Friday, September 9, 2016

Classic Movie Review: Body Double

Body Double (1984)
Directed by: Brian De Palma.
Written by: Robert J. Avrech and Brian De Palma.
Starring: Craig Wasson (Jake Scully), Melanie Griffith (Holly Body), Gregg Henry (Sam Bouchard), Deborah Shelton (Gloria Revelle), Guy Boyd (Det. Jim McLean), Dennis Franz (Rubin the Director), David Haskell (Will the Drama Teacher), Rebecca Stanley (Kimberly Hess), Al Israel (Corso the Director).
Brian De Palma’s Body Double is one of the director’s best films – an Hitchcock-ian thriller that takes parts of Vertigo and Rear Window, but mixes them in with De Palma’s own sensibility to create a movie that is seemingly all surface style, although it runs deeper than that if you’re paying attention. The film was greeted with a lot of critical disdain back in 1984 – and some still think it’s awful – but it’s been one of my favorite De Palma films since the first time I saw it – and each subsequent viewing only confirms that.
The story is both relatively simple and needlessly complex, as well as completely ridiculous – all by design, I’m sure. The film stars Craig Wasson as Jake Scully, a struggling L.A. actor, who gets fired from the only job he can get – in a low budget film that kind of looks like a soft core porn with vampires – because of his claustrophobia. De Palma steals the opening from Blow Out here – placing in the audience inside the movie within the movie and then revealing that it isn’t real – in Blow Out, the sorority massacre is the kind of misogynistic slasher film many accused De Palma of making, and in Body Double, it seems like the director had Dennis Franz virtually play De Palma as the director of this one. Anyway, Jake’s day gets even worse when he returns home and finds his girlfriend cheating on him – in bed with another man - I absolutely love the reveal of this affair, as Jake tiptoes through the house so quietly looking for his girlfriend, who we can quite clearly hear having sex, although he has no idea what’s going on until he actually sees her (thus establishing a very important thing about our hero – he’s not very bright). Down on his luck, and falling off the wagon, he meets Sam Bouchard (Gregg Henry), another struggling actor, and mentions he’s looking for a sublet. Wouldn’t you know, Sam has the perfect place – somewhere he’s himself is subletting – but he’s scored a month long job up Seattle, and needs someone to care for the place. This apartment is the most unlikely on in cinema history – it looks like a miniature version of the space needle, complete with revolving bed, and lots of plants – not to mention a telescope, and the view of a gorgeous woman in another building, who every day at the same time does a sexy striptease in front of a window, for reasons no one bothers to question. Jake gets obsessed with this woman – Gloria Revelle (Deborah Shelton) and eventually starts following her) – but realizes he’s not the only one. Without giving away too much more, let’s just mention that eventually, Jake goes from Peeping Tom to well-meaning stalker, and finally moves into the porn business – where he meets Holly Body (Melanie Griffith) – a porn star with a very specific set of dos and don’ts.
The plot of Body Double is, admittedly, rather silly – but it’s also hardly the point of the film. De Palma deliberately chooses different elements from Hitchcock classics as jumping off points – the voyeurism of Rear Window, where the hero may have committed a witnesses a murder while peeping, and Vertigo, where the heroes weakness and phobia – prevents them from saving a life, which makes him feel guilty, propelling him on a journey with a woman who looks a lot like the murdered woman he couldn’t save. But Craig Wasson is no Jimmy Stewart – the hero of both of those Hitchcock classics, and one of the most likable actors in cinema history. As an audience member, you have no problem following Stewart down the rabbit hole, no matter how dark it becomes. Wasson is weaker from the outset – and he goes to sleazier places. You’re not sure you should like him. This is deliberate on De Palma’s part – the great every man in Jimmy Stewart has been replaced by this guy – who thinks that is precisely what he is, but he’s much more like the nerd her will eventually play in a porno music video (don’t ask – just go with it).
As with all De Palma films, there are several great visual set pieces throughout Body Double. There is, quite possibly, the longest “following” scene in movie history, as Jake follows Gloria Revelle on a full day of shopping and heading to the beach. The sequence goes on and on and on – with no dialogue, just the great score by Pino Donaggio, and the excellent steadicam work by cinematographer Stephen H. Burum. It is a hypnotizing sequence. The murder at the center of the plot is bloody and disturbing – and it’s that murder where most people make their complaints of misogyny against the film – as a female character is killed with a giant drill (to be fair, she is a more passive female character than I would prefer, and De Palma’s own explanation for the method of murder – that he needed a long drill so we could see it go through the floor, smacks of excuse making – even if it is true). The best character in the movie however is clearly Holly Body – played in her first great screen performance by Melanie Griffth (in fact, it would be the best work Griffth has ever done on screen, were it not for the film she made right after this – Something Wild directed by Jonathan Demme). De Palma had wanted to cast a real porn star in the role – but he was right to end up with Griffth. Her monologue about what she will and will not do is wonderful, because in just a few moments she hits many different things – it is funny and shocking and kind of sad. That describes her character as well – although unlike the other women in the film, Holly Body knows precisely who she is, and is in control at every instance.
Body Double is, in many ways, a quintessential 1980s film. You couldn’t make this film in any other decade than this. It is a film that embraces, on its surface level, all the flash and greed and shallowness of that decade, while underneath that, critiquing that shallowness. It’s a film that pulls the rug out of the audience more than once – but rather than feeling cheap, it simply deepens the film. The film is, on one level, trashy, sleazy fun – like any number of other thrillers from that era. But there’s more style here than in those films – and a little bit more going on beneath the surface. It really is one of De Palma’s very best films.

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