from movies, particularly from the '70s, and how these trailers are works of art in and of themselves in that they used techniques that Tarantino likens to the work of Godard. Having seen the films that these trailers promote, Tarantino claims that many of the scenes or sequences shown in the trailers are not in the actual films. "It's just in the trailer," he tells Premiere:
There's this one trailer for Black Sunday by John Frankenheimer that has a scene in it that's done differently than it is in the movie. It's amazing. There's a scene in the movie-- it's like, you know, killer terrorist shit-- where Marthe Keller is going to kill Robert Shaw, who works for the Israeli Army. He's in the hospital, so she dresses up like a nurse with a syringe full of lethal injection, and she's going to go into his hospital room and inject him. Well, in the movie it's an okay sequence, but not really that special. They don't really milk it that much. It's routine.
But in the trailer for the movie, when it gets to showing us that sequence, they do the whole thing in split screen. And where they just had natural sounds playing in the movie, they have John Williams's Black Sunday theme [humming the tune] pulsing through the whole trailer, so it's just ticking beats to the images. This is not in the movie anywhere. This is one of the best split-screen sequences I've ever seen.
So for Kill Bill, I say, "We're doing this when Elle Driver shows up at the hospital."
And then I have another, like, weird movie reference in there because I have Daryl Hannah whistling-- she learned how to whistle Bernard Herrmann's theme to this movie called Twisted Nerve. And the thing is, when she leaves the frame, the Bernard Herrmann score kicks in, you hear the same theme done in this lush Bernard Herrmann melody, and then it goes into split screen and it looks like I'm doing an homage to Dressed To Kill-era De Palma.
Bernard Herrmann scored two De Palma films: Sisters (1973) and Obsession (1976). Daryl Hannah made her film debut in De Palma's The Fury (1978), which was scored by John Williams. One character, Bobbi, steals a nurse's uniform to wear in De Palma's Dressed To Kill (1980). Sisters and Dressed To Kill each feature memorable split-screen sequences.