My Brian de Palma obsession is growing by leaps and bounds. I think I liked Body Double even more than Phantom of the Paradise.
Of course de Palma is just one of the countless film-makers who have done Hitchcock-style thrillers. What most of these people miss is Hitchcock’s love of black comedy, and his delight in playing games with the audience. In this respect Body Double arguably captures the authentic flavour of Hitchcock’s movie-making more successfully than almost any other attempt at a Hitchcock-style thriller, even though it’s not actually a Hitchcock-style thriller at all. It’s not even really a thriller. It’s a movie about Hitchcock-style thrillers. Yes folks, we’re in meta-movie territory here, but don’t despair because Brian de Palma is at the helm and this is actually going to be fun.
I’ll try to make this plot synopsis as vague and spoiler-free as possible but I really don’t think spoilers matter much in this case because I strongly suspect de Palma wants us to know what’s going to happen.
Jake Scully is a struggling actor who suffers from claustrophobia, which causes him to freeze up on house-sitting job, in a magnificent and spectacular home that looks like a flying saucer perched on top of a tower. Apart from the luxurious fittings there’s an added bonus. The house boasts a powerful telescope, and it’s trained on the windows of the apartment house across the valley. And every evening, at the same hour, the woman in one of those apartments provides some free entertainment as she undresse the set of the low-budget vampire movie he’s working on. He’s sent home to take a rest, and on arriving home he finds his girlfriend in bed with another man. Since it’s her house he can’t kick her out, so he’s on the streets. Then he has what seems to be a stroke of luck. Another actor offers him as and masturbates in front of a window. Jake may not have been aware of his voyeuristic tendencies before, but he’s certainly aware of them now.
After a couple of days the free show takes a disturbing turn. The woman is being menaced by a man. Jake decides to play the hero and starts to follow the woman around. At least he rationalises it to himself as playing the hero, but he obviously doesn’t mind following this very attractive woman around. After her purse is snatched and he pursues the thief he has the opportunity of meeting her, and it’s love at first sight. But that night he still can’t resist watching her regular performance, but this time she really is in extreme danger and Jake must play the hero for real, but will he be in time?
After this the movie abandons Rear Window territory for Vertigo territory. Jake has been watching porn movies (so his voyeurism is alive and well) and a performance he’s just seen from porn star Holly Body has triggered some vivid memories. He must meet her. And the obvious way to meet her is by auditioning for a role in one of her movies. He gets the part, and he gets to do a scene with her, and the scene involves getting to know her very intimately indeed, to the evident considerable enjoyment of both parties. Now that they’ve been introduced, so to speak, he asks her out on a date and pretends to be a big-time producer, because there’s a vitally important question he has to ask her and he has to win her trust.
The director signals his intentions right from the start, with a movie-within-a-movie sequence. He then goes to ostentatious lengths to make sure we realise the plot is a combination of Rear Window and Vertigo. It is necessary to make absolutely sure we know this, because if for even one minute we forget that we’re watching a movie and actually start to believe in the events or the characters the whole edifice will collapse. The most surprising thing is the number of reviewers over the years who have missed this and have taken the film to task for the predictability of the plot. The plot is supposed to be predictable. We’re supposed to know exactly what is going to happen, because we’ve seen Rear Window and Vertigo. This is not a suspense film. A suspense film requires a suspension of disbelief, it requires us to believe in it enough that we really do fear for the safety of the characters, that we really do believe they’re in danger. And that’s the last thing de Palma wants us to do. It’s all an elaborate joke, and he wants us to be in on it.
Early on there’s a scene in a car which I’m convinced was done in that obviously fake rear-projection technique that is so familiar from Hitchcock’s own movies. The choice of Craig Wasson for the role of Jake is another indication we’re not meant to be taking this seriously. He can’t act at all, but then he is playing the part of a failed actor so it’s rather appropriate, and his bad acting functions quite effectively. Gregg Henry as his actor buddy is very hammy, and again I’m assuming this was intended. And then there’s the casting of Melanie Griffith as porn star Holly Body. I don’t think anyone has ever accused her of being able to act, but she’s actually delightfully funny. Her line delivery is bizarre as always, but then so is her dialogue, and it works. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable performance. And of course she’s Tippi Hedren’s daughter, which acts as another reminder that we’re watching a movie. And the title of the movie is itself a spoiler.
Not only is de Palma enjoying himself playing Hitchcock games with us, he’s also having fun with some remarkably risque dialogue (which is presumably what earned it an R18+ rating in Australia, the equivalent of a US NC-17 rating). Melanie Griffith has fun talking very dirty, which she manages to make extremely funny. Apparently the British censors cut much of her dialogue, which is tragic. The sex and nudity content isn’t all that high, but would have been much higher if de Palma had been able to convince the studio to go with his original idea of casting an actual porn star as Holly Body, and including unsimulated sex. Which would have enraged his detractors even more, which no doubt would have amused de Palma even more.
This whole movie is a total hoot from start to finish, and I enjoyed every moment of it. It reminds me a little of Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct in the sense that it’s also a movie that has been spectacularly misunderstood, and in both cases the director’s use of the sexual content has also been misunderstood. And I suspect that in both cases the directors have deliberately courted that misunderstanding in a deliberate attempt to provoke an extreme reaction. Body Double is a movie for movie-lovers to treasure.