A mid-career effort from director Brian De Palma, Body Double is representative of both the dazzling technical proficiency of his work and its moral immaturity. If it weren’t for the command of the camera, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was made by a 13-year-old boy who is both titillated and terrified of girls.
The plot involves aspiring Hollywood actor Jake Scully (a painfully bland Craig Wasson) who gets caught up in a murder plot after spying on, then stalking, a beautiful neighbor (Deborah Shelton). In his defense, she is in the habit of performing an elaborate strip routine at her window every evening, which De Palma layers with the same sort of woozy synth score that marks moments of self-discovery in the teen dramas of John Hughes.
Although Body Double is decidedly of the 1980s, it baldly harkens back to the work of Alfred Hitchcock — particularly Vertigo and Rear Window. Yet whereas Hitchcock’s movies explored the idea of women as problematic objects of desire with an insinuating artistry that implicated the audience, De Palma’s work is thuddingly obvious and alienating. Consider that the voyeurism-themed Rear Window is ultimately about the act of watching movies. De Palma’s addition to that idea? Set Body Double in the movie business. (And, inevitably, the porn business, as the increasingly strained plot eventually brings in Melanie Griffith as porn star Holly Body.)
De Palma isn’t working through his issues with women here as much as he’s wallowing in them.
Independent of any comparisons to Hitchcock, Body Double is ugly, unedifying exploitation cinema. It’s not only that women are depicted as little more than sexual functionaries; it’s also that they are violently punished for their sexuality, as if the movie needed to extinguish them out of a perverse sense of guilt. Body Double feels, if nothing else, deeply personal (this is partly why De Palma is favored by auteurists). Yet if there is some level of self-critique going on here — with Jake, a leering peeper who becomes a clumsy hero, as a De Palma stand-in — it registers less as self-critique than gleeful confession (in which case it’s not much of a confession at all). And judging by late-career De Palma films like Femme Fatale and The Black Dahlia, it’s a form of therapy that resulted in little progress.
I’ll admit that there are set pieces in Body Double that evidence De Palma’s prodigious cinematic talent. He stages an impeccable suspense sequence at an outdoor mall, where Jake follows his neighbor because he notices she’s being followed by a suspicious stranger. The three figures are perfectly choreographed in relation to the camera movements, while De Palma makes effective use of an array of focal lengths to give us a sense of space. A bit later in the film, there is a similar scene at a multi-level beach hotel, in which much suspense is generated from a single wide shot that reveals various figures in movement simultaneously on different balconies.
The problem comes when De Palma turns his camera on scenes in which women are sexual objects. He uses an ostentatious, swooning, 360-degree camera movement around Jake the two times he embraces a woman — first his neighbor and then Holly Body. It’s a visual reference to the movie’s title, yes, but also a technique that strongly suggests all women are interchangeable, as long as they’re serving the same sexual need. Even more troubling are those instances when the film combines violence and sexuality, including a sequence of a woman being murdered with a drill that includes a shot from behind the murderer, so that the drill bit extends from between his legs.
Show-off shots like that suggest Body Double is more fantasy than self-critique or confession. De Palma isn’t working through his issues with women here as much as he’s wallowing in them. It’s dehumanizing to wallow along with him.