Thursday, August 08, 2013

Hitchcockian Dopplegängers, De Palma-style

Brian de Palma’s obvious zeal for voyeurism reached its cinematic zenith in 1984’s Body Double, perhaps the director’s sexiest and most playful film. Written off as one of De Palma’s lesser efforts and mostly forgotten by today’s film audiences, Body Double combines comedy, romance and sex with suspense, thrills and gore.

It’s a titillating Hollywood story of success and failure, juxtaposing the fantastic wealth and luxury of Bel Air and Beverly Hills against the seamy and gritty reality of struggling actors and wannabes, prostitution and pornography. A glossy and seductive mystery punctuated by creative acts of kinky violence, Body Double takes the genre perfected by the original master of suspense and ups the ante under the aegis of an equally visionary auteur.

AA Lautner's futuristic treehouse provides the perfect vantage point for De Palma's voyeurism

Four years after Dressed to Kill, Brian de Palma was still deep in his “Hitchcock period,” and Body Double pays homage to two of Hitchcock’s best, Vertigo and Rear Window, both starring the redoubtable everyman James Stewart.

For Body Double, de Palma cast Craig Wasson, an unconventionally handsome and sensitive blond actor who was making a name for himself at the time, most notably in the 1980 thriller Ghost Story, where he starred opposite Hollywood legends including Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Fred Astaire and Melvyn Douglas. But in an era where pretty boy male ingenues like Tom Cruise and Michael J. Fox and overbuilt he-men like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone ruled the box office roost, Wasson never quite took off as a leading man. But here, he’s perfect...this is Wasson’s defining film.

Craig Wasson as Jake Scully
Like James Stewart’s Scotty in Vertigo, Wasson’s Jake suffers from a debilitating phobia, in this case a fear of confined spaces. An actor in a low-budget vampire movie, Jake is fired when he has a panic attack in his coffin during shooting. Dejectedly, he goes home, only to find his wife Carol in bed with another man. The camera lingers perversely on the lust-glutted expression on Carol’s face as she completes her orgasm even after being discovered by Jake.

Gregg Henry as Sam Bouchard
But things are looking up as Jake is befriended by Sam, a fellow student in his acting class, who offers him a place to incredible mid-century modern home in the hills with panoramic views of the city which Sam is housesitting for a rich friend. (Sam is played with smarmy charm by Gregg Henry, now a regular on the TV series Scandal.)  All Jake has to do is water the plants...and enjoy the view with the help of a powerful telescope. There are more fringe benefits to the arrangement: an eye-filling show through the window of a neighboring mansion, where the beautiful lady of the house does a slow striptease and sensual dance ending in self-gratification. Nightly.

In an extended sequence where Jake follows the woman on her errands, De Palma takes a familiarly suspenseful Hitchcockian mood and makes it his own. Not only does Jake spy on the woman while she shops for lingerie on Rodeo Drive; he even peeps into her dressing room as she tries on panties and is almost detained by security. Finally, the pair meet. Mystery, murder and mayhem follow in inimitable De Palma style.  

Deborah Shelton as Gloria Revelle
The flat-voiced Deborah Shelton, perhaps trying to imitate Kim Novak’s throaty whisper from Vertigo, is a perfect fantasy for Wasson’s character, with her curvy Playboy-ready physique and diaphanous designer clothes...until she opens her mouth to speak. Then she’s as wooden as a Rodeo Collection mannequin.

Melanie Griffith as Holly Body
Performance-wise, the film belongs to Melanie Griffith, who sparkles as porn star Holly Body. This underrated actress was truly the Judy Holliday of the 1980s, and her infectious laugh, baby-doll delivery and unerringly instinctive sense of timing inject this thriller with a dose of irreverent fun not found in most De Palma films. Griffith’s Holly is particularly amusing in her adult film pas de deux with Jake, with her deadpan delivery of bad porn movie dialogue:

You like to watch?

Makes you hot, doesn’t it?


Makes me hot, too.

Tightly plotted, with a satisfying climactic twist, so beloved to 1980s thrillers, Body Double is an absorbing film and includes all the sex and over-the-top bloody gore that De Palma fans demand. Lovers of 1980s nostalgia will also appreciate the MTV-like music video sequence featuring Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s sexy megahit “Relax,”  which for me is enough to elevate this visually stimulating horror movie to high camp.


Anonymous said...

Way late to your party but this post can't go uncommented! I do enjoy this film as I do anything Hitchkockian really but it's so derivative!! Love how it captures early 80s LA. Love the camera work and how the Macguffin is movie making itself. And Holly Body is so iconic! Surprised how little Melanie is actually in the film as it really comes to life with her performance.
Thanks for your post! Adeferrer

angelman66 said...

Adeferrer, it's never too late to celebrate Brian de Palma!
Thank you for stopping by!

dePalma was completely obsessed with Hitchcock in the 70s and 80s--this one and Dressed to Kill steal liberally from the Master of Suspense.

I am CRAZY about Melanie Griffith. Brilliant comedienne, and especially wonderful in Working Girl, for which she earned a Best Actress Oscar nod. Too bad she was judged solely by her youth/looks/sex appeal by the industry; tried to stave off aging with poor plastic surgery, and as a result never works anymore. I'd rather have a Betty White or Judi Dench type career myself, rather than be a sex symbol! But Holly Body is iconic!

Thanks again for your visit!

angelman66 said...

And YES!! The Macguffin IS the movie biz!! Never thought of that!!