“Night Flight Goes to the Movies”: Watch Master of the Macabre Brian De Palma’s video profile from 1988

By on November 11, 2016

In this special “Night Flight Goes to the Movies” video profile of film director Brian De Palma — which originally aired in 1988 — the filmmaker who gave us Dressed to Kill, Carrie, Phantom of the Paradise, The Fury, Body Double, Obsession, Scarface and The Untouchables (to name just a few!) dropped by Night Flight’s New York offices and told us, in his own words, how he felt about his films being compared to Alfred Hitchcock’s, how he wanted his heavily-stylized horror films to look “beautiful,” and how directing music videos presented unseen pitfalls.

You can see this restored interview profile, which features pivotal scenes from several of his best films, only on Night Flight Plus.

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De Palma — who in 1983 had told one critic that he wanted to be “infamous” and “controversial” — belongs to a second wave of New Hollywood filmmakers, a group that also includes Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, John Milius, Paul Schrader and Terrence Malick, all of them members of the early boomer generation, born just before, during or (mostly) just after World War II.

These were the so-called movie brats, the film school generation who studied the films of the French New Wave directors like Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and Claude Chabrol.

Unlike the older generation of Hollywood filmmakers, who learned their craft by working in the business, these second wavers spent a great amount of their youth watching films in movie theaters and then going to film school before getting their first on-set production jobs.

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Born on September 11, 1940, in Newark, New Jersey, De Palma, unlike many of his contemporaries, really didn’t spend much time watching movies as a teenager. He was into physics, electronics and computer science. He built computers from kits.

He didn’t even really like horror movies, but developed a high tolerance for seeing actual blood because his father, an orthopedic surgeon, would let him watch while he performed surgery on his patients.

De Palma enrolled in classes at Columbia University in New York, and shortly thereafter discovered film, which seemed like the ideal pursuit for him because he enjoyed being in control and with filmmaking, he learned as a director he could control the action, the plot, the visual style, everything.

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De Palma sold off the electronic equipment and computer kits and bought cameras and movie-making equipment, trading one obsession for another (he would use the camera and surreptitiously use surveillance equipment to film his father in the act of adultery, which also tells you quite a bit about the director and the relationship he had with his dad, doesn’t it?).

De Palma’s first film, Icarus, was made while he was still a student at Columbia. After he graduated in 1962, he spent time at Sarah Lawrence College (in Bronxville, NY) on a writing fellowship.

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In the mid-1960s De Palma began working on his feature-length debut, a comedy, The Wedding Party, which he co-wrote and co-directed with Wilford Leach and Cynthia Munroe.

The film — originally shown in 1964 — was re-released in 1969 and featured performances by actress Jill Clayburgh and an up-and-coming actor named Robert De Niro. De Niro would also appear in one of his next films, Greetings (1968).

After the 1970 experimental film Dionysus (also known as Dionysus in ’69; codirected with Richard Schechner), De Palma wrote and helmed Hi, Mom! (1970), the sequel to Greetings, with De Niro as a would-be pornographic filmmaker.

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Hi, Mom! brought De Palma to the attention of the major studios, and Warner Bros. signed him in 1970 to make what they considered to be a counterculture comedy, a lightweight comedy picture called Get to Know Your Rabbit which turned out to be a horrible experience for him because he’d given up too much of the control of the movie — which starred comedian Tom Smothers as an executive who leaves the business world to become a tap-dancing musician — to the studio.

De Palma would end up being fired off the film (it was finished by others; it was not released until 1972), but while in Los Angeles, De Palma would meet his contemporaries — Spielberg, Lucas and Scorsese — at Warner Bros., were they commiserated about how their early films were being recut by the studio and being poorly distributed across the country.

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De Palma thereafter began to focus on making the films that he wanted to make, without giving up too much control, and he began to turn away from comedies and lighthearted stories and towards gruesome, bloody movies that were very stylized and, yes, very Hitchcockian.

“De Palma’s visual style,” wrote critic Pauline Kael of his work, early on,“is smoothness combined with a jazzy willingness to appear crazy or campy; it could be that he’s developing one of the great film styles.”

Kael continued to be one of De Palma’s biggest fans, defending his films when other critics savaged the work and dismissed him as a post-modern Hitchcock wannabe.

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The first of his Hitchcockian thrillers was Sisters (1973), which starred Margot Kidder in a dual role as separated Siamese twin sisters, one of whom is a killer.

It has to be noted in any article about De Palma that much of his work is patterned on the films of “the master of suspense,” something De Palma would be the first to admit, just as major directors like Truffaut (The Bride Wore Black) and Roman Polanski (Repulsion) had also borrowed from Hitchcock, and it’s clear that watching Hitchcock films had informed De Palma’s value of story structure and narrative economy, not to mention the themes of voyeurism, paranoia, and Catholic guilt.

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Hi, Mom!, Sisters and Body Double are clearly re-workings of Rear Window; Obsession and Body Double again are reminiscent of Hitch’s Vertigo; and, Sisters and Dressed to Kill clearly evoke Psycho.

Ultimately, though, De Palma ended up adding more of his own personality and interests on his films, confidently inserting more of his own preoccupations with gender, sexuality, and technology, and filling his films with the kinds of erotic imagery that Hitchcock obviously avoided.

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De Palma, in 1988, talked about the “tired” comparison to Hitchcock in the interview he did in Night Flight’s New York offices:

“The comparison to Hitchcock is a very tired one. It started in Sisters and that was in 1972. I’ve been hearing it year in and year out. I got it, I know it, I understand it. So what, basically? I have, in fact, been influenced by Hitchcock. I, in fact, understand the film grammar of Hitchcock. I make my own movies. They have to exist on their own even though they’re rooted in Hitchcock tradition. So what else is new?”

Phantom of the Paradise (1974) was Phantom of the Opera retold as a Faustian rock musical, with stylistic references to several classic horror movies; it’s one of Night Flight’s favorite movies.

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De Palma was already eight or nine movies into his career when he made Carrie (1976), based on a Stephen King novel.

Sissy Spacek starred as an introverted, mistreated teen with special telekinetic powers who takes her revenge after she’s humiliated by the high-school in-crowd (played by Nancy Allen, John Travolta and Amy Irving).

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Piper Laurie was also notable as Carrie’s abusive religious mother.

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De Palma’s success continued with The Fury (1978), another thriller about telekinesis, though set in a world of political intrigue, starring John Cassavetes as a shadowy figure who hopes to use the psychic gifts of two high schoolers (Irving and Andrew Stevens) for his own sinister purposes.

De Palma’s future wife, actress Nancy Allen — who De Palma met during the filming of Carrie — would appear in another of his films, this time in her husband’s sexy thriller Dressed to Kill (1980), parading around as a prostitute in sexy lingerie.

De Palma sent a razor-wielding transvestite psychopath after her, a scene that made a lot of people later question just what was going on in their marriage.

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Dressed to Kill also featured Michael Caine as a psychiatrist and (memorably) Angie Dickinson as a sexually frustrated Manhattan housewife who, after sleeping with a stranger, is brutally murdered — in a chilling elevator sequence that recalls the famous shower scene from Psycho — and the search begins to find her killer.

De Palma promoted himself during the film’s release as the “Master of the Macabre.”

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The film is introduced in our profile by Pat Prescott, who says, “De Palma’s 1980 thriller about sex, obsession and murder, Dressed to Kill, established the director’s visual style,” which is quite an understatement.

The film, although criticized for being “misogynistic,” was a huge box-office success, much more so than his next film, Blow Out (1981), which was a conspiracy-theory thriller that was something of a tribute to Michaelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966).

De Palma had by that point already been describing himself as a visual stylist for about twelve years or so, and seemed somewhat surprised when he was criticized for his provocative, over-the-top use of sex and violence in his films, saying that the exploding body in The Fury or the razor-slash murder of Angie Dickinson in Dressed to Kill was nothing more than hyperkinetic visuals.

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De Palma: “In my movies you see interesting locations, interesting choreography in the camera, you see action, choreographed very well, like chases, or people following people.”

He defending his use of exaggerated violence to one critic as a way to manipulate his audience, saying “Slashing someone with a razor is a very visceral image. What are you going to do? Hit them over the head with a sponge?”

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In the interview, De Palma talks about how he wanted the audience to focus not just on the blood, but on the beauty of the images up on the screen:

“I think you’ll also dealing with beauty… my films tend to be very beautiful, the locations are beautiful, the girls are beautiful, the guys are beautiful… I’m interested in putting things up there that please my eye. Murder scenes in which you’re dealing with an object moving through space and terrorizing someone.”

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By the late 1980s, around the time he was sitting down with Night Flight, De Palma was seeking mainstream acceptance, and during interviews he was talking as much about character development and content as he was about about the stunning visuals in his films, those gruesome, disquieting moments of psychosis and pathology. He was clearly looking to break out of the mold he’d been cast in.

His 1983 film Scarface had starred Al Pacino as a Cuban refugee criminal who immigrates to Miami in the 1980s and becomes the leader of a drug cartel.

Audiences were riveted by the rise and fall of Pacino’s character as well as the film’s graphic depiction of violence and drug use (the screenplay was written by Oliver Stone), although it drew mixed reviews. It was, however, a huge box office success, and today is considered a cult classic.

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In 1984, De Palma once again returned to Hitchcock for inspiration for his Body Double, which concerned a young actor (Craig Wasson) who thinks he’s seen a murder through his telescope.

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It also featured over-the-top violent scenes (a woman is killed with a power drill), but there were surprises along the way, including De Palma inserting a music video for Frankie Goes to Hollywood, performing their hit song “Relax,” which appears as a “film within a film” sequence on the set of a porn film.

(Screen queen actress Brinke Stevens, Penthouse Pet Lindsay Freeman, and adult film stars Cara Lott and an uncredited Annette Haven also appear in the sequence).

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The video was aired on MTV, who had previously banned Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s first video for the song (it featured action taking place in a gay S&M parlor — actually the Brixton Academy, one of London’s leading music venues, nightclubs and theaters, which the network deemed too controversial to air).

By the way, the set for the porn shoot in Body Double was also used the following year for the nightclub scene in Fright Night (1985).

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De Palma: “I wanna surprise the audience. I don’t want them to think that if they see the first scene of the movie that they’ll know where they’re going to be at the end of this movie. They don’t know where they’re going to be. The more I confound them, and the more I exhilarate them and strike them with images they don’t see…the more they’re stirred up. My movies tend to be controversial. People tend to walk out and want to argue about them… ‘it stinks!, or ‘I thought it was great!’… people yelling at each other outside the theater.”

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De Palma would score his biggest box office hit with organized crime-busting drama The Untouchables, which was released in 1987.

The film starred Kevin Costner as federal agent Eliot Ness who wants to take down Al Capone, the crime kingpin of Chicago, played by Robert De Niro.

Working from a screenplay by David Mamet, the movie earned De Palma arguably the best reviews and biggest grosses of his career to that point.

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De Palma discusses each of these films and more in our special “Night Flight Goes to the Movies” video profile on Brian De Palma, which you can only see on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.