Body Double (1984) dir,. Brian De Palma
Starring: Craig Wassen, Melanie Griffith, Gregg Henry,
By Alan Bacchus
It would be easy to dismiss ‘Body Double’ instantly as a grade B Hitchcock thriller and shamelessly exploitative 80’s skin flick, because with the naked eye that’s pretty much what this picture is. The twists in the potboiling plot are forecastable from the outset, most of the acting and dialogue is atrocious, and the excessive skin would appear to the worst kind of gratuitous nudity synonymous with 80’s genre filmmaking.
Appreciation of this film though requires a deep knowledge cinema history past and present. There’s a reason Brian De Palma’s pictures, especially his suspense thrillers, captured the attention of esteemed critics like Pauline Kael, newer generation filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and cinephiles like me. Certainly the style and craft of the look and sound of his films are striking, and even in his absolutely worst pictures De Palma has the ability to craft stand alone set piece of cinematically visceral power.
‘Body Double’ is in the genre of his ‘Hitchcock-influenced (or some might say Hitchcock-obsessed) suspense films, along with 'Obsession', 'Dressed to Kill', 'Blow Out', 'Raising Cain'. Written by De Palma himself 'Body Double' mashes obsessive elements of 'Vertigo' and the voyeuristic themes of 'Rear Window'. Craig Wassen plays Jake Scully, a struggling actor who get fired from his latest horror movie for his extreme claustrophobia, an ailment which prevents him from functioning properly in enclosed spaces. In one of his acting classes he meets a fellow actor looking for a house sittter to occupy a large home in the Hollywood hills. One of the attractions of the space is its vantage point to peer into the neighbour’s homes, in particular, the bedroom of an attractive young gal who likes to dance naked in front of her window.
When Scully witnesses a robbery in her home, he turns his obsession for the woman into a sense of protection and follows her around town. Unfortunately, despite his best efforts he’s unable to prevent her despicable murder at the hands (or should I say 3 foot drill) of her shifty and elusive stalker. The cut and dry murder for money motive, unravels into a complex game of deception involving a porno actress and Scully‘s own clausterphobic ailment.
The theft from Vertigo are obvious, Scully is a poorly masked shadow of Jimmy Stewart’s character, substituting out a fear of heights, for Scully's fear of enclosed spaces. The narrative structure rolls out with the same timing as Vertigo. Like the death of Kim Novak's character in 'Vertigo', the neighbour's murder occurs at the midpoint, thus spinning the plot into a direction back onto the main character, revealing a diabolical plot exploiting the hero’s ailments and obssessions. With 'Rear Window', the homage is even more obvious but also more superficial than 'Vertigo'. In fact most of De Palma’s pictures use this point of view of voyeurism as a theme.
Below this surface lies even more fun cinematic layers. The title has a dual meaning for De Palma, sure it refers to Melanie Grifffith’s character’s role in the plotting, metaphor for the ease of deception men can be tricked by when it comes to sex. The final scene which would be appear to be gratuitous nudity, a film-within-a-film scene featuring Scully as a vampire fondling a naked woman in a shower actually references De Palma’s “Dressed to Kill” and the body double used by Angie Dickinson in her infamous opening shower scene. Perhaps reacting to the critical drubbing that picture and that scene in particular De Palma’s lampoons himself with his own recreation.
Quentin Tarantino has never been shy to express his interest in De Palma’s films. There was that particularly gleeful De Palma homage in Kill Bill Vol 1 in the hospital, but look carefully at the climax of ‘Body Double’ when Scully finds himself trapped in a grave burying buried alive by his assailant. During this scene De Palma’s cuts away to a lengthy flashback/dream sequence within the character’s head which gives him the strength to escape - a scene which appears to directly influence the Bride’s great graveyeard escape in Kill Bill Vol 2.
Other goodies in ‘Body Double’ include the glorious centrepiece, the lengthy foot chase sequence in the shopping mall. A classic cat and mouse De Palma set piece choreographed elegantly and set to the wonderfully melodramatic tones of Pino Donnagio’s swooning score. There's also the lengthy and aesthetically out of place, Frankie Goes to Hollywood music video sequence.
After the failure of Scarface,'Body Double' represents of the few major lows in De Palma's career. De Palma would eventually pick himself back up with the Untouchable and Casualties of War later in the decade. But with most of career behind him, we're able to appreciate 'Body Double' in the greater context of De Palma's career and cinema history.