Friday, August 14, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Body Double (1984)

"You can't believe everything you see," declared the tag line for Brian De Palma's 1984 thriller, Body Double.

That statement might also adequately serve as the film's mantra or statement of purpose. Because that which is perceived and that which is real almost never align in this tricky, droll Reagan-era suspense movie, and even the title recognizes that fact.

After all, a "body double" is itself a visual cheat, a substitute "body" (or physique) for a lead actor or actress. For example, when the lyrical camera lovingly panned down Angie Dickinson's nude torso in the shower stall during the preamble of Dressed to Kill (1980), there was that almost-invisible transition from middle-aged A-list actress to twenty-five year old stunt double.

And as Brian De Palma might himself remind us, the camera was doing what it does best at that very moment.

24 times a second.

We believed we were seeing one thing; but reality was entirely different.

In the scandalous and controversial Body Double, De Palma points the camera's "lying" eye toward Hollywood and the tricky, even deceitful milieu of filmmaking. This is a land of constant illusion and artifice; of uncertain loyalties and unexpected betrayals. It's a world De Palma has much personal experience with, and so the movie is a blistering critique of Hollywood politics. A director can love you one day, and fire you the next. A fellow actor can be your best friend, and then stab you in the back...all for a prized role. One day you can be the cock of the walk, and the next day, you're a feather duster, to quote Tina Turner.

And down to the often sub-standard rear-projection/process work -- a deliberate signifier that certain scenes are not "real" and form the basis of another visual "lie" -- director De Palma constantly reminds us in Body Double that our eyes are not to be trusted. Ever. This is the perfect approach for a thriller featuring many twists and turns because it challenges us to keep up and to watch closely; to register the underneath bubbling below the glitzy, shallow surface.

Notably, De Palma deploys two popular movie trends of the times to make this particular thriller so effective. The first is the so-called "dead teenager" or "knife-kill" slasher films of the period, which had come to feature ever more dramatic and over-the-top murders (like the drill homicide in Slumber Party Massacre [1982].)

The second trend exploited here is the "music video," the short-form, self-contained music clip that had recently been popularized on the newly-founded MTV Network and in feature films such as Flashdance (1983) and Footloose (1984). In Body Double, De Palma stages a hypnotic video sequence to Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Relax."

In both cases, we ask if we can really trust our eyes. Is the perpetrator of the horrific violence for real? A lunatic Indian?! Is the music video love scene represenative of the film's "reality" or simply Hollywood movie-making reality? Is a winsome, lonely wife more than she seems? Less than she seems? These are the questions on which we obsess.

I'd Like You To Meet My Favorite Neighbor...

Body Double tells the tale of actor Jake Scully (Craig Wasson), a struggling actor having a very bad day. He experiences a claustrophobic panic attack on the set of his new low-budget flick, Vampire's Kiss, and the director (Dennis Franz) wants to fire him.

When he is sent home to relax, Scully discovers his girlfriend in bed with another man. Scully starts drinking again and unexpectedly meets an actor friend, Sam Bouchard (Gregg Henry) at a bar. Sam suggests that Scully camp out at his sub-let, a strange futuristic home overlooking the Hollywood Hills. With no place to go, Scully promptly agrees.

Once living in the strange apartment, Scully watches through a telescope as a beautiful neighbor dances topless each night at exactly the same time. Over days, Scully becomes obsessed with the sexy siren, Gloria Revelle (Shelton), and begins to follow her...even as a gruesome, menacing Indian man means to do her harm. Ultimately, Scully arrives too late to save Gloria from being brutally murdered.

Despondent, Scully later recognizes something familiar in the seductive dance of a porno star, Holly Body (Griffith) and realizes that's he been made a patsy; transformed into the perfect witness to a that the real culprit can get away, scot-free, in the murder of his wife. To catch the murderer, Scully descends into the world of porno movies in an attempt to meet Holly and learn the truth behind that dance...

Take Off Your Clothes: I Want to Take Some Pictures

As critic Andrew Kopkina wrote in The Nation, De Palma's Body Double boasts "clearly ironic intent" in that it's a movie "about the culture of sex and violence rather than about the awful events of the plot." (November 24, 1984, page 562). That's a distinction worth noting, I submit.

Because I believe that De Palma's ironic intent goes a very long way towards defusing the charges of misogyny perennially lodged at Body Double.

Clearly, however, not everybody concurs with that assessment. Entertainment Weekly's Ty Burr called the film "the most unbearably cruel of De Palma's Hitch rips" and pointed out that "the scene of a helpless woman (Deborah Shelton) getting power-drilled to death is too viciously gloating to forgive." (January 15, 1993, pages 56-47).

Reviewer David Sterritt at The Christian Science Monitor noted De Palma's skill in crafting Body Double, but derided the "sleazy material he's peddling, which feeds largely on a vision of women as objects to be ogled or butchered." (November 13, 1984, page 52).

So again, we're back to that point of demarcation with director De Palma. This is the elephant in the room. De Palma is either ironically commenting on the state of movie-dom and 1980s Hollywood; or just cravenly "peddling" viciousness and misogyny. He's either rewriting the language of contemporary film (not to mention Hitchcock thrillers...) to satirize other movies, or contributing to the crisis of a crass, lurid pop culture. Or perhaps, he's doing both simultaneously.

It won't surprise you to learn that I don't consider De Palma a misogynist, even in Body Double. For one thing, his violence is directed at men and women here; Scully is paralyzed with fear and nearly buried alive at one point....which is pretty sadistic.

For another thing, De Palma's intent to parody Hollywood's ongoing obsession with on-screen violence has very real antecedents, as I noted above. In the aforementioned Slumber Party Massacre -- a film directed by a woman, Amy Jones -- a male killer with a drill goes around homicidally "screwing" women in a fashion not at all unlike Body Double's killer. Is she a misogynist too? Or is violence against women acceptable (and not anti-woman in nature) when orchestrated by a female director?

Furthermore, when Jones has a woman with a machete chop off the killer's drill/phallus, -- thus metaphorically castrating him -- in Slumber Party Massacre, is she being anti-man? I haven't heard any cries of misanthropy there, and nor should I. Jones, like De Palma, transgresses in order to make a point; she utilizes symbolism (the drill, the machete, etc) to craft points about the nature of violence; about male power; about female vengeance, etc.

Is Gloria in Body Double "objectified?" Undoubtedly. Scully is drawn to her because of her nude dance...because of her sexy body. That's the lure to spring Sam's trap, but it's more an indictment of Scully's character (and a comment on men in general), then it is a fault of Gloria "as a woman." Also, we should ask: are women's bodies objectified in Hollywood outside the world of De Palma? In porno movies? In mainstream movies? If you think the answer is "yes," then again, De Palma ought to get a pass: he's noting (and commenting) on a real life context; not crafting some personal vision of hatred towards women.

Perhaps more specificity is required here. Body Double is charged with misogyny particularly because of a murder scene in which Gloria is drilled (bloodily) to death. Indeed, we witness the murder in graphic terms. There's a shot of the drill whirring, coming down between the (male) killer's legs -- like a giant cock -- as it penetrates the helpless, supine female.

Okay. This is undoubtedly excessive. But excessive doesn't equal misogyny, necessarily. Let's recall that Body Double was created in the decade of excess, the 1980s, and the whole film practically explodes with excess. It isn't merely's melodramatically, balls-to-the-walls over-romantic, with De Palma's tongue-in-cheek camera spinning in a frenzy as Scully and Gloria share a first kiss and the soundtrack swoons. The film isn't merely sexually provocative, either, it takes us head-first, blunt-faced into the sleazy world of pornography, culminating with a complaint (from a production assistant) that the director didn't get a needed cum shot. Indeed, this scene became such a touchstone that it was mirrored and "homaged" in Boogie Nights in 1997.

Given the excessive nature of the entire film, I suggest that the drill kill isn't really misogynist...just intentionally and willfully over the top. I judge this by the nature of the film, but also from De Palma's cinematic work, taken in totality. Femme Fatale (2002) is the opposite of misogynist, since the main character resists the "dream" that types her as Barbara Stanwyck. Raising Cain (1992) is also rather pro-woman, since the only "heroic" personality in Carter's mad brain is a female, Margo. And sure, Nancy Allen in Dressed to Kill (1980) is a hooker...but she's taken the profession back for women; much more a savvy Wall Street investor than a victimized damsel-in-distress. I can't always adjudge deep complexity to De Palma's females. Indeed, he often goes for the Madonna or Whore thing (Ness's wife in The Untouchables is an example of the former...) but again, that's not misogynist...just archetypal. And very, very Catholic.

This is a personal assessment, but for me misogyny doesn't enter the picture until we hit a few specific points. For one, there has to be some form of "blame" cast on the women for their own murders. In other words, the movie or moviemaker must make's their fault the bad things that happen to them. And the other side of the coin is that the men have to come off as blameless and superior.

Not to upset anybody here, but the most blatantly misogynist story I can recall arises from the Old Testament: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. That blasted, curious, grasping woman, Eve seduces innocent Adam right out of Paradise, and -- the poor guy! -- he suffers the consequences for Eternity! In Body Double, by point of contrast, Gloria doesn't do anything to earn her gruesome fate, save marry the wrong husband. And her husband, Sam, is defined in terms of pure evil...hardly let off the hook. He's clearly the movie's villain; not someone we feel sorry for or identify with.

I think critics cry "misogynist" because De Palma is never satisfied until he nudges his films over the precipice of good taste. That's the mission of great horror movies: to shatter decorum and transgress societal standards. So De Palma adds the sexual component to the drill kill and it instantly becomes far more memorable (not to mention disturbing). If the director had simply removed the shot of the drill going down between the man's legs, I don't think anyone could rightly complain that Body Double's major set-piece is any more misogynist than Marion's murder in the shower in Psycho; or Tippi Hedren's attack by sparrows in The Birds. But Body Double is about excess, and so the sexual twist on the murder certainly fits the tenor of the film.

Porno, Politics and Moving Pictures

On the surface, Body Double echoes Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) to a remarkable degree.

Both films tell the story of a voyeur who "happens" to witness a crime by using a sight amplification device, whether binoculars or a telescope.

In both productions, that voyeur is a man who professionally toils in the visual arts (either as a photographer, or as an actor).

And in both cases, the voyeur sees a crime committed against a woman; and is dragged into learning more; his foibles and idiosyncrasies hooking and dragging him in deeper and deeper (and tying a noose around his neck, metaphorically-speaking).

In Rear Window, Jimmy Stewart's character is literally crippled -- injured and confined to a wheelchair for a time; while in Body Double, Wasson's Scully is damaged too; given to paralyzing bouts of claustrophobic panic.

We have seen in other films how De Palma uses a Hitchcock film (such as Psycho or Vertigo) as a foundation or template; a well-spring for creativity. He then builds on the precepts and motifs of that older production to synthesize something fresh and original. The same is true here, because Body Double travels well-beyond (the admittedly-brilliant) Rear Window in asking the audience to accommodate competing realities. Are we watching Gloria dance in that darkened apartment, or is it Holly performing? Is the driller killer a strange Indian man, or just an actor in heavy make-up disguising himself so as to cast suspicion elsewhere? Is Scully trapped in a real burial plot, or appearing on a low-budget horror movie set that mimics the appearance of a grave? Is Sam a helpful friend, or a maniacal psychotic?

And Scully is not just a simple voyeur, he is an actor appearing in a movie within a movie, especially during the Vampire's Kiss scenes and the porno movie shoots. So, as an audience, we must constantly recalibrate our senses to understand at which "level" we are witnessing things.

The "Relax" music video is a perfect example. The sequence begins in self-contained fashion, commencing to the tune of the Frankie Goes to Hollywood song. Without introduction, explanation or pre-text, we see Scully enter a stage; a debauched world of leather, lasers and lust. All around him, lascivious sex acts occur in a setting reminiscent of Cruising (a film De Palma was once slated to direct). Scully goes through a silver-curtained doorway labeled "SLUTS" and then finds himself gazing into a dressing room at Holly Body. He watches her dance on one side of the frame; while a mirrored image of Holly dominates the other side. On Holly's invitation, Jake enters the room, and the mirrored doorway suddenly swings ajar.

At that instant -- bam! -- the mirror reveals the porno movie crew shooting the scene; a scene occurring between actors Holly Body and Jake Scully. They are no longer merely the characters in a porno, but players in the larger drama. Then, De Palma breaks down the sequence even further, substituting the dead Gloria for Holly in a series of interrupted camera spins.

So to be clear, we're essentially witnessing a character (Scully) playing another character (in the porno movie) remembering not the woman he is actually with (an actress playing a character in a porno...), but the women he fell in love with; whom Holly unwittingly doubled for.

Got that?

De Palma is doing two things in this film: First, he's satirizing Tinsel Town, a domain where "friendship" is as illusory as are special effects. It's an alien world to most of us, which is no doubt the reason that Sam's pad resembles a flying saucer that has just set down in the Hollywood Hills. And secondly, De Palma is reflecting that form (a satire of Hollywood) with self-reflexive content, twisting and turning the tale so all motives are suspect.

In the end, Body Double is a perfect reflection of the excessive 1980s. De Palma's leitmotif that "you can't believe your eyes" was especially resonant at the time. A Hollywood actor named Ronald Reagan had actually become President of the United States. And he very much brought Hollywood illusion and facade to the White House with him, excelling in stagecraft, if nothing else. Consider:

Reagan claimed to be a family values President...yet was the only divorced commander-in-chief in our nation's history.

Reagan was elected to reign in the Federal government...but on Reagan's watch the Federal government grew by 61,000 employees.

Reagan claimed to be a tax cutter...yet he signed into law the Tax Reform Act of 1986, the largest tax increase in American history at that point.

Reagan was "hired" by the American people to cut spending...but the national debt on his watch accrued to a staggering 2.7 trillion dollars, again, the highest total in history at that point.

Reagan was supposed to be a resolute warrior, but what was Reagan's response to a terrorist truck bombing in Beirut, Lebanon, that killed 241 U.S. Marines? Two days later, he courageously ordered the military invasion...of a small island nation named Grenada!

Yet Reagan played his role perfectly...he was -- in essence -- the perfect "body double" for an authentic "conservative." It didn't matter that reality didn't match his rhetoric...because when he was on camera, we believed in him...even if the camera lied 24 times a second.

So in Body Double, as in American politics of the day, the audience finds it difficult to discern truth from fiction. Like Jake Scully, we were taken in by lies, paralyzed by our fears ("bombing begins in five minutes!"), distracted by sex and violence, and then waiting for the next directorial/presidential sleight-of-hand to make it all right again.

Because in Hollywood the ending is always happy, after all.

But caveat emptor: those fine, perfectly-formed breasts you have just ogled may not actually belong to Angie Dickinson.


  1. John, I know we've discussed this before, but I really do think that you should do a book on DePalma. I recently re-watched many of his very early films (pre-SISTERS stuff like THE MOVING FINGER, THE WEDDING PARTY, GREETINGS, and HI, MOM--plus I'm on the trail of some of more of these early period films, which were released on VHS in France years ago) and feel that he has an incredible energy. With the exception of THE BLACK DAHLIA I like pretty much everything of his that I've seen.

    BODY DOUBLE, along with DRESSED TO KILL and BLOW OUT are his essential films of the period, in my opinion. I always tend to forget that he made stuff like SCARFACE and WISE GUYS around the same time!

  2. Hey Kevin,

    Great to hear from you!

    As the years go by, I find myself drawn more and more to De Palma's work.

    I'd love to do a De Palma book. I remember that my agent shopped a proposal for a "Films of De Palma" book around in 2001 - 2002, but Applause selected the Kevin Smith book instead!

    Maybe it's time to revive the De Palma proposal, especially given that he's done some interesting work since that period (namely Femme Fatale and Redacted).


  3. WOW! Just WOW. What an astute and revealing review of a much maligned film (a fave of mine, BTW). Thank you so much for this posting - and furthermore, for drawing the allusion to Regan's America as reflected in the film. Sheesh, I have to lay down now after reading your review.

    Well done sir, well done!

  4. Hey Pax Romano -- I loved your comment (gave me a good chuckle!) I'm glad you enjoyed the review so much you had to lay down. Nobody's ever said that to me before! :)

    My appreciation for Body Double just grows and grows. Like many of De Palma's films, I see more in it each time I watch.

    All my best,

  5. This is my favorite DePalma movie, hands down. It's fantastic, the way it plays out in this romantic upper crust thriller and then turns into a down and dirty seedy porn world flick.

    I read Double DePalma years ago now which was all about the misogyny, but I agree that it's more of a statement on excess than it is some kind of anti-woman film. Also, being a fan of slasher films I hear the term "misogyny" a lot and I think it rarely applies. I hardly ever consider it an issue anymore.

    And aside from all of that, it's a beautifully made, suspenseful film. One that should be watched simply because it's entertaining.

  6. I too have been enjoying your Brian DePalma reviews - a great counterpoint to a book I've been reading by Harlan Ellison, who absolutely loathes DePalma... and Carpenter... and early 80s slasher movies in general, which he insists "merely boil the blood in the potential rapist"...

  7. I too would love to see you do a book about De Palma, especially if it was in the vein of your Sam Raimi book that mixed fantastic analysis with behind-the-scenes production details.

    This is an incredible analysis of BODY DOUBLE. Have you picked up the superb special edition DVD that came out a few years ago? I hadn't watched it in ages until picking up a copy of that DVD and was really impressed by De Palma's bravura filmmaking in this film. He really gives one a lot to think about in terms of exploitation, raising some fascinating questions, like who's exploiting whom in this film and also De Palma himself. What I like is that he leaves it up to the viewer to make up their own mind.

    And I know a lot of people went crazy over Melanie Griffith in this film but I always found Deborah Shelton much more attractive in this one. Wow.

  8. Mark G.4:36 AM

    I came to your review by chance -- Google search on the film in question -- just looking for some background.

    If your insights are generally as sharp and keen as this review of "Body Double," you absolutely should do a book on DePalma.

    Great stuff !

  9. DePalma is one of those directors that seemingly has no middle ground. Either you think he is a special talent, worthy of being grouped with the likes of Scorsese, Spielberg, and Coppola or...he is a misogynistic hack, Hitchcock wanna-be.

    I personally enjoy his work, Body Double is as 80's as 'Miami Vice' or 'Rambo'. I recall explicitly the hype when this film was released. The 'over the top' murder scene that was all the rage then, seems so tame today. I see more blood and violent imagery on a episode of 'CSI' today.

  10. Anonymous9:57 AM

    Brian DePalma's Body Double 1984 is an all-time classic for me. It gets better everytime I watch it again. Yet the movie is very strange, and somewhat twisted, its always remained in the back of my mind. I guess because I grew up in the 80's. Both revolving camera scenes with Deborah Shelton and Melanie Griffith are at its best, mixed with the scenes music. This will always remain one of my favorite movies that I've continued to be obsessed with. The song Ralax with Frankie Goes To Hollywood in the porno scene gives me chills. The view of the San Fernando Valley at night, from ontop of Chemosphere House is fabulous. I travel into my own little World and time when watching this movie. A job well done by Mr. DePalma, thank you for giving us Body Double, 1984.

  11. Anonymous11:00 AM

    I think in order to start seeing a trend in movies where attractive men are sexually objectified and graphically murdered, Hollywood would need a lot more women wielding financial and creative power. You do a good job putting forth your defense against Brian De Palma's misogyny, but citing one female director of a slasher flick doesn't convince me that De Palma should get a pass.

    Roger Corman was the person funding Slumber Party Massacre-- he's the one, according to Amy Jones, who "required" nudity. Jones herself stated that she was happy to move on from "exploitation films." Since you're a man defending a male director from (in my opinion quite reasonable) allegations of misogyny, including some actual female voices somewhere within your essay, voices that support your viewpoint, would take your essay out of the echo chamber. If you do decide to write that book.