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IMITATION IS A `MISSION POSSIBLE' FOR DE PALMA

Brian De Palma is a thief. There's always something in his movies that has obviously been lifted from other, older, better movies - and his most distinctive and memorable set-pieces are often taken from very specific and easily identifiable classics - mostly Alfred Hitchcock classics.

Not that "borrowing" is all that unusual, you understand. After all, filmmakers regularly lift ideas from old movies and better directors, which they then refer to as an "homage."But no one steals as blatantly as De Palma.

This came home to me when I read a story in Newsweek magazine about De Palma's latest directing effort, "Mission: Impossible," and was reminded of its "Topkapi" reference.

"Topkapi" is a 1964 caper comedy, in which a character is lowered by a cable into a room guarded by highly sensitive lasers that can be tripped by the slightest movement. And while he nervously tries to steal a guarded item, a bead of sweat from his brow threatens to drop to the floor and set off alarms.

The centerpiece highlight of "Mission: Impossible" has Tom Cruise dangling from a cable in a sensitive room as he tries to retrieve computer information on a disk. And while he nervously tries to balance himself, a bead of sweat from his brow threatens to drop to the floor and set off alarms.

Lest you think this rant is based on an isolated instance, let's review some of the films of Brian ("Gee-I-wanna-be-Hitchcock") De Palma:

- "Obsession" (1976) reworks Hitchcock's "Vertigo" (1958), with its story of a man (Cliff Robertson) who is obsessed with the untimely death of his wife (Genevieve Bujold). When he meets someone who strongly resembles his late wife (also played by Bujold), he gives her a complete makeover in a futile attempt to recapture that relationship, unaware that she is somehow connected to his wife's death. In "Vertigo," private detective James Stewart, who suffers from an extreme fear of heights, watches as a woman (Kim Novak) he's been hired to follow plunges from a bell tower to her death. Later, he meets someone with a strong resemblance (also Novak) and gives her a complete makeover, unaware that she is somehow connected to the first woman's death.

- "Dressed to Kill" (1980) has two memorable scenes that owe more than a little to Hitchcock. In the first, an unseen mystery man follows Angie Dickinson through a museum, and the camera fluidly takes his viewpoint as it tracks her movements from room to room. In "Vertigo," James Stewart follows Kim Novak through an art gallery, a sequence that seems too similar for comfort. De Palma's film also has a knife attack on an elevator that obviously draws inspiration from the infamous shower scene in Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960).

- "Blow Out" (1981) is about a movie sound-effects editor (John Travolta) who, while recording an audio tape of night noises and traffic, may have inadvertently taped aural evidence of murder. In one scene, he tries to discern the potentially incriminating sounds by repeatedly replaying the tape, filtering out various background noises. In Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 film "Blowup," a photographer may have inadvertently taken a picture of a murderer, and in one scene he makes larger and larger prints as he tries to determine what it is he has actually photographed. (There are also moments that bring Hitchcock's "The Man Who Knew Too Much" and "Vertigo" to mind, as well as Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation.")

- "Body Double" (1984), with Melanie Griffith and Craig Wasson, crosses two Hitchcock films - "Rear Window" (1954) and, again, "Vertigo," for its story of a claustrophobic voyeur who accidentally witnesses a murder but is helpless to stop it. There is also a scene that has Wasson following Deborah Shelton through a mall, a moment that is suspiciously similar to the museum scene in "Dressed to Kill," which, as mentioned, is also right out of "Vertigo."

- "The Untouchables" (1987), with Kevin Costner, Sean Connery and Robert De Niro, is most famous for its climactic train-station shootout, during which a baby carriage begins to roll down the long marble stairway (in slow motion). Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 silent classic "Potemkin" is most famous for a scene that features a baby carriage rolling down the Odessa Steps.

- "Raising Cain" (1992) has as its big climactic surprise, a revelation that parallels the moment when we discover that Anthony Perkins is a homicidal, split-personality nutcase in Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960). De Palma also includes an elevator sequence that seems to be an homage to his own "Dressed to Kill" (which, again, was derived from "Psycho's" shower scene).

De Palma also has a favorite device that is repeated in several of his films - a spinning camera, which circles a man and a woman in a clinch. For examples, check out the final scene of "Obsession" and similar moments in "Carrie" (1976), "Body Double," "Raising Cain," "The Bonfire of the Vanities," etc.

Even the composers De Palma hires to score his movies - most notably Pino Donaggio and Ennio Morricone - seem inspired to come up with florid themes that echo Hitchcock's collaborations with Bernard Herrmann.

What is most infuriating about all this, of course, is that De Palma is such a talented visualist and creative technician that when he rehashes these classic cinematic moments, the results are almost as powerful as the originals.

Too bad he doesn't apply that expertise to scenes that are equally exciting but instead employ more original ideas.

- QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Brian De Palma, speaking candidly to "Newsweek" about why he took on "Mission: Impossible":

"I haven't had a big hit in eight years. You can't go on in this profession without making a hit every couple of movies. So I set out to make a successful mainstream movie."