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Brian De Palma: The New Hitchcock or Just Another Rip-Off?

What scares the director of a classic movie thriller is a comparison to the master of suspense

Angie Dickinson, Brian DePalma, Nancy Allen

Angie Dickinson (left) with Brian DePalma and wife Nancy Allen, July 22nd, 1980

Richard Corkery/NY Daily News Archive/Getty

In less than two months, Dressed to Kill has grossed $30 million, making it one of the few solid successes of an otherwise disappointing summer. And most people would probably agree that it was one of the summer’s most talked-about films. But here the consensus ends. Dressed to Kill has provoked an intense, divided reaction that has some critics proclaiming it a masterpiece and others dismissing it as junk. At the center of the controversy is the film’s writer-director, Brian De Palma. Is he the new Hitchcock, the new “master of the macabre,” as he’s being touted, or is he just another rip-off artist?

Sitting in his homey Greenwich Village office, Brian De Palma does not look much like a master of the macabre. Relaxed and obviously enjoying his latest success, he looks more like a big, cuddly bear than anything else. But at the mention of Hitchcock and charges of ripoff, his mood darkens.

“The critics sort of split on Dressed to Kill,” he says, lighting a Montclair. “The Andrew Sarris-Richard Corliss school feels it’s comparable to necrophilia to take any of the visual grammar Hitchcock pioneered, or any of his ideas, his music.” De Palma’s voice trails off. “In their minds, anyone who does this is the lowest form of embalmer. The Pauline Kael-Gary Arnold school doesn’t take such a sanctimonious approach to the master.”

He shrugs his shoulders and adds, “The other reason Dressed to Kill got so much attention was that there was really nothing much to talk about all summer. “My style is very different from Hitchcock’s,” he continues. “I am dealing in surrealistic, erotic imagery. Hitchcock never got into that too much. Psycho is basically about a heist. A girl steals money for her boyfriend so they can get married. Dressed to Kill is about a woman’s secret erotic life. If anything, Dressed to Kill has more of a Buñuel feeling to it.” De Palma lights another cigarette, getting a bit fidgety. “I mean, Psycho came out in 1960. I was twenty years old. What the fuck do kids who go to see movies know about Psycho? Even the term Hitchcockian is a bit arcane now.”

De Palma takes a long sip of coffee. “It’s like pop art, in a sense. When pop art first came out, the academic, mainline critics just dismissed it as shocking and ridiculous. How could anyone find anything artistic about a painting of a Brillo box? And when people started writing seriously about rock & roll, they were called nitwits. Suddenly pop art and rock & roll had to be taken seriously. Same with my movie. It can be dismissed on so many levels: the genre is dimestore stuff, it’s dirty, it’s bloody, what does it have to do with art?” He takes a deep breath. “But you always have to fight that. Older generations of critics are always talking about films, great masterpieces made twenty and thirty years ago, and they tend to dismiss anything new or contemporary as not serious. I just don’t think it has anything to do with the audience.”

De Palma slumps back in his chair and says he expected to get creamed a lot worse than he did. He acknowledges his debt to Hitchcock and certain obvious similarities to Psycho, but he insists on the originality of his story. He claims he got the idea of the transsexual murderer from watching transsexual Nancy Hunt on a Phil Donahue show (portions of which appear in Dressed to Kill). De Palma was fascinated, and he began to read extensively about transsexuals. “They have this wonderful term for it,” says De Palma, leaning forward. “‘Gender discomfort.'” He shakes his head. “Gender discomfort! Can you imagine? I was at a dinner party, and I asked, quite innocently, ‘Wouldn’t it be terrific to dress up in women’s clothes and go out and see how people related to you?’ And everyone looked at me like I was a lunatic.”

The freewheeling sexual world we live in, where you can be in a bar one minute and in some stranger’s bed the next, fascinated De Palma as well. “I basically got the idea of cruising around and what can happen from Looking for Mr. Goodbar — the idea that it’s dangerous and exciting at the same time.”

De Palma gets a puckish look on his face when asked if he agrees with those critics who consider Dressed to Kill a masterpiece. Placing his hand over his heart in mock seriousness, he says, “It is difficult for a man to evaluate his own masterworks.” He laughs. “I think Dressed to Kill is the best film of this kind I’ve done so far. And I consider myself one of the best at this form. I’m not shy about that. But ‘masterwork’ is a very heavy term to use on anyone who isn’t dead.” He laughs again. “You never want to feel that you’ve come to the end of what you’re doing.”

Nevertheless, De Palma feels he is going through a particularly creative period, the result of what he calls a “major breakthrough.” “I discovered the pencil!” he laughs. “It took me days to type a page, by the time I had corrected all the mistakes.” But once he began writing on big yellow pads, “I wrote like a lunatic,” he says. “I can write ten pages in a day. I wrote Dressed to Kill very quickly and then started Personal Effects, my next project. Then I had two other ideas that I started writing, and another idea started haunting me.”

De Palma records ideas as they come to him — in pictures. The walls of his office are covered with little stick-figure sketches on index cards. “Once I get a good idea,” says De Palma. “it doesn’t let go. I walk around, doing my normal activities, but I’m in a daze, because I’m trying to figure out how to get this character over to that point so he can meet this other character. In the last couple of months, I’ve had a bunch of ideas. I almost wish it would slow down a bit. It’s getting a little crazy, waking up at four in the morning and trying to get it all down. But on the other hand, it’s wonderful, because there are times when you just don’t have any ideas. This is better.

“Directors in their forties — I just turned forty — move into high gear; they get to use all they’ve learned. But the tragedy of the profession is that so many directors make their best pictures in their thirties, and because of the corrosive aspects of this business, they suddenly go out of control.” He pauses. “I would hate to think I made my best picture four years ago.”

De Palma’s mood grows serious. “This is a terribly destructive business. When you become successful, you lose your critical peer group. You’re off living in a mansion somewhere, surrounded by people who think you are wonderful. This is so dangerous to artistic growth.” He pauses. “You know, everyone has an image of himself that, in fact, really isn’t true. When you’re successful in one area, you tend to say, ‘Hey, that’s not me. They think I’m a horror-film director when I’m really a…'” De Palma searches for the right word, “‘… a poet.'” He grins. “Suddenly I want all my poetry on the screen, so I start shooting scenes with horses running across fields.

“If I had been Truffaut,” he continues, “and had made Home Movies, it would have been infinitely more successful, because the critics are used to Truffaut making this sort of movie — about his youth, a kind of sweet, personal, sentimental, quirky, ironic, funny film. But they’re not used to me doing it.” De Palma sighs. “You’ve got to know what you do well and not be embarrassed by it — even if it brings you great wealth and success,” he says, smiling.

De Palma isn’t ambivalent about what it is he does well. “I can tell a story in visual images probably better than anybody. My weakness is that I’ve never done a great character story. I should probably direct somebody else’s material if I am going to grow as a director. I can direct actors well. But I’m usually so involved in the visual storytelling that the slow rising and falling of the characters’ relationships just doesn’t interest me. But it should. I should do it.

“See, the problem in this business is that in order to grow, you have to make lots of pictures. And fail a lot of times. We’re going through a wild budget syndrome at the moment, where a young director will make a big score on some small-budget picture, and then whatever he says and does is right. The problem with this is that your failures won’t be half-million-dollar ones but $30 million ones. And those can be devastating. The critics start reviewing your budgets, and the distribution companies, who have lost a lot of money, become reluctant to let you experiment. I had the advantage of being able to fail many times on minuscule budgets early in my career, and I wasn’t wiped out. With most directors, ten-to-one their first couple of pictures were disasters.” De Palma pulls on his salt-and-pepper beard. “Right now, if I wanted to make a story about a porpoise and Benji, I could probably get it financed. And that, of course, would be my undoing. Because when it failed, I would be in terrible, terrible trouble.”

De Palma blames this treacherous situation on the Hollywood system. “There is a danger to living in that community,” he says. “It affects your standards, because what they think is successful isn’t at all. I don’t think I have failed if I’m making a picture for a small company or one that is financed independently. But in Hollywood’s terms, I have.

“I’ II give you two examples of what I mean. I was in California to mix The Fury. Frank Yablans [a producer] told me he could get me a million dollars to direct Hurricane.” De Palma laughs. “Now, normally I wouldn’t even have considered directing Hurricane. It’s not exactly my cup of tea, you know, shooting on Tora, Tora, Tora or wherever, but the fact that Frank said he could get me a million dollars made me think about it enough to read the script and take that meeting. I kept thinking, ‘Well, Roman Polanski was involved, and he’s a great director, right?’ I kept saying, ‘A million dollars…’ I didn’t do it, but the fact that I even considered it. that I could be bought….”

De Palma tells his second story. “I was in California, at the bottom of my career. I had a picture on the shelf, Get to Know Your Rabbit. I couldn’t get arrested. I was trying to get Sisters off the ground, but it was hopeless, and I realized I’d have to raise the money independently. Then Marty Ransohoff [a producer] offered me Fuzz. It was a funny New York cop picture, and I thought I could do something with it. We started to pick the cast; I went after Burt Reynolds and got him in the picture. Then I was told the studio heads wanted to cast Yul Brynner and Raquel Welch for the foreign market.” De Palma’s eyes light up. “Yul Brynner and Raquel Welch in a New York street-cop movie! I went to the writer and producer, and we met with Ransohoff. He said, ‘I’ve got United Artists on the phone, and if you don’t put those fucking people in the picture. United Artists won’t finance it. You guys better go back and talk it over.'”

De Palma shakes his head. “Anyway, I ended up not doing the picture, but it’s that kind of thinking — you’re in a desperate situation, you gotta have a job, you’re of fered a lot of money…. It affects you. I think the only way not to be affected by it is to try to keep away from that kind of crafty, commercial, capitalistic world as much as possible. The key to that kind of system is, ‘What’s his price? How can he be had? How can we get him interested?’ And there are a lot of people a lot smarter than I am who think about nothing else twenty-four hours a day. I’m smart enough to know they might find some way to get me. You just try to keep on a different road.”

Personal Effects, De Palma’s next project, will not be about a porpoise and Benji but about a film sound-effects editor who witnesses a political assassination. “It goes back to my assassination-buff years and Watergate, and how things get covered up. It’s about explanations that don’t explain anything. I think it will be quite original. I don’t think the audience is aware of the sound-effects process. At the same time, it’II be a detective thriller; you know, putting together all these clues.”

De Palma leans back in his chair. “I think I’m headed in more of a political, ethical direction. I am fascinated by things like Watergate and the Joseph Yablonski murders. I watch a lot of television. I loved the conventions.” He pauses. “When I made Greetings, I found myself on talk shows, talking about the revolution, and I realized I had become just another piece of software that they could sell, like aspirin or deodorant. It didn’t make any difference what I said. I was talking about the downfall of America. Who cares? In my experience, what happened to the revolution is that it got turned into a product, and that is the process of everything in America. Everything is meshed into a product.”

He shrugs his shoulders. “I’m interested in why things happen. For instance, why did the Billy Carter affair break the week it did? Why didn’t it happen a year ago? I mean, something’s going on there. Those things don’t just happen. Why did Deep Throat emerge at just the right time to lead Woodward and Bernstein on?

“I’m dealing with things close to me more than I’ve done before. Home Movies dealt with my youth, my family. By taking that character and moving him into Dressed to Kill, I’m building a character very close to me. As you get older, you know more about life. You’re emotionally susceptible. For me, I had to develop a skill in order to express what I had to say. And now I’m getting to the point where I’m able to express what I’m feeling,” De Palma says, rolling his eyes, “no matter what perverse street it takes me down.” 

In This Article: Coverwall

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