Brian DePalma has always come under the gun of the Movie Police, whether it’s for charges of Hitchcock “homages” or misogynistic attitudes towards his female characters. Well round up the paddy wagons for Body Double (1984), the clever thriller that mixes Vertigo, Rear Window, and the adult film industry into one heady stew that audiences took a hard pass on at the time. Maybe it was too classy?
Released in late October by Columbia Pictures, Body Double returned less than its $10 million budget and garnered the same mixed reviews that followed DePalma around for most of his career. (For those keeping count, Ebert gave it a three and a half star review; did his appreciation of the female form inform his opinion? Discuss amongst yourselves.) Regardless of its box office demise, Body Double lives on as one of DePalma’s cleverest magic tricks, a cinematic sleight of hand gussied up in fishnets and mirrored ceilings.
Meet Jake Scully (Craig Wasson – Ghost Story), a working actor who suffers from claustrophobia. The problem is he’s playing a vampire in a low budget horror flick and has to do some coffin work, which results in a stoppage due to his aversion to tight spaces. So off he goes to acting class, where he is rescued from further humiliation by fellow thespian Sam Bouchard (Gregg Henry – Slither). Further, because between the movie set and acting class, Jake catches his wife (Barbara Crampton, ladies and gentlemen) in their bed with another man. With no place to stay, Sam has a proposition for Jake: housesit the hillside condo that he’s housesitting while he takes an acting job outside of L.A. Jake eagerly agrees, as Sam points him in the direction of a telescope and gorgeous brunette Gloria (Deborah Shelton – Blood Tide) across the way who likes to dance and pleasure herself behind open blinds.
Jake soon becomes obsessed with Gloria, and follows her throughout L.A. even as she herself is followed by a mysterious Native American, which results in a botched snatch and grab thwarted by the temporarily heroic Jake. And I say temporarily because later that night while peeping again at Gloria he witnesses her being attacked by the same Native American, who brings along his industrial power drill in an effort to gain her affections (I guess?). Arriving a little too late, Jake has to avoid suspicion from the police while feeling compelled to solve Gloria’s murder; his journey leads him to the pornographic industry, where he enlists the help of superstar Holly Body (Melanie Griffith – Fear City) to solve the mystery. But our driller killer has bigger plans for both of them…
If it seems like there are leaps of logic in that description, you’re not wrong; part of the joy of Body Double is the plot, which in retrospect, is one of DePalma (along with co-writer Robert J. Avrech)’s tightest. I wouldn’t dream of giving anything away, I’ve given you A to C (skipped D) and the rest has to unfold. It really is anguishing the way DePalma, at his best, manipulates the audience. His detractors tend to focus on his aesthetic, or what they see as fawning to Hitch’s and his sense of gallows humor; the truth is that long before this film, he carved his own niche and style through more subversive material.
Having said that, Body Double is easily his most Hitch-y film to date, story wise; certainly voyeurism was nothing new to him, as he used it as far back as Sisters (1972), and leading up to this, Blow Out (1981). But the phobia angle is new, and welcome, giving Jake a vulnerability (largely thanks to Wassons’s sympathetic portrayal as a shlumpy everyman) that offsets his obsessive nature. And this film needs the redemption, or at least thought it did to attract mainstream audiences; after all most major films don’t take a peek behind the beaded curtains of the porno industry, and certainly not in such a frank way. And while the film doesn’t shy away from the nudity (how could it given the subject matter?), it deals with it in such a matter of fact manner as to be disarming, which comes courtesy of Griffith, who gives a charmingly melancholic performance as Holly, especially as she describes to Jake, pretending to be a producer after he films a scene with her (an interesting way to get her attention), what she will and won’t do in front of the camera. Griffith projects a sweet sadness that tries valiantly to overcome the perceived seediness of the venture, but Body Double is just in too deep for the more sensitive viewer – if they somehow make it through Jake and his sordid peepers in the first half, they run smack into smut in the second. Of course, neither is offensive to genre lovers and DePalma fans in particular; he’s never shied away from the greasier aspects of mankind.
Body Double aims to please on its own modest terms. It’s a thriller so precisely told that you could time your watch to it. But you’ll be so entranced by DePalma’s virtuosic camerawork and tongue in cheek celebration of cinema that you won’t notice you’ve been had. And even if you do, it’s hard not to appreciate being tricked by a master magician.
Body Double is available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time.