Body Double (1984) dir,. Brian De Palma
Starring: Craig Wassen, Melanie Griffith, Gregg Henry,
By Alan Bacchus
It would be easy to instantly dismiss Body Double as a grade B Hitchcock thriller and shamelessly exploitative ‘80s 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 be the worst kind of gratuitous nudity synonymous with ‘80s genre filmmaking.
Appreciation of this film, though, requires a deep knowledge of 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 pieces 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 and 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 gets 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 sitter 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 claustrophobic ailment.
The theft from Vertigo is obvious, as 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 obsessions. 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 lie even more fun cinematic layers. The title has a dual meaning for De Palma. Sure, it refers to Melanie Griffith’s character’s role in the plotting, a metaphor for the ease of deception men can be tricked by when it comes to sex. The final scene, which would 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 received, De Palma 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 being buried alive by his assailant. During this scene De Palma 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 graveyard escape in Kill Bill Vol 2.
Other goodies in Body Double include the glorious centrepiece, the lengthy foot chase sequence in the shopping mall. It's 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 then-perceived failure of Scarface, Body Double represents one of the few major lows in De Palma's career. De Palma would eventually pick himself back up with the Untouchables and Casualties of War later in the decade. But with most of De Palma's career behind him, we're able to appreciate Body Double in the greater context of his career and cinema history.