“De Palma” begins with Hitchcock, which is only right.
There hasn’t been a contemporary director more indebted to and influenced by the Master – and happy to acknowledge it – than the Philadelphia-raised Brian De Palma. And so, this immersive and illuminating documentary about the man who made “Carrie” and “Blow Out,” “The Untouchables” and “Scarface,” begins with a scene from “Vertigo,” Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 Technicolor dream of sexual fantasy, fetishes and mystery.
Which is precisely the stuff many of De Palma’s own titles trade in (“Body Double,” “Dressed to Kill,” “Obsession,” to name a few).
De Palma, a big bear of a man, is 75 now. His age is addressed in the movie – he addresses it himself, allowing how directors historically do their best work in their 40s and 50s. (Is he making excuses for his later, arguably wobblier work?)
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Seated before the camera, De Palma goes through his career, chronologically, from his early days in New York shooting with a fresh-faced gang (including a ridiculously boyish Robert De Niro) to his move to Hollywood and the team of “rebels” he joined in the 1970s: Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg.
And onward, into the ’80s, the ’90s, and the ’00s. There are blockbusters and bombs and a seminal music video – Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” – as well.
De Palma, co-directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, is awash in great clips: a few more from Hitchcock, from Antonioni, Godard, Truffaut – but mostly, of course, De Palma’s own, and they are killer, in more ways than one. And if the subject of this must-see doc didn’t say so himself, it quickly becomes obvious: This is a man who thinks visually, who constructs a scene before he constructs the characters in it.
A giddy maestro of mayhem, De Palma offers commentary on some signature work: the train station shootout in “The Untouchables,” the shocking locker-room bullying of “Carrie,” the creepy cross-dressing carnage of “Dressed to Kill.”
It’s great to hear a director talking candidly about the actors he’s worked with, dishing out good, juicy stuff (about De Niro, about his “Carrie” ingenue, Sissy Spacek) and bad, juicy stuff (about Cliff Robertson, all wrong in “Obsession,” and an unhappy Sean Connery in “The Untouchables”), and just strange, juicy stuff (Sean Penn’s serious goading of costar Michael J. Fox in “Casualties of War”).
And that criticism about De Palma’s misogyny? About the way his cameras linger on, and leer at, the beautiful women he casts? About the violence he subjects them to?
He dismisses the charges with an I-am-what-I-am shrug.
One movie De Palma hasn’t made, but maybe should: a thriller about a kid who suspects his highly regarded orthopedic surgeon dad of having an affair, following him to the trysting place, where he finds his father with another woman. That’s a story the director tells in De Palma. He was a boy in Philadelphia, his father a teacher and doctor at Thomas Jefferson University.
His father, too, traded in blood. Real blood. The blood in De Palma’s movies is fake, of course – but he’s made the most of it.
☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2
Cast: Brian De Palma.
Directors: Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow.
Running time: 107 minutes.
Rating: R (violence, sex, nudity, profanity, adult themes).