Brian De Palma’s Body Double: Shrewd Metatextual Masterpiece or Shameless Masturbatory Piece?

In a time when sexuality is frowned upon in a country already well-known for its puritanical attitudes, I’m shocked filmmaker Brian De Palma hasn’t been dragged away by an angry mob in a flurry of torches and pitchforks. In his varied career, he’s infamous for his depiction of graphic violence in films like Scarface (a lot of the violence is actually not seen, such is the power of suggestion from a master filmmaker) and The Untouchables, his adulation of Alfred Hitchcock by his frequent thievery (far too many films to list here), and his predilection for filming the female form. The last part has labeled him a misogynist by some critics, or a “smut peddler” by others (I guess they don’t watch porn?), but whether or not you agree that he’s using his male gaze to ogle woman via a film camera, De Palma knows how to photograph women. He perverted my childhood crush on Superman’s Margot Kidder, transforming it into adult lust, courtesy of her notable effort playing homicidal French-Canadian twins in De Palma’s Sisters. Angie Dickinson has never looked as good as she does in Dressed to Kill, her shower-scene body double an inspiration allegedly for his mid-‘80s opus, Body Double.

I discovered Brian De Palma’s films in my early twenties, fascinated by his camera trickery via balletic crane shots and hypnotic split screens. My first De Palma experience was Carrie, a well-made ‘70s horror flick and likely my first exposure to female frontal nudity on film (though my friends and I had rented many ‘80s sex comedies in my teen years, T & A were all we got). It’s his taste in sleaze that has endeared his work to me; I bristle when “sleaze” is described as a pejorative term when I feel it encapsulates a specific aesthetic. With Body Double, he takes pulp fiction and creates a lush cinematic experience (replete with aural sex performed by a Pino Donaggio score): it’s at times audacious, ridiculous, and brilliant, creating a sun-soaked homage to the classic film noir genre that’s as much a metatextual commentary on Hollywood filmmaking as it is on voyeurism.

Body Double is a play on two Hitchcock films, Rear Window and Vertigo, as protagonist Jake Scully (Craig Wasson), emulates James Stewart’s bored voyeurism of the former, and Stewart’s phobia in the latter, replacing vertigo with claustrophobia. The film’s plot is contrived, but intentionally so, subverting the typical film noir narrative, where unsavory characters frame a protagonist for a crime for their own selfish needs. In Body Double, the complicated series of events triggered by one character to get away with the perfect murder is astounding, almost parodic, but it’s not to frame Jake for murder, it’s to bank on his voyeurism as an alibi.

Jake, a struggling actor in LA, has had a really bad day: he’s sent home from a low-budget horror film, Vampire’s Kiss (predating Nicolas Cage’s film by four years), playing the titular vampire, after suffering a claustrophobic attack during a pivotal coffin-emerging scene, coming home early to find his girlfriend (a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her Barbara Crampton) having sex with another man. Luckily, a fellow actor he meets, Sam Bouchard (a terrific Gregg Henry), needs someone to keep an eye on his friend’s place (the aforementioned posh home, the Chemosphere, a real-life modernist home and Los Angeles landmark), so he gives Jake the extra set of keys, asks him to water the plants, and shows him a nightly “regular feature” via telescope: a woman in the mansion across the street dances by herself in the nude, which Sam says occurs nightly. At first, Jake seems bashful, but he’s clearly turned on watching the woman’s impressive dance moves (Sam’s lascivious smile, as he watches Jake peering lengthily into the telescope, tells you all you need to know). Jake’s penchant for peeping embroils him in a murder case, when he sees the woman, rich socialite Gloria Revelle (Deborah Shelton), attacked by a burglar and he tries to save her.

Wasson, who reminds me of a young Bill Maher, gives off major Scott Bakula energy, introduced as a hapless, decent guy down on his luck, inconvenienced greatly by a childhood phobia. When he barks at a bartender at his local dive bar, he apologizes instantly; he’s a milquetoast pretending to be an asshole. However, it’s his obsession with Gloria and his not-so-latent voyeuristic tendencies that thrust him into trouble. Instead of calling the police when he notices another voyeur, a repairman watching her from a rooftop and later, following her to an upscale Beverly Hills mall (where he takes her newly-purchased underwear out of the trash in a scene that references a key scene in Dressed to Kill), Jake decides to intervene on his own to be the hero. When the repairman, a facially-scarred man (referred to only as “The Indian”) breaks into Gloria’s house, Jake wastes so much time running to her aid (and fending off her dog), that he fails to save her. As the investigating homicide detective tells Jake: “As far as I’m concerned, you’re the real reason Gloria Revelle got murdered. If you hadn’t been so busy getting off by peeping on her, if you’d have called the police about the Indian, Gloria Revelle would still be alive.” It’s cold, but it’s true—Jake takes it upon himself to play the hero, the “good guy,” when it’s his voyeurism that causes all the problems.

Voyeurism in Body Double is depicted as a seemingly benign act by a couple of red-blooded straight guys invading a woman’s privacy, but De Palma shows us that the voyeurism depicted in the film is paralleled by film as a voyeuristic artform. With camera POVs, we as the audience are the ultimate voyeurs, glimpsing into the intimate details of fictional characters’ lives; film is about seeing the day-to-day details few other people see, other than perhaps romantic partners, and we don’t take issue with such intimacy. In Body Double, we watch Jake watch Gloria and we conclude that the guy is behaving inappropriately, but we continue to watch (unless you’ve been turned off by his behavior and switched the movie off in disgust), as he tries to redeem himself by solving the murder. When Jake protests to the detective that he’s not a pervert, he’s also defending the right of filmgoers to watch—why are we so invested in what happens to a collection of fictional characters in 90 minutes or longer? Filmmakers manipulate our senses, dictating what we hear and see on the big screen, guiding the actors who perform for our benefit, giving us a reason to watch–and we do like to watch—sometimes repeatedly. Brian De Palma knows this very well and he throws it right back at the audience: Are we not titillated and horrified at Jakes’s voyeurism? When Jake confronts Gloria nervously at the beach, De Palma uses an obvious rear projection of the beach background as the camera circles them, Pinaggio’s romantic music soaring in intensity, creating an unsettling throwback to classical Hollywood techniques, reminding the viewer that they’re watching two people embracing passionately, but also by way of an homage to the classic film noir genre, one that deals with humanity’s most debased desires, lust and violence.

With gore and nudity aplenty, Body Double satirizes the collective voyeurism of filmgoing through a genre perspective—why do so many people enjoy watching characters being slaughtered in a horror film or having sex in a porn film? Do we enjoy this form of cinematic catharsis because we can live vicariously through fictional characters without consequences? Both the horror and porn film industries are very successful, even if they also repulse some people, but are they giving people the fantasies many others crave because they cannot–or choose not–to engage in such acts in real life? The scarred man uses a sizeable power drill to murder Gloria and the camera POV of the drill as phallus, penetrating Gloria from between the man’s legs, elicits either riotous laughter or eye rolls, depending how one feels about its inclusion. Perhaps it’s a case of being “too on the nose,” but I think it’s De Palma having fun with his reputation as a salacious genre filmmaker. The prolonged murder sequence, with the failed telephone-cord strangling and the drill unplugging from its electrical socket, is a fantastic bit of metatextuality at work.

De Palma dabbles with camera techniques of a bygone Hollywood era, but he’s also sly enough to parody his own origins as a genre filmmaker, starting Body Double with cheesy horror film fonts, wolf howls, and thunder and lightning, as we first see Jake not as a milquetoast, but as a punk (at least by Hollywood standards) vampire on the Vampire’s Kiss movie set. De Palma regular Dennis Franz is hilarious as an obvious De Palma analog, a smarmy horror director with a short fuse (something De Palma has acknowledged) who’s trying to complete a day’s shooting without too many interruptions or problems. The movie-within-a-movie technique is used repeatedly throughout Body Double, not only as a way for Jake to overcome his claustrophobia (as we see in the climax), but to spill some of the inner secrets of filmmaking, particularly the use of “body double” performers to showcase nudity when the main actors won’t, just as the film’s ending bookends the “horror movie” opening, replete with fake blood being poured down the body double’s breasts and torso, inserted after Jake-as-Hollywood-punk-vampire bites his co-star’s neck. 

Melanie Griffith, as adult star Holly Body, is the standout performer in Body Double. As the daughter of iconic Hitchcock leady lady Tippi Hedren, I don’t think it’s a coincidence De Palma hired Griffith, providing another nod to Hollywood’s past, but it’s a performance that launched her successful film career in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Whatever one might think of Wasson’s performance as Jake, it’s hard to argue that Griffith gives the film’s dark subject matter a much-needed boost of lightness (and I’m not referring to her willingness to be nude frequently in the film). Holly isn’t naïve–she affirms to any prospective adult film producer a list of sex acts that she’s willing to do and not do—and she’ll accept money for many eccentric gigs, including dancing nude as an unknowing body double to Gloria if the money is right. Her masturbatory dance moves are mesmerizing (accompanied superbly by an electro-disco number composed by Pinnagio) and De Palma is counting on the viewer to be entranced fully: “I have a routine that’s a sure ‘10’ on the peter meter,” she tells Jake and she’s not wrong. There’s a sweetness to her character, as if De Palma urges the viewer to reconsider what they consider as a reprehensible profession is not always the case. Like any industry, porn is filled with hard-working professionals (“I’m not just a stunt cock, I’m an actor!” a guy shouts in an adult-film production office) who have the same hopes and dreams as anybody. Holly has become a successful porn actress on her terms and she’s far from being depraved, a trait that many of the harshest anti-porn critics often cite as a perquisite in the adult film industry.

In addition to being a much-needed dose of lightness, Holly introduces amateur detective Jake to the adult film industry and her sex scene with him during Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax” sequence is the highlight of the film. De Palma shows a keen interest in the still-young music video industry of 1984 by complimenting the song’s risqué lyrics with Jake’s awkward sex scene with Holly, and background actors in BDSM and New Romantic fashions. Even in bondage gear, Holly is a striking, powerful film persona, directing Jake in their shared scene, both in character and as a veteran adult actor working with novice Jake. De Palma plays the voyeurism card again, as the camera spins around the porn duo and Holly transforms into Gloria at the beach, kissing Jake passionately as Pinaggio’s romantic theme reprises, and then back again to the neon adult film set. It’s also fun to see Jake in full nerd regalia of sweater and thick-framed Buddy Holly glasses, as he’s mentored by Holly during their exquisite, mostly-clothed sex scene together (though Jake doesn’t know what a “cum shot” is incredibly—again, the Scott Bakula vibes run deep in the Wasson).

Jake continues to flirt with being the hero and being a creep. He wants to solve Gloria’s murder, but he’s also endangering Holly by pretending to be a slimy adult film producer (I’m unconvinced–he’s just not that good of an actor) in order to solve the mystery. One of the main plot contrivances in Body Double is a dejected Jake, drinking himself in a stupor on the Chemosphere’s rotating bed, watching an adult cable channel where Holly is introduced. He discovers that her unique dance highlighted on cable is the same one he saw Gloria perform in her mansion! I think it’s De Palma’s metatextual musings on the contrived nature of both classic film noirs and contemporary erotic thrillers, a narrative twist that seems improbable, but one that is necessary to propel the story along–it’s a ridiculous coincidence that not even Jessica Fletcher would suggest! It’s another example of De Palma’s nudging the viewer into realizing that these genres are ridiculous and yet beloved no matter how illogical they seem and I smile when I see Jake’s drunken self-pity evaporates instantly when he sees that signature dance and the electro-disco music is heard again (and he goes out and rents her latest adult film—remember when video stores had that backroom with the squeaky door?). Jake sees solving the murder as redemption for his voyeurism and failure as a hero, but again, his actions nearly get another woman murdered. But hey, he overcomes his claustrophobia, wins back his faux-punk vampire role, and dates Holly, who looks amused as she watches Jake perform, learning the inner secrets of low-budget horror filmmaking, and contributing to the voyeuristic experience. So he’s really a hero, right?

Body Double is a multi-layered film that allows Brian De Palma to play with his reputation as a tasteless purveyor of sex and violence onscreen and it’s a glorious cinematic experience. Filled with vivid imagery and humor, De Palma satirizes his own contributions to cinematic artifice, genre conventions, and plays with the nature of movie watching as a quintessential form of voyeurism. He depicts the Los Angeles of 1984 as a sinister haven, day and night. He doesn’t just dress up Body Double and his other films with sex and violence to sell movie tickets (though that’s certainly helped), but to comment on our passive activity as filmgoers who crave debased activities depicted onscreen. Did the cinema turn us all into shameless voyeurs, or is it just a by-product of our nature to devour narratives that we do not participate in, but can enjoy safely from afar? Debate amongst yourselves, but I’m going to request another private dance from Ms. Body.

Eager for more Weird Boners? Check out this look at one of John Waters’ favorite films, Baby Doll!

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