Director/Screenwriter: Brian De Palma
By Roderick Heath
Brian De Palma’s volatile career, whatever you might think of it, must be regarded as one of the most individualistic of American commercial directors. His oeuvre breaks up neatly, at least from a distance, into three movements, encompassing his raucous apprentice work, his chicly gaudy, richly eccentric major phase, and his often patchy, yet still restlessly creative and critical late career. These phases are each demarcated nicely by some of the many major financial flops De Palma has suffered in the ironic life of a director who so often seemed willing to offer up to his audience everything it wanted, but in such immoderate, immersive, gleefully perverse terms that he instead seemed to be making a joke of such pandering.
At the same time, De Palma seemed to take the idea of being an auteur more seriously than any other young American director, not only offering up personal themes and stories and expressive cinematic techniques that clashed with the settled textures of mainstream moviemaking, but in making his own creativity part of the show. He set about ostentatiously repeating devices, scenes, and sometimes whole movies, composing his epic signature scenes, then pulling them apart and staging them all over again in new contexts and with new resolutions. Such were the building blocks of his most famous string of films from the late ’70s through to the mid ’90s. But De Palma’s eventual pigeonholing as a postmodern remix artiste for genre fare with a thing for Hitchcock to a large extent concealed a major strand of his artistic personality, that of the sly, subversive gamester with a remorseless satiric streak.
De Palma was perhaps the closest of the major Movie Brats to the counterculture, with one foot planted squarely in the guerrilla theatre and film worlds of ’60s New York, and the influence of that zesty freeform sphere remained hard-wired in his aesthetic sensibility, constant dialectic partner to the media-mad young nerd with a yen for the lush, eroticised space of the cinematic frame. De Palma’s early films are therefore mostly comedies of manners, including the hipster gagfest Greetings (1968) and The Wedding Party (1969), and in such company, his first “thriller,” Sisters (1973), seems to wear the apparel of a Hitchcockian tale in large part to satirise the mores of early ’70s New Yorkers, and offer up a deliberately absurd, anticlimactic variation that makes fun of the whole idea of witnessing and investigation, as doomed and self-defeating as that of Gerrit Graham’s JFK conspiracy theorist’s pursuit in Greetings. His next film was his first work to gain major studio hype behind it, Phantom of the Paradise, destined to be a financial failure before cult revival and therefore something of a false start before he stepped back and reintroduced himself with Carrie (1976), a film that expands on many elements of Phantom whilst offering them within a new, deceptive, high-cinema composure.
What distinguishes Phantom from the films that would follow it, and keeps it tied to the less polished works before it, is its sense of anarchic energy and blackly comic rapture. The greatest insult in the ’60s had been to be labelled a sell-out, and written over Phantom in neon letters is the film’s simultaneous embrace and ridicule of selling out, tackled with a pulverising, panicky bravado. Early scenes make use of the same mock-silent film passages of sped-up slapstick that had often punctuated De Palma’s apprentice work, essayed now in the context of a film that transforms the morbid romanticism of Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera and its many subsequent film versions into an outright Faustian parable, mixed with a freebasing critique of pop music and celebrity worship. It’s as radical, and much more visceral a take on those ideas, as Peter Watkins’ unnervingly predicative Privilege (1967), but real life would soon catch up with and surpass its prototypical visions of glam rock, punk, and death metal excess.
The film’s impresario supervillain Swan (Paul Williams) is depicted as the force behind all of the movements in recent music, a man who sold his soul to the devil for eternal youth and therefore always has his pulse on the current youth spirit. Phantom kicks off with an expository voiceover by Twilight Zone scribe Rod Serling positioned somewhere between rock-doc awe and sinister prelude, before the opening credits unfurl over a performance by Swan’s current hit band The Juicy Fruits, a satire on the nostalgic shtick of Sha-Na-Na, Grease, The Rocky Horror Show (before it was filmed), and other self-consciously retro theatre pieces and acts of the early ’70s. This opening is more gruesome than any of the physical violence that follows, as sleazy mock-greasers fondle each other and audience members, and nearly break into fights, whilst singing an absurd song about a heroic musical artist who killed himself get a hit record and save his sister’s life with the profits. The jokey image of the mock self-annihilation by stabbing repeats later in the film in a “real,” yet also even more flagrantly artificial, context.
De Palma’s version of Leroux’s tragic Phantom is Winslow Leach, played by William Finley, a gangly, adaptable character actor who appears in much of De Palma’s early work, and here takes the lead for the first and last time. His Leach bears a distinct resemblance to Warren Zevon. Hapless, dowdy, and painfully naïve in his life, Leach’s superlative talents as a musician serve only to destroy him. Hired to play piano during breaks in Swan’s shows, Leach is overheard by the impresario, who, impressed, orders his cruder flunky Philbin (George Memmoli) to get hold of Leach’s music. Winslow is reluctant to part with his songs, which are only portions of a magnum opus based on the Faust legend, but agrees on the promise that Swan wants to produce the record. Winslow tries to see Swan at his Death Records office and then his home. There he meets a young singer, Phoenix (Jessica Harper), practising for an audition using one of the Faust songs, and Winslow is dazzled. Winslow is quickly ejected when discovered, and so is Phoenix, when finds out the audition is just the nightly intake for Swan’s harem of groupies and refuses. Winslow, on the other hand, dresses up and joins the concubines and manages to meet Swan, but he promptly has him plucked out, beaten up, and then set up by flunky cops on a drugs charge. In jail, Winslow has his teeth removed and replaced by metal ones as a part of a perverse experiment in sanitation he’s forced into, and when he hears one of Swan’s stars singing his songs on the radio, he goes berserk, escapes, and breaks into Death Records. While attempting to sabotage the production machinery, Winslow is caught in a record press and burns his face. He stumbles outside and falls into the harbour, and is presumed to have drowned.
De Palma’s wild, dark, vicious sense of humour and technique are not only constantly apparent in this fast and furious first act, but at a height of unhinged energy he never tried to match again. De Palma and set designer Jack Fisk’s entrap the actors, including Harper, within rooms just as engulfing and overpowering in decorative mise-en-scene as those she would face in Suspiria (1977). The story, and De Palma’s approach to it, tread a precarious line between skit-like Theatre of Cruelty conceit and frenzied emotional biography. He employs strange, space-moulding sets, obtuse, often handheld camerawork, oddball scene grammar, and a barrage of student film tricks in the course of telling Winslow’s story. De Palma’s basic point comes out the better for such magnified distortion, that for much of the world’s self-appointed founts of power able to beatify with fame and fortune, gatekeeping against pretenders and the potentially unruly and the excessively talented is as vital an aspect of their power as any other. Thus, the age of celebrity turns devastating failure into mirth for consumers. The storytelling is as charged with the same frantic, drug-enhanced, one-step-ahead sensibility as the legendary ’70s recording industry itself. As Swan himself puts it later, referring to why he doesn’t want to make a star of Phoenix, “She’s perfect, and you know how I abhor perfection in anyone other than myself.” Those who meet this head-on without caution and self-awareness are inevitable victims, comical foils for the cynical.
Winslow’s attempts to penetrate the Olympian monster’s lair likewise anticipate the structural motifs of The Fury (1978) and The Untouchables (1987), whilst Swan is a version of such malefic, would-be masters of fate as John Cassavettes’ Childress and De Niro’s Al Capone. The notion of the Phantom being a scarred and furious victim of artistic plagiarism and the evils of commercialised culture—an idea that comes not from the novel but from the 1943 Claude Rains version—is played up here as a tragicomic exercise where, as is often the case in De Palma’s work, naivete, aspiration, and innocence are hardly guarded from harm, but are instead brutally assaulted and cruelly broken (e.g., in the grim fates of Carrie White, Charles Martin Smith in The Untouchables, and the victimised females of The Black Dahlia, 2006, and Redacted, 2007).
The flipside is often a furious, amoral retribution that reproduces and exceeds the violence of the wicked. Winslow returns as the Phantom, a work of performance art, encased in black leather and an art-deco bird mask, to haunt The Paradise, Swan’s gaudy new theatrical setting for his roster of acts. Winslow is agonised by his disfigured face and broken voice, but his artistic dedication and passion are to a certain extent released by becoming the Phantom, a point underlined with the ease with which Swan, after Winslow has announced his vengeful presence by exploding a bomb during a rehearsal in the Paradise, seduces him back into rewriting Faust. Winslow points out Phoenix to Swan at an audition and insists on her as his onstage avatar, and Phoenix rises to the challenge with an impromptu performance.
Swan’s genius as a creator and manipulator of talent is drawn out with impudent concision as he fine-tunes an electronic gadget for Winslow to speak and sing through, turning his hoarse, electrified wailing into a smooth croon with studio gadgets: he can turn the worst freak into a pop god, and vice versa. It’s worth noting that De Palma’s Phantom (being as De Palma was a friend of George Lucas, and who would write Star Wars’ opening scroll) seems to have influenced the look and concept of Darth Vader, who would similarly be revealed as another resurrected Phantom. Swan, of course, plans to double-cross Winslow even in the act of pretending to give him a second life.
Phantom of the Paradise references horror film imagery and mystique, naturally, but it’s also strongly under a comic filmmaker influence: as the first part uses Mack Sennett and Charlie Chaplin as templates, the second is under the spell of the Marx Brothers and A Night at the Opera (1935), as Swan gets Winslow to sign an impossibly long and obtuse contract (“All articles that are excluded shall be deemed included”), Winslow hovers above the stage a la Harpo to commit sabotage, and the distance between audience and performance is erased. Swan’s ludicrous acts meanwhile all use the same singers (Archie Hahn, Jeffrey Comanor, and Peter Elbling) shifting between musical guises and eras: The Juicy Fruits with their ’50s style, their successors, the hideously faux-groovy The Beach Bums, and finally, The Undeads, whose grotesque onstage shenanigans, including pretending to tear audience members to shreds to build their lead singer, “Beef” (Graham) whilst caked in sepulchral make-up, charts a logical evolution of pop tastes towards calculated outrage and excess. The film’s jibes at manufactured stars, schlocky gimmicks, industry sexism, and coercion were intended to be Paddy Chayefsky-like satire, but life caught up with it all quickly and not only assimilated the criticisms, but made them part of the mystique.
Nonetheless, the humour and revulsion the film invokes toward the pop industry retain a charge far beyond the relative innocence of the equally farcical This Is Spinal Tap (1984) because De Palma backs it up with his twisted fantasia. Images of punctured and roasted flesh and operatic emotion alternate with this satiric panoply, imbuing it with a similar feel of sodden, sensual overload and consumerist satiety found through corporeal violence, such as in the later scenes of Scarface (1983). De Palma spares no one because it’s a world that spares no one: even the talented and intelligent Phoenix is easily suckered in by Swan and turned literally overnight from willowy starlet to drugged-up fame whore whom Swan can seduce and marry (but actually planning to assassinate to outdo Winslow for onstage killing as entertainment coup). Swan’s first choice for a Winslow stand-in is not Phoenix, whom he relegates to back-up singer, but Beef, a flagrantly gay showbiz pro whom Swan reinvents as a Frankensteinian id-beast compelling all potential audiences with his ambiguous hunkiness, one of the many moments of arch gender-bending that inflect both the film and De Palma’s oeuvre. Beef stands in for Carlotta, the prima donna in The Phantom of the Opera who is threatened into standing aside for the Phantom’s preferred singer. Here, in the first of De Palma’s many send-ups/variations on Psycho’s shower murder, Winslow slices his way through Beef’s shower curtain with a knife, but instead of stabbing him, jams a toilet plunger against his mouth and delivers his warning. Swan has Winslow bricked up in his studio after he’s finished writing Faust, but Winslow, realising he’s been betrayed again and that a hack is singing his music, smashes his way out and kills Beef onstage by dropping a lightning-shaped neon sign on him.
Swan, it proves, really has made a pact with the devil to retain his youth, turning his own habit of videotaping everything around him into a vessel for a Dorian Gray-like preservation. De Palma’s career fascination with recording mediums within recording mediums, and the act and experience of voyeurism blending together into a self-reflexive arc, is ever-present here, but surges to the foreground particularly during the film’s most dazzling scene. Winslow spies on Swan making love to Phoenix through the skylight of his house, and Swan spies on Winslow spying on him, Winslow’s contorted outrage and now godlike self-pity being provoked and enjoyed by his nemesis. Winslow immediately tries to kill himself, but finds he’s locked into eternal life with Swan by signing his contract and can die from his self-inflicted wound only when Swan also dies, a fact Swan explains as the most elegant capstone to his malevolence. Casting Williams as Swan is an uncomfortable fit, not exactly because of his diminutive size, for there’s a good and thematically apt joke in this, but because he lacks the dark, overwhelming charisma the part really needs; indeed, De Palma’s films often live and die on who plays the Mephistopheles figure. Finley, on the other hand, invests his character with a heightened blend of the comedic and the pathetic: his full-bore embrace of the expressive Grand Guignol heart of the film looks forward as far as Fiona Shaw’s perverse monster in The Black Dahlia, a film as preoccupied with Faustian bargains, conspiracies, and transfiguring bodily damage as this one.
Phantom of the Paradise is undoubtedly a bratty film, and an immature one in many ways, though this does not mean it’s inauthentic or merely flashy. It does, perhaps inevitably, collide with potential dead spots of narrative and invention, which De Palma’s style wasn’t yet attuned to overcoming. An expository sequence of Winslow penetrating Swan’s secret video library, where he finds the key to destroying his nemesis, is overlong, too flagrantly skit-like, and lacks a quality later De Palma would grasp firmly, that of the reality-changing impact of penetrating the final layer to a mystery. De Palma is still inclined to overindulge his comic actors like Graham and Memmoli. But De Palma’s energy is all-conquering, rendering the film as an ecstatic flux that manages to combine two stances often thought to be exclusive: the implacably hip and the flagrantly emotional. Shows of dazzling technique are spotted throughout, if not linked with the same careful sense of orchestration that distinguishes the likes of The Fury, Dressed to Kill (1980), or Femme Fatale (2002). As well as the film’s constant refrains to silent comedy and melodrama, there’s a strangely elegiac montage of Winslow composing in his Phantom lair, swooning on the same tone of deathless romanticism as Winslow’s music. A lengthy split-screen sequence in which Winslow plants a bomb during a rehearsal by the Beach Bums, unfolds in two simultaneous shots that absorb secret machinations and the abuse and coercion that lie behind the contrived appearance of sunny shenanigans, before resolving in the explosion that announces a legitimised terrorist riposte to Swan’s regime.
Winslow, whilst becoming a killer and a terrorist, remains the film’s moral centre in his perverse fashion: his destructiveness cuts through the overwhelming artifice and cynicism of Swan’s, and when he realises Swan’s last, devastating betrayal, he charges to the rescue, cueing a breathtaking sequence, furiously switching between perspectives, from that of Swan’s assassin fixing crosshairs on Phoenix, to a racing hand-held camera chasing Winslow as he charges to the rescue. He swings into the auditorium and snatches away Swan’s mask, which now conceals not his unnatural youth but a shrivelled and hideous visage. Winslow delivers his coup de grace, stabbing Swan to death with the beak of a bird mask from a dancer, turning the emblem of Death Records into the literal instrument of death. De Palma’s staging of the genuinely crazed finale refuses any sense of tragic closure, however, zooming up and away from Winslow’s body in the midst of the orgiastic eruption that aims instead for catharsis, revelling in all spectacle. Here violent death, Winslow’s revealed, hideous face, and Swan’s extermination only register as sideshows of the convulsive carnival. A remorseful, mourning Phoenix clutches Winslow in the midst of a party, prefiguring Blow Out (1981), and a woman stands watching, wearing Winslow’s mask, hinting at the fusion of the two figures in a world where all opposites come crashing together in one great apocalyptic shindig.