De Palma & De Niro: The Early Films
The world is very aware of who Robert De Niro is, he is held by many to be one of the greatest actors of his (very good) generation, if not all time. Brian De Palma is a bit more of a complicated character much to the point where you can define his fans as defenders, a status deemed necessary due to the violence in his work and awkward sexual politics – at least that is the story his critics have penned. This discourse can be found around the edges of Body Double and its infamous drill scene. Outside that image, De Palma is famous for his Hitchcock homages and generation-defining iconic titles likes of Blow Up, Carrie, Scarface, and the Untouchables. As highlighted in the fantastically frank documentary by Noah Baumbach & Jake Paltrow (De Palma, 2015), he came from the generation of New York New Hollywood directors that puts him in the company of Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, and Francis Ford Coppola. And here we return to the De Niro connection; Scorsese made De Niro a star, but De Palma gave him his start – said films that feature in this brand new box set of super rare films from Arrow Video.
Brought into the 21st century via Arrow’s characteristically exhaustive restorations are three films from their earliest days, Greetings (1968), The Wedding Party (1969) & Hi, Mom! (1970) and the one immediate take away is that none of them feel like the work of Brian De Palma. Of course, directors evolve over the course of their careers, yet never would I – a De Palma fan – associate him with the revolutionary tone of outsider 60s cinema, overt politics, or catchy theme tunes that wouldn’t feel out of place in the cinematic adventures by the Beatles. Comparing these films to his work just two years later (Sisters, 1972) will be a jump too far for many De Palma fans, especially with these films zigging where his work would usually zagg. This being so, I would make the case that this set is only a must buy for only the most diehard of De Palma fans, there is more here for De Niro fans.
Hi, Mom is the latest of the included films and it is a weird proposition. It starts with De Niro as a wannabe filmmaker who wants to join the world of pornography and he has an idea based on peeping on his neighbours across the street. This aspect has seen the film compared to Jacques Tati’s satirical masterpiece, Playtime (1967), and given De Palma’s cine-literacy and being just one year divorced from the infamous French box office flop the likeness isn’t accidental. This plot thread sees De Niro adopt a persona, a real early showcase of his acting ability, to woo the girl from across the street (Jennifer Salt) in order to make this more substantial for the porn crowd than mere voyeurism. The footage captured by De Niro’s character’s camera is also sped up, almost as if paying homage to the French comedy icon.
Then halfway through the film completely drops that idea and picks up on an experience play that has been drip fed throughout. A play in which people are put through the wringer and shown first hand what it is like to be a Black American in 1960s New York. These sections are broken up by silent-film-like titles. The pornography plot thread was just a distraction, this is what Hi, Mom! was made for and its pretty hard going for what up to this point was a knockabout romp. The film ends with De Niro’s character who has pursued a life of a revolutionary-cum-anonymous married working man dressed up in Vietnam-vet military outfit ranting about the state of the country as part of a TV interview, ending the film by saying “Hi, Mom!”. De Palma made this film in his late 20s and to see such a reflexive and fluid movie with such an unflinching political heart really sells the idea of the director being a satirist who holds few punches regardless of who it may or may not upset.
The worst of the three is the Wedding Party, to the point where it was actually a bore to sit through. Whatever you may think of Brian De Palma, whether he has questionable sexual politics, a fabulous visualist or somewhere in between, the one thing you cannot describe him as is a boring director. The visual aspect of the Wedding Party sees it achieve a rare and fleeting high. The first few minutes have the pleasantly comic slapstick overtones of silent comedy as the titular party are driven from the ferry to the house which plays host to the wedding. attempting to fit more than should reasonably fit in any car. This sequence has been sped up to give it a feel, of let’s say, Buster Keaton’s Cops and while not that good it does enough to bring a smile to the face.
Not to end on a downer is the middle of the three, Greetings preempts the sort of stoner cinema where people talk about their ideas in a deeply episodic nature that would later be popularised in the 1990s by the likes of Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith. In 1968’s Greetings, we have a trio of friends in a series of escapades and conversation. There is De Niro as a bookish peeping tom and wannabe filmmaker (almost recited in Hello, Mom!), Gerrit Graham who steals the show as a JFK conspiracy theorist (later appears in De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise, where he also steals the show) and Jonathan Warden as a horndog who goes on a series of computer dates in a futile attempt to get laid. Each of these films has loose structures, but the true episodic nature of Greetings has allowed the actors to truly inhabit and build the characters and the improvisational tone only enhances that. Robert De Niro is good playing against his usually ultra confident type, but as I mentioned earlier the film is at its best whenever it focuses upon Graham who genuinely is a star that never was on the evidence here.
This may sound redundant but this is a collectors collection. A must for those who are interested in cinema history and seeing the forming of two of American cinemas most singular personalities. With Robert De Niro’s involvement, we see him prior to his explosion to fame that came with Taxi Driver and finds an actor who has never been less than committed to excellence. As I remarked when I opened this piece, many think De Niro is one of the greatest actors of all time and its only in seeing his nowhere near humble beginnings that I can completely understand where they are coming from. Sure, these aren’t his best roles or best performances but the fact that he has never been less than excellent cement his status more than any number of awards could. And as for De Palma, this may well be a set for the most ardent of die-hards, nonetheless these make a case for the true depth of his talents and when revisiting some of his more renowned work, I’ll be watching them with new eyes.