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Body Double

Body Double (1984)

October. 26,1984
| Thriller Crime Mystery

After losing an acting role and his girlfriend, Jake Scully finally catches a break: he gets offered a gig house-sitting in the Hollywood Hills. While peering through the beautiful home's telescope one night, he spies a gorgeous woman dancing in her window. But when he witnesses the girl's murder, it leads Scully through the netherworld of the adult entertainment industry on a search for answers—with porn actress Holly Body as his guide.


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While Brian De Palma's BODY DOUBLE taps adeptly into its hetero-normative erotic thrust, in post-mortem, its central plot fits right into a cracking-a-nut-with-a-sledgehammer case that if the nefarious perpetrator simply needs an eye-witness for his purported burglary-turned-murder skulduggery, he really wouldn't have concocted such an involute set-up to pull the wool over the eyes of our protagonist, Jack Scully (Wasson), a struggling actor in Hollywood afflicted by claustrophobia. So what De Palma blatantly exploits down pat is the libidinous bent and voyeuristic tantalization mostly derived from the straight male demography, plundering Hitchcock's REAR WINDOW and VERTIGO no end, BODY DOUBLE's misbegotten plot is at first a thoroughgoing manifestation of female objectification through man's wish-fulfillment, as if in real world, a luscious woman really enjoys putting on such a show for no one's gratification but herself, also the camp choice from a telephone cord to an electric drill in terms of the murder weapon in the archly designed gore climax does writ large a wicked sign of its times and De Palma's thinly-veiled mean-spiritness. Jack Scully is hare-brained enough to not suspect something bizarre is afoot right from the start, but the same can be referred to the culprit, so inimitable is the seductive routine that he must hire the porn star who invents it to do the same performance, and thanks to the slipshod prosthetics wearing by the ghastly-looking "Indian", any sharp-eyed spectator can more or less guess who is underneath that halfway through the journey, ergo, thrill is drained by half. Having said that, Melanie Griffith does hold court in her breakthrough performance as the titular double, who only makes her appearance in the second half but charmingly weds immaculate allure with an air of nonchalance in her trademark cooing articulation, the paradigm of a woman in the eyes of her opposite sex beholder. Ultimately, the takeaway of the film is exclusively ocular apart from Griffith's grand entrance, the strikingly futuristic dwelling Chemosphere and a vampy music video of Frankie Goes To Hollywood's RELAX are here to stay, but as for De Palma's facility, that Dutch-angle tunnel-vision might be any viewer's best shot.


Dismissed on release Body Double is referenced often in Bret Easton Ellis' novel 'American Psycho'(1991), the stories serial killer Patrick Bateman has seen the film 37 times. He also occasionally repeats his preferred moments from the film to the reader or to other characters, especially 'the power drill scene' (he masturbates to this scene). On a lighter note, the futuristic octagon residence Jake house-sits is a real place, 'Chemosphere,' at 7776 Torreyson Drive in Los Angeles. It was designed by the architect John Lautner in 1960, but is still looked cutting edge in the 1984 film. In The Simpsons television series the shallow ex B actor now infomercial host 'Troy McClure' lives in a near-identical house. DePalma began his career as an American Jean-Luc Godard with his films 'Greetings' and 'Hi, Mom!' and to a lesser extent with 'Blow Out'. He is unusual for a mainstream American director, in that he frequently produces love letters to Godard's 'Weekend'; colourful, loud, violent… sometimes popular, sometimes not. Body Double is a chapter in his ongoing war with his critics. The film was so shocking (for a major studio film from an established director), that I remember my jaw hit the floor when I first viewed it. It references early eighties porn films, Hitchcock via Melanie Griffith as well as 'Rear Window' and 'Vertigo'. Dario Argento is there via 'Tenebre' like killers, and as always DePalma thinks highly enough of himself to reference his own work (most obviously the Victoria Lyn link in 'Dressed To Kill'). DePalma had talked about making a porno… and with Body Double his critics thought he had. Those who still hate this film would probably be surprised to hear Bertolt Brecht mentioned in the same breath. "…the play should not cause the spectator to identify emotionally with the character or action before him or her, but should instead provoke rational self-reflection and a critical view of the action on the stage." DePalma performs more distancing tropes than he had ever tried to pull before under the guise of a thriller. We are asked to examine what is being said and how we observe and process it. DePalma does this via movies within movies; Jake is filming a movie, or was until he is fired for being claustrophobic. Melanie Griffith's porn starlet Holly Body stars in 'Holly Does Hollywood', a movie described as the 'Gone with the Wind' of porn. The two meet on the set of the porno sequel, one that recreates the making of the earlier film (a mirror shot that actor Craig Wasson claims he created reveals the camera crew; though DePalma probably had 'Blow-Up' in mind). Body Double begins and ends with deliberate deconstructions, breaking the fourth wall by showing the film set and crew. It sounds academic but it is a sickly sweet early eighties 'Tangerine Dreamy' sound tracked concoction full of nudity and violence, and this is precisely what makes it possible for DePalma to demonstrate his concerns, techniques and cognitive dissonance. DePalma is thumbing his nose at his critics for 'Dressed To Kill' (and 'Blow Out', and for that matter his previous film 'Scarface'), who decided the sexed up thriller 'Dressed…' was the number one cause of all rapes committed since its release. DePalma like Godard, gets a kick out of fatalistic humour. My reference to 'Tangerine Dream' is deliberate; whenever Jake catches a glimpse of his own 'Madeline'/'Judy' double (i.e. a doppelganger of a doppelganger) dancing in nothing but headphones and panties, DePalma has Pino Donaggio's music sounding not like a Hitchcock thriller, but more like 'Risky Business' from the previous year that starred a young Tom Cruise. DePalma is pointing out the hypocrisy that, in 'Dressed To Kill' for instance, it is verboten to have a middle-aged woman having remotely risqué sexual fantasies unless you get to throw labels of misogyny at the director DePalma who is regarded as arrogant by many. However in films like 'Porky's' (1982), 'My Tutor' (1983), and 'Class' (1983) and most obviously the aforementioned Risky Business (which the critics loved), it's okay to romanticise the corruption of virile, high school boys at the hands of non-Gonorrhea-carrying prostitutes. Body Double, whilst not a 'great' film (it's too flawed by the directors indulgences… even though they are what make the film; it's complicated), is however the front runner as his signature film. It has all the DePalma DNA; long set pieces, little dialogue, story told visually, voyeurism, the culprit aware he is a voyeur and yet being worried about other characters voyeurism, and what it means. He is self-referential (a kiss lifted from the climax of his own 'Obsession'), and to work our way back to Dario Argento, rather than being a 'noir' thriller, DePalma utilises the bright California sunshine, much as Argento did in 'Tenebre'.

Robert McElwaine

Arguably the one movie among Director Brian DePalma's back catalogue which owes a great debt to his hero, the late great Alfred Hitchcock. Body Double marks something of an oddity which far from perfect didn't deserve the critical dismissal it received, leading to it being a commercial failure at the box office. It also marked the closest thing that actor Craig Wasson had to a mainstream leading role. The movie revolves around Jake Scully, (Wasson) a struggling actor starring in cheap, tawdry Vampire flick which proves more trouble than it's worth. He suffers from claustrophobia which Isn't exactly helpful when he has to appear in scenes of him sleeping in a coffin. Upon arriving home he finds his girlfriend in bed with another man, forcing him to find a new home. A chance meeting with fellow out of work actor Sam Bouchard at an acting workshop proves fortuitous as he needs a house-sitter while he's away on an acting job. Jake jumps at the chance of taking care of the plush apartment, and to top things off, each night a sexy alluring neighbour who lives in the building across performs a sexy striptease which Jake views via a telescope. This leads to an unhealthy obsession with wanting to meet her which eventually leads to him witnessing her murder. Inevitably finding himself the chief suspect he finds that he must work to clear his name which gradually draws himself in to the seedy world of the porn industry and where he learns that everything he saw that night wasn't quite as it seemed. Glossy, beautifully filmed and with a slightly surreal edge Body Double while largely effective and never boring is marred predominantly by a vacuous plot which tries to hide the silliness behind flashy window dressing. De Palma delights in excess which was very much a hallmark of the eighties, especially in the shamelessly O.T.T. murder scene and when Jake reluctantly appears in a pornographic Horror Movie, marching through a brothel to the strains of Frankie Goes to Hollywood's, Relax, and marks an inspired foray in to opulence and indulgence which De Palma captures beautifully. Ultimately a movie of two halves with the first being one long set-up for the main plot as Jake's obsession with the mystery woman grows unabated. Wasson, a limited actor in some people's view is actually effectively cast here as he makes for a likable screen presence. He has an amiable, good natured quality which makes for it being all the more troubling and cringe-making as he descends in to essentially becoming a stalker. It's these moments which ironically prove more tense and unnerving than the inevitable killing. Unfortunately the combining of plot aspects from of two of Hitchcock's more renowned thrillers don't exactly make for a cohesive plot, which under close scrutiny is rather flimsy. The eventual plot twists are either predictable or when they do arrive although unexpected don't have the jarring effect of shock they were clearly designed to invoke. On the plus side, Melanie Griffith who doesn't make her long awaited appearance until over an hour in to the picture is on top sleazy yet naive and ultimately bemused form as porn star, Holly Body(moniker which was actually taken by a genuine porn star after the movies release. Below the surface there is however some rewarding self referential observations on the pitfalls of the Hollywood film industry, De Palma sublimely delights in bewildering his audience with a neat psychological deception which will have you double guessing yourself. Topped off by a beautiful, haunting score by Pino Dinaggio it's an entertaining foray in to style over substance, deserving of the critical reappraisal it has garnered. Not necessarily to be missed if you can get past it's shortcomings.


"Body Double"'s plot is transparent and derivative - it's like a slick, R-rated update of "Vertigo" (although there is at least one crucial difference: here, the hero falls obsessively in love with the real thing, not the double; and I have to say I agree with his choice, Deborah Shelton is hotter than Melanie Griffith), with some "Rear Window" thrown in, and a (mostly satirical) side trip to the pornographic industry. But if you surrender yourself at the hands of Brian De Palma, his direction is so fantastic, and so assured, that the film becomes an entertaining, at times even exhilarating, experience. It's erotic, (briefly) violent, surprisingly funny, and occasionally positively surreal. Perhaps one of the key thrillers of the 1980s. *** out of 4.