The Ingenious Artifice of Brian De Palma’s ‘Body Double’

body double brian de palma erotic thriller

What do fictional serial killer Patrick Bateman and I have in common, aside from an encyclopaedic knowledge of the musical ‘Les Misérables’? Our favourite film is Body Double. 

Despite its schlocky veneer, make no mistake: Body Double is a carefully crafted masterpiece that parodies and pays homage in equal measure. Sure, in American Psycho the violently deranged sociopath Patrick Bateman rents it 37 times. But in the same way that many mistake Bret Easton Ellis’ novel for anything other than satire, Body Double is often misunderstood. Curiously spurious and endlessly entertaining, it might seem like an odd choice for a 23-year-old woke Millennial’s favourite film. That said, I’m not sorry about it, nor would I try and suggest that it’s a ‘guilty pleasure’—it’s a breathtaking piece of filmmaking from a true master of his craft. And yes, that can coexist with vulgarity and spoof.

After finishing what many consider to be his magnum opus, Scarface, Brian De Palma was swimming in a sea of both success and growing criticism. He’d already steadily built a reputation for violence and nudity in films such as Greetings (the first film to receive an X rating by the MPAA), Sisters, Carrie and Dressed to Kill. But it was Scarface, a three-hour-long bloodbath with 226 uses of the word ‘fuck,’ that really got his critics talking. Consequently, too many contemporary reviews and interviews focus doggedly on Scarface‘s follow-up, Body Double, being De Palma ‘hitting back at his critics,’ as if this is something a filmmaker would do. Critics, god bless our hearts, have an inflated sense of self-importance. It’s a shame that only a handful of viewers appraised the film sans context; as Body Double has grown in cult status, so has the multilayered approach to looking at it.

Body Double opens on a noticeably fake horror set, replete with dry ice and styrofoam gravestones. An actor lies in a fake grave wearing a cheap vampire costume, made up with pallid face makeup and glam-rock accessories. Immediately, though, we learn something is wrong: a tear escapes from his eye, the one real thing about the whole sorry performance. In merely 30 seconds, Brian De Palma manages to introduce us to what he’s going to explore in Body Double: artifice and bad acting.

The protagonist in Body Double is Jake Scully (Craig Wasson), a Hitchcockian everyman and jobbing actor who has just split up with his girlfriend. Fired from a recent role after struggling with claustrophobia, he fails to get through an acting class that requires him to tap into natural memories to give a ‘real’ performance. His luck turns, however, when he runs into an old friend (Gregg Henry) that needs someone to house-sit for him as he goes out of town. Inside this curious house, seemingly designed for spying on neighbours, Jake spots a beautiful woman (Deborah Shelton) dancing at her window. After a series of (unfortunate) events, he becomes fixated with her, and eventually fears for her life. When a crime takes place and his obsession deepens, Jake enlists the help of porn actress Holly Body (Melanie Griffith) to try and solve the knotty crime at hand.

craig wasson as jake scully in body double

You may not have heard of Craig Wasson. Aside from his starring role in Body Double, his main roles have been in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and a drama called Four Friends. De Palma could’ve cast a star if he had wanted to: he’d just directed Al Pacino to critical acclaim. But the role of Jake could never have been played by a star; the role called for someone discreet, a little overwrought. When he hops into his car with a little jig and unnaturally checks his rear view mirror, we may as well be watching the affected acting of a bad soap pilot. Paired with someone with as much presence and fame as Melanie Griffith, it’s imperative that we feel the layers of performance. We need to believe Jake’s nervous excitement acting with Holly, potentially even Wasson’s nervous excitement acting opposite Griffith. In one contemporary interview, Wasson’s diffidence isn’t miles away from Scully’s. “The man you play is a struggling actor,” the interviewer says to Wasson. “Has your career paralleled that at all?” Wasson laughs nervously before answering: “Sure.” In his glowing original review, renowned critic Roger Ebert wrote that “the hero is flawed, weak, and in terrible danger—and we identify with him completely.” 

What I love, ultimately, about Body Double, is that there is a real cerebrality to this ostensibly simple film about desire. It’s achieved, as the title suggests, through endless doubling. There’s the doubling of bodies and people and identity, confounding the protagonist and audience alike (and self-referentially winking at Dressed to Kill). There’s the film-within-a-film, where actor Craig Wasson plays actor Jake Scully playing a porn actor while Frankie Goes to Hollywood plays “Relax” (and breathe). Though less so in Body Double, this unique doubling is everywhere in De Palma’s oeuvre, right down to his trademark shots: split screens, split diopters. As Bruce Kawain says of De Palma’s style in his essay on Sisters, “what appears to be whole may be divided, and what appears to be two may be one.” 

I’m not mad enough to pretend that Brian De Palma doesn’t rip off at least three Alfred Hitchcock films here—but he takes overt pleasure in bastardizing them. A suggestive hot dog stand, built in the ‘novelty architecture’ style, blends the kitsch with the crude—symbolic of the film as a whole. A woman is shockingly murdered, not with a knife but with an enormous, phallic drill. When Jake is passionately kissing Gloria—a random event as believable as pornography—the backdrop suddenly transforms into a green screen, as the camera mockingly swirls around the pair. It’s an almost identical shot to that of the prom dance in Carrie, a sickly-sweet moment that comes to represent the fallibility of Carrie’s happiness. It’s also a pastiche of that revolving kiss between Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak in Vertigo, of course. The Hitchcockian skeleton is here, but Body Double is a blow-up doll equivalent.

deborah shelton as gloria revelle in body double

Whereas Hitchcock constructed a mature and affecting story of doubling in the more cerebral Vertigo, here De Palma invites us to ridicule and point fun. Critics then and now dismiss this as ‘cinematic shoplifting’. Though couldn’t it be seen, in a roundabout way, as feminist to lampoon the stock character of the femme fatale exhibitionist and the damsel in distress, as Body Double does? Does it not poke fun at Hitchcock’s pervy fixation on blondes when Gloria Revelle’s apparent penchant for exhibitionism is revealed to be a fallacy, or when Holly Body refuses to allow Jake to literally help her out of a grave? It seems strange to me that Hitchcock is criticized less for his treatment of women when he was a known creep, while, in every account I found in my research, women enjoyed working with Brian De Palma, who they considered a kind and respectful director. 

Pino Donaggio’s fulsome score is a crucial extra thread in Body Double’s bow, adding a saccharine sheen to the vulgarity onscreen. While the filmmaking itself is intoxicating and woozy with its long tracking shots, Donaggio’s score—particularly the iconic track “Telescope”—taps into this lush hypnotism that casts a spell and traps you, just as Jake himself cannot look away, pinholed on this beautiful woman. As Henri de Corinth writes in a piece on De Palma’s thematic obsession with surveillance, the music here “is at once an instance of diegesis and non-diegesis that underscores the viewer’s complicity with watching.” Beautifying the depraved in order to trap the audience in their own vices is crucial to Body Double’s success. De Palma understands that the very tenet of cinema is voyeurism; extended telescopes spy on people in their private spaces, while the pornographic film-within-a-film nods to the film’s themes of bad acting and pretense.

melanie griffith as holly body in body double

There are, of course, controversial moments. Most are more campy and absurd, and not De Palma declaring himself as a misogynist who wants to kill women with drills, as hundreds of other articles seem to have suggested. I love cinematic moments that skirt the edge of acceptability and transgression, that spark debate about intent. I especially love then when they’re shot beautifully, as they are here, which adds yet another layer to Body Double‘s intrigue. And while I celebrate the advent of contemporaneous filmmaking that is more sensitive to the nuances of marginalized groups—members of whom are now reclaiming their faces, bodies and stories from the cis, white male set—I do worry about the sanitization of art to please an increasingly exhausting moralistic standard.

Consider how Body Double got ripped to shreds upon release in the 80s, then think about what’d happen if it came out today. Cinema is mostly meant to entertain, not present a checklist of morally acceptable themes that we are meant to sit at home nodding our heads approvingly at. It feels reductive and anti-art to tut at every instance of violence or ostensible sexism, instead of peeling back the cheap layer of cellophane to see what may lie beneath. De Palma has been asked, over and over again, about his portrayal of women and violence, and tends to be a good sport about it, if not bemused at the furore. “Fortunately, now Quentin Tarantino has to deal with it,” he said in a 2016 interview. “So I don’t have to deal with it anymore.”

Around halfway into the film, when it suddenly becomes a whole new film (thank you, Hitchcock), Jake is moonlighting as a porn actor, on-set with a leather-clad Holly Body. “I like to watch,” he says to her, nervously. Those four words could triangulate into a thousand different ways to interpret the film. But they’re ultimately simple, human. And such is the beauty of Body Double. For me it’s the quintessential erotic thriller, distilling the necessary triumvirate of elements—thriller, romance and sex—into a piece of perfect entertainment. 

Words by Steph Green

Part of Dead Sexy: A Column on Erotic Thrillers

Watch Body Double on Amazon, Google Play or Apple TV

Recommended reading:

‘Body Double’: Brian De Palma’s Illusion of Voyeurism by Manuela Lazic, The Film Stage
Q&A: Brian De Palma on why movies should be beautiful, interview by Jake Coyle, ABC
Un-American Psycho: Brian De Palma and the Political Invisible by Chris Dumas
[De Palma’s] Vision — A MUBI Audiovisual Essay
Episode 51: Body Double, Fatal Attractions Podcast

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