Brian De Palma has taken a lot of heat from almost every angle. Feminists decry the frequent victimization of women in his films. Anti-violence crusaders bemoan his liberal use of bloodshed. Critics nag him about his continuing emulation of Alfred Hitchcock, both in subject matter and style.
De Palma’s reaction to all this has been to throw gasoline on the fire. The director of Carrie, Dressed to Kill, and last year’s Scarface has come up with his most gleefully inflammatory movie yet: Body Double, a tale of murder, voyeurism, and sexual perversity.
In other words, it has everything to madden De Palma’s detractors, including a structure borrowed from a melding of Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Rear Window.
It’s also a considerable amount of fun. If De Palma has been down this garden path before, he at least knows his way around.
A young actor (Craig Wasson) with a fear of dark, enclosed places (Freudians, please note) finds himself out of work and out of a relationship. A new acquaintance (Gregg Henry) offers him a place to house-sit. It’s got a great view—a view that goes right into the window of the beautiful rich woman (former Miss U.S.A. Deborah Shelton) who lives down the road.
Wasson watches the woman through his telescope, and starts seeing weird, erotic images. He also sees somebody else watching her—and soon he finds himself in a plot that leads to violent murder.
The story is divided into halves. The first half ends with Wasson witnessing a murder; the second half has him diving into the seamy world of porno filmmaking, where he meets a porn queen named Holly Body (Melanie Griffith—the daughter of Tippi Hedren, star of Hitchcock’s The Birds). She unwittingly holds the key to the murder—about which Wasson is feeling miserably guilty.
Best not to give much more away after that, since the convoluted story has many twists and turns. The faint of heart should be advised that the murder is performed with a heavy jeweler’s drill (which makes sense, since the murderer is a jewel thief). Other than that, the violence is mostly suggested, as De Palma’s mobile camera movements build up suspense.
In particular, there’s a sequence in which Wasson follows Shelton around Hollywood, through a shopping plaza to a beach motel, that’s a graceful homage to Jimmy Stewart’s trailing of Kim Novak in Vertigo. The “dialogue” of these silent scenes is provided by long-time De Palma collaborator Pino Dinaggio’s expressive music.
In Body Double, De Palma is being willfully outrageous, and he’s enjoying himself. It’s probably his best movie since Carrie, and shows him back on track after a couple of disappointing outings—namely Blow Out and his okay remake of Scarface. I felt the movie was too closely inspired by Vertigo, and thus seemed a warmed-over version of a good idea rather than a brilliantly original one. But De Palma warms it over quite well.
First published in the Herald, November 3, 1984
De Palma’s movies always have problems, and over the years I find myself less and less willing to shrug off the fumbles – the blah casting in this one, for instance (except for Griffith). The Paulettes out there still cling to the idea that Blow Out and Casualties of War are great movies, but I am not buying. He sure makes great sequences, though, and Body Double has more of those than most. In my opening I was reacting to De Palma taking some real shots from journalists and critics around this time, most of them pretty dumb. Body Double was the cheeky riposte, and a final word of sorts.