Profile: Brian De Palma

The director from the black lagoon

Lawrence O’Toole August 18 1980
Profile: Brian De Palma

The director from the black lagoon

Lawrence O’Toole August 18 1980

The director from the black lagoon

Profile: Brian De Palma

Lawrence O’Toole

"I love violence—it’s beautiful, poetic,” says Brian De Palma. Coming from the director of Carrie, The Fury and now Dressed to Kill, a man who has lifted the horror movie into the realm of high art, it is hardly a bolt from the blue. “I think violence is a very cinematic form: you have objects moving through space. Since when are we making moral judgments on artistic forms? I mean the Crucifixion is a pretty violent study. Nobody says that’s horrible, but there’s something very compelling about that image.”

Objects moving through space: Carrie White’s telekinesis propelling kitchen knives across the room and pinning her religiously fanatical mother to the wall, St. Sebastian style; John Cassavetes’ body being blown up into slow-motion smithereens at the finish of The Fury, a straight razor slicing through the air and Angie Dickinson’s flesh in Dressed to Kill. Movable feasts, to Brian De Palma’s way of thinking.

In his office at his Greenwich Village duplex, De Palma, also the director of Phantom of the Paradise and Obsession, is icily polite, his trenchant manner almost stepping over into the brusque. He’s smarting from critical reaction that Dressed To Kill is unnecessarily violent and lurid and, with his shower scene and several other homages, that he’s robbed the grave of his mentor, Alfred Hitchcock. His reputation has preceded him: “Hollywood’s coldest hot young director.” However, a couple of emendations are in order: he has always been, by his own admission, an outsider in Hollywood and, about to turn 40, he’s not as young as most people assume him to be. Still feeling the stabs, he is nevertheless surging onward.

Lining the large corkboards in his office are snapshots of the Philadelphia locations he’ll use in his next film, a political thriller called Personal Effects. Each photograph has been meticulously arranged in sequence; he makes movies as though he were building a computer. Everything, down to the hairbreadth calculation of camera angle and lighting, has been exactingly accounted for before shooting begins. Nancy Allen, who plays the hooker stalked by the razor-wielding transvestite killer in Dressed To Kill and who is De Palma’s wife, says that while her husband is working “I can say something to him and he’ll answer, but he’s not really listening. He’s not there— he’s light years away.”

The son of a Philadelphia orthopedic surgeon, De Palma saw a lot of blood as a kid. His father did bone transplants on animals in his lab; following his father De Palma did some himself, but felt medicine was “not precise enough.” Besides, he was already obsessed with computers, which he designed and built

himself. “I don’t know if there’s a direct correlation between my science background and my method of making movies, but it does allow me to construct in a precise, well-thought-out manner, as though I were writing the score for a symphony. I’ve always been attracted to things baroque—architecture, painting, music. I always liked that kind of stylization, that souped-up sensibility.”

People get bumped off in the most baroque and brazen ways imaginable in his movies. The violence has unnerved many, most notably the Motion Picture Association of America’s Classification and Ratings Administration, which threatened to slap Dressed To Kill with an X rating until several violent and erotic slivers were excised. De Palma wasn’t amused, though he made the cuts to placate the MPAA and win a more acceptable R. (An X rating generally means no one under 17 can be admitted; it could also mean the financial kiss of death for a $7.5-million movie.) De Palma responded with charges of “censorship” and “repression.”

For the serious critics (“stuffed shirts”) made uneasy by his bizarre and equally baroque sense of humor, and who take him to task for making violence appear funny, he feels contempt: “They talk about esoteric movies that are deep and wonderful, but what lives on is the popular moviemaking form.” Teen-agers, the bulk of the movie audience right now, are De Palma’s perfect audience, the acid test for him. He admits a special affinity for them and his movies have major roles for teenagers: the telekinetic teens of Carrie

and The Fury, Angie Dickinson’s computer-whiz son in Dressed to Kill; and Home Movies, made at De Palma’s alma mater with the help of young film-making students. “I like their exuberance. Adolescents see things very much in primary colors; they haven’t been exposed too much and their values haven’t been eroded. They haven’t been dulled. I like a real street audience—people who talk during and at a movie, a very unsophisticated 42nd Street crowd. They just go to have a good time.”

And De Palma gives it to them in spades or, with the prom night of Carrie in mind, in buckets of blood. Since he began directing (his first feature, The Wedding Party [1964], starred two unknowns—Jill Clayburgh and Robert De Niro), his movies have flouted convention and have had a decidedly antiestablishment cast of mind. Both Greetings (1968) and Hi, Mom\ (1969), also starring De Niro, were loose improvisational diatribes against the Vietnam War and gutsy for their time. Phantom of the Paradise, the horror rock-opera, has become a cult item for a predominantly teen-age audience. Keith Gordon, who plays the son in Dressed to Kill, says, “Brian was the first person to treat me as an adult, not just a cute kid.” The character, originally written for a 12-year-old, is unabashedly based on the young De Palma, who sequestered himself in his room and constructed computers—a bitworm instead of a bookworm.

Above all, De Palma loves to manipulate, to be in control, whether it’s a movie, a conversation or an audience in a darkened house. And who are more easily manipulated than teen-agers, if you appeal to their fantasies? De Palma says he is never unaware of the audience when he’s trying for an effect in a movie. George Litto, who produced

Obsession and Dressed To Kill and who’ll produce Personal Effects, calls De Palma “a producer’s dream,” because he’s so fastidious during filming. Angie Dickinson says De Palma had her character blocked out for her step by step. At first Dickinson turned down her role because of the sexually frank shower scene in it (a double was eventually employed). “I was afraid of losing my Police Woman fans who would think the character too unwholesome. But,” she adds with the smile of someone who’s been sweet-talked, “Brian talked me into it”—which leaves the notion that De Palma can be ruthlessly charming when he chooses to.

An ardent moviegoer himself (“I see everything I can”), De Palma insists that “you should be able to speak to the audience without dialogue, and for that you have to be in control. The primary experience of going to the movies is having images relate to the subconscious, speaking in a metaphorical, surrealistic way, very much like a dream. Movies should pull you into them the way dreams do.” That implies a lack of control, a reliance on the deepest instincts and then going all out with them. “Sure, I let my subconscious fears swim to the surface. What are they? They’re all in Dressed To Kill. What can happen when you get picked up besides getting laid— the Goodbar thing. Being alone on a subway platform. Being alone in your bathroom. Elevators—a door opens, some strange person gets in, the door closes and you’re trapped. These are all things that scare me and I’m sure scare other people.” Or will scare other people.

De Palma’s method of working may be exacting and extremely self-conscious on one level, but the uncontrollable subconscious leaks have their effect: “Things cook around in your head and you wake up in the middle of the night and suddenly they mesh together. But it’s something I don’t push.” His rigorous penchant for stylization, with the camera secretly tracking its subject, is obsessive, ritualistic. He doesn’t, can’t or won’t account for its origins but observes that “you can’t get away from all that Catholic imagery that was always around the house when I was growing up.” Perhaps that background connects to the sense in his movies of looking when you’re not really supposed to, a form of sinning. De Palma movies are rife with voyeurism where committing the sin has turned gleeful: I can see you but you can Ï see me. More control. Sisters, a horror story about Siamese twins who get separated, opens with a parody of a TV game show—called Peeping Tom. The camera looks on secretively at the girls showering in a gym at the opening of Carrie. Binoculars, hidden cameras, spy glasses, tape recorders and other forms of eavesdropping all figure prominently in Sisters, The Fury and Dressed To Kill. De Palma himself is a Watergate addict who’ll read anything written on the subject. From high above the Paradise, the disfigured Phantom looks down upon the audience, monitoring it.

Referring to his films being full of oddballs, freaks and off-thewall walkers-through-life — hookers, telekinetics, disfigured composers, Siamese twins, schizophrenic transvestites—he says, “I’m not too interested in nuts-and-bolts kinds of people and situations. They basically bore me. Their stories are boring. I’m attracted to a certain kind of stylized reality, right down to the characters. That’s the way I see things and I like to fly with them as often as I can. I just like to be exuberant and dazzling.”

Dazzle them he’s done: Dressed To Kill became an instant hit in its first week of release. All because of a love of binary bits and the bright lights they emit with De Palma at the control panel.