That Robert De Niro is one of the greatest film actors of all time there is no doubt. He has starred in some of the greatest films ever made, won nearly every acting award in existence including two Oscars, an AFI Life Achievement Award, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His work in the 1970s and '80s on films like The Godfather, Part II, The Deer Hunter, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, and Once Upon A Time in America is nearly unparalleled. That his filmography over the last couple of decades doesn’t really hold up does not in any way take away from the greatness of those early years.
Brian De Palma’s career as a director has been much more varied, but no less interesting than De Niro's. His films aren’t always good, but you can rarely call them boring. He’s known for making psychological thrillers with sexual obsessions and graphic violence, for aping Alfred Hitchock throughout his career, and for a unique visual style. I’m never disappointed when I watch a De Palma film.
That these two giants of the cinema, especially the cinema of the 1970s and '80s, essentially started their careers working together has heretofore been nothing but a footnote in the annals of film history, but Arrow Video’s release of these three early films, The Wedding Party, Greetings, and Hi, Mom! aims to give it its own chapter.
The Wedding Party was shot in 1963, got a copyright in 1966 but was not released until 1969. It likely never would have been released were it not for De Niro starting to get noticed in some off-Broadway plays. It is a counterculture comedy about a bridegroom mingling with his friends and family at a country estate over the course of a weekend. It is overly long and under funny. De Palma attempts a few moments of visual flair including a fun scene of a dinner party with the film speeded up and dialogue being laid on top, but at other times, its editing is quite the mix-match and often confusing.
Take one of the scenes with De Niro who plays the groom's friend, he and another friend attempt to convince the groom that marriage is a sham, that it's no longer necessary and only ties a man down to one woman when there are so many he could have. The camera doesn’t move but the cuts between lines find the actors moving instantly to different stances and places. Over the course of the conversation, they magically jump to several different locations without ever moving. I’m honestly not sure if this is an intentional method by the director to indicate…something, or because De Palma simply couldn’t decide which location he liked best, or perhaps he didn’t enough footage to cover the scene in one spot. Whatever the reason, it is a mess of editing and a good example of how the film simply doesn’t work. Ultimately, it feels like a student film where some wannabe movie makers are given a camera and a few bucks and figure they can put something together with series of jokes that are extremely dated and unfunny.
Made in 1968, Greetings fairs better than The Wedding Party, but just barely. It is most notable for being the first film to receive an “X” rating by the MPAA. It is a countercultural comedy with even less of a plot, but it is sometimes actually funny. More a bunch of random bits thrown together than an actual movie with a plot, Greetings tells the stories of three guys trying to figure out how to avoid the draft, of another man who has strange theories on the JFK assassination, of several computer dates gone wrong, and more.
De Niro plays one of the guys trying to avoid the draft and he, at times, suggests wearing silk panties and taking on an affectation, or pretending to belong to various secret organizations, or acting like such a hardcore right winger that you’re actually looking forward to killing as many Asians as possible. He’s also bit of a peeping tom who cons girls into letting him film them as if they didn’t know he was watching while they strip off their clothes.
There are some genuinely bizarre and funny moments, such as when one guy traces the trajectories of the bullet that killed JFK on the body of a sleepy, naked young woman. Or when De Niro’s character is being interviewed by a TV reporter in Vietnam and instead of killing the Vietcong woman they spy, he gets her to pretend she’s being peeped upon. But the good parts are interspersed between a lot of bits that really no longer work, if they ever did.
The final film on this set, Hi, Mom! is the best of the bunch and the one that most feels like a Brian De Palma film. De Niro reprises his role as Jon Rubin from Greetings. He’s back from Vietnam and looking to get into the adult-film industry. He’s rented a rundown apartment that faces another high-rise building and gives him a view into all of its windows, like James Stewart in Rear Window except instead of seeing intrigue and murder everywhere, Jon sees voyeuristic flesh. He talks an adult-store owner into lending him a camera and a few bucks to make his movie, but struggles finding enough excitement happening at his neighbors to make anything worthwhile.
When he spies a beautiful, single woman in one window, he hatches a plan. Pretending to have made a computer date with her, he shows up at her apartment and then wins her affections enough that she actually does go out with him a few times. He then plans his seduction technique down to the minute and is totally knocked off guard when she wants to go at it the moment he shows up. He keeps turning her down because he has timed his camera across the way to start recording to the time he figured it would take him to seduce her. Later when he watches the video, he realizes the camera drooped to the room below just as things were heating up with him, only to record a militant group preparing for some type of movement.
He then joins that movement in time for the film's strangest and most famous sequence. Entitled Be Black Baby, a group of African Americans in a theatre group perform for some rich white people. They paint the white faces black and their own black faces white. Then they mistreat the white people (in black face) with verbal insults and forcibly taking their purses and wallets. Later, they physically abuse them and even go so far as to nearly rape one woman. This is all shot in black and white with handheld cameras cinéma vérité style. When the white people (in black face) finally have enough, they fight back only to find De Niro’s character dressed in police uniform forcibly push them back and arrest them. At film’s end, the white audience is told of the charade and praise the production for forcing them to see how life is as a person of color.
It is a provocative, angry, difficult-to-watch sequence that pushes the boundaries of decency and is really a precursor to the many ways De Palma would do those things over and over in his career.
Arrow Video has put these three films into a nice little package. They are presented on two disks (The Wedding Party and Greetings are on one with Hi, Mom! getting a separate disk of its own. Audio/Video quality is surprisingly good considering the low budget, independent nature of these films. The Wedding Party is especially nice. Shot in black and white, it looks really crisp and fresh. Though Hi, Mom! has the larger budget and finds De Palma standing on firmer ground, it actually has the least compelling visual presentation. This likely stems from the various stock being used including television footage and spy-camera work. It doesn’t look bad, but it can get a big grainy and out of focus.
Extras include audio commentary on Greetings and Hi, Mom!, plus appreciations of Brian De Palma, and various interviews.
The films presented here aren’t great works of art. They are the beginnings of two masters just learning their craft. If you are a fan of De Niro or De Palma, then they are well worth checking out. Arrow Video has presented them in the best package one could hope for.