Body Double (1984)

Posted: November 8, 2013 in Movie Review
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Body Double (1984)

Director: Brian De Palma

Starring: Craig Wasson, Melanie Griffith, Gregg Henry, Deborah Shelton

Brian De Palma had, in his previous works, given us duplicitous characters who put on a show in order to mask their true motives. It is with “Body Double” that his leads are actors by profession. Set in Hollywood, “Body Double” tells the story of Jake Scully (Craig Wasson), an actor working on a vampire horror movie who can’t finish a particular scene due to his fear of closed-in spaces. To make matters worse, when he gets home, he catches his girlfriend in the act of cheating on him. He would throw her out the front door, but it’s not his house. He needs a place to stay, which he acquires courtesy of a man he meets at a method acting class who goes by the name Sam (Gregg Henry). Sam’s got a really nice place up on a hill, and inside are all the things a bachelor could ever ask for: a fully-stocked bar, a rotating bed… and a nice view. Sam owns a telescope which he has trained on one house in particular, where a dark-haired woman (Deborah Shelton) goes through the same sexy routine, night after night, like clockwork. Being a red-blooded horny man, Jake can’t help but take a peek, even if he is technically breaking the law by doing so.

Following in the footsteps of Alfred Hitchcock once again, Brian De Palma’s “Body Double” is crafted from parts of both “Rear Window” and “Vertigo,” with differences being that Jake is claustrophobic instead of acrophobic and, instead of a broken leg, he is recovering from a broken heart/spirit. For good measure, a parody of the world of pornography is thrown in and, at first glance, this might be the most puzzling choice that De Palma makes with this movie. But “Body Double” is all about the deceitful nature of first glances. In a scene involving the use of the song “Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood (about as clichéd a choice of music as Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” is for a slasher movie), Jake tracks down porn star Holly Body (Melanie Griffith) while posing as a big shot of the industry, believing Holly to be the key to unraveling a murder mystery. Turnabout is fair play; neither is what they seemed to the other person, initially.

Craig Wasson isn’t anywhere close to being in the league of a Jimmy Stewart, but that he’s also not the typical Hollywood hunk cast against type works to his advantage. Wasson has the appearance of an everyman, and that’s what his character needs to be. Even as everyone around him plays a role, we know who Jake Scully, professional actor, is right from the start. Wasson is great, but not all of his co-stars are. In a role that could just as easily have been played by De Palma’s wife, Nancy Allen (that is, if they hadn’t divorced in 1983), Melanie Griffith managed to be the one actor in this movie who gained the most critical praise. Up until now, I had never seen Melanie Griffith in a movie in which her performance didn’t strike me as completely awkward. I’ll give credit where credit’s due: Here, she’s only semi-awkward.

Of far more interest is the portion of the movie before Griffith gets involved, before there’s a murder to be solved. We’re only ever allowed to know as much as Jake knows about what’s going on, and we cringe as we watch him follow the brunette into town. His intent is to make sure that she’s safe, as he believes that there’s yet another person tailing her. It’s one thing to spy on the lady through the lens of a telescope, but to essentially be stalking her in public? You want to be able to shake the man and ask him, “What the hell are you doing?!” But you can’t. Even as the lady behind the counter at the lingerie store (the same actress who appeared as Gozer in “Ghostbusters”) calls for security, you still see him hanging around like some kind of pervert. In this portion of the movie, “Body Double” still holds onto an aura of uncertainty. Except for one brief moment where the viewer is forced to question whether everything we’ve been witnessing has all been going on inside Jake’s head, the rest of the “mystery” is shockingly easy to figure out, especially if you recognize the scenes inspired by “Rear Window” and “Vertigo.”

De Palma succeeds with “Body Double” because it does tell a complete and entertaining story, and he also wins on style points. His cinematography is spectacular as usual, especially when using camera angles to demonstrate Jake’s growing anxiety. No longer able to rely on the services of Nancy Allen, De Palma still gets great work out of another of his regulars, Dennis Franz, in a small role as the director of the vampire flick. He also lucked out in casting the beautiful Deborah Shelton as the brunette who captures Jake’s attention. Had he relied just a little less on homages to Hitchcock this time, his story may have been able to carry its theme of misdirection towards a less obvious conclusion.

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Comments
  1. Elmo Shell says:

    Good review. I recently watched De Palma’s film Sisters his first venture into the thriller genre. I recommend that film. Where you can see were he started to shape his filming style. Assuming you haven’t watched it already. I could bring it at the next movie night. When ever that maybe. lol

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