Author’s note: this essay first appeared in the booklet for Indicator’s currently out-of-print limited edition Body Double Blu-ray. To see more Indicator releases head here.
In the opening seconds of their documentary De Palma (2015), an elegant, comprehensive tribute to the eponymous filmmaker, structured around a searching interview with the man himself, co-directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow do something smart. They march straight up to the elephant in the room — the Gordian knot tying De Palma to his biggest influence Alfred Hitchcock — tap it on the shoulder, and politely ask it to exit the premises: De Palma actually begins with footage from Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). In a film otherwise monomaniacally focused on its subject’s output, this choice to directly confront the stylistic and thematic effect exerted upon the American by the Englishman is disarming. In the film, as he has done in countless interviews, De Palma welcomes the comparison, expressing pride at having been the first and best to emulate the old master.
Let’s pull a similar trick here. Yes, it’s undeniable that De Palma’s controversial thirteenth feature, Body Double (1984), contains some of the most explicit Hitchcock references of his career, following the homage-strewn likes of Obsession (1976) and Dressed to Kill (1980), and prefiguring the tricksy later likes of Femme Fatale (2002) and Passion (2012). For starters, there’s the kinda-sorta-hero, claustrophobic actor Jake Scully (Craig Wasson), whose anxious condition and aw-shucks vibe channels Vertigo’s Scotty (James Stewart). Jake indulges in oodles of compulsive scopophilic activity, linking him to Rear Window’s (1954) telescope lens botherer L. B. Jeffries (Stewart again). And there is, of course, the ingeniously horrific dispatch of an innocent female character, a recurrent Hitchcockian indulgence, although even Hitch never went as far as to off one of his women with a gigantic, phallic power drill.
To belabour Hitchcock’s imprint on Body Double, however, is to unfairly divert attention from the film’s own unique wayward charms. It’s a genuinely strange film, from its gloriously weird tone(s) to its appealingly off-kilter jumble of acting styles (laconic Wasson up against electric Melanie Griffith as porn star Holly Body); its surreally erratic pacing — at 114 minutes, it plays like a tantric masturbation session interrupted by flurries of frustration — to, most strikingly, its darkly gorgeous vision of L.A. as a neon-streaked valley of nightmares, vast yet chokingly oppressive. Credit here must also go to Stephen H. Burum for his gleaming widescreen cinematography, and Ida Random for her astonishing production design: she turns the interior of the film’s central location — the real-life, futuristic, octagon-shaped, top-of-the-hills, Lautner-designed house known as ‘The Chemosphere’ — into a seductive dungeon of moral turpitude.
When it comes to Body Double, ‘nightmare’ is the key word: poor Jake Scully seems to be living one. In the opening sequence, Scully, heavily made-up in the guise of a peroxided, rouge-cheeked, bondage-clad vampire, is stricken by claustrophobia in the middle of shooting a scene inside a coffin. He leaves the set with his tail between his legs, but perks up when he remembers his girlfriend is waiting for him at home. He picks up take-away hotdogs from a giant mobile hotdog stall — the compositional sexual innuendo of which is played to the hilt by De Palma — and bounds, puppy-like, into his house. Bad news: she’s in the middle of fucking another guy who, we later hear, makes her face “glow”, much to Jake’s chagrin. Then, after suffering humiliation at the hands of a comically cruel acting teacher who has no sympathy for his paralysing condition, Jake is suddenly fired from the film. He seems to find a friend in fellow actor Sam Bouchard (Gregg Henry), who installs him in The Chemosphere, and, sensing his Peeping Tom tendencies, encourages him to spy on a beautiful female neighbour across the way. Serious complications, of course, ensue.
In his negative review from Monthly Film Bulletin, Richard Combs lambastes Body Double for its “lamely linear, piecemeal” narrative, and its “crucial lack of focus”. Yet such a view is predicated on a literal reading of events, rather than what should surely be seen as a deliberately woozy patchwork of disparate elements emanating from Scully’s fevered subconscious. Wasson’s stilted, somnambulant performance can be no accident; if we accept that he’s stumbling through the film in a liminal state of anxiety, fantasising himself as a sad-sack nearly-hero, it would explain why, taken at face value, large swathes of Body Double simply do not seem to make sense. There’s its absurdist, comic-suspenseful high-point, when Scully tails Gloria Revelle (Deborah Shelton), the endangered woman upon whom he’s been spying, to a shopping mall, stalks her, steals her recently-discarded panties from a bin, follows her to the beach, saves her from the clutches of a marauding “Indian”, then engages her in a preposterously passionate embrace, augmented by swirling 360-degree camera moves and Pino Donaggio’s glutinous strings. There’s the inexplicable, hilarious detour into a Frankie Goes to Hollywood music video. And notice how Scully’s vampire character is dressed almost exactly like Holly Body (Melanie Griffith), down to the peroxide hair and leather choker? The clue is in the title. At every step, De Palma challenges the viewer directly not to accept what they are seeing. The berserk ending, which pinballs between different levels of unreality, is one case in point. Yet even the main opening title card is a ruse: the words ‘Body Double’ appear against an arid desert background. As soon as we process the information of this jarring new setting, it turns out to be a fake backdrop, wheeled off to reveal the bustle of a studio lot.
As a lucid nightmare propelled by subconscious surges rather than graspable logic, Body Double should be seen as a crucial forebear of David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2000), which is widely considered — unlike De Palma’s film — to be among the great cinematic deconstructions of Hollywood’s callous ‘Dream Factory’. In Lynch’s film, a wide-eyed young blonde actress Betty/Diane (Naomi Watts) comes to Hollywood with hopes of making it big, and seems on the cusp of success when a savage twist reveals the entire first segment of the film to have been nothing more than her extended dream, cobbled together, like most dreams, from repressed fears and desires commingled with the day’s half-clocked detritus. Remind you of Scully?
There are other eerie similarities with Mulholland Dr., not least that both films feature a horrible car crash that occurs on the eponymous boulevard. In Body Double, the prang happens offscreen, near the end of the film, as Holly Body tries to hitch a ride. We never find out what happened to the people in the smash, but from the large presence of emergency services on the scene, it looks serious. Mulholland Dr., meanwhile, begins with a nasty smash on the same road. From the wreckage emerges bloodied Rita (Laura Elena Harring), who disappears into the world of the film, the dream of Diane. To watch the films back-to-back is a truly unsettling experience, the former haunting the latter like a malevolent ghost.
Mulholland Dr. influence aside, the languid, giddy Body Double also slots slickly into a long continuum of L.A. sleaze cinema. Scully’s third-act adoption of a swaggering pornographer-cum-P.I. persona (slicked-back hair, brown pleather jacket, unconvincing hardboiled patter), echoes the unlikely journey undertaken by George C. Scott — an anguished, Midwestern father looking for his porn star daughter — in Paul Schrader’s Hardcore (1979). De Palma plays it for laughs, Schrader doesn’t: they’re equally funny. Body Double also partially echoes Sam Fuller’s White Dog (1982), which charts the frustrations of a struggling Hollywood Hills actress (Kristy MacNichol) before she becomes preoccupied with her dog, a vicious mutt who’s been trained to be racist. As it happens, De Palma cast the same dog in his own film: “I saw that dog — and dogs in movies don’t normally scare me — but this dog is terrifying. I was so impressed with that dog that I used it in Body Double”, the director told Film Comment in 1987.
Body Double is an obvious influence on Paul Thomas Anderson’s L.A. porn epic Boogie Nights (1997), the second half of which tracks the transition of the adult industry from wistful cinematic endeavour to coked-up, cheapo video oblivion: its story ends in 1984, the year of Body Double’s release. Perhaps not incidentally, both Boogie Nights and Mulholland Dr., in crew member Little Bill (William H. Macy) and director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) respectively, feature characters who, like Jake Scully, walk in on their partners in the midst of adulterous thrusting. Male frailty underpins all three films.
Then, of course, there’s Schrader’s low-budget L.A. sojourn The Canyons (2014), written by Bret Easton Ellis, the lead character of whose notorious novel American Psycho, Patrick Bateman, liked to masturbate to the drill scene in Body Double. Writing in Reverse Shot, critic Nick Pinkerton suggested that one of The Canyons’ stars, Nolan Funk, “puts himself in the hunt for this year’s Craig Wasson Award for a mediocre actor playing a mediocre actor”. That seems a little harsh on Wasson, whose corn-fed, golden-mulleted, bewildered pluckiness affords the film what little heart it has. Indeed, Body Double may be a cold work, but it’s oddly enrapturing. Its joy lies in its impertinent impermanence, its miraculous ability to translate brash shallowness into endless replay value.