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Brian De Palma is simply a gun for hire

He’s a heck of a shooter but only excels as a filmmaker with the right script. By Michael Ventre

Careers in Hollywood often follow the pattern of a typical EKG. Some spike up, then drop sharply, then zoom back up again. Others go along a more modulated path. Still others flatline; those usually go unnoticed, until a sheet is pulled over them.

Tom Cruise’s career, for example, has consistently hovered among the peaks, until his recent travails and ouster from Paramount. The same can be said for Mel Gibson, whose image — figuratively speaking — could use a defibrillator. After his debilitating J-Lo period, Ben Affleck is slowly rising again.

A director’s road is usually fraught with even more uncertainty, because audiences generally don’t turn out because of his name but rather because of the product and the stars in it. And among directors who have toiled for an extensive period in the movie business, there is perhaps no individual who has had more wild ups and downs than Brian De Palma.

This week, De Palma unveils his latest work to the general public, an adaptation of James Ellroy’s fictionalized account of America’s most notorious unsolved murder, “The Black Dahlia.” The reaction to the film, at least in early reviews, has been mostly one of disappointment. Whereas Curtis Hanson brought a sense of realism and restraint to another Ellroy adaptation, “L.A. Confidential,” the word on “The Black Dahlia” seems to focus on a heavy handed visual style and an overly melodramatic story.

A shooter, not an artistIs De Palma one of our greatest living directors? Or is he just a gifted gun for hire riding on the reputation of an occasional popular success?

In order to be considered a great director, logic suggests that said director must have stood at the helm of at least one great movie. By that simple standard, De Palma doesn’t quite qualify.

He showed promise while dividing critics in his early work, some of which were Hitchcock knockoffs that elicited almost equal amounts of derision and admiration. “Carrie” was the most commercially successful of this period, but he also scored at the box office with titles more closely associated with his Hitchcock obsession, like “Dressed to Kill,” “Blow Out” and, of course, “Obsession.”

Usually when De Palma’s directorial chops are mentioned, the film that comes to mind most often is “Scarface,” released in 1983. Shot from a script by Oliver Stone, it not only connected with the zeitgeist of the decade — especially the rampant use of cocaine and the Reagan-era lust for capitalism — it has continued to attract new generations of devotees fascinated by the violent and bloody rise and fall of Tony Montana (a curiously accented Al Pacino).

Overlooked in most discussions about the film is that De Palma’s “Scarface” is a modern remake of the 1932 version directed by Howard Hawks and Richard Rosson, of which the script was adapted by Hawks and Ben Hecht from a novel by Armitage Trail. And, of course, De Palma’s “Scarface” benefited from the craftsmanship of Stone, who did his best screenwriting during the period from 1978 (“Midnight Express,” for which he won an Oscar) through “Salvador” (1986), “Platoon” (1986), “Wall Street” (1987) and “Born on the Fourth of July” (1989).

Therein lies the essential problem with De Palma. He’s a shooter, not an artist. Hand him a superb script and he’ll shoot the daylights out of it. He has a vibrant visual style that is similar to the operatic feel Francis Ford Coppola brought to his finest films. But that’s where the comparison ends.

Occasional success gives audiences hope
The two primary tasks of a director are to get the script in shape, and then cast the movie well. After that a trained chimpanzee could at least deliver a workmanlike rough cut.

While De Palma’s casting usually passes muster, his ability to assess a script and develop it until it crackles is the inconsistent element responsible for his yo-yo career.

In the 23 years since “Scarface,” there have only been two films directed by De Palma that succeeded on both a critical and commercial level — “The Untouchables” in 1987 and “Carlito’s Way” in 1993.

Neither will ever be remembered in the same breath as masterpieces by De Palma contemporaries such as Coppola’s first two “Godfather” pictures, Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull,” or even Steven Spielberg’s box office smashes like “Jaws” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

But they worked. “The Untouchables” featured a stellar cast led by Kevin Costner, Robert De Niro and Sean Connery, and it boasted a script by David Mamet. “Carlito’s Way,” starring Pacino and Sean Penn, was much less of a hit with audiences but probably brought De Palma more respect among cinephiles.

His next film after “Carlito’s Way” was “Mission: Impossible,” starring Tom Cruise, which theoretically should have strengthened De Palma’s reputation. Although it grossed over $180 million domestically — which was not the Hollywood chump change in 1996 that it is now — the picture was ridiculed for its byzantine script by Robert Towne and David Koepp. De Palma was not hired to direct “Mission: Impossible II.”

And since “Scarface,” De Palma has made some now-classic clunkers, most notably the debacle that was “The Bonfire of the Vanities” (1990) but also “Raising Cain” (1992), “Snake Eyes” (1998), “Femme Fatale” (2002) and perhaps the worst De Palma effort of them all, “Mission to Mars” (2000).

Few directors have managed to last as long in the business by alternating so radically between minor triumphs and major disasters. Maybe he’s just a lucky guy.