The Untouchables: In Praise of the De Palma Films That Still Divide Critics and Audiences


This week, Metrograph’s month-long Brian De Palma retrospective reaches the back half of the notorious director’s career. We invited our critics to champion favorites that have not always been championed — and, yes, one volunteered for Mission to Mars.

Body Double (1984), June 18

For years, De Palma had been accused of ripping off Hitchcock while also indulging in gratuitous sex and violence — and elaborately contrived storylines. And then out he comes with this sleazy Rear Window/Vertigo homage about an out-of-work actor sucked into a far-fetched conspiracy filled with stripping neighbors, mysterious porn stars, switched identities, crazy Indian masks, and (bloody, gory) death by power drill.

At times, De Palma’s heated 1984 thriller seems designed to piss off his detractors. But his tonal control here is masterful: His earnest classicism lives alongside his pop irreverence. The hero’s obsession is treated sincerely, but the movement and trickery of the expressionistic camera always hint at something more going on, and the escalating menace is undercut by violence so garish that you can’t help but laugh. As the character loses himself in this conspiracy — adopting different guises in order to uncover others’ different guises — the film purposely loses itself in different styles and genres; at one point, the movie even transforms into a Frankie Goes to Hollywood music video, while Pino Donaggio’s score is a mix of orchestral longing and new-age cool.

At the heart of it all, though, lies something surprisingly touching. All that wink-wink hyper-stylization suggests a director trying to come to terms with the very act of moviemaking itself — with the idea of using artifice and fakery to explore his deepest, most intimate neuroses and demons. The real protagonist of Body Double is De Palma himself, and the film might be his masterpiece. Bilge Ebiri

Femme Fatale (2002), June 18

De Palma is obsessed with watching and being watched in Femme Fatale. Through camera lenses, binoculars, altered perspectives, and disguises (real and imagined), the act of being watched or watching others has devastating consequences for these characters. Laure Ashe (Rebecca Romijn) double-crosses her fellow criminals and takes on the life of her doppelgänger, setting off a chain of events that have played out in many thrillers, but never quite like this — De Palma subverts expectations by twisting these characters and desires in unexpected directions. Laure’s uneasy, sexually charged relationship with paparazzo Nicolas Bardo (Antonio Banderas) gives the film its edge and fire. An image he took of her many years ago haunts her, even as she finds success in her new life.

It may seem slick, but it isn’t all surface — De Palma is too smart for that. Frames are rich with hidden details: Witness, in the opening shot, Romijn’s face superimposed repeatedly over Barbara Stanwyck’s while Laure watches Double Indemnity. It’s a clever visual shorthand for the many identities Laure takes on and the ways women operate in film noir. The film wouldn’t work without Romijn’s assured performance. She makes a great Hitchcock blonde. You know the type: icy, complex, smarter than you think. Except she wears her sexuality far more brazenly. Just watch the seduction, in the famous heist sequence, between Laure and Veronica (Rie Rasmussen), which is as much about their pleasure as ours. Romijn brings to mind complicated, elegantly vulgar heroines played by Gloria Grahame and Dorothy Malone in the 1950s while still feeling like her own animal.

The femme fatale is a potent archetype that has become increasingly rare onscreen. She’s needed now more than ever given the murky, shifting nature of modern sexual and gender politics. Thankfully, De Palma and Romijn understand this, knowing exactly what to do with her, finding new angles that are as surprising as they are evocative. Angelica Jade Bastién

Snake Eyes (1998), June 19 and 20

International military strategy converges on an Atlantic City title fight in De Palma’s single-location thriller, which diagnoses the aftermath of the ringside assassination of a secretary of Defense. Chaos is the order of the hour — the 14,000-strong crowd scrambles for the exits, Hurricane Jezebel rages outside, and Y2K panic hangs in the air (a slimy John Heard worries about “[getting] enough money to finish the goddamn millennium!”) — but De Palma remains in cool, full control, especially in the discreetly organized, ten-minute-plus Steadicam shot that introduces detective Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage) canvassing the grounds before the bout. De Palma tracks the chatty Santoro around corners and down elevators, tipping us off to a head-spinning amount of information that will later prove key to screenwriter David Koepp’s flashback-happy conspiracy plotting.

Santoro peskily chips away at what increasingly looks like a high-level cover-up, his investigation pairing him with an old friend (a stern naval commander played by Gary Sinise). At key points, De Palma pivots back to replay earlier scenes from different perspectives, changing points of view like he’s shuffling cards: He returns to the fight, initially kept offscreen, and stages it from inside the ring with head-on Raging Bull angles; and he revisits, via split-screen, the actions of Julia Costello (Carla Gugino), a woman in white seated next to the secretary at the time of his death.

These tricks have contributed to Snake Eyes‘ reputation as a thrillingly empty formal exercise, which might well be true: The movie often feels like batting-practice De Palma — a low-stakes treat for fans alone. And yet there’s something characteristically perverse and oddly touching about the rude awakening that eventually hits Santoro. He’s a loudmouthed fuck-up who haltingly comes to the almost embarrassing realization that he — a corrupt cop and unrepentant philanderer — might actually be the moral center of his universe. Danny King

Mission to Mars (2000), June 20 and 21

Let’s not oversell this: The critics who lambasted De Palma and Disney’s big-budget turn-of-the-century astronaut epic had themselves an easy target. The script is weak, the characters flat, the first ten minutes a stiff bore, and the last twenty or so a palate-offending stew of 2001‘s beyond-the-infinite mysteries and Close Encounters‘ humans-meet-aliens playdate — with the origins of life on Earth explained in something like a multimedia planetarium show. But in between, De Palma romps, as clever and geeky as that inventor kid Keith Gordon played in Dressed to Kill, building complex new dazzlements from pieces in Kubrick’s toybox: elegantly rotating spacecraft, misadventures outside the airlock, hyper-competent astronauts casually comfortable in zero-g.

De Palma’s “stick jockeys” — their term — are underwritten, but they have soul, especially the married couple played by Tim Robbins and Connie Nielsen, even if their idea of romantic accompaniment for a dizzying floating couple’s dance is Van Halen. The camera (Stephen H. Burum served as d.p.) glides through three dimensions, in and out of the ships, with a fluidity we wouldn’t see again until Gravity. The suspenseful problem-solving set pieces, meanwhile, are expertly shaped and -paced, building to a big-name death that also anticipates Alfonso Cuarón’s 2013 Oscar winner. For a movie accused of being derivative, Mission to Mars is in the DNA of a crop of auteurist descendants, including The Martian and Interstellar. And De Palma, wittily, enlivens material that would seem tired in those: He uses the lag-time in interplanetary communication as an excuse to cut in cheery footage of characters who are actually in terrible danger, and the inevitable scene of space travelers watching recordings of people back home becomes one of the director’s subtlest screen-splitting lulus. Alan Scherstuhl