Classic Movies: Body Double (1984)

Body Double - 1984 - 2

Directed by – Brian De Palma
Written by – Brian De Palma & Robert J. Avrech
Starring – Craig Wasson, Melanie Griffith, Gregg Henry, Deborah Shelton, David Haskell, Guy Boyd, Al Israel & Dennis Franz

Now this is more like it! After my disappointing rewatch of Dressed to Kill earlier this week, Brian de Palma is back in my good books with his highly sexualised homage to (and this time it is an homage to, rather than a rip off of) Rear Window and Vertigo; the erotic thriller Body Double.

Body Double sees de Palma at his most de Palma-ish. It’s far from his best film (Carrie still takes that mantle for me) but it’s very much the film into which all of his unique style and personality has been pumped. It’s slick, seedy, disgusting and brimming with misogyny – all traits for which de Palma is both adored and reviled – yet unlike Dressed to Kill the film has a real satirical depth to it that makes you question whether de Palma is the vile woman-hater his films often reveal him to be or whether he’s much more intelligent than that. Don’t get me wrong, Body Double is still as sexist and as trashy as almost all of his post-Carrie output but this time it’s all part of a much more satirical attack on the innate nastiness of the movie industry, the porn industry and the unspoken correlations between the two.

The film is, as always, Hitchcock-inflected but de Palma does a decent job of bringing his own style and – shockingly enough – his own story to the proceedings. The film’s central focus is on a semi-professional actor – Jake (Wasson, best known for his role in A Nightmare on Elm Street Part III) – who becomes embroiled in a murder mystery when a beautiful woman upon whom he has been spying (Gloria, played by Deborah Shelton; Dallas) is brutally butchered by a disfigured “Indian man”. The police refuse to believe Jake’s version of events, not least because he is revealed to be a peeping tom, so Jake is forced to take matters into his own hands. His investigation leads him into the porn business, where a star named Holly Body (Griffith; Working Girl, Lolita) seemingly holds the key to solving the mystery.

Body Double - 1984 - 1

The comparisons with Rear Window and Vertigo are plain for all to see, though de Palma opts to contemporise them this time around, combining the themes of the two Hitchcock classics to create a film rich in its own unique subtext and sexuality. It is a film that poses the question “what’s so different between cinema and porn?” which it then answers with a resounding “fuck all”. It’s a film in which de Palma’s sense of style is put to excellent use, in which the shallowness of his slick visuals complement the emptiness of the industries that he is attacking and in which the blatant sexism might just serve a purpose. It’s not perfect by any means but as a work of unbridled hedonism, it’s surprisingly well crafted.

I think the most enjoyable element of Body Double is the extent of its cinematic indulgence. De Palma has never been one to rein things in, and Body Double is the film in which all of his trademark techniques can be found. Moments such as the slow, meandering, almost dialogue-empty journey through the mall and the violent murder sequence, not to mention the general kitschy quality of the film, come together to give us a piece of cinema that seems like little more than an experiment in style… not that this is a bad thing. See, for example, the “Relax” sequence; this is the type of indulgence that would usually be dismissed. It’s over-the-top, it’s ridiculous and it’s massively unnecessary; in essence, it’s the eighties in a nutshell. But boy oh boy does it suit the tone of this film just perfectly…

Of course, like almost all of de Palma’s films, Body Double suffers from the fact that the plot takes a backseat in favour of style once again. The central mystery is interesting and de Palma does a decent job of introducing red herrings and leaving the audience confused about what is happening but, when it comes to the revelation in the final act, you get the impression that de Palma didn’t really know what he was doing. The film requires a few suspensions of disbelief too many; I don’t mind accepting that Jake would become obsessed with Gloria as quickly as he does, nor do I mind accepting the revelation about how and why Gloria was murdered, but I’m not sure I can buy the two in one go. Similarly, when it comes to the revelation, de Palma’s brand of exposition is very irritating. He relies on Scooby Doo-esque flashbacks to explain the major points, suggesting that not enough attention was paid to them in the first place, and Jake’s sudden realisation is majorly contrived. Nevertheless, as a whole, the story does play out relatively nicely.

Body Double is a trashy piece of borderline sexploitation that, in the hands of most directors, would feel cheap and nasty. Under de Palma’s direction, however, it somehow evolves into something that is strangely rich in meaning. De Palma’s style suits the trashiness of the plot perfectly, and he gets some decent performances out of his stars. Griffith in particular gives an excellent performance, not least because it seems against type for her, while Wasson is reliable as the conflicted hero of the piece. The characterisation – with the exception of Jake, who is a strangely complex and endearing man – is pretty thin and if you scratch beneath the surface for more than a few seconds, you’ll find that the film is quite shallow. It is this shallowness, however, that gives the film its depth (if that makes sense…) De Palma’s attack on cinema is scathing, and he has a real knack for delving into and portraying the ugliness of the porn industry without resorting to sanctimony. It is a film in which de Palma says a lot about sexism and voyeurism in Hollywood and it’s just a shame that he struggles to rein in his own, innate misogyny when doing so.

Nowhere near as derivative as Dressed to Kill, though still full of the garish style for which you either love or loathe de Palma, Body Double is a great reminder of what the director can do when he’s at his best. This is a slasher / thriller made a time when the genre was at its most unoriginal and tepid, so it’s easy to see why it has stood the test of time when so many of the others from which it borrows heavily have fallen away into obscurity. I just wish it the plot was a bit smoother round the edges because it has the potential to be a minor masterpiece of the genre.

★★★½

Review also posted on Letterboxd

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