It’s exceedingly problematic to pinpoint a single Brian De Palma film that stands out as a superior picture when it’s placed up against a filmography filled with remarkable movies he’s made over the past five decades. There’s the “Gangster De Palma” with films such as Scarface (1983), The Untouchables (1987), Carlito’s Way (1993) and Wise Guys (1986). There’s the “Horror De Palma”, like Sisters (1977) Raising Cain (1992) and Carrie (1976). And finally, the “Mystery/Suspense De Palma”, like Blow Out (1981), Dressed to Kill (1980), Snake Eyes (1997) and arguably his most overlooked and underrated picture, Body Double (1984). When the master of the macabre decides to delve deep into the world of mystery through the suspension of information, it appears as though he’s operating at his best within a genre that supersedes the rest of his acclaimed films. Perhaps, Body Double is overlooked because it was one of two films De Palma made in the ‘80s between Scarface and The Untouchables – arguably his two most popular films of that decade considering the weight they carried both in-front of the camera with acting and behind the camera with filmmaking. Considering the star-studded power of those two films, with Al Pacino, Kevin Costner and Robert de Niro – to say the least – and two highflying screenplays written by Oliver Stone and David Mamet, it’s easy for Body Double to get lost in the midst while being made between Scarface and The Untouchables. Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) is not a pound-for-pound match-up in terms of clout when he stands toe to toe with Tony Montana (Al Pacino) or Al Capone (Robert De Niro) and Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner), but he holds his own as an underdog and proves a convincing fight to the finish with a true to life performance in Body Double – a masterful film written by Robert J. Avrech and Brian De Palma, and produced & directed by De Palma.
With undeniable inspirations being drawn from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958), the idea behind Body Double was sparked by De Palma during the making of Dressed to Kill (1980) where the jaw-droppingly beautiful Angie Dickinson needed a body double for her opening shower scene in the film. Body Double is told through a diegesis of storytelling that reveals the narrative through its entire world of Los Angeles as a backdrop with an aesthetic appeal of glamour and galore in the city streets as well as the beachside waterfront. In the way that Detective Ferguson (James Stewart) had lightheaded vertiginous faints at high altitudes in Vertigo, Craig Wasson’s Jake Scully has claustrophobia, getting scared stiff when entrapped amid enclosed locations. When Jake rigidifies inside a casket during a horror film shoot during the opening sequence, movie director Rubin (Dennis Franz) terminates Jake from the set due to his incompetence in the scene. Jake goes home to his apartment in LA to find his girlfriend having sex with another guy. Jake then meets fellow actor Sam (Gregg Henry) who offers him a place to stay. Sam shows Jake a telescope inside the posh bachelor pad that allows him to leer on a socialite named Gloria Shelton who offers a striptease peepshow every night across the Hollywood Hills in her mansion. After Sam leaves for a production shoot, Jake watches Gloria every night, until he notices a grotesque looking burglar break into her home and steal her jewelry. A chase from the city toward the beachside ensues as Jake begins to investigate the situation, entangling himself with an adult XXX star Holly Body (Melanie Griffith) and the Porn industry, which leads to a perplexing series of events with extremely detrimental consequences resulting in a timeless Hollywood murder mystery directed by the suspense master, Brian De Palma.
Revisiting Body Double in 2020 with its remastered 4K UHD format truly allows one to witness the marvelous locations De Palma used throughout the film in its garish and luminous display. There’s not one setting in this picture that is capable of outdoing the next scenic location that follows. The breathtaking imagery is awe-inspiring and when put in conjunction with Craig Wasson’s performance as Jake Scully, we can see through his eyes how he’s lost himself in the character, resulting in an authentic performance. Craig Wasson plays a struggling actor in Hollywood who acts as multiple characters in the movie. An actor, playing an actor – a movie within a movie. Perhaps, the film’s title, Body Double – though perfectly fitting – is not as memorable and/or appealing since its overpowered by the attractive Scarface or the unforgettable The Untouchables. But Body Double refers to filmmaking language on a movie set which resonates flawlessly, considering it’s De Palma playing an ode to the life he knows very well – the Hollywood filmmaking industry. Three years prior, De Palma ingeniously riffed on the trials and tribulations of film production in his masterpiece, Blow Out, where Jack Terry (John Travolta) portrays a sound recordist for b-level horror flicks. In Body Double, De Palma takes this tactic from behind the camera to the front, displaying the life of an actor and his experiences within the brutality of Hollywood’s cutthroat mentality where anyone is expendable.
Bloody horror, chilling thrills, cryptic mysteries, anxious suspense, lustful pornography intermixed with ‘80s New Wave Synth-Pop music and endlessly magnificent locations throughout Los Angeles; The Beverly Center, LA Farmers Market, Barney’s Beanery in West Hollywood, Rodeo Collection Mall on Rodeo Drive, the Hollywood Tower Apartments on Franklin Avenue and the Bixby Passageway Tunnel Mural on Ocean Boulevard in Long Beach. Since many cinephile’s consider Blow Out to be De Palma’s masterpiece, Body Double ends up becoming the hidden gem of his filmography that is so incredibly overlooked; it’s some of De Palma’s most finely crafted filmmaking that’s so hypnotic and transcending it makes you want to keep your eyes glued to the screen, watching ever so closely. Body Double is wholly an LA mystery. Though Brian De Palma himself has reportedly admitted that Carlito’s Way might be what he considers his finest work, when he said “I don’t think I can make a better picture” in the documentary De Palma (2016), many would argue that Body Double stands as a solid match-up in the debate behind De Palma’s greatest film. Body Double is a naughty, creepy, pornographic horror film with some of the most finely crafted, grade-A cinematography by Stephen H. Burum, who would collaborate with De Palma seven more times on The Untouchables (1987), Casualties of War (1989), Raising Cain (1992), Carlito’s Way (1993), Mission: Impossible (1996), Snake Eyes (1997), and Mission to Mars (2000). The long-time collaborator of De Palma on musical compositions was none other than the Italian maestro Pino Donaggio (Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out) who orchestrated beautiful symphonic medleys that exquisitely translate the grim imagery on screen into elegant mirages.
Body Double is an unrepeatable gem of a film. Considering the film’s misogynistic, male gazing, pornographic, female objectifying, and sexually perverted themes, a picture of this nature, made with this caliber of talent in its production, is incapable of being duplicated in the new millennium. What makes this film’s contemporary rejections despicable by the film industries evolved standards are the same exact reasons why Body Double is a hidden gem that needs to be revisited and analyzed. Body Double represents an ultra-cool time in the ‘80s where you could watch such a film in the theater. Only a master like De Palma could make sexual perversion and pornographic themes in conjunction with horror and suspense so watchable and acceptable; he knows how to direct his actors with expressions that match their engagements while using beautifully composed music on the soundtrack over sequences that are shocking, causing a sway of the audience to dig deep into their own souls and reveal their own perverted tendencies, resulting in an acceptance of the unacceptable behavior displayed on-screen based on societies current standards. Many would call the themes in Body Double demonic or manipulative, but they’re mere attempts at being provocatively stimulating – and successful ones at that. When Body Double was released in 1984, it wasn’t well-received as critics hailed it distasteful and unpleasant, which is an irrational analysis because it’s a genre bending film that involves murder and suspense; to hail it as a disturbing film would imply to get rid of the horror genre entirely. After all, filmmaking is manipulative art form and De Palma brilliantly exploits the erotica on-screen in a relationship with the audience to keep them watching this captivating film; he even rubs it in the audience’s face with the one-sheet posters tagline: “Do you like to Watch?” We sure do, Brian. You’ve crafted a masterful piece of art, and you’re right when you say: “Don’t believe everything you see.”
The cryptic titles of blood being washed over white in the opening credit sequence truly grabs one’s attention. Brian De Palma is a master at taking advantage of a film’s opening scene to captivate the audience since it’s the only time in the film where a director has an opportunity to truly imprint an image into the viewers imagination. A cemetery with pink fog and sunset in the background takes us underground inside a casket, where Jake Scully is in costume as a vampire – then we hear a director named Rubin (Dennis Franz) talking as we realize we’re on a movie set. This is a similar opening to Blow Out, where a night stalker preyed upon college students in their dormitory in a “movie within a movie” format. The magnificent cemetery set catches on fire as Rubin consoles Jake who froze up and became immobile with claustrophobia. We’re in the backlot of Burbank Studios as a landscape screen on wheels used for movie backgrounds slides out of frame – Quentin Tarantino used this in in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019). Jake comes home to his house on Sycamore Avenue in Los Angeles to find his girlfriend cheating on him in bed with another guy – riding him cowgirl style. He leaves his apartment and stays at The Hollywood Tower in Franklin Village with a view that looks out at highway 101 with the Capitol Records building in the background. Using a pen, he circles advertisements in the trades for theatre workshops and acting schools. At this point in the film, the mood and the vibe is such a Hollywood movie’s movie – an atmosphere one isn’t able to conclude based on the film’s one-sheet poster of a man looking through window blinds at a woman caressing herself. Not once in this film does Jake peak through window blinds and considering the films heavy emphasis on iconic Los Angeles locations and the film industry, the film’s poster clearly doesn’t match the movie itself and doesn’t do it justice.
The acting instructor at the workshop puts tremendous pressure on Jake with horror themed music playing on the soundtrack; this is De Palma suggesting how acting classes in Los Angeles are mind-bendingly stressful and cutthroat. It’s not a myth when one hears that acting classes in Los Angeles are exercises in humiliation. Jake’s instructor yells at him with severe pressure as he stands up in front of the class. The reason behind this method of teaching is because aspiring actors, in addition to working ones, participate in the workshops because they think they want to get involved in the making of major motion pictures, and the instructors believe their merciless and competitive training techniques will prime their students, starting right there in class with humiliation. If an aspiring actor can’t take the heat that comes in class, what makes them think they can take it on an actual movie set?
Hollywood is painted in a ruthless way. The directors are cutthroat – not intentionally – because they’re focused on their own livelihoods in securing their own jobs and completing the picture before a given deadline from the studio – it’s nothing personal. And De Palma sort of paints the actors as the runt of the litter; expendable at any cost. A fellow classmate named Sam comes to Jake’s rescue amid the humiliation, and once he hears all about Jake’s recent experience of his girlfriend’s disturbing infidelity, he offers-up his bachelor pad in the Hollywood Hills – the Chemosphere – for Jake to stay in as Sam goes to Seattle for a shoot. The only catch is Jake must water the plants surrounding the lavish sphere that requires an escalator ride to its front door. Sam informs Jake of a nightly peepshow where a woman dances in her bedroom in the nude every night like clockwork, while leaving the blinds open. Jake’s mouth waters and his jaw drops at the sight of the topless woman dancing like a professional stripper as he voyeuristically spies on her in a shameless manner through the telescope.
Brian De Palma does an incredibly accurate job in portraying Hollywood like one massive, secret smoked glass with people behind it watching you so closely without shame or compassion, chuckling at the sight of you in your most vulnerable state – naked and unalarmed. It’s as if these real-life secret Hollywood people have access to a technology that can see through walls and clothes. Brian De Palma alludes to this in Body Double through a telescope as Jake spies on the woman in the mansion from the Chemosphere bachelor pad. He stares at her with freedom and liberty, the same impunity used by the secret people employed to spy on the inhabitants of Hollywood through tinted vans, limousine’s and mysterious building windows. These truths are exactly why the voyeurism in Body Double is so captivating; it’s the audiences sitting in the dark, jumping into the skin of the protagonist as he spies on a naked woman. The essence of watching movies is voyeurism; Brian De Palma doubles down on this fact by having his characters engage in prurience and ghoulishness. What at first it seems like it’s us in the audience who engage in ghoulish nosiness and rubbernecking when we watch them in movies while bathed in make-up and bright light; it’s they who are watching us. They, the stars in the limelight, who display themselves at their best on the silver-screen for you to watch, are the real voyeuristic individuals who gawk shamelessly at you, when you’re at your most unflattering. They do it with ridicule like villains.
When Jake follows Gloria from the mansion through the streets of Los Angeles, it’s reminiscent of James Stewart driving through the streets of San Francisco following a lady love in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo – which also had its own body double in what became the subject of James Stewart’s attention and attraction. The telescopic in the chemosphere of Body Double is equivalent to James Stewart’s binoculars inside his apartment, spying on his neighbors in the courtyard in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Brian De Palma’s Body Double is a magnificent combination of those two Hitchcock films. The outdoor Rodeo Collection mall sequence on Rodeo Drive is a beautiful representation depicting the intricacy and delicacy of a women’s movements. It’s clearly apparent that De Palma is fascinated by the way women move their bodies and strut their heels; whether they’re wearing an elegant dress, stripping in lingerie or engaging in hardcore sex and pornography; he’s captivated by it and so are we.
There is a scene where Jake stands outside of a boutique store and spies on Gloria trying on lingerie in a private fitting room. Jake’s male gaze and female objectification appears creepy at first, but it diminishes with De Palma’s use of elegant music layered on the soundtrack. The creepiness is replaced with refined grace because the audience can see how Jake’s eyes depict loving admiration as opposed to sinful lust as he spies on Gloria undressing. He looks at her with concern and affection. The 360-degree shot behind the alley at the Bixby Tunnel Mural on Ocean Boulevard in Long Beach where Jake passionately makes out with Gloria (Deborah Shelton) is reminiscent of the shot where Jack Terry sits amid his chaotic recording studio in Blow Out. This technique employed by De Palma adds a layer of realism that heightens the feeling of voyeurism by subconsciously reminding the audience they’re watching something authentic, since the rotating camera doesn’t reveal a supposed crew behind the camera; a feeling of solitude is created with this motion in the camerawork. Moreover, the New Wave Synth-Pop song “Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood was featured in an off-the-wall appearance with a full-blown music video featuring Jake during the making of a porno starring XXX star Holly Body, played by Melanie Griffith, who came out of Body Double and went onto career of stardom. Brian De Palma’s Body Double is as cool as ’80s movies can get.