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What’s Streaming: The Wild World of Brian De Palma

From ‘Carrie’ to ‘Scarface’ and beyond, here are some highlights from a true, problematically brilliant American original

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On Friday, Vanity Fair reported that Netflix had threatened to pull five movies from this year’s Cannes Film Festival after the festival’s artistic director, Thierry Frémaux, reiterated his policy of not allowing films produced specifically for digital release to qualify for the Palme D’Or. (On Wednesday morning, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos confirmed that the studio would not be participating in the festival.)

If you squint, it’s possible to see both sides of this argument. Cannes is, ostensibly, ground zero for prestige cinema, and its gatekeepers feel a responsibility to the sacred tradition of theatrical exhibition (as well as to French laws requiring a 36-month window between when a film is released and when it can play on streaming platforms). “That’s the model of film lovers,” Frémaux said, “and Netflix must respect it as well.” But the shifting tectonics of film’s creative and economic sectors suggest that he’s on shaky ground, in terms of both his ultimatums and the reasoning behind them. The list of significant filmmakers who are testing the waters of streaming releases is getting longer, and denying a slot to a gifted, highly visible Oscar winner like Alfonso Cuarón, whose new, 70-millimeter-shot Roma is on the list of potential Netflix withdrawals, seems punitive and retrograde — not to mention self-defeating if the goal is to keep all eyes fixed on the official competition.

On Thursday, we’ll know who’s out at Cannes and who’s in. One of the most intriguing rumors around this year’s competition is that it’s going to have a spot for a veteran director who’s somehow never competed for the Palme despite being lionized in France: Brian De Palma, whose 2002 noir riff Femme Fatale was partially set (and shot) at the festival (and gleefully mocked its sense of pomp and pretension in the process). The 77-year-old director’s new feature, Domino, features two stars from Game of Thrones (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Carice van Houten), a plotline involving the CIA and ISIS, and, reportedly, an epic 148-minute running time that would make it BDP’s longest movie in the 35 years since Scarface.

In the hopes that a true, problematically brilliant American original will finally get his bow on the world’s flashiest stage—and to capitalize on Amazon Prime adding arguably his greatest film to its online catalog in April—here’s a quick rundown of some De Palma highlights currently available for streaming.

Sisters (Filmstruck)

“I saw a murder, and I’m going to prove it,” cries the heroine of this wild 1972 thriller. She did, but she doesn’t, because De Palma—working for the first time in the lurid horror-movie mode that he would perfect and satirize in the late 1970s and early ’80s—is preoccupied with failure. He might be the most fatalistic of the great American directors, and in a decade when topical movies like All the President’s Men and The China Syndrome celebrated the heroic abilities of journalists to uncover hidden truths for all to see, his cynicism remained undimmed. Sisters gives us a newspaper reporter who discovers the shape of a convoluted conspiracy but is brainwashed into forgetting what she knows, anticipating the cover-up of 1981’s even better Blow Out. As a despairing political allegory about crime and punishment (and how the latter doesn’t always go with the former), Sisters is weirdly profound; as an exercise in thriller mechanics, it’s limber and energizing, wrapping itself around a wonderfully stupid plot about separated Siamese twins (both played by Margot Kidder, one of whom is, naturally, a psycho killer). There’s an out-of-nowhere stabbing to rival Psycho’s, but also sublime sight gags like a corpse stashed in a retractable sofa bed and a birthday cake that gets squished before it can be entered into police evidence. Blurring the line between cheapo exploitation, arty experimentation, and outright Mad Magazine–style absurdity, Sisters offers an early, vivid glimpse of a young master coming into his own.

Carrie (Amazon Prime)

De Palma’s first legitimate hit after a string of cult successes is one of the keynote genre films of its era, and also a fascinating case study in competing authorship. As the first cinematic Stephen King adaptation, Carrie was responsible for translating the author’s then-emerging brand into a new medium; while it’s reasonably faithful to the source novel, it’s also 100 percent a De Palma film, piling enough perverse eroticism, winking Alfred Hitchcock allusions, tricky compositions, and athletic camera moves to be remembered first and foremost as an auteur work. The Oscar-nominated performances by Sissy Spacek as the titular telekinetic teen and Piper Laurie as her controlling, Gothically damaged mother still hold up, but what’s truly great about Carrie is its refusal to choose between being funny and frightening. It’s the rare horror movie in which the jump scares all split the difference between visceral and witty. “They’re all going to laugh at you!” Mrs. White warns her walking undergraduate punch line of a daughter on prom night. She’s right, except that once Carrie locks the gymnasium doors with her mind, the joke isn’t funny anymore. No matter how many times it’s been parodied, De Palma’s fiery, revenge-of-the-nerd climax remains completely terrifying.

Scarface (Netflix)

In the 1980s, De Palma switched genres from stylized, Westernized giallos to muscular riffs on gangster pictures. The unofficial trilogy of Scarface, Wise Guys, and The Untouchables reached back to the classic crime films of the 1930s. Scarface was literally a remake of Howard Hawks’s veiled 1932 Al Capone biopic of the same name; working with screenwriter Oliver Stone, De Palma updated Hawks’s template for the vicious, me-first mentality of the Reagan era, reimagining the main character as a Cuban immigrant who begins the film by denouncing his country’s embrace of communism before turning into a ruthless, bloated, coked-out avatar of capitalistic excess. As usual with De Palma, it’s hard to tell how seriously we’re supposed to take this extravagantly violent film, its moralistic crime-pays-until-it-doesn’t messaging, or Al Pacino’s borderline-minstrel-show acting and accent. I’ve always felt that while the Stone(d) script meant every profane, Quaalude-driven word about the hypocritical futility of Captain Ron’s War on Drugs (as well as the revelation that the true holy trinity underneath the American Dream was not life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness but money, power, and women), De Palma was flat-out spoofing his antihero’s materialistic mentality—not to mention the idea of studio blockbusters, to the point that he actually got his old friend/industry overlord Steven Spielberg to direct part of the film’s cranked-up action climax. Reviled upon its release, Scarface has become one of the true cult-movie monoliths of its era, casting a long shadow over hip-hop culture and also its director’s subsequent work; a few years later, The Untouchables made more money and won Sean Connery an Oscar, but it can’t compare to its predecessor’s ugly, incandescent spectacle.

Passion (Amazon Prime)

To the untrained eye, De Palma’s most recent effort—a remake of the disposable French trifle Love Crime starring Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace as coworkers turned rivals—is a strained, ridiculous mess. And that’s what it looks like to the trained eye, too: At times, it’s as if Passion is a parody of a modestly sleazy direct-to-video thriller rather than a late work by a great stylist. But no less than Sisters (which is referenced in a mid-film revelation about identical twins), the film’s ripe cheesiness has a whiff of satire to it. From the appearance of the credit “written and directed by Brian De Palma” overlaid on the sleek outer casing of an Apple MacBook Pro to a shot of a car driving into and destroying a parking-lot Coca-Cola machine, there’s a through line of anticorporate humor that juxtaposes the ideas of “art” and “product”—never more so than in an amazing, extended split-screen scene in which footage of a ballet performance competes for our attention with a knowingly clichéd, Halloween-style slasher-on-the-loose set piece. In the end, Passion might not be much more than a glib, embittered bit of gamesmanship by somebody who’s pretty much been on the sidelines since the mid-’90s, but there’s something sort of sweet about seeing its maker continuing to play by his own rules.

This piece was updated on April 11 with additional information after publication.