L13FC: Brian De Palma

Welcome back to the Lucky 13 Film Club and three cheers to my English buddy, Pete, for accepting my invitation to co-host this month’s discussion. We wanted to extend our admiration of Brian De Palma to you and encourage you to respond to everyone’s ideas in a positive way. Please join the conversation. Why is your favorite De Palma film memorable?

Pete’s opinion:

Blow Out. (1981)
I am starting with this film as I like it so much, and think it is grossly underrated. There is some real skill here, and the recurring use of sound and film editing, film techniques within a film. De Palma makes the most of going over the same thing time and again, with subtle changes that show the developments to the viewer, as they are discovered by the character of Jack (John Travolta) on screen. The director also shows his skill for pacing, as we happily wait for the painstaking research to play out before us, then get swept along by the excitement of the finale.
The split screen helps too, building tension, and saving running time in the process. Then there is the theme of ‘the scream’, one that runs through the whole film, and the idea of filming important scenes against the background of real events and large crowds, in vivid colour.
Body Double (1984)
This film stayed with me and is actually a lot better than it feels when you are watching it. The
story is secondary to the real purpose of the film though. That is De Palma playing fast and loose with an unbridled homage to the work of Alfred Hitchcock. For film fans, it becomes a delight to spot the references, many of which are about as subtle as being hit with a cinematic brick. At times it feels like the director has taken the films of the man he admired so much, and inserted them into Body Double in order of preference. They are so blatant, all that is missing is a title sequence appearing ahead of the scene. We have the voyeurism of Rear Window, the close-up collusion of Rope, and the use of the telephone from Dial M For Murder. Throw in some Vertigo and Psycho scene-alikes for good measure, and all we seem to be missing is the seaside scene from Rebecca, and the fairground from Strangers On A Train. But don’t let that put you off. It is a dedicated homage, cranked up for the 1980s.
Carlito’s Way (1993)
If the first choice was innovative, whilst derivative, and the second an outright homage, my third
choice is all about casting, and locations. This modern gangster film is far superior to De Palma’s overblown and out of control Scarface, made 10 years earlier. By this time, the director had grown into making something more serious, and despite using the same lead actor, Al Pacino delivers a fine performance that is a world away from hysterical Tony Montana. A barely recognizable Sean Penn captures the style and greed of the period as the friend and lawyer Carlito rely upon, and smaller roles from Luis Guzman and a testy John Leguziamo are memorable, too. Locations are bitingly authentic, from the run-down cafe early in the film, to the prison barge holding the Mafia boss, and the nightclub owned and run by Carlito. Everything smacks of authenticity, and if any of them were sets, I surely didn’t notice. Even though I knew some just had to be. This is my favourite De Palma film, with its sense of impending doom running all the way through.
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Cindy’s thoughts: 
Remember in Casualties of War when the sarge, Sean Pean, was shaving looking into the camera like it were a mirror in front of him while soldiers talked about him without his knowing? I like how De Palma transitioned from the split screen to placing one image, usually a character, in the foreground. It happened later again when Michael J. Fox’s character is being transported via helicopter. It happens in many De Palma films. The trick forces the audience to focus on two stories going on at once.
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The split-screen is a trademark technique. Repeating the stars from one film to the next is another trademark. John Travolta. Al Pacino. Melanie Griffith. Sean Penn. Can you sum up Brian De Palma? We know his stories are a parasitical obsession with Hitchcock. His stories are passionate displays for conspiracies and voyeurism. The scores are loud and melodramatic, and I am entertained when I watch them.
Image result for mission impossible one image of cruise hanging mid air
Mission Impossible is the best of the long franchise. Carrie is a horrifying film adaptation, probably the best of Stephen King’s novels.
My favorite De Palma film is The Untouchables. Robert DeNiro was electric as Al Capone. Jim Malone (Sean Connery) as the mentor to Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) was charming and Ennio Morricone‘s score sizzled. The best trick of DePalma for me, however, is his use of contrasts. He takes a beautiful setting–the hill country of Vietnam, the Canadian Rockies, the beauty of architecture, like sweeping stairs and velvet drapes, and inserts a horrifying situation or tragic character, the “humpbacked and crooked”, the two extremes, to create a binary experience. While De Palma films may seem like period pieces from the 80s and 90s and not as great as films from the 60s and 70s, I am nostalgic for them. He filmed on location in interesting places. I miss the  De Palma tricks, the colorful, melodramatic scores, and the corrupted souls fumbling around in the dark with the hope of redemption that rarely comes.
What’s your favorite De Palma scene? 
Thank you, Pete, for co-hosting! Check out Beetley Pete’s blog which can be found HERE.

Another Pair with Gene Hackman

This is the second installment of my winter project of investigating the filmography of a male film star I know too little about. According to Allen Hunter’s biography, Gene Hackman, he grew up in his grandmother’s house surrounded by the unremitting cornfields of Danville, Illinois. He dropped out of high school, joined the Marines on a whim, and served from 1946-51. Acting school followed at the Pasadena Playhouse and the cementation of friendships with peers Dustin Hoffman and Robert Duvall. You can read about their unique 50-year-old friendship in Vanity Fair HERE.

Bonnie and Clyde (1967) 

Warren Beatty produced the film and likened to the role of Clyde because he was a character who wanted to “be somebody’ in the uncooperative climate of the Depression. This motivation was the force behind Clyde; Bonnie coaxed that motivation. Clyde saved her from a boring life and she was willing to do anything for the thrills of their partnership. When her poem, “The Story of Bonnie and Clyde” was published, they had a national audience. Bonnie finally gets the passion she craved. The violence of the film pushed the envelope (a shot to the face of an apprehender smears blood on the getaway car) and the emergence of Faye Dunaway as the reckless Bonnie elevated the film to lofty heights. Dunaway reminded me of a young Bette Davis. The nuances, the body language, and her loveliness were exceptional. It’s one of the best performances I’ve seen by a female performer. But wait. What about Gene Hackman? As brother Buck to Clyde, he gave an enthusiastic, convincing performance as did the rest of the cast, but no one surpassed Faye Dunaway. Fifty years later, the film still stands.  4/5.5  

If you like crime history, here is information about the FBI case of Bonnie and Clyde.

What stood out:

1. Gene Wilder‘s bit-part facial expressions. “Step on it, Velma!”

2. Blanche (Estelle Parsons) screaming; a most annoying character and perfect antithesis to independent Bonnie. Parsons won the Oscar for her role. I love her final scene when the Sheriff coaxes information with false sympathy. She is blind and bandaged and clueless til the end. Awesome role.

3. The opening sequence with Faye Dunaway, bored, restless and naked. Bonnie and Clyde sizing each other up in a matter of minutes, each cool and confident.

4. The famous ending directed by Arthur Penn. I liked the hard cuts, the montage that revealed the final thoughts of Bonnie and Clyde, and the sequence of events to their end.

Scarecrow (1973) 

What is best about the script of these unlikely friends is the 180 degree flip-flopping of their characters. (Lion) Al Pacino and (Max) Gene Hackman are allowed the space to give full-bodied performances. While the story-line was dull at times during its first half, it more than made up for any lags by the last half. Lion’s phone call to his estranged wife Annie was heartbreaking, and the anticipation of Lion’s fall was painful. Max goes from an unlikable character to someone who has benefited from a sincere friendship. It has been compared to Of Mice and Men; if Steinbeck’s classic engages you, you would no doubt enjoy Scarecrow.  4.5/5. 

What stands out:

  1. Watching a young, kindhearted Pacino (instead of later scene-chewing roles) teach the irascible Max a better philosophy of life even though the script seemed heavy-handed at times.
  2. Watching Hackman’s Max change. Usually Hackman is hard and mean and stays that way. It was great to see such a fine transformation. I smiled broadly when I found out why he slept with the shoe under his mattress. When Lion asks him why he picked him to be his partner since he trusts no one, Max responds, “Because you gave me your last cigarette. And you made me laugh.” The chemistry between the two characters was real and showcased great acting .
  3. I loved that open scene with the stormy sky and gold wheat field. The across the highway exchange was wonderful.

L13FC: Al Pacino the Mentor

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A hearty thanks to everyone for a whole YEAR of Lucky 13 Film Club discussions! I am pleased to wrap up the year with one of my favorite movie bloggers, MARK at MARKEDMOVIES. Al Pacino is one his favorite actors and after thinking about an angle for approaching Pacino’s prolific career, we opted to narrow the focus to a theme–roles where he mentors younger, promising actors.

Mark says: 

When you think of the great Pacino performances, or the genre that he’s most renowned for, your memory will most likely be drawn back to the crime/cop films that he’s appeared in. That’s not to say that Pacino hasn’t tackled a diverse range of roles but it’s difficult to forget about the ones he’s most synonymous with: The Godfathers, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Scarface or Heat; maybe even his grandstanding, comic-book, mob boss in Dick Tracy?! However, there are two that stand out from these aforementioned classics, yet somehow don’t quite get the same kudos and sometimes get lost in the shuffle. Carlito’s Way and Donnie Brasco are two Pacino great crime characters, but they’re also among a few of the last films that Pacino was involved in that were truly excellent pieces of cinema. Pacino’s, Carlito Brigante, is an aging Puerto Rican gangster who finds it’s a hard and fruitless task to shake off his shady past. As “Lefty” Ruggiero in Donnie Brasco, he is a tragic character, an aging gangster who has always been a criminal bottom-feeder, overlooked and past his prime. Both characters somewhat represent the career of Pacino himself: a criminal image he couldn’t shake off and another one so over the hill that he wasn’t taken seriously anymore.

With this in mind, Pacino was going through a period in his career in the 1990s when he would work with younger leading actors. He was well into his 50’s, but he  consistently seemed to pair-up with actors in their 30’s. Not just any younger actor, though. These were actors that were just hitting their stride: Sean Penn in Carlito’s Way (1993), John Cusack in City Hall (1996), Keanu Reeves  in The Devil’s Advocate (1997), Johnny Depp in Donnie Brasco (1997), and Russell Crowe in The Insider (1999). It’s a trend he would continue later in 2003 with Colin Farrell in The Recruit, Matthew McConaughey in Two For Money (2005), and Channing Tatum in The Son of No One (2011) – although the last two films are better forgotten about.

As you can see there has been a pattern among the films of Pacino and his support for the newly established leading man. It was the work of Penn, Depp and Crowe that benefited most, though. Unlike the other actors mentioned, Pacino didn’t just support them, they played a major contribution to the films themselves and in many ways complemented Pacino as much as he complemented them. Al has openly admitted to enjoying working with younger performers because he’s humble enough to admit that he can also learn from them. There could be another reason for him lending his support on such a regular basis, though, but you’d have to consider his own experiences to see why… 

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It’s fair to say that it was playing Michael Corleone in The Godfather which catapulted Pacino’s career. However, the legendary Marlon Brando (as well as the producers) apparently weren’t keen on working with this relatively unknown, young actor and thought that Coppola was making a mistake. As we can now see, history has proven that Brando and Co. couldn’t have been more wrong. I’m just speculating here, but maybe this rejection from such an influential screen giant is what influenced Pacino to  work prominently with younger, up-and-coming talents? Pacino took a different approach than Brando, and it’s admirable to see that Pacino had as much faith in other younger actors and recognized the power of a veteran actor paired with young talent. There’s an underdog story to Pacino’s success as an actor, and who doesn’t love an underdog?

Cindy’s thoughts:

scent-of-a-woman-1992

I enjoyed the partnership between Al Pacino and Chris O’Donnell in Scent of a Woman(1992). With characteristic gusto, Pacino deserved his only Oscar for Best Actor by playing the cranky, retired Army Ranger Lt. Colonel, Frank Slade. (Nice use of a character’s name, eh? He’s quite frank in speech and formidable as a stone.) Charley Simms (Chris O’Donnell) is the flustered, poor kid trying to survive at an East Coast prep school. George Willis Jr. (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is the fleshy, slimy nemesis.

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A leader in the military executes codes, sets expectations, and manages the brotherhood of soldiers. In this way, soldiering is like playing a crime boss; it’s easy for us to see Pacino in the role. Emasculated by his forced retirement, Frank over-compensates for his blindness, and who better than Al Pacino to act out that kind of pain with a booming voice and some hefty scene-chewing? Charley and Frank need each other much to their surprise, and their blossoming father/son relationship feels genuine. It is a delight to see the soft side of Frank, whose romantic sensibilities with women on the dance floor and attracts rather than repels. Frank “sees” the beauty within, and this sight allows him to see the integrity in Charley demonstrated during the riveting trial speech that saves Charley. Did Frank have this ability when he had sight? Perhaps, but I like the redemptive irony of the motif. It added a dimension to his character. It is a fine screenplay by Bo Goldman and one of my favorite Al Pacino performances.

As a veteran actor to emerging actor or character to character, Al Pacino’s role as mentor is interesting. Which film do you like best? 

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