Brian DePalma was once my favorite director. There was something so watchable about every movie he made that I was happy to see them, regardless of quality, and that means something because he made some films that are just weird. “Scarface” has a legion of cult followers but it is somewhat over the top and not my cup of tea, “Raising Cain” goes to the well a couple of times too often, and “Wise Guys” is not memorable at all, and I know I saw it. There are also the real classics “Blow Out”, “Carrie” and “The Untouchables” any of which I would sit down now and watch. I’m about to say something that may be a little blasphemous to many fans, I think “Body Double” is the most well made of his films when it comes to direction. It has story flaws and some acting weaknesses and the plot is stretched a bit here and there, but it has the most genius long takes and lighting choices and music in just about any of his films. It is a visual and directing masterpiece.
This movies camera angles and set decoration and location shots are just about visually perfect. We are going to get a tour of L.A. and the film business in 1984. It is often an ugly collection of people but the world they inhabit is made to look glorious and interesting, even when we are supposed to know that we are looking at a process shot. This movie plays with our minds by tricking us to see things from a cinematic perspective instead of a real world perspective. It is made by someone who knows how to make even the most simple things look interesting on the screen.
The movie starts with one of the same sequences we have seen twice before in movies from ’84 and once from this year. A guy comes home and discovers his girlfriend in bed with another man. That’s the start of “The Lonely Guy“, “Repo Man” and from 2014 “This is Where I Leave You“. It puts us in immediate sympathy with the protagonist and it puts him in the situation of being outside of his normal surroundings immediately. Leaving your comfort zone is usually when the interesting things start to happen in a movie. Jake Scully is an actor working on a cheapo horror film who discovers he has paralyzing claustrophobia. Arriving home from the set early because of the problem, he sees his longtime girl friend glowing in the process of making love, an expression he can’t remember seeing on her face when they were together. Fresh out of a place to stay, he hooks up with another actor he runs into at a couple of auditions. Sam Bouchard is a godsend because he sets Jake up in a sweet house-sitting job while he has to go out of town for a part. Jake is played by journeyman Craig Wasson, a doppelganger for Bill Maher. At one point during some auditions he mentions he had a nice part on a “Hart to Hart” episode. That’s pretty much the career Wasson has had. Guesting on some successful shows, small parts in movies and even a short lived series that he starred in. There is a reason he is not a bigger success, he has a somewhat blank face and a milquetoast persona. Not really a leading man type character but perfect for the part in this psycho sexual murder story. This is his biggest role and he excels in the film.
His new found friend Sam is played by Hollywood veteran Gregg Henry. He has made a career playing crooks, cops, low lifers and just about everything else. This year he was Star Lord’s grampa in “Guardians of the Galaxy“. Sam is house sitting in one of the spectacular homes found in Southern California. It basically looks like a flying saucer that has landed on some pylons on the Hollywood hillside. With the fantastic 360 degree vista, there are any number of things to cast your eye on, but Sam makes sure that Jake knows about the nightly floor show in the house across the canyon. It seems that every night at midnight, the lady of the house performs her own exotic dance with a happy ending. It is awfully hard to be Jake and not look at the sexually provocative performance that is right in front of him. Clearly Jake is being compensated for the rather rude end to his previous sex life. As we learned from Jimmy Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock, voyeurism is not really an innocent hobby and sometimes the viewer gets more than they bargain for. Jake is not physically restricted like Stewart was in “rear Window” but he is emotionally handicapped and the very act of having watched his neighbor perform, makes it difficult for him to reach out to her when he most needs to later in the story.
DePalma starts the movie with a movie inside his film. We see the characters in a story and then we pull back to see that they are actors in a film. This story does the same kind of thing repeatedly. The lead is at first an observer, and then an active character, and then a passive witness and then the protagonist again. There are three other characters in the story that we discover more about when the writer/director pulls back our point of view and shows us that we have not seen everything there is to see. As a way of reminding us that we can’t always trust what we see, DePalma uses obvious process shots to remind us we are in a movie. Much like Tarantino did when he had Travolta draw a square in “Pulp Fiction” and dotted lines appear to emphasize that it is a film, DePalma puts Jake in his car with a rear screen matte. There is a 360 love scene that goes from photo real to process and then back again. Even the opening credits run across a false screen to let us know that we will be fooled from time to time.
The visual highlight of the picture is a long pursuit scene in the middle of the film, where Jake, seeing that his beautiful neighbor is being stalked by a scary looking Native American man, follows her both out of sexual desire and protective gallantry. The camera follows him as he follows her as she is being followed by the creepy Indian. They play a game of tag in an elegant multi level open air shopping center in Beverly Hills. Jake’s voyeurism gets the better of him at a couple of points and that later makes his task of protecting her and then himself, more difficult. The music in this sequence is lush and builds tension like an old school Bernard Herrmann score even though it is mostly electronic. . The composer is long time DePalma collaborator Pino Donaggio for whom he did “Dressed to Kill”, “Carrie” and “Blow Out”. Here is a sample for you to enjoy and imagine.
Jake ultimately follows her to a beach front hotel in Long Beach, where once again the setting and visuals do so much of the story telling. The layout of the hotel rooms allows us to spy on the woman, Gloria, from below and above. It is a clever use of the structure.
She moves down the stairs and on to her balcony, Jake passes her and looks back to see from below. Then he moves up the stairs and listens to her on the phone from the balcony above her suite. All of the moves up and down the stairs at the shopping center and the hotel are classic DePalma camera maneuvers to heighten the tension and change our perspective repeatedly. One more great visual setting accompanies this sequence. As Gloria strolls out on the beach, Jake watches her but is horrified to discover the Indian is using the changing tents on the beach as cover for his own devices. I don’t want to emphasize plot holes because the plot is mostly ridiculous to begin with. The value of the movie is the cleverness of the misdirection and the integration of film making moments into the story for the purpose of elaborating on the plot. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that there is a gruesome murder using one of the most diabolical weapons and money shots you can come up with. Jake accidentally comes across a piece of information that leads him to believe that he was set up to be a witness to the crime. That thread of information leads him to a whole different world of film making. Unlike the pornography of today, the adult film makers of the late seventies and early eighties had some pretensions of telling a story. The film “Boogie Nights” can serve as a primer but you get a good set of Cliff notes by watching this movie.
Jake tracks down Holly Body, the adult film star portrayed by Melanie Griffith. She is not easy to reach, having starred in “Holly Does Hollywood” the “Gone with the Wind” of porn. He goes into the business looking for her under the cover of being an actor seeking work in the porn world. They have an adult version of the classic cute meet on the set of her new film. The porn looks like a music video for an English style Dance/Pop band. In fact it is, with “Frankie Goes to Hollywood” providing the soundtrack for the adult performers. Cast as the shy guy who gets seduced by the star, Jake takes the opportunity to drill her for information (ironic reference intended). This is another section where DePalma plays with our point of view. Are we watching a real scene, a filmed scene, or a scene being filmed? The placement of a mirror reveals more than anything else in the setting. He apes the style of the music videos of the day but also uses his cinematic eye to tell us more about the story.
The climax of the picture involves Jake reliving his moment of impotence on the set of the horror film and trying to over come it. The opening scene and another one of those accidental meetings with Sam in the first part of the film set the ending up perfectly. The director again uses his camera and the setting to tell so much of what is happening to the characters. It is just incredibly satisfying to watch a master film maker play with us this way.
I think I mentioned in an earlier post on this project, that I first got cable in 1984 and that one of the channels was a preview channel. It was actually called the “Cinema Preview Channel” and when they paused from running trailers, they would post the “Cinema Scores” of the various films in theaters at the moment. These scores were based on some consumer survey from the time and I distinctly remember that “Body Double” received an audience score of “D”. It only tracked at the Box Office for three weeks and it made less than $8 Million, so it must have been a disappointment after “Dressed to Kill” and “Scarface”. Maybe from a financial perspective it was a letdown, but as De Palma just showed us, the way something first looks cannot always be trusted. In my book, this one is a winner.