Unwinding Brian De Palma’s blatant enigma.
Brian De Palma has been accused of a great many crimes during his rich and varied career.
The first and most futile of those accusations is that the legendary filmmaker aped much of his style from the works of Alfred Hitchcock. This is true for the most part, but Hitchcock practically wrote the book on suspense. Would it not be wise, then, to borrow from the master? Or would it be wiser to create anti-Hitchcock films and flounder at the feet of proven convention?
Two more accusations directed at De Palma are a little more conventional in their own right. The first is misogynism, movies such as 1980’s Dressed to Kill seen as chauvinistic slashers masquerading as stylish thrillers thanks to glossy productions and superior casts, with sexualized female characters who often seem to border on the vacuous.
The third, and most obvious De Palma crime is that old chestnut, violence. A year before the release of Body Double, De Palma gave us blood-soaked crime thriller Scarface, an epic, warts-and-all story of the rise and fall of ‘political refugee’ and Miami kingpin Tony Montana (Al Pacino). A movie modelled on excess thanks to an Oliver Stone screenplay based on the writer’s own drug-fuelled lifestyle, Scarface would also feature a quasi-incestuous relationship between Montana and runaway sister, Gina, adding fuel to an already raging fire.
With his meta-infused erotic thriller, Body Double, De Palma seems to address all of those accusations head-on, right down to casting Melanie Griffith (Hitchcock star Tipi Hedren’s daughter) as the movie’s misogynistic marquee female. So obvious are the Hitchcockian influences that the movie at times becomes a blatant pastiche of the director’s most famous techniques, a combination of Vertigo and Rear Window tied in an uber-suspenseful, cinematic bow.
Sam Bouchard: Don’t be so melodramatic.
The movie stars Craig Wasson as Jake Scully, a flawed and relatable actor whose adulterous wife leads him back to the bottle. Scully is struggling on the bottom rungs of Hollywood when a fellow thesp offers him temporary accommodation in a wealthy contact’s apartment, a futuristic building with the towering, unreal presence of the Bates mansion. As an extra treat, unexpected saviour, Sam Bouchard (Gregg Henry), offers Jake the pleasures of the apartment’s telescope, giving him a perfect view of a sultry neighbour who performs an erotic dance every night after returning home.
Wasson quickly becomes obsessed with the beautiful stranger, particularly when he notices a second man stalking her, but since he can be accused of the very same crime he has no other choice than to take matters into his own hands, and quickly becomes a convenient pawn in an unreal mystery with so many twists and turns it would be a crime to reveal them.
What I can reveal is that Body Double seems to be a platform for De Palma’s critical grievances. Firstly, we have the highly sexualized Deborah Shelton as the seedy apple of our protagonist’s eye. Her character is stalked like a vacuous slasher victim with a phallic drill, her demise shot through a rather familiar Rear Window lens. Wasson’s Scully has much in common with Rear Window‘s L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart): a growing obsession, an inescapable predicament, and questions of personal morality as Scully is drawn deeper into the mire against his own best judgement.
Not content with protracted scenes of stylish masturbation, the movie soon takes an unexpected tumble into the sleazy depths of the porn industry, as a discovery leads him to Griffith’s porno superstar, Holly Body (subtle, no?), and a larger-than-life porno set straight out of an MTV video. This leads to the colourful meta-appearance of Frankie Goes to Hollywood lead singer Holly Johnson, who adds to the sexual furore with a wholly unexpected performance of his then controversial hit single Relax. Griffith’s Holly Body is a walking contradiction: intelligent yet strangely naive, respectable based on the fact that she won’t subject herself to the more extreme fetishes of the human condition.
Holly Body: I do not do animal acts. I do not do S&M or any variations of that particular bent, no water sports either. I will not shave my pussy, no fist-fucking and absolutely no coming in my face. I get $2000 a day and I do not work without a contract.
Wasson’s Scully is also reminiscent of another James Stewart character in Vertigo’s ‘Scottie’ Ferguson, whose struggles with the closed space phobia punctuate our descent into the movie’s overt unrealities: the overly dramatic and highly staged romantic parallels, instances of rear projection effect, and a book-ending vampire narrative which seems to suggest that what we have experienced is a wholly fictitious ‘movie within a movie’.
Could this be a protest against the all-too-serious and overbearing criticisms of a society at large, who seem to find more problems within the fictitious realms of movies than they do with real-life atrocities, most of which are conveniently swept under the proverbial rug as we live comparative lives of luxury. Ask an orphaned war child about their opinions on misogyny and violence in cinema and see what kind of response you get. I’m sure they have many other issues to feel aggrieved about. Violence in slasher movies, the misrepresentation of women, the unabashed liberation of sexuality, both hetro and homo, it’s all here, and it’s all tinged with just a smidgen of irony. Perhaps the real lesson is, Judge not, that ye be not judged.
Is Body Double an exercise in style-over-substance? On the surface of things, perhaps. But the substance lies with its technical prowess, and the subtext and absurd overtones provide the movie’s meatier discourse. De Palma shades Body Double with the watercolour brush of ethereal fantasy, an apt representation of the media’s largely misguided grievances, but what he ultimately gives us is a masterful exercise in Hitchcockian suspense, a tense plot wound with the flawless precision of a Swiss watchmaker.
It takes great expertise to keep your audience in the dark until the very end, and even more to keep them engrossed in a plot which seems to have little or no logic. Perhaps the point of the movie was to provide a pulpit for those who are more concerned with scandal than filmmaking, while others can derive satisfaction from the fruits of De Palma’s technical mastery. We sometimes seem to forget that movies are exactly that: movies, and Body Double—a title that works on both a literal and figurative level—is a movie in the purest sense of the word.