Top Ten Brian De Palma Climaxes

This piece naturally reveals the end of every film  mentioned. You have been warned.

What is most exciting about the pure joy of watching a Brian De Palma film usually comes as far away from subtext as one can get. Very few filmmakers can stage a major setpiece in their climax where the visceral excitement is derived largely from happenstance and character quirks. A whole chase scene is nearly derailed simply due to a fat guy’s asthma; a car is left out in a storm with the reverse still on; even in a deleted scene, the entire resolution to one film was the result of a sudden, giant Atlantic City wave.

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10. Scarface

Much derided by those not in the hip-hop industry as a shameless, bloated excess, Scarface is arguably best remembered for a shootout finale as gratuitous as a mountain of cocaine. It’s so over the top, audiences often forget that it is brought on by the lead gangster’s only stand against bloody violence – a last stand for family values before any concept of family is all but erased in white. If ever there was an example of De Palma just showing off, it’s this well-executed, ultra-violent tripe.

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9. Raising Cain

It’s rare that a film climax can be so dazzling yet offer so many dumbfounding moments. As evil John Lithgow (the third incarnation of Lithgow in the film) throws a baby off a motel balcony, man-on-the-spot Steven Bauer runs neckfirst into an errant sundial to save it. It’s a thrilling slow-motion setpiece, even if little makes sense and a stray bullet miraculously shoots off the sharp end of the sundial.

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8. Sisters

Sisters was De Palma’s first foray into Psycho territory. He quickly dives headlong into plot lifts and gimmicks before offering something truly unique: a dreamlike, funhouse mirror flashback that doubles as almost wordless exposition and thrilling resolution, all within the head (heads?) of a tortured Margot Kidder.

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7. Carlito’s Way

Orginally set to be shot at the World Trade Center, De Palma lamented “not another train station!’ when the ending was changed. But the resulting sequence, an after hours chase and shootout through the bowels of New York City, just won’t stop one-upping itself until the inevitable tragic conclusion.

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6. The Untouchables

It’s hard to say where the climax of The Untouchables begins, but most unforgettable is the shootout down the steps of Grand Central Station, lifted effortlessly from Battleship Potemkin. The child-in-danger shootout even manages to thematically fit the film’s broader themes of fatherhood.

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5. Body Double

Few other directors would interrupt a nerve-wracking reservoir climax with a pep talk from Dennis Franz. Yet, as claustrophobic hero Craig Wasson awaits his live burial, he forces himself into a scenario where Franz, a fourth wall-breaking B-horror director, forces him to get into character. Once Wasson is prepped, he leaps into the final showdown with sneering villian Gregg Henry.

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4. Dressed to Kill

Soon after the killer of this riff on Psycho is revealed, heroine Nancy Allen is haunted by the effects of what appears to be post-traumatic stress disorder. Shot with the same kind of voyuerism as the uncomfortably graphic opening scene, once an unexplainable switchblade comes out of a medicine cabinet Allen is left with an even worse fate: a nerdy Keith Gordon being her only savior.

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3. Obsession

Cliff Robertson’s knife-wielding run toward Genevieve Bujold comes milliseconds away from ending tragically thanks to one life-affirming word.

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2. Femme Fatale

Almost too much leads to the final events of Femme Fatale to make it appropriate to spoil. Rest assured, there’s a forklift, a reflection through a rear-view ornament, and other minor details that all lead to a sudden, gruesome impalement. Just like everything else in the movie, it’s intentionally absurd, yet fun nevertheless.

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1. Blow Out

De Palma’s classic offers perhaps the best and most haunting look into his wonky view of America, where the good guy loses, the bad guys walk away, and determination means nothing, as Travolta’s long, slow-motion run through a Pennsylvania parade proves tragically too slow. It’s a heart-rending moment, only made more shrill by Nancy Allen’s recorded “great scream”.

— Kenny Hedges

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