'Body Double' is about a man who voyeuristically watches a woman perform seductive dances in her apartment (she follows up the gyrations with a spot of self-pleasuring), graduates to following her obsessively, comes within a whisper of getting sexually involved with her and ultimately witnesses her being murdered in a brutal, protracted and phallocentric manner, and who then immerses himself in the shadowy world of blue movies in order to track down someone who might have a lead on her killer.
'Body Double' - quelle surprise! - annoyed the hell out of feminists when it was released in 1984. Twenty-five years later, I can still completely understand why anyone with even the most lackadaisical involvement in women's rights wouldn't be overly keen on it. Without haring off too enthusiastically into the realms of NSFW, here's a few visual highlights, including the so-classy-it-makes-Jess-Franco-look-like-Carl-Dreyer power-tool evisceration moment:
Would you watch this while your mother was in the room? Or your wife? (Mine took one look at the DVD cover, shook her head sadly and occupied the spare room during the two hours I was watching it.)
It's an even easier film to berate when you examine its place in Brian de Palma's filmography: coming straight after the tense and absorbing 'Blow Out' and the sprawling but iconic 'Scarface', and awkwardly preceding the crowd-pleasing slapstick of 'Wise Guys' and the multi-award-winning 'The Untouchables', it comes on like a throwback to the fetishistic, sexualised violence of 'Dressed to Kill', itself not a big woman's lib favourite.
I'd love to have been a fly on the wall at the first studio meeting. "Hey, Brian! Baby! Loved 'Scarface', loved it! Say hello to my big fat box office returns! Brian, baby, whaddaya wanna do next?" "Well, I was thinking of doing a 'Rear Window' meets 'Vertigo' for the blue movie/video nasty generation kind of thing." "Great, here's a chunk of money. Go make it!"
I know that sounds snide, but I'm absolutely serious: 'Body Double' is a conflation of 'Rear Window' and 'Vertigo'. De Palma's homages to Hitchcock run through his entire filmography, and these are the two films he most frequently references. In 'Body Double' he takes his frenzy for Hitch to its logical extreme and makes unapologetically explicit everything that Sir Alfred left elegantly implicit. There are whole screeds to be written (by someone else) on whether this is a good or a bad thing. All I'll say is take a look at Hitchcock's penultimate film: it contains some pretty grim and graphic material. Had the maestro lived and continued making films into the '80s, how far would he have gone with what he depicted onscreen?
Let's pause a moment and briefly consider what 'Rear Window' and 'Vertigo' are about. In 'Rear Window', "Jeff" Jeffries (James Stewart) is a photo-journalist housebound after breaking his leg; he begins to take an obsessive interest in his neighbours on the other side of the apartment courtyard, his motives seguing from curiosity to prurience and then to paranoid fascination as he grows convinced he's witnessed a murder. In 'Vertigo', "Scottie" Ferguson is a detective who suffers from the titular fear of heights; he begins to take an obsessive interest in a woman who dies suddenly and terribly, then transfers his obsessions to her lookalike. In short, 'Rear Window' is inescapably about voyeurism and implicates the audience so subtlely that most aficionados of this (in my opinion) perenially overrated film probably don't even realise it. 'Vertigo' is even darker, exploring sexual obsession, troilism (ie. the merging of sexual identities) and - by implication - necrophilia. Once again, Hitch trawls murky waters while giving the impression he's helming a pleasure cruiser. A crucial reveal in 'Vertigo' lets the audience off the hook just as surely as 'Rear Window' finds them guilty.
Come to think of it, if 'Body Double' is the bastard child of 'Rear Window' and 'Vertigo', then it was arguably removed from its parents by social services and - bad call by the case worker - given over to the dubious foster care of 'Peeping Tom'. But back to the Hitch comparisons (Michael Powell's anti-masterpiece can have its day on The Agitation of the Mind some other time) ...
'Body Double' is about Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) - his name almost a phonetic conflation of Jeff Scottie - a struggling actor who suffers from claustrophobia. Jeff works behind the camera, Mike in front of it. Scottie is scared of heights, Mike of confined spaces. Jeff likes to watch, as does Mike. Scottie gets obsessed by a woman and starts following her around, likewise Mike. Jeff witnesses a murder, same goes for Mike. Scottie's phobia prevents him from taking decisive action at a vital moment, ditto Mike. Scottie clinches with Madeleine/Judy as the camera whirls around them; same deal when Mike gets his paws on Gloria.
Which brings us to the ladies of the cast and the analogy breaks down somewhat. Grace Kelly and Kim Novak remain resolutely clothed throughout. Deborah Shelton and Melanie Griffith, however ...
Ahem. Moving swiftly on ... 'Body Double' makes no bones about what it is. It's an exploitationer: the opening and closing credit scenes, playing on the tits 'n' gore B-movie horror tropes that define the shitty low-budget movie Mike is starring in, reinforce the aesthetic to the point of rubbing the viewer's nose it in. But it's an exploitationer in the way 'Inglourious Basterds' is a war movie: it juggles expectations, conforming to some items on the genre checklist while subverting others, and uses artifice to provide a commentary on how the genre defines itself and what the audience bring to the war movie or the sex 'n' violence flick, as well as testing how much directorial trickery and rug-pulling they're comfortable with. Audiences have perhaps been kinder to Tarantino than to de Palma in this regard.
Tarantino certainly demonstrates a better facility with actors in 'Inglourious Basterds'. De Palma, quite capable of eliciting good performances (Travolta in 'Blow Out', Costner in 'The Untouchables'), either doesn't try here or lets his performers mug their way through the shoot knowing he's not going to get much from them. Wasson is singularly awful. Gregg Henry is straight out of the pantomime villain school of acting. Deborah Shelton is radiance personified but not so hot in the acting stakes. Dennis Franz doesn't get enough screen time to make an impression. Which leaves Melanie Griffith. As the much-put-upon but kookily irrepressible porn starlet Holly Body, hers is the best turn in the film. And that, I think, pretty much says it all.
It's a good job, then, that de Palma is clearly saving himself for the set-pieces, of which there are many. Several are patently ludicrous (but then again, so is the baby-carriage/staircase scene in 'The Untouchables' and yet it suckers me in every time!), and as many again are tense, unpredictable and kinetically realised. The visuals are as glossy as the material demands, but compositions are effective and de Palma makes intriguing use of images built around different levels or spatial dislocations: the M.C. Escher-like layout of a mall populated by expensive boutiques; the staggered balconies of the beach house Mike follows Gloria to; the symmetrical blocks of concrete regulating the flow of an inlet channel to a reservoir.