As the revolving pieces of Body Double’s mystery come together, its shaken everyman hero (played by Craig Wasson) pleads with a sceptical police detective on the end of the telephone line. “Sounds crazy to me…” the detective says. He responds: “I know, but it’s the truth.” Body Double is very much about the artifice of the thing; a film which is almost entirely superficial and yet almost entirely concerned with the superficialities in people, places and plot itself.
Wasson plays Jake Scully, a recently unemployed, second-rate actor who - after finding himself homeless and single - is offered the chance to house-sit a lavish apartment across the way from a beautiful woman (Deborah Shelton). Through the lens of a telescope, Jake’s voyeuristic obsession leads to the night when he becomes witness to her murder. Soon, he becomes embroiled in a disturbing mystery and meets a punky porno actress (Melanie Griffith) who has been hired to serve as a body double for the murdered woman.
The film is so interested in the boundaries between the real and unreal, it’s difficult to distinguish between the two and their ambiguities. The unreality of the rear projection behind a driving Jake for example, as well as the patently-fake scenery as he passionately embraces Deborah Shelton’s character, contribute to this ‘artificial’ look De Palma plays with. We get the sense Jake is following this mystery down the rabbit hole into obsession, and into a different reality centred around it that hides its true nature behind façades.
One could argue the real ‘double’ here is the film itself. Like De Palma’s Blow-Out before it, the ‘genius’ of the film’s plot is again cribbed wholesale from classic thrillers, most-notably Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Rear Window. Their plots, subtext, ideas and themes are all here, but with bigger hair.
However, the film is unmistakably De Palma, in its lewd, dark humour, punk sensibility and sheer style with which he directs a camera through another oppressive, ultra-modern space. In playing with the absurdity of the thriller plot, he may even be thumbing his nose at the film industry itself. A series of Hollywood types – from sleazy directors to brown-nosing actors at swanky LA parties – hammer home what a truly degrading and disappointing place the business can be. De Palma walks the line between tasteless exploitation and meaningful genre filmmaking, a dichotomy which has defined his career and a label which has slowly become less useful as he turns his attention towards more ‘serious’ subjects.
In Blow-Out he opens on a horror pastiche, a ridiculed film-within-a-film which is a great big metaphor for this transition. Here in Body Double, De Palma again pokes holes in cookie-cutter horror trash as his hero Jake is fired from the set of “Vampire’s Kiss”. Body Double exists within a happy medium, the period where De Palma has both shed the label of a straight-up horror filmmaker and become what we’d call a genre filmmaker – he is allowed to make films like Body Double a year after directing a prestige film like Scarface.
That its filmic inspirations are so clear, Pino Donaggio’s incredibly chic new-wave score becomes even more important. It’s a huge part of what makes for a genuinely memorable film under the weight of homage. His specific cue for Jake’s use of the infamous telescope is so dramatically different than anything before it, it absolutely sells the idea of voyeurism and male gaze as almost adventurous. It’s a twisted, morally-compromising moment which Donaggio’s hypnotic score truly serves.
Probably more astonishing is how closely Donaggio’s more traditional pieces resemble Hitchcock’s go-to composer Bernard Hermann, which does little to allay comparison. Craig Wasson plays an immensely likeable everyman figure in a historically-thankless role, even at times mimicking Jimmy Stewart’s voice, circumventing what could be a repelling, sleazy character in every respect. More shockingly, Melanie Griffith steals nearly every scene she is in as Holly Body, a punky porn star with the air of a gangster’s moll, and instantly iconic in the way only a femme fatale in a De Palma movie can be.
Body Double is Vertigo for the MTV generation. It’s Rear Window with more rear. While it may not reach the pure cinematic heights of both of these films (what has?), it’s Brian De Palma’s love letter to a kind of movie he clearly loves, with its own agenda and sensibilities, appealing and entertaining in such a way that distinguishes itself from both the erotic thrillers of the time and from the rotund, omnipresent shadow.
Body Double was screened as part of our Culture Shock season, selected by Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn. See what else is showing at FACT this week.