"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

October 30, 2011

"Body Double" (1984) by Brian De Palma (Film review)

A rip-off or a riff? A copy or a homage? Of course, this delightful  thriller-cum-satirical comedy belongs squarely in the second group: it is a conscious play with Hitchcockian conventions and an ode to the famous films of the great master (such as Vertigo, Rear Window, and Dial M for Murder). It is also a satire on genre film, such as cheap horror movies.

Body Double is about claustrophobic Jake Scully (B-actor Craig Wasson), a vampire film actor who has just been exposed to the double disaster of being fired and finding his girlfriend in bed with another guy. Scully needs a place to stay (the flat belonged to his girlfriend) and gratefully accepts the chance to house-sit a spectacular place in the Hollywood Hills (in reality Chemosphere on Torreyson Drive, just off Mullholland Drive, in Los Angeles). The owner is away in Europe and the current house-sitter, fellow actor Sam Bouchard (Gregg Henry), has to leave town for a couple of weeks. Sam shows Scully the bonus of this place: via a telescope on the balcony, one can see into the open window of a bedroom where gorgeous neighbor Gloria Revelle (1970 Miss America Deborah Shelton) performs nightly stripteases.

Scully is so enthusiastic about what he has seen through the telescope, that the next day he follows the woman in his car to a shopping mall and then to the beach. But Scully soon realizes that he is not the only stalker... she is also being followed by a mysterious Indian with a disfigured face.

Indeed, the next night through his telescope he sees the Indian murder her with a power drill and is too late on the scene to rescue her. Scully is plunged into the chaos of a bizarre murder mystery and seeks help from porn queen Holly Body (Melanie Griffith), who seems to hold the key to finding the killer (Scully has noticed that she uses the same dance routine as the victim).

Here are some examples of how De Palma pays homage to Hitchcock:
- At the start of the film, Jake Scully is overcome by claustrophobia when filming a scene in a coffin (and later at crucial moments this claustrophobia will return), just like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo suffered from dizziness.
- The spying scenes with the telescope call Rear Window to mind.
- Instead of Stewart stalking Kim Novak, here Scully stalks Deborah Shelton in a mall.
- Instead of Hitchcock's camera circling Novak and Stewart, here De Palma's camera waltzes around Scully and Shelton when they embrace on the beach.
- Melanie Griffith (who gives one of her best performances in this film) is the daughter of Tippi Hedren, who played in Hitchcock's Birds and Marnie. Her hairstyle is the "platinum blonde" favored by Hitchcock.

De Palma's camera movements are beautiful, such as a twenty  minutes long, dialog-free pursuit sequence and he uses iconic Los Angeles locations. This is a great film, but also a rather sleazy one, so critical opinion was against De Palma when the film came out. But Roger Ebert praised the movie, giving it three and a half out of four stars. In fact, the film developed a dedicated cult following, and is still going strong today - which is right, because it is really full of tongue-in-cheek humor.