Movies have different ways of communicating with the audience, some prefer to stick to heavy loaded dialogue, others rely mostly on poetry and metaphors, others use music and physical gags, others are founded on story and plot, and finally, there are those that target the audience with only one single element: visuals. Movies are motion pictures, they are an art form that specializes in capturing movement on camera, they are known for manipulating reality and cramming it into a digital screen that projects the image to the audience, be it in a theater or someone’s living room. However, if one were to look back at most mainstream films that have come out in the last decade or so, one will start to notice a pattern: most films focus on what is being said rather than what is being done. Directors and producers feel a lot safer when the script is the focal point of the project rather than a story, or even worse, an abstract idea because what’s written on paper will always guide in some way, some direction, be it a description of an object, tone of voice, a look, a character’s line or even a setting, as in INTERIOR – JOE’S OFFICE – NIGHT. Today’s major studios want safe options, blockbusters that are easy to make and follow a set narrative formula which means there is an entire generation of directors who spend their time jumping from one franchise to another, from Planet of the Apes to Star Wars to Jurassic World and The Avengers, without ever being able to clearly reveal their true identities as artists, storytellers. That is now, but what about forty, thirty, even twenty years ago? Back then studio influence was just as powerful in some cases if not more (re: Apocalypse Now, Heaven’s Gate), but there were certain filmmakers who were allowed to do whatever they felt like doing, and who were always able to make the most out of any source material. One of these talented dudes was a man named Brian De Palma, a director who based his entire career on chasing the ghost of Alfred Hitchock, and by doing so, he learned how to seduce his audiences with the simple help of visuals and nothing else.
When it comes to watching a De Palma movie forget plot, forget dialogue and character, simply focus on what is on screen. The first thing one will notice is De Palma’s immediate need to drag you into his world. He often does this by opening his movies with a 5-10 minute long tracking shot, like in Bonfire of the Vanities or Snake Eyes, during which the main characters are introduced and set within one specific world. In Snake Eyes, for example, we follow Nicholas Cage as Detective Rick Santoro walking around a boxing arena, waiting for a big fight to take place. Through De Palma’s eyes we’re quickly thrown into the world that Santoro is immersed in, a world of scumbags, dealers, call girls and gangsters, who all happen to know him. Considering the traditional structure of a screenplay I doubt such an opening was written specifically for De Palma to follow. The director, instead of introducing his protagonist through various conversations and interactions, decided simply to use the camera to track the protagonist’s movements, way of walking, capturing the energy around him, the excitement in the arena building and slowly but surely building tension within the viewer’s mind, preparing him for something significant to happen in the following minutes.
Another example of De Palma using mostly camera movements and angles to grab the viewer’s attention can be found in his systematic use of long tracking shots (6-12 minutes) at the movie’s midpoint in order to build the stage on which the climatic midpoint event (a fight, a chase scene, a murder) will eventually take place. This is mostly used to full effect in Dressed to Kill (the museum scene) and Body Double (the shopping mall). In both scenes a character is spying on another character and the single take is used for two purposes: 1) to build an elaborate map of the setting, be it a museum or a shopping mall, so that the viewer can easily follow the character’s movements and predict certain scenarios (for example, a dead end that prevents the character from escaping, or a wrong turn that will lead the character into the other character’s path); 2) to force the viewer into assuming a character’s point of view, be it the one being spied on/chased (Angie Dickinson’s character in Dressed to Kill) or the one spying/chasing (Craig Wasson’s character in Body Double). This way, De Palma has the artistic freedom to exploit one single location to its fullest potential instead of shooting multiple scenes, switching settings and time of day, distorting the viewer’s attention and awareness, following a formulaic development. In The Untouchables this method is even clearer in the scene where a gangster is trying to break into Malone’s (Sean Connery’s) home and follows him from the street, onto the window into the apartment. Had it been filmed any other way, this scene would have lost its energy and the quality of a ticking bomb, yet De Palma perfectly uses the limited space of a cop’s apartment to turn this scene into a real nail-biter.
As mentioned in the introduction to this post, De Palma is well known for his fixation with Hitchcock. Some might even call him a cheap copy of Hitchcock, but that would absolutely be a false claim. De Palma’s style is unique precisely because he follows certain patterns and uses certain elements that were previously introduced by none other than the man behind Psycho, Vertigo, North by Northwest and Birds. Most De Palma movies use Hitchcock’s teachings to make the most out of nothing, for example, by foreshadowing a dramatic, bloody resolution like in Dressed to Kill to make the actual finale even more shocking. In Dressed to Kill the audience is bombarded with violent images showing the gruesome slaying of a middle-aged woman (Angie Dickinson) at different moments of the movie, finally culminating within the one hour mark with the full depiction of the murder as witnessed by the prostitute played by Melanie Griffith. Certain lighting patterns, like in the first minutes of Carlito’s Way, will foreshadow the character’s end but also give a sense of what is about to follow. By using different shades of purple, gray and blue, De Palma paints Carlito’s Way‘s introduction with a sense of nostalgia, a sense of accomplishment even though the movie has just started. We realize the character is dying not because Carlito says it in his voice over narration but because of the way he is introduced on screen, eyes wide open, staring upwards, right into the camera, his body being slowly pushed in a stretcher by a group of nurses, the world around him fading out, leaving him alone with his story that he’s about to tell the audience.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the key to De Palma’s visual seduction of the viewer lies in his untamed love for genre. You will often find yourself wondering what you’ve just watched when the credits to a De Palma film start to roll, was that a thriller (Blow Out) ? A horror (Body Double)? A black comedy (Scarface)? Or a Western (The Untouchables)? These questions are extremely valid since the director is always trying to mask his films with multiple layers of genres in order to make the most accurate representation of his own intricate vision. The scene in The Untouchables where the group of policemen lead by Elliot Ness and Malone (Kevin Costner and Sean Connery, respectively) charge a column of vehicles driven by mafia members on horseback wielding shotguns and pistols is something one would expect to see in a Western by John Ford, not a gangster movie written by David Mamet and directed by Brian De Palma, and yet that’s what makes the entire scene, and not a minute of it feels silly or unnecessary, it simply is a De Palma moment, something so unique, original and full of life that you, as an audience member, cannot help but appreciate the sheer passion that went into the production of that particular scene.
De Palma will keep making many people shake their heads in dissatisfaction, be it with his ‘male gaze’ (re: Femme Fatale from 2002 where the character played by Antonio Banderas is literally taking pictures of women from his balcony) or simply with his fixation of turning every moment into a big, loud celebration (the fireworks in Blow Out ‘s ending). This, however, should not be held against him as De Palma is one of the very few directors who is capable of making movies by using a ton of style and a grain of substance, something other fellow filmmakers (yes, I’m looking at you, Nicolas Winding Refn) are simply not up to, or at least, not on De Palma’s level. Having watched a lot of his movies lately, some with repeated viewings, it is safe to say that sometimes studying a cheap copy of Hitchcock might even be more beneficial and worthwhile than studying the real thing. Bet on it.