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Hitchcock's top fan: Brian de Palma turns 80

Jochen Kürten
September 11, 2020

Film director Brian de Palma followed in Hitchcock's footsteps. From "Carrie" to "Scarface" to "Mission Impossible," he's definitely left his mark in Hollywood.

Brian De Palma
Image: Imago Images/APress

The verdict remains out on director Brian de Palma: Is he an imitator of the film greats who preceded him, skillfully copying his role models? Or is he an American film genius, innovative, with his own unique style? 

What's certain is that de Palma, born on September 11, 1940 in Newark, New Jersey, idolizes Alfred Hitchcock. He belongs to the club of directors that has frequently copied the work of the master director of suspense — or rather carried it forward, as fans say. 

A member of 'New Hollywood'

De Palma belonged to the inner circle of "New Hollywood," an innovative and diverse movement in American cinema that emerged at the end of the 60s and, during the following decade, proceeded to turn the old, stuffy Hollywood studio system on its head. 

Film still from 'Sisters': Margot Kidder about to cut a pink cake with a big knife
Uncanny twins: De Palma's early horror film 'Sisters' (1972)Image: Imago Images/United Archives

Alongside directors like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Peter Bogdanovich, de Palma was bold and energetic. While some filmmakers, like Scorsese, were concerned more with style and aesthetics and sought to advance US films artistically, others displayed a strong sense of marketing potential on the popular, commercial side of cinema, like Lucas with Star Wars

Brian de Palma: Between art and big bucks 

De Palma did a little bit of both. His first films were marked by a willingness to experiment, aesthetic boldness and formal structures. At the same time, they were highly entertaining, suspenseful and exciting. With films like Carrie (1976), he became a specialist in horror and psycho-thrillers. 

Film still from 'Carrie' with Piper Laurie and Sissy Spacek hugging in a room filled with lit candles
Chilling to this day: 'Carrie' with Sissy Spacek, Brian de Palma's major breakthrough filmImage: Imago Images/Everett Collection

This combination reached its apex in his later films — and not always to his advantage, according to some. Movies like The Untouchables (1987) and Mission: Impossible (1996) drew huge crowds to the theaters, yet were criticized by some for being shallow and predictable in comparison to his earlier works. 

Violence and sex in the US

De Palma's themes have remained consistent throughout his career. Violence and sexuality, psychological issues and obsession are staples of his work — and often very bloody. For this reason, some of his films have caused controversy and even struggled in the US film-rating system, which has strict criteria to determine age-appropriate viewing content.  

Nevertheless, de Palma has been able to entertain while pulling back the curtain on modern American society, such as in the 1981 thriller Blow Out, about paranoia and surveillance.

A new era of Hitchcock suspense

Polished, refined visuals have been fundamental to de Palma's work. There are very few directors who can use effects like time lapse and split screen as well as he does, much to audiences' satisfaction. In this, Alfred Hitchcock was very much his role model. 

Film still 'Obsession': Genevieve Bujold and Wanda Blackman tied and gagged
Clearly a tribute to Hitchcock's 'Vertigo': 'Obsession' (1976)Image: Imago Images/United Archives

So much, in fact, that some of de Palma's films — Obsession (1976), Dressed to Kill (1980) — seem to be remakes or variations of Hitchcock's movies. Through the smallest of details and allusions, de Palma channeled his predecessor's work with incredible skill. 

More to de Palma than Hitchcock 2.0?

Whether or not he is a simple Hitchcock copycat or a brilliant innovator remains debatable.  Film historian James Monaco noted in his 1979 book, American Film Now, that de Palma's most successful films in commercial terms were the ones that imitated the master. 

Film still 'Dressed to Kill' with Nancy Allen
Here too Hitchcock's influence can be felt: 'Dressed to Kill'Image: picture-alliance/United Archives/Kpa Publicity

De Palma's later films, such as Mission: Impossible, proved even more successful, though they no longer resembled Hitchcock.

His recent films, which haven't done as well, once again contain Hitchcock references, as well as eroticism, sex and violence — the themes through which he has chronicled American society. 

Robert de Niro was discovered by de Palma

Instead of taking on the attitude of the intellectual auteur filmmaker, Brian de Palma defined himself as a skilled entertainer. He was also responsible for spotting young talents that would later make it big in Hollywood — including Robert de Niro, whose first screen appearance was in The Wedding Party (1969).

And today? Most recently, the director attracted attention as the author of the book Are Snakes Necessary?, written together with his partner Susan Lehman. The thriller is about an American senator who has a relationship with a much younger woman, inspired by the case of former presidential candidate John Edwards in 2008.

Film still 'Femme Fatale':  Rebecca Romijn-Stamos in a bath filled to the top
'Femme Fatale' (2002): De Palma often explores eroticism and sexuality in his filmsImage: Imago Images/Mary Evans

Upcoming film inspired by Harvey Weinstein

De Palma's next film will also be about sexual harassment and abuse of power. Titled The Predator, its production was interrupted due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Described as a Harvey Weinstein-inspired horror movie, it's a project de Palma has been wanting to make for a long time — and it's definitely his type of story.


Adapted by: Cristina Burack