Watching my DVD of Carlito’s Way, Brian DePalma’s 1993 film about a former druglord trying in vain to escape his sordid past, for the umpteenth time I found my nerves on edge during the climactic chase in the subway station as Carlito (Al Pacino) tries to elude his pursuers. This is a classic DePalma setpiece, with all his trademarks firmly in place: the fluid tracking camera, the sense the viewer gets of something moving invisibly beneath the surface of the film – a tension filling the empty spaces between the characters, so that one can almost reach out and touch it. (There are, of course, other DePalma trademarks – notably his brilliant use of the split-screen technique – that aren’t on display here.)
It’s rare to find a great performance in a purely cinematic sequence like this one – even the best actors tend to become tools to be passed between director, cinematographer and editor – but Pacino manages it here, perfectly conveying all of Carlito’s anxiety while also falling completely in line with the complicated camera movements. (Anyone who thinks Hollywood actors don’t have to contend with the demands of choreography, the way Hindi movie stars do in dance sequences, should watch this scene.)
But with all respect to Pacino, in any Brian DePalma movie top billing must go to the director himself. The man is one of the great visual artists, something that should be obvious to anyone who watches any of his films. (You don’t have to have a professional eye, though apparently it helps; DePalma is one of the directors most revered by fellow directors around the world, even as mainstream movie critics, especially in America, continue to sniff at the "sleaziness and shallowness" of his films. Most European film journals, notably the French ones, love his work; incidentally, Carlito’s Way was named best film of the 1990s by Cahiers du Cinema - the magazine founded by Truffaut, Chabrol etc in the 1950s, which was also responsible back then for first suggesting to idiot American and British critics that Alfred Hitchcock might actually be worth taking seriously.)
I’m heavily into the list-making thing these days, so here are some of my favourite DePalma setpieces:
-- The museum scene in Dressed to Kill: long, wordless sequence that plays like a symphony, with Angie Dickinson’s bored housewife involved in an inadvertent hide-and-seek game with a dark stranger. Brilliant example of another DePalma motif, the incompleteness of our perceptions. His movies abound with half-seen figures who are in fact very important to the plot. It’s especially unsettling when, in a scene that has so far shown us everything through the protagonist’s eyes, the camera fleetingly lets the viewer see something that character is unaware of.
-- The last five minutes of Raising Cain: where, almost without the viewer realising it, the camera glides into an alternate world, transforming a noisy, bustling New York park into something the Big Bad Wolf would be comfortable in. (Excellent article here from Senses of Cinema about this.)
-- The denouement in Body Double: this is one of the most difficult movies for DePalma’s supporters to defend, because its content (and execution) is so sleazy and gratuitously voyeuristic. (I remember when "morning show" was such a bad word, Body Double was one of the titles regularly playing at 9 AM at the Savitri/Uphaar halls in the early 1980s.) But the climactic scene provides a startling commentary on cinema-as-therapy, with the mediocre C-movie actor Jake being forced to "act" in two senses of the word.
Jake, who suffers from claustrophobia (this film references Hitchcock’s Vertigo), is being buried alive by the villain; as the background turns hazy and impressionistic, he drifts off into semi-consciousness and hears fragments of the bad guy’s taunting speech; words like "take", "action" and "cut" are accentuated. Then the setting shifts, Jake opens his eyes to find he’s shooting a scene, similar to the one with which the movie had opened: he’s playing a vampire enclosed in a coffin and has blacked out again, because of his claustrophobia. The director is palpably annoyed and Jake decides he has to conquer his fear; he gets back into the enclosed space purposefully, pulls the lid down… and opens his eyes to find himself back in his "reality", overcoming his malaise to take the villain on.
-- Sound recorder John Travolta analysing the sound of the car accident in Blow Out and realising it might have been an assassination attempt: DePalma’s detractors accuse him of cheapening the work of superior directors, notably Hitchcock, in his "tributes". But he invariably adds his own subtexts. Blow Out is inspired by Antonioni’s Blow-Up, in which a photographer analyses some negatives and begins to believe he might have captured a murder plot on film. DePalma’s film, which takes the theme of the unreliability of what we see and hear, and places it in the context of an American political thriller, is every bit as skilled as the original.
-- The idyllic locker-room bantering in Carrie which in no time metamorphoses into the horrific tampon-throwing scene, with the other girls mocking Carrie during her first period: has cruelty ever been better represented on film?
-- The nearly-20-minute-long tacking shot that opens Snake Eyes: DePalma showing off big-time, but it worked for me, so what if the rest of the film was a dud (only relatively speaking).
-- The newspaper’s journey in The Untouchables: the whimsical tracking shot that follows the route of the newspaper containing Eliot Ness’s photograph from the hotel door all the way to Al Capone’s bed. I think I preferred this to the movie’s far more famous setpiece, the climactic shoot-out on the stairway (a tribute to Potemkin’s Odessa Steps sequence) – because the latter scene is almost too clinical. The director is on autopilot here.
Also, the fact that The Untouchables is the last DePalma movie to be deemed a "respectable" by most mainstream critics prejudices me against it generally. Brian DePalma doesn’t need that kind of sanction.