Top 10 Brian De Palma Films

Brian De Palma – one of the great American filmmakers is also one of the country’s most underrated. Mike Sutton looks back over the director’s fifty-year career to celebrate his 10 best films.

Brian De Palma has been making films for over fifty years and he hasn’t finished yet. His latest work Passion, an erotic thriller starring Rachel McAdams and Noomie Rapace, will be appearing at the Venice Film Festival in September and he’s reportedly about to start work on a film with Jason Statham. Somehow though, he’s still grossly underrated by a section of film critics who claim to be offended by his choice of subject matter and his blatant use of Alfred Hitchcock as an inspiration but seem mostly to be affronted by his mastery of film technique as an end in itself.

He’s certainly had his failures – Bonfire of the Vanities is one of the most renowned flops in cinema history – but when he’s on form, he’s hard to beat for sheer nerve and entertainment value. If he’s perhaps not the best American director, he’s probably my personal favourite. It was hard to choose just ten films – I particularly regret the omission of Raising Cain, Body Double, and Mission Impossible – but these are all pretty representative.

10. Carlito’s Way (1993)

Very familiar material; ex-con decides to go straight but gets dragged down by his past and his associates. But it’s renewed by excellent performances from Al Pacino and Sean Penn and dazzling directorial flourishes. Probably De Palma’s most emotionally fulfilling work and a good example of the use of an extended flashback.

9. Sisters (1972)

Not De Palma’s first thriller but his first big success and an object lesson in suspense and the use of split-screen as a device for building tension. It’s a bridge between his early independent work and more mainstream later work with a straightforward narrative interrupted by bursts of nightmarish surrealism.

8. Scarface (1983)

A relatively restrained film for De Palma which only occasionally shows off his masterful technique. But it’s unforgettable for the steamy atmosphere, the richly hammy supporting performances and the opportunity it gives for Al Pacino to create an iconic character, complete with a catchphrase and a machine gun.

7. Phantom Of The Paradise (1974)

A film which is particularly beloved of many people and which stands up well today, unlike many rock musicals of the 1970s. Paul Williams’ score and William Finlay’s performance are cornerstones from which De Palma builds a phantasmagoria of sound and colour while indulging his taste for a mixture of black comedy and human tragedy.

6. Hi, Mom! (1970)

One of the director’s early comedies with Robert De Niro, there are plenty of uncomfortable laughs in the freewheeling narrative. But it’s particularly notable as one of De Palma’s most political films – the central section involves a theatrical event called “Be Black Baby” which is both comically grotesque and oddly disturbing.

5. The Fury (1978)

Astonishingly assured in its visual sense, this is one of De Palma’s most mainstream films – a conspiracy thriller mixed with supernatural horror – but also one of his most audacious. The use of different speeds of slow-motion in a third-act chase sequence is as daring as anything he’s ever done and the dreamlike tone of the film is unlike anything else.

4. Blow Out (1981)

A major commercial flop on release, Blow Out has gained a high reputation over the years and is now considered one of the key films of the 1980s. It’s got great performances from John Travolta and Nancy Allen, some nail-biting suspense scenes and a conclusion which comes like an unexpected punch in the gut.

3. Femme Fatale (2002)

De Palma’s best film of the past ten years, this is a witty and sensual thriller which plays around with narrative conventions and makes great use of Rebecca Romijn Stamos’ stunning good looks. It’s got nods to numerous other movies, plenty of tension and the most erotic jewel robbery scene ever filmed.

2. Carrie (1976)

For my money, the best Stephen King adaptation and the best use cinema has ever made of Sissy Spacek’s quality of slightly distant vulnerability. De Palma orchestrates unforgettable extended suspense sequences without losing sight of his main characters – the tragic title character and her terrifying mother, played with total conviction by Piper Laurie.

1. Dressed To Kill (1980)

One of my personal top five films and as accomplished a piece of filmmaking as I’ve ever seen, De Palma’s ulitmate riff on Hitchcock takes the work of the Master of Suspense and gives it so many spins that it becomes entirely his own; he even begins and ends in a shower.

Add to that the music of Pino Donaggio, the scene in the art gallery, the lift murder, the subway stalking and the extraordinary camera track down a staircase and you have sheer heaven for De Palma fans. It’s also intentionally very, very funny.

Read our interview with Dressed To Kill star Keith Gordon

Written and compiled by Mike Sutton.

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About the Author
Mike Sutton is a film critic from England. He is a regular contributor to The Digital Fix, has written for major print publications including Sight and Sound, and has contributed to the BFI’s Screenonline project.

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  1. Avatar
    mark Reply

    Interesting list.

    Personally I would’ve put Carlto’s Way as number one – from recollection it’s the only movie I’ve seen twice in the same day while playing in a cinema.

    The Fury’s kind of suspect … it raises some questions.

    How is it that a man who can float falls to his death?
    How is it that Kirk can slap the first Mrs Spielberg across the face and not get criticised for being a complete sexist pig?
    Why is it that the windscreen through which Carrie Snodders is hurled breaks like pane glass rather than shatter like a normal windscreen?

    The Untouchables – where is it?

    Casualties of War? Surely one of the few times De Palma has found a legit vehicle for his overt sexism.

    I suspect it wouldn’t be too hard to come up with a 10 best list of De Palma’s worst films.

  2. Avatar
    Rodney Reply

    I’m with Mark (above) – no mention of The Untouchables? Oh well.

    Rest of the list is pretty decent, Mike, although I’d have had Carrie at #1 and Carlito’s Way probably in at #2 – I haven’t seen Dressed To Kill, and your description of it makes it one I need to see pretty quickly by the sounds!

    Nice work, dude!

  3. Avatar
    Evan Crean Reply

    I haven’t seen a bunch of these, but definite respect for Carlito’s Way, Blow Out, and Scarface. I always really liked Body Double. That would have made my personal top 10 De Palma.

  4. Avatar
    Pete Reply

    Interesting choices and order. I would have Carlito’s Way far higher and Scarfrace probably too. But then again that’s because I’ve only seen a few on the whole list. Had heard some pretty terrible things about some of these though. But I’s sure they’re all better than Snake Eyes.

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    Marc Reply

    Wow Dan, I thought I knew DePalma and thanks to your list (as well as putting one of my dear favs Carlito’s Way all the way at #10) I now have a lot more exploring to do…I hadn’t heard of half of these:P

    Blow Out is quite good and I saw The Fury a while back but must have forgot it was DePalma. Been meaning to check out Sisters.

    My favorite moment in any of the films I’ve seen is the intense Grand Central sequence in Carlito’s Way. Those are such amazing single take shots. Class film that I just love to death. It’s funny because I loathe and consider Scarface one of the most overrated films of all time.

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    Chris Reply

    Of these I have only seen Scarface (1983)…Your list has reminded me that Brian De Palma is a blind spot in my movie watching!

  7. Avatar
    Mike Sutton Reply

    Thanks for the comments. I should have mentioned both Casualties of War and The Untouchables. I also confess to liking the first hour or so of Snake Eyes very much until it goes completely off the rails and, due to re-cuts, dribbles away to a useless conclusion.

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    Scott Lawlor Reply

    I must admit I haven’t seen all of these films, like most I have seen the big hitters, but this has given me some research into other films to watch… Thanks

    Sorry for my absence since Wednesday, I have been on a little holiday!!

    Back now.

  9. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    De Palma is such an interesting director because the range of quality is so extreme. He’s delivered serious duds (Snake Eyes, Mission to Mars) along with some great work. I’m glad you don’t have Scarface higher, as I think that’s overrated. I would put a few of his more mainstream films like The Untouchables and Mission Impossible on this list. They still show off his talents while avoiding the tricks he falls back on too much in his lesser films. Cool list!

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    ruth Reply

    I’ve only seen The Untouchables but it’s not on the list. That’s one of my favorite gangster film.

  11. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    Certainly, Dressed To Kill stands out. Its mix of technical ingenuity and sense of fun is unmatched. I love Carrie as well as his other Hitchcockian works despite their varying quality. Raising Cain, for example, is generally considered a failure but I love it.

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    Neal Damiano Reply

    Great De Palma film list however I would like to of squeezed “Raising Cain” in there somehow. Lithgow was amazing! Even though it criticly bombed. I thought it was a great mix of suspense and quirky! Nice to see Hi Mom on here though Deniro’s second film starring.

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    Victor De Leon Reply

    Fantastic list of Brian’s films. So many great ones to choose from. Must have not been easy. Great job!

  14. Avatar
    Mark Fraser Reply

    Despite my above comments, made all those years ago, it’s great to see Hi, Mom! on this list. I saw it for the first time this year, and am now convinced it is an integral part of his filmography. The Be Black Baby sequence still resonates.

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