Fiercely admired, fiercely reviled, Brian De Palma’s first mature work has dated alarmingly, disappointing on all fronts. Commercially snubbed on its release (it began a 13-yr career purgatory for star John Travolta), the film is self-indulgently over-stuffed, with an inappropriately snarky tone in story, character, design & technique. Writing & directing, De Palma laces this paranoid political conspiracy thriller with echoes of BLOW UP/’66 and its offspring THE CONVERSATION/’74; Ted Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick incident and the Zapruder JFK assassination film; a soft-core slasher opening that’s parody De Palma and more parody De Palma in the film proper. Withal the technical finesse, those long swooping shots & split screen angles, more onanistic than purposeful, he still needs to force-feed a wobbly plot. And so many unplayable character types! Travolta (as a sound effects man who accidentally records a hush-hush murder) and lead villain John Lithgow sound like amateurs. Still, better than Nancy Allen (Mrs. De Palma at the time) as a tart who gets in over her head, a role so insipid it rates as spousal abuse. And that’s not even counting the sick-joke tag-ending that must have sent De Palma home with a chuckle. At least, Vilmos Zsigmond’s lensing still glitters even as regular De Palma composer Pino Donaggio comes apart at the seams. This one’s best left to memory.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Early De Palma remains well served by PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE/’74 while the mature filmmaker he might have become is occasionally glimpsed in CARLITO’S WAY/’93.