Brian De Palma’s films are an acquired taste. That’s especially apparent with Body Double, an uninviting experience for those unfamiliar with the director with plenty to offer those who’ve come around to his distinctive style. As a straightforward (and rather lurid) thriller, it’s somewhat unsatisfactory, hamstrung by its inherent implausibility and its leading man’s anti-charisma. Neither does it entirely succeed as a Hitchcockian interrogation of duality, surveillance and sexuality; the film’s metatextual elements, hinted at by its inside-Hollywood title, are intriguing but insufficient to prop up the picture by themselves.
Like a lot of De Palma’s work, the film is best understood as neither one thing nor the other. At his best, his films are like a buoy bobbing between genre and art film; occasionally immersed in the sea of genre pleasure, occasionally adrift in the sharp breeze of self-reflexivity, but more often swaying violently between the two modes. The best way to appreciate Body Double, then, is to grab on and succumb to its unconventional rhythms.
Not too unconventional, though. Like a hefty chunk of De Palma’s career, Body Double draws so heavily from Hitchcock’s back catalogue that it stretches the limits of homage. Sisters and Raising Cain recalibrated Psycho for fraternal rather than maternal relationships, while Dressed to Kill mashes up Hitchcock’s big three – Vertigo, Rear Window, Psycho – into a colourful mess, and this is just scratching the surface. Body Double’s plot borrows primarily from Vertigo, with a hapless schmuck finding himself embroiled – legally and romantically – in another man’s convoluted attempt to murder his lover. De Palma finds time for a dash of Rear Window, with said anti-charismatic schmuck – Craig Wasson’s Jake Scully – falling for the doomed woman he espies from a distance (using a telescope, but sans wheelchair). Scully even has a crippling fear that rears its head at the most inopportune moments, though it’s claustrophobia rather than a fear of heights.
Rear Window, Vertigo and Body Double are also united by their oh-so-cinematic fascination with watching. Body Double restages Jimmy Stewart’s telescopic, Rear Window voyeurism along with the actor’s iconic shadowing of Vertigo’s Kim Novak (when Jake tails his neighbour Gloria (Deborah Shelton) from shopping mall to beachside resort). Since the film is set in 1980s Los Angeles, De Palma extrapolates Hitchcock’s obsession with voyeurism towards its natural destination: pornography. We’re even treated to a faux porno trailer, which seems to be entirely shot – fittingly enough – from the leering perspective of a peeping tom, darting from window to window to peer in on one vice-filled room after another (recalling Blow Out’s opening scene).
Ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself. The porno industry doesn’t enter the picture until late in the piece, like a wave of debauchery crashing down and bringing a cavalcade of twists in its wake. Roger Ebert’s review – a rare favourable one, given the film’s controversial reception upon release – describes its plot as “airtight.” I don’t know that I’d agree with that assertion, but fair warning – spoilers from here on out. For example, Sam Bouchard’s (Gregg Henry’s) plan to have Jake witness Gloria’s death is incredibly tenuous, relying on:
- Jake falling for faux-Gloria (Melanie Griffith, living up to the title as porn actress Holly Body and nude stand-in for Gloria) with such intense desperation that he proceeds to stalk her, and
- Jake spying on Gloria’s place the night that Sam – dressed in the entirely unconvincing and slightly racist “Indian” disguise – breaks in to murder her.
Not to mention the necessity for unimpeded access to a ridiculously ritzy L.A. house that overlooks Sam’s girlfriend’s apartment. But picking at such plot holes is either beside the point or, possibly, the point; De Palma’s films often operate as criticism themselves, and it’s not hard to read the contrivances of the storyline as a subtle jab at their inspiration. Remember how Novak inexplicably disappeared midway through Vertigo, with the only explanation being maaaagic? Yeah, if Sight and Sound can forgive such plot holes, so can we.
It follows that the fragility of the narrative is intentional; part of the fun of it all. Take Gregg Henry’s aforementioned Indian get-up. It’s entirely unconvincing, particularly when De Palma grants him extended close-ups early in the piece that threaten to give away the game entirely, as though he’s deliberately sabotaging his own film. Then again, maybe my own preferences – combined with De Palma’s exaggerated male gaze; he’s nothing if not a perve – might explain why I saw that twist coming, but didn’t realise that the half-naked woman dancing in the window wasn’t actually played by Deborah Shelton. (I know, that twist is telegraphed by the damn title. I know.) De Palma has a knack for creating suspense even if you know precisely where the story’s going, which helps ensure these tips of the hand aren’t deleterious.
Suspense is only one half of the equation, though; I’ve barely touched on the whole Hitchcockian homage, cinema-turned-inside-out thing. As mentioned before, a lot of what Body Double is exploring is cinema as a voyeurism, where the watcher and the subject are linked through the act of surveillance. As in many of De Palma’s films, we’re treated to scenes of people watching people watching people, whether it’s Jake viewing that peeping tom porno or peering through his telescope to see the “Indian” ogling Gloria through binoculars.
These scenes link observation and action; actual action, when it comes to Jake, but also the way cinema acts on us, connects us to what we’re watching. We’re scared, or excited, or thrilled by what we see on screen, even though what we’re seeing is a mimesis of reality. A performance. Just like the ones the porno actors are delivering in that trailer, or the performance that Sam Bouchard is giving when, slathered with make-up, he leers at Gloria for Jake’s benefit. Any well-written script recognises that its characters assume different personas in different situations, but Body Double takes such mask-swapping to hyperbolic extremes, twisting Hitchcock’s familiar narratives into a film about acting …and auditioning.
For starters, the core cast members are all actors within the diegesis. Jake is scrapping away in “low-budget independent horror films” (the film opens on the set of Vampire’s Kiss – some years before the Nicolas Cage film of the same title – directed by Dennis Franz doing his De Palma impression). Holly is a porn star – and, we’re led to believe, a reasonably successful one. There’s more ambiguity about Sam – we’re initially led to believe he’s an actor through his camaraderie with Jake’s actor buddy, but when he confronts Jake’s acting teacher, he concedes he’s not part of the class.
This scene – wherein we witness Jake plumbing the depths of his claustrophobia – would appear to suggest an interest in the process of acting. The fiddliness of a craft where you have to, say, swap out for an another actress mid-scene (De Palma was inspired to write the film after using a body double in Dressed to Kill’s shower scene). But De Palma’s films rarely evince an interest in said process; I get the impression he casts his actors based on how they look, then just lets them do their own thing (whether it’s outrageously theatrical – Lithgow in Raising Cain – or guilelessly naturalistic, like Griffith here). And that fits Body Double’s approach, since once you’re aware of the screenplay’s machinations, you realise that the purpose of the acting class isn’t to draw attention to technique – Jake’s exercise is laughably silly – but to allow Sam to ‘cast’ Jake as a player in his elaborate scheme.
In fact, most of the key character interactions in the film – up until the violent denouement, anyways – are variations on the casting process. This is often literalised: we see Jake auditioning throughout the first act, while later in the film he auditions to appear in a porno before pretending to be a porn producer, hoping to cast Holly in an upcoming project in order to interrogate her about her role in Gloria’s death. Even the extended stalking scene operates as an audition of sorts, with Jake falling for Gloria and falling for Sam’s performance as the nefarious “Indian”. There’s a thick layer of artificiality smeared across these interactions, befitting a film that dissects the process of substituting a body double for a shower scene over its end credits.
So what does this all amount to? As you might have guessed from my discursive, rambling approach to this review, not a whole lot. Oh, sure, you can stretch your critical faculties to argue that De Palma is providing commentary on the transactional nature of human relationships, investigating how we size others up to see how they suit our needs, much as a casting director examines a screen test. Which sounds great, but there isn’t much evidence within the film to support this sort of reading; none of the relationships forged in these allegorical auditions – Sam/Jake, Jake/Gloria, Jake/Holly – last particularly long, but neither are they fleshed out enough to support any detailed reading.
This makes sense, given De Palma’s approach to cinema seems less about tying his deconstructive approach into one particular reading as merely breaching the boundary between cinema’s components – casting (Body Double), editing (Blow Out), legalese (Phantom of the Paradise), etc – and the medium itself. He’s like Godard without the politics. I compared his films to criticism before. But if he’s a critic, he’s not the kind of critic that demands a singular interpretation of the art he’s analysing. He’s more interested in pulling something apart than putting it back together again.
Indeed, watch a few interviews with the director, and you get the sense that some of his film’s impact is incidental. On the special features packaged with my Body Double Blu-Ray – a local Umbrella release – De Palma laments how Gloria and Jake’s first (and only) kiss was received by audiences, who laughed at a scene he’d intended to be serious. Watching that scene – where the music swells, the camera spins, and two people who’ve just met (one of whom is Craig Wasson, remember) get to passionate macking – it’s hard to believe that it’s supposed to connect you, rather than disconnect you, from the characters. Hell, it’s even shot in a way that makes the beach backdrop look like rear projection. Watching the movie, I had assumed that it’s ridiculousness was intended to be distancing, acting as a commentary on the implausibility of Hollywood romance – commentary enriched when the film cuts back to it during Jake’s porn debut with Holly. (A scene that takes place in the middle of an impromptu Frankie Goes to Hollywood music video – amazing, by the way.)
So maybe Body Double succeeds by accident. Not as a deeply incisive take on Hollywood skeeziness, or the act of watching, or the act of casting, but simply an amalgam of all these things spliced together. Memorable without necessarily amounting to anything.