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Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2006 08:01 am

De Palma's nonthrillers

He doesn’t limit himself to one genre -- and that’s why he’s so good

Brian De Palma, Al Pacino and Steven Bauer, filming Scarface (1983).

The Black Dahlia is the latest murder thriller from Brian De Palma, who has spent his long career trying to shake the label of Hitchcock rip-off artist. The fact that he has made many films in that genre merely suggests he should be considered its modern master. When I look over his list of thrillers — Sisters (1973), Obsession (1976), Dressed to Kill (1980), Blow Out (1981), Body Double (1984), Raising Cain (1992), and Femme Fatale (2002) — I see a group of films that are uniquely his own. Every thriller made in the last 50 years is compared to the work of Hitchcock, and often the comparison is unjustified. Hitchcock’s influence is undeniable, but the accusations against De Palma are exaggerated. One definite difference between the two filmmakers is that De Palma does not limit himself to one genre. Phantom of the Paradise (1974) is a rock-horror musical that blends The Phantom of the Opera with Faust. William Finley stars as a composer whose rock opera is stolen by the devilish Swan (Paul Williams, in a bizarre piece of casting). Disfigured in prison, he comes back to haunt the Paradise, a grand rock palace. Paradise, De Palma’s first great film, is outlandish and much more entertaining than any film version of Opera. Why The Rocky Horror Picture Show became a cult phenomenon and De Palma’s superior film slipped through the cracks is beyond me. De Palma’s next foray into horror, Carrie (1976), gave the director his first big hit. Genre films are rarely taken seriously, but Carrie received critical acclaim, and Sissy Spacek, in the title role as an abused high-school girl with telekinetic powers, and Piper Laurie, as her crazed religious-zealot mother, both received Oscar nominations.

De Palma has directed three high-profile gangster films, Scarface (1983), The Untouchables (1987), and Carlito’s Way (1993). The least known of the three, Carlito’s Way, is actually the best. Al Pacino stars as a career criminal who has great difficulty going straight after being released from prison. The age-old story is transformed by De Palma’s wonderfully operatic direction. Casualties of War (1989) brings the atrocities of the Vietnam War front row and center, but it was overshadowed by the grand epics of the war. Sean Penn is the leader of a small unit that holds a Vietnamese girl hostage for the purpose of rape. Michael J. Fox, the one sane soldier, refuses to participate and pays the price. Penn has the showier role, but Fox, in his strongest dramatic performance, is the film’s core. Perhaps one day De Palma’s career will undergo a serious reevaluation and it will become more obvious that De Palma is one of America’s great modern directors.

New on DVD this Tuesday (Oct. 3): X-Men: The Last Stand and Thank You for Smoking.

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