There aren't very many lines in movie history—and certainly none in director Brian De Palma's expansive filmography—as iconic as "Say hello to my little friend." Snarled by a manic Al Pacino (as Tony Montana) before blasting down a door with his machine gun, these six words are familiar to anyone with even the mildest interest in film—even if you've never seen Scarface before.
Brian De Palma will probably forever be best known for that 1983 mobster flick, but it's nowhere near his best work. It's third-tier De Palma, or second-tier at best. It's one of a handful of his gangster crime film classics (Carlito's Way, The Untouchables), but Brian De Palma isn't at his De Palma-est in any of those. That's a funny categorization considering the diversity of his filmography. With movies ranging from Carrie to Mission: Impossible, what makes something quintessentially "De Palma"? Two taboo words: sex and murder, the words that have made Brian De Palma who he is. The filmmaker has, for decades, been a subject of cinephilic arguments and critical re-evaluations, and he's once again the talk of the town thanks to a new documentary from Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow called De Palma (out June 10), a film-by-film analysis of De Palma, by De Palma and only De Palma.
De Palma's work (including yours truly now) has long been a matter of debate though, from his depictions of violence against women, to his superior technical craft, and, of course, his Hitchcockian lineage. The last point is the reason why people hesitate to call him an auteur. So much of his work has been directly influenced by Alfred Hitchcock (some would call it thievery), from the Psycho-esque shower scene in Phantom of the Paradise (and in Dressed to Kill as well as Blow Out) to the glaring Vertigo rip-off that is Obsession.
Still, there’s a vibe I recognize when I see a De Palma movie—a vibe distinctly De Palma rather than a guessing game of Hitchcock-or-not. It's a vibe that comes out best when he lets his psycho-sexual side unravel. Many fans would agree, including the doc's co-director Baumbach himself. "That period of Sisters through Body Double is such an iconic group of movies," Noah Baumbach told me in a Collider interview this week, echoing what I believe is true, too. Aside from those bookends, some of De Palma's bests live in that era: Phantom of the Paradise (1974), Carrie (1976), The Fury (1978), Dressed to Kill (1980), and Blow Out (1981).
This period of De Palma carries a few of his trademarks: voyeurism, desires (both repression and embodiment of), and warring identities. But the most recognizable of De Palma's methods is probably the split-screen, used with masterful suspense in Sisters and to a less effective degree in Carrie, which De Palma himself admits in the documentary (split-screen doesn't lend itself well to action, he says). In 1973's Sisters, about Siamese twins, a murder, and a journalist who witnesses said murder, De Palma's use of the split-screen produces a heart-racing reaction—on one side, the man getting murdered, on the other, the witness. Then again, with one side showing the rushed clean-up of the body and blood before the cops get to the door, while on the other side the cops make their way upstairs to investigate. Sisters was the catalyst for this brand of De Palma, the prototype for the oddities that would later be recognized as quintessentially De Palma.
De Palma is a man in love with the craft of filmmaking, and he uses it to embrace discomfort, and the things which we are simultaneously disgusted and turned on by, a combination that makes it impossible to turn our heads away from the screen. One of the most memorable scenes in Carrie is the slow-motion sequence in the gym locker room, just another way of De Palma stretching out our anxieties to an uncomfortable length. There's something unsettling and exciting when his lens lingers on a naked body, a body that usually meets a disturbing fate. These things that I can point out as "De Palma" things are missing, or not as obvious, in Scarface. There's excess as a concept, something also on-brand for De Palma, but in terms of filmmaking itself, Scarface sticks out like its studio-level sore thumb, especially sitting between 1981's Blow Out and 1984's Body Double on his résumé.
Sex and violence really rear their heads together in his seedy 1980 masterpiece, Dressed to Kill, shocking upon release but now devoured in a cult-ish way. Sexual arousal leads to murder, and in between there's the stalking. De Palma loves to stalk. And he loves to watch people without their knowledge. He follows people around (read: women, always of the attractive kind) with the same vague ominousness with which, if you are a woman who's ever walked home alone at night, are most definitely familiar with. Voyeurism comes into play a lot and that's why one of the more De Palma-y of scenes in Scarface is when Al Pacino's Tony Montana spots Michelle Pfeiffer's Elvira Hancock for the first time. Her back is turned to him as she descends in a glass elevator, and his eyeline follows her slinky frame in that drop-dead green gown. She's like a crown jewel being presented to him in a glass case (the latter quite literally). It's not shot in slow-mo like that scene in Carrie, but that elevator ride feels excruciatingly slow—De Palma takes Tony (and us) to the edge of anticipation, something to both savor and itch to get over with. This particular moment in Scarface looks a lot like the plethora of scenes of men in his movies who have observed women from a distance. Here, she becomes an object of desire, and simultaneously a vehicle of jealousy and rage against his crime boss to whom she's married. (Eventually, he makes her his.)
But of course, De Palma doesn't just look; he has to touch as well. What sets De Palma apart from Hitchcock, a director he's both openly revered and has been unable to escape as a comparison, is that he portrays sex with an explicit lens, and uses that to become his own Master of Suspense in a way. Think of the opening shower scene in Dressed to Kill. In the iconic Psycho shower scene, we see Janet Leigh's legs and shoulders (still scandalous at the time) before the shadow of a knife interrupts her; in Dressed to Kill, Angie Dickinson spends an uncomfortable amount of time rubbing her nipples, with the camera up close and very, very personal, before her soap bar eventually reaches down to her vagina. And bam. There's someone in the shower with her. Is this a wet dream or a nightmare?
But his best pornographic Hitchcockian wink takes form as his erotic thriller Body Double (1984). While taking obvious references from Rear Window, De Palma cast Melanie Griffith as his porn star character, even more sexed up than the very sexy Michelle Pfeiffer of the year prior. The fun bit of trivia is that Griffith is the daughter of Tippi Hedren, best known for leading Hitchcock's Birds in 1963, but unlike mother, she's stripped way, way down. De Palma's career has been built on taking Hitchcock several steps too far and in Body Double, it's not only obvious in his choice of casting, but also via a comically large drill, which is so big that it makes its way through a woman's body and all the way into her floor, making blood drip through from the ceiling, to the apartment below.
De Palma has spent most of his career fighting both studios and critics (with the exception of a super-fan, Pauline Kael, on his side). Either gross or grossly misunderstood, the director has been serving up his deep, dark id to anyone willing to consume it. Erotic thrillers mostly always fall to the wayside of B-level, but with this documentary (and in New York, a comprehensive, month-long retrospective at Metrograph), those cheap thrills are being reconsidered as classics. Brian De Palma, in turn, is being reconsidered as an auteur.
In Scarface, the best parts of the movie belong on the dance floor. Drenched in pink—a color as artificial as the blood in his earlier movies—his characters are glitzy and glamorous, sharing something of a mating ritual dance before tolling in body count. In the doc, De Palma says he wanted to stand out from the likes of The Godfather by using Miami pastels. On this dance floor, while Blondie's "Rush Rush" and Amy Holland's "She's on Fire" play, the colors swim around Pacino as his gaze lingers on the beautiful Pfeiffer. It's in these scenes that Scarface looks and feels most decadent. And no one does decadence better than Brian De Palma.