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Director opens up about his obsessions in documentary ‘De Palma’

Brian De Palma, left, and Al Pacino on the set of “Scarface,” as seen in “De Palma.”
Brian De Palma, left, and Al Pacino on the set of “Scarface,” as seen in “De Palma.” A24

The weirdly touching documentary De Palma is catnip for cinephiles, at least those who hadn’t written off its subject, filmmaker and eternal provocateur Brian De Palma, decades ago as a Hitchcock-addicted perv.

Now 75, De Palma more or less owns up to that characterization himself. The son of a philandering orthopedic surgeon, young Brian once stalked, photographed and confronted his father and his lover in their love nest, with the future filmmaker brandishing a knife. This is one of many stories De Palma relays to the documentary’s off-camera interviewers and co-directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow.

De Palma saw Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo at Radio City Music Hall when he was 18, in 1958. That experience set the mood and the direction for his life’s work, although that work is far more varied than his Hitchcock-ripoff-artiste reputation suggests. De Palma deftly covers the gamut of the man’s films, from the early Robert De Niro collaboration The Wedding Party (shot in 1963) through commercial breakthroughs in the 1970s and then more career ups and downs afterward.

Baumbach and Paltrow are pals with De Palma, but the film isn’t afraid of drilling into the filmmaker’s wormy obsessions and his adolescent prankster streak. It also reveals De Palma to be a wry and drolly understated chronicler of his own indulgences, his constant filmmaking battles, his amusement at the bloody carnival of it all.

Baumbach and Paltrow don’t interview De Palma experts, or critics, or anyone beyond De Palma. This is strictly the filmmaker, seated, indoors, talking to his friends, all very orderly. Meanwhile, the generously interpolated clips from the likes of Body Double (with its insane drill-bit murder) turn the order into delirious chaos.

Throughout the documentary, we hear war stories from a cackling warrior who was constantly faced with coming up with solutions to crises on set. The Potemkin-inspired stairway shootout in The Untouchables, for example, emerged as a replacement for a sequence that screenwriter David Mamet, according to De Palma, refused to write. The Carrie anecdotes are reason enough to see the documentary.

The director shares some lovely, dishy gossip about Obsession star Cliff Robertson, and precisely why the artificially tan leading man drove cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond crazy.

He made commercial hits (Scarface, The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible) and near-misses and lots of bizarre disappointments. But even films as nutty as Snake Eyes offer sequences of such preening virtuosity, you have to shake your head and laugh. De Palma is in preproduction for his next movie. Here’s hoping it’s terrific.

Movie review

‘De Palma’

Rated R for violent images, graphic nudity, sexual content and some language.1:51. Kentucky.

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