Body Double February 1, 2018
Brian De Palma
1 Hr., 50 Mins.
There’s a reasonable expectation that we’re supposed to watch Brian De Palma’s lurid Body Double (1984) and have Alfred Hitchcock on the brain. Visual and thematic tributes to his best works of the 1950s are pronouncedly here: there’s Dial M for Murder’s (1954) murdering for hire, Rear Window’s (1954) voyeurism, and Vertigo’s (1958) vertiginousness (only this time the hero’s severely claustrophobic). Even a chilly Hitchcock blonde slinks about, stirring up sexual trouble and spewing out vulgarities with the finesse of Aubrey Plaza putting forth a deadpan one-liner.
The tributes to Hitchcock are so overt that it becomes obvious just minutes into Body Double that, after nearly a decade of steady comparisons to the Master of Suspense, De Palma is purposefully jabbing at his comparison-dependent critics. If the Hitchcock influences are flagrant, De Palma subtly says, then they’ll stop being the utmost talking point in reviews and think pieces alike. Instead, the many subversions of these familiarities will, therefore bringing further attention to his own filmmaking command.
What culminates is one of De Palma’s sleaziest, chintziest films; Body Double is an amalgam of Hitchcockian stylistics modernized by a storyline that involves kinky sex, graphic murder, and, most notably, the pornographic film industry. It is pulp a couple inches away from announcing itself as an exercise in total tawdriness, ultimately saved by De Palma’s artfully sordid, slightly satirical sensibilities that assure us that the shiny filth’s purposeful.
Because so much about it is so brazenly over-the-top, it’s no shock that the film contains one of De Palma’s most head-scratchingly — albeit enjoyably — convoluted storylines; it gives 1976’s confounding Obsession and 2002’s labyrinthine Femme Fatale runs for their respective moneys. In it, struggling movie actor Craig Wasson plays Jake Scully, a struggling movie actor at the height of his occupational frustrations. Judging by the way things are going, we gather the man’s just months away from quitting the business entirely. Just a handful of minutes into the movie does he catch his girlfriend (a cameoing Barbara Crampton) in bed with another man. Then a decent acting gig (as a platinum-haired vampire in a Z movie) escapes his grasp.
In this trying time, the kindness of a stranger clutching an opportunity might go a long way. And, against the odds, such luck’s on Scully’s side. While enduring a particularly grueling group acting lesson – we can’t figure out if the ways in which this coach pulls emotion from his actors is invasive or just Lee Strasberg lite – he captures the attention of Sam Bouchard (Gregg Henry), a fellow actor who decides the session is humiliating, escorts Scully dramatically off the stage, and takes him out for a drink before the goings really get rough.
The conversation that comes is easy, and Scully’s grateful for Bouchard’s compassion; his desperation’s clear to the latter in a matter of minutes. Sensing vulnerability, Bouchard, apparently having more connections that the man sitting opposite him, presents his new pal with an offer he doesn’t have the dignity to refuse: he knows a guy in the Hollywood Hills who needs a house sitter for the next week or so, and the pay’s good. Would Scully be willing to do this meager little job? He grins. He needs this break, and agreement’s unhesitant.
Briefly, then, things start looking up. The house turns out to be the famous Chemosphere complex, and just across the way does a curvaceous brunette named Gloria (Deborah Shelton) do a naked striptease in her window nightly. (Consider her a scuzzier version of Miss Torso from Rear Window.) The situation resembles something out of a high-class porno, sure, but Scully doesn’t mind — he’s living one of Larry Flynt’s wet dreams, and for that he can’t complain. But this offness starts progressing as the nights continue. After some time, Scully starts noticing that Gloria’s too-good-to-be-true nude show is also being watched by a black-haired, black-jacketed, black-sunglassed creep ominously perched next to a satellite dish just a few yards from her pad’s bedroom window. Gloria’s also briefly visited by an apparent lover who hits her in a way that suggests it doesn’t quite feel like a kiss. Sensing looming peril, Scully even follows the woman as she goes shopping one afternoon, and finds that the aforementioned creep’s stalking the premises, too. This woman’s without question in danger, but just how much danger?
Before Scully can do sufficient probing, though, he watches in horror one night as Gloria is murdered with a power drill by the very same suspicious figure with that unsettling black fetish. Scully becomes the prime suspect in the case, given he has to admit that he’s a stereotype-breaking peeping Tom and therefore makes him all the more suspicious. But such prompts him to investigate for himself: the police aren’t on his side, so what good are they going to do? Serendipitously, Scully soon finds that the murder has connections to the porn industry, that there’s much more than meets the wandering eye, and that Bouchard may not be exactly who he says he is.
Because almost everything that happens in Body Double is either a product of head-scratching coincidence or great timing, one’d be smart to decide early on that this a movie we go with rather than roll our eyes at. De Palma’s going for salacious, erotic thrills, and if he has to rely on relatively implausible plot twists and affected, overzealous visual tricks to get our hearts racing, so be it. We hardly question it, anyway, since the movie recognizes its own sleaze and as an effect feels at once above its squalid plot developments and an enabler in the quest for envelope pushing. I was delighted by how Body Double is very much a Hitchcock movie, just one with almost all its characteristics overbaked. Here, the wrong man/harmless voyeur has the same underlying innocence of Jimmy Stewart or Henry Fonda, but different this time is that he’s willing to antagonize the boundaries that protect the peeper/peeped-upon relationship.
The Hitchcock blondes are still objects with whom our protagonist toys, but in a twist are they presented in a directly sexual way, often in the nude and sometimes proving themselves as much more besides fantasy women. And instead of being able to be categorized alongside the usual Hitchcock villains — frequently suave men played by glamorous slickers who look and act an awful lot like Ray Milland or James Mason — the antagonist is strictly grotesque, someone you’d see stalking and then slashing horny teens in a Sleepaway Camp (1983) sequel.
The riffing on the Hitchcock formula is superb here; it makes Body Double a pretty terrific thriller. It also features some of the best visuals of De Palma’s career. The three-way stalking scene in the shopping mall, riddled with long takes and executed almost silently, ups the ante exemplified by the museum sequence in his 1980 masterpiece Dressed to Kill, the stakes high and the tension even higher. Also inspired is a standing-up makeout scene wherein De Palma circles about his subjects as if he were less a classier pornographer and more a planet spinning around a couple suns. The bizarre, but interestingly placed, “music video” for Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Frankie Says Relax” that ends with the meeting of the movie’s leading female, the empowered porn star Holly Body (Melanie Griffith, fantastic). The fake-out opening and closing, which indirectly comment on the film’s artifice in general. De Palma’s enjoying himself here.
In addition to its thrills, though, Body Double is also made more memorable by his subconsciously contributing to the state of objectification and misogyny in the film industry in the ‘80s (with enough violent, phallic imagery and dangerously overblown sexual fantasy to keep one feeling provoked for days). But for the most part is it an exceptional exercise, an ebullient, enthusiastically shot, and endlessly entertaining erotic thriller that keeps you guessing just as much as it keeps you tantalized.
It’s perhaps seedier than most potboilers of its era, but such is forgivable because it so carefully pushes past the boundaries enforced by the popcorn thrillers of 30 years ago. De Palma would come to make more acceptably mainstream fare à la The Untouchables (1987) and Carlito’s Way (1993), and such makes Body Double’s existence all the more palatable; it’s something of a last hurrah in the A-budgeted B-movie moviemaking that De Palma’d built his name off. A-