De Niro & De Palma: The Early Films Review
In the decade before his much-celebrated and still-going-strong association with Martin Scorsese began with Mean Streets, Robert De Niro acted in three films for director Brian De Palma, who can certainly take credit for giving the actor his big screen break. The trio of movies – all comedies – have been given brand new 2K restorations by Arrow Video and made available together for the first time, over two discs. As you’d expect – filmmakers and actors’ embryonic work being rarely their best – De Niro & De Palma: The Early Films is something of a mixed bag, quality-wise.
Of the three, The Wedding Party has aged least well. De Palma – who’d go on to great success with the likes of Scarface and Carrie – began the film in 1963, finished it three years later, but didn’t see it released until 1969. The story centres on Charlie (Charles Pfluger), a reluctant bridegroom, nevertheless preparing to marry Josephine (Jill Clayburgh) at her parents’ sumptuous island home near New York. This kind of film – the build up to nuptials, concentrating on the bride, groom, guests, traditions and mishaps – has been done umpteen times before and since, and rather better. It also exhibits attitudes both old-fashioned and chauvinistic (same applies to the other films, too). Josephine is presented as something of a shrew, marriage to her an act likely to dull Charlie's senses, sap his energy and ruin his life. De Palma partially redeems himself with the sheer brio of his filmmaking – throwing in freeze-frames, jump-cuts and sped-up bits, so the pace never sags.
De Niro has a small role as Cecil – or “See-Sil” as it is pronounced in the States – one of Charlie’s two boozy groomsmen who, at least initially, try to persuade him out of going through with the ceremony. His performance – as per the film – is perfectly serviceable but no more than that.
Better is Greetings (1968), a black comedy about three New York friends – Paul (Jonathan Warden), Lloyd (Gerrit Graham) and Jon (De Niro) – all going to increasingly extreme lengths to avoid the Vietnam draft. The trio pretend to be gay, they pretend to be Nazis, and honestly believe such transparent ploys will convince the US military into letting them sit out the whole thing. Apparently, it was the first film in the US to receive an X certificate – for sex and nudity, as well as racist and homophobic language. In fact, the three characters’ use of the n-word – amongst other foul epithets – immediately creates a barrier between them and the viewer. You find them hard to like or even care about.
Like the Nouvelle Vague films it resembles, there’s minimal plot and, at times, Greetings struggles to hang together at all. De Palma focuses on each of his characters’ main preoccupations – Paul’s is computer dating, Lloyd’s the Kennedy assassination, while Jon attempts to make soft porn (“peep art” rather than pop art). They go about their business in denial of what awaits them months or perhaps just weeks down the line, and ’Nam is a permanent fixture in the background, whether in news footage of President Lyndon Johnson or a serving soldier talking about his experiences at a party.
Hi, Mom! (1970) is a sequel to Greetings and comfortably the best of the three films. It focusses entirely on De Niro’s character, Jon Rubin, newly returned to New York from Vietnam and finding the city much changed. It begins as a freewheeling ’70s sex comedy as Rubin pursues his “peep art” concept from the first film, striking a deal with a Manhattan pornographer to make illicit recordings of women in the apartment block opposite where he lives. Rubin’s voyeurism, both here and in Greetings, foreshadows De Palma’s later cinematic preoccupations in the likes of Blow Out, Body Double and Dressed To Kill.
Hi, Mom! becomes infinitely more daring and disturbing when its plot takes a left turn, somewhere around the halfway mark, as Rubin becomes involved with a radical theatre company staging an interactive play, Be Black Baby, about the African-American experience.
The film switches to black and white – it is supposedly being screened on a fictional TV channel – as the performance’s audience, a group of white liberal intellectuals, are blacked-up and brutalised by its African-American cast, all of whom wear white face paint, and De Niro, who is playing a racist cop. It is bluntly satirical, leads to Rubin becoming radicalised himself, and delivers an extraordinary and thoroughly unexpected ending. There are definite shades of both Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin here, as De Niro’s alienated loner is pushed closer and closer to the edge.
The main thing you’ll notice about the extras is that neither De Niro or De Palma appear in person in any of them. What you get instead is knowledgeable film people talking about the pair, their collaborations and careers, and it's all riveting stuff.
Charles Hirsch – co-writer and producer on Greetings and Hi, Mom! – is interviewed and discusses how the latter film was a precursor to Taxi Driver and explores both movies’ anti-Vietnam War themes (“We fought for nothing”), while filmmaker and historian Howard S. Berger expands on some of those ideas in Brian De Palma: Early Years. He believes De Palma always saw himself as a “cinematic terrorist”, embedding himself in the prevailing film culture, while working hard to undermine and satirise it.
Glenn Kenny – author of a book, Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor – provides a new commentary for Greetings and smartly connects the film's dots to Lenny Bruce, Jean-Luc Godard, Richard Lester, Stanley Kubrick and Michelangelo Antonioni. You also get a Greetings Pressbook (an on-screen reproduction of something presumably given away to critics at advance screenings), some trailers, and two booklets featuring newly-commissioned artwork and writing, as well as an archive interview with De Palma himself.