Friday, February 09, 2018

Body Double (1984)

USA, 114 minutes
Director: Brian De Palma
Writers: Robert J. Avrech, Brian De Palma
Photography: Stephen H. Burum
Music: Pino Donaggio
Editors: Gerald B. Greenberg, Bill Pankow
Cast: Craig Wasson, Gregg Henry, Deborah Shelton, Melanie Griffith, Guy Boyd, Dennis Franz

Body Double has so many of the trademark preoccupations of director and cowriter Brian De Palma—liquid camera movement, swooning music, Playboy-style erotics, the ecosystem of cheesy low-budget moviemaking, and more than anything a fixation on Alfred Hitchcock movies—that it almost seems like it could be reverse-engineered out of them. In many ways it was, by De Palma himself. Yet, as a certain type of "watch what happens" picture, it stays interesting even when it's not making any sense, which is most of the time. Does that mean making sense is overrated? As a partisan of coherent narrative, I don't think so. I saw Body Double when it was new, though not since, and coming back was impressed all over with those preoccupations. All these years later it's still no problem watching Body Double through, though it still rarely adds up.

It's Los Angeles. A struggling young actor, Jake Scully (Craig Wasson), has just caught his girlfriend having sex with another man in their bed. Now he is at loose ends, angry, humiliated, and heartbroken, staying with friends, trying not to drink too much, and looking for work, anything, to take his mind off it. One thing leads to another and soon he finds himself with a nice housesitting gig by way of a friend of a friend, Sam Bouchard (Gregg Henry). The place is an amazing artifact of wealth, a saucer-shaped glass structure, like the cap of the Seattle Space Needle, propped against the side of a hill high above Los Angeles, with a view of everything. That includes a beautiful woman, seen through a spyglass telescope, who performs a striptease masturbation scene every night, "like clockwork," according to Sam, who makes sure to point that out to Jake before leaving.

At this point in the movie I dutifully wrote "Rear Window" in my notes. The long shots through a spyglass to a fuzzy scene inside a distant apartment obscured by blinds are so obvious a lift as to be characterized as "homage." The only thing missing is Raymond Burr. It occurred to me that 1984 was when Rear Window and Vertigo (coming soon to my notes) were released for the first time in decades. Body Double was in production before those Hitchcock movies made it back to public release, but obviously De Palma was familiar with them and we can guess he knew about their upcoming rerelease. Maybe he was playing a little to that?

Because, sure enough, it's not long before Scully sees things in the spyglass that make him concerned for the safety of the erotic woman. What do you think he does next? That's right, he follows her around for 20 or 30 minutes of movie time ("Vertigo," I wrote). De Palma undercuts this homage some—there is not nearly as much time spent on following in a car, and the art gallery is replaced by a shopping mall lingerie salon (of course). But you get the idea. I didn't even think of Dial M for Murder until I ran through the Wikipedia article the next day. Actually, I was more still back in 1984, because the menacing figure (called "the Indian") that Scully sees stalking the woman and later in her apartment actually more reminded me of Freddy Krueger. That's likely the heavy style of latex makeup and lurching uncertain way he moves more than anything about attire, accessories, or motives. And the violence when it comes is similarly over the top. As with the Hitchcock pictures' rerelease, it's an interesting coincidence because Body Double and A Nightmare on Elm Street had to be in production at the same time.

At any rate, the Body Double plot itself might formally stand up to logic, but it's based on a preposterous foundation, so don't go looking for anything like a slice of life here. Body Double is not as skillful as, say, The Big Sleep at hiding its clunking narrative potholes, but it probably doesn't matter because it's less a mystery and more an erotic thriller, and everyone knows plot doesn't count for anything in pornography. In fact, that dynamic—I wouldn't call Body Double porn by any means, but it definitely means to lay on the sexual stimuli with a trowel—is the most painfully dated aspect now. It's just not very erotic. That's one of the things I remember about it best, the artful sexual charge. But now it has much the look and feel of a Hustler photo shoot. Melanie Griffith as the nicely named porn star Holly Body is only frosty, empty '80s style. She has some funny lines as a porn industry insider but she looks and behaves more like a Patrick Nagel poster.

Yet so many small things about Body Double are still so good—maybe even better. De Palma's whole style is built for the kind of following-around scenes that take up much of the second third—carefully contrived long takes and much use of the steadicam, carrying the narrative momentum purely with visuals. The music by Pino Donaggio (who also did Don't Look Now, Carrie, and Dressed to Kill) is heady and sumptuous. In a key moment, it collides bizarrely with Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Relax" (speaking of 1984). I'm not sure it works, but it's memorable. And come to think of it, that's probably the best thing to say about Body Double too. It belongs in any De Palma retrospective.

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