Arrow Video: De Niro & De Palma: The Early Films - Reviewed

Brian De Palma and Robert De Niro, two of the most auspicious faces of late twentieth century American cinema, started out their careers together- beginning with De Palma's student film The Wedding Party (which wouldn't see a general release until 1969, well after his first releases), and continuing with Greetings and Hi, Mom! However, the duo would not see any future collaborations again until 1987, when De Niro found himself landing in the role of Al Capone in De Palma's The Untouchables

Their first few films, however, proved to be vital sparks to both of their careers- while none of these films will bear the traditional hallmarks of a De Palma picture that everyone would know him for now (split-screen segments, among other things), there is still a tremendous amount of spirit and potential that can be seen from both the director and the actor- starting from his side role as the best man in The Wedding Party before moving up in focus until eventually becoming the primary character for Hi, Mom! in 1970. 

Arrow Video recently came out with a spectacular collection of these first three joint efforts between the two in De Niro & De Palma: The Early Years, a treasure trove of historical first efforts that anyone deeply invested into the careers of either auteur will want to get their hands on immediately, if only for its fascinating peer into the beginnings of both men and greater insight into what made these pieces tick and tock in their own particular rights.

The Wedding Party (1969)

The Wedding Party was technically the acting debut for American cinema legend Robert De Niro and, surprisingly, he plays a more minor background role to the main story. Don't get me wrong, though, his face is more than recognizable- that famous mole is unmistakable in the groomsman Cecil, and he has several speaking lines that are sure to be easily pointed out by anyone watching and looking for that distinctive New York accent. De Niro (incorrectly spelled in the film's end credits as "Robert Denero") isn't the main focus of The Wedding Party, however: a bizarre typical 60's independent comedy in the same vein as veteran director Robert Downey Sr.'s best-known works, yet predating it by at least a few years.

The Wedding Party was a student film shot by De Palma in 1963, but it didn't see a wide release until 1969, after his 1968 film Greetings was released. It certainly betrays the feeling of a student effort, but that's not meant as an insult in any way. The production is typically low budget: having its story take place over the course of a few days in one house proves to be to De Palma's benefit, but in the end there isn't much you can really do in a student production anyway. It's a silly comedy, beginning with a sped-up montage-like segment that depicts the characters' arrivals with their dialogue prerecorded over the ensuing apparent chaos without anything looking out of the ordinary to them- a gag repeated a couple times later on as the story progresses, and an fascinating choice, to say the least. Brian hadn't yet employed his trademark splitscreen style in any scene, so it's not present in this feature, but it still somehow feels like something only he could have possibly made.

It's a comedy of sorts, and one that betrays a feeling of inexperience, but I can't help but enjoy myself watching this feature. You can tell that already there was a tremendous amount of potential and inspiration in De Palma when making this, and he would only go on to do greater and bigger things for the cinema world. It's a fun, if not slightly forgettable, little experience that really should be appreciated for being Robert De Niro's first appearance and the spark of what was to come with its director. Sure, he rarely dabbed in this kind of comedy again, but its style is unmistakably his, and it's at the very least a valiant student effort for a rising power that had yet to be unleashed.

Greetings (1968)

Greetings is a strange amalgam of short vignettes a la And Now for Something Completely Different, covering a wide range of topics from the JFK assassination to voyeurism, Vietnam to the concept of free love. There isn't a set structure to follow, although the same characters are followed throughout the picture, and they engage in some fascinating bits of conversation through its short 87 minute runtime. It was the first film to receive the then-notorious X rating (though it would later be appealed down to an R) for its gratuitous moments of nudity and profanity and, given the free-spirited theme of the mid to late 60's, its content was more than justified.

See, although there wouldn't appear to be any rhyme or reason to the wandering random skits that make up the runtime of Greetings, it's so clearly at least a valiant attempt at containing the best-known ideals to come out of the 60's and keep them on celluloid format. Another film like Easy Rider may have done this to greater success, but there's a kind of genuine reality that is weighted behind Greetings and its natural conversations that can't just come about in the former. For that, it may be one of the most culturally important films of its time, albeit one that admittedly hasn't aged the best. It still lacks a kind of uniform feeling of its own: tonally bouncing back and forth, beginning with its startlingly controversial opening line (which I will not spoil here, but to say that it was unexpected would be an understatement), and jumping about from tale to tale in a free-spirited way that you would expect an independent filmmaker to go about in this time period.

The JFK assassination in particular plays a crucial role in forming Greetings' overall narrative (what little of one there is)- a moment that shocked the entire nation as it unfolded on live television. It's mulled over and dissected and examined thoroughly by one of its focal characters, perhaps giving pause for a time to think about what really went down during that fateful day. I recall doing an entire research paper on the subject in college, and even then there was so much more to learn about it from here that I hadn't already known. From there, De Palma extends to the subjects of dating, sex, and voyeurism: a taboo topic that becomes a motif in the most well-known of classic horror films. The human body is a beautiful thing- one that has become too restricted for the sake of public decency- but here, De Palma lets his characters explore the subject as freely as they can. Not exploring into the territory of pornography- that is, nudity for the sake of sexual arousal- but rather the female body in particular as a thing of beauty, something that was created for more than simple pleasure. It's a brief but fascinating dive into an oft maligned topic that was so beautifully allowed to roam free and unobstructed during the earlier years of cinema.

Greetings might not be among the greatest of films- its narrative isn't structurally sound (an unfortunate flaw in the concept of vignette-style movies)- but its themes and topics are endlessly fascinating to experience. De Niro and his friends carry on their casual topics in the most natural of ways, never really reading from a script or being fed what to do or say: just living out their normal day as any other person would. That's something that's so rarely seen in cinema anymore: being a medium that's meant at times to capture the essence and beauty of the world, the people occupying it can often forget their natural tendencies when placed in front of a camera- whether for the sake of decency or just trying to appear as "happy" as possible for an indefinitely lasting record. For that, I have to give De Palma my due credence- even at his earliest form, he knew exactly how he was going to capture his world in the most natural of ways possible.

Hi, Mom! (1970)

Hi, Mom! serves as a kind of pseudo-sequel to Greetings, with Robert De Niro reprising his role as Jon Rubin (his character from the latter film) and retaining a more streamlined focus on his character. This time, he expands his character as a Vietnam vet who tries his hand at peeping tom porn. It starts out as a kind of weird mashup between Peeping Tom and Rear Window, with a sudden romance quickly forming between the peeper and the peeped, before abruptly shifting into another segment altogether that's quietly introduced in segments as Jon's story progresses.

Perhaps the most well-known part of Hi, Mom! would be the "Be Black, Baby" scenario- one of the most viscerally horrifying moments of urgency that so clearly shows De Palma in his most realistic form, a loud and boisterous callout to the dark, seedy underbelly of American society that was so desperately in need of revolution and reform. Shot in an investigative reporting style like many other segments in the film, the audience is quite literally placed into a first person perspective of this terrifying situation, a kind of theatrical street performance that could be akin to the kind of haunted houses that pop up all over the country, but with much more sensational realism and violence than what would be expected. Mouth agape and startled to the core is the only proper response to this part, a moment which would very likely have almost never made it out into public domain nowadays with just how much it blurs that distinctive line between fact and fiction.

Hi, Mom! is many different things rolled into one tightly-knit package. An often hilarious skew of the mid 20th century nuclear family, a tale of voyeurism turned romance and commentary on social unrest beget from racial tensions at the time. There's a lot to take in here, and sometimes De Palma doesn't exactly know what he wants his film to be (tonal imbalance is one major problem I tend to have with a lot of his films, albeit not to a terribly detrimental degree). But it, along with the other three entries in this Early Films box set, is a lot of fun to watch, and a fascinating peer into the early workings of a mind that can be difficult to fully grasp or comprehend- and perhaps one of the foremost geniuses of American cinema in due time.

If you're a fan of either, De Niro & De Palma: The Early Films is a set certainly worth picking up. Its historical significance on both careers are undeniable, offering a tremendous kind of insight with sparkling high definition presentations that look better than ever before. Being some of the first outings, they're understandably rocky and difficult to wrap your head around at times with their style and narratives, but it becomes clearer as you work your way through the three films that there's a lot that can be garnered from understanding their humble beginnings. The included commentary by Glenn Kenny on Greetings, along with some new interviews and appreciations on the films, are sure to be more than educational in furthering one's understanding of the two men's collaborative history together. Essential viewing for two of America's most important visual artists of the last century.

-Wes Ball