Monday, February 11, 2013

Body Double (1984) and Brian De Palma's Obsessions

There are a number of things which are very interesting about Body Double, even though it’s ultimately an unsatisfying and silly film. The first half hour is a masterclass in how to draw viewers into a narrative whilst keeping them guessing. At first it seems to be about Jake (Craig Wasson) acting in a cheap vampire movie. Then it seems to be about how he recovers from finding his girlfriend in bed with another guy. Then it’s about him meeting a fellow actor, Sam, who provides him with a fabulous apartment to look after. It’s only then that we start to get to the real story - what Jake can see through the telescope from that apartment. Brian De Palma is of course famous for re-working Hitchcockian themes and plots in his films and here there’s no attempt to hide the strong influence of Rear Window; our main character witnesses a crime through his lens. What’s more, the film’s whole tone and structure is taken from Vertigo: in the first half, it focuses on a rather forlorn man trailing a beautiful woman around in a sunny Californian setting, without much dialogue but with plentiful bursts of rich orchestral music. In the second half, after her death, he becomes involved with another woman who - in a different way to Hitchcock’s film- was a kind of ‘double’ for the original woman.

I generally like De Palma’s films a lot, whether they’re explicitly Hitchcockian (Obsession, Dressed to Kill) or not (Carrie, Scarface). Even less popular films of his like Casualties of War, Raising Cain and Snake Eyes are very enjoyable. The Bonfire of the Vanities is not a great film, but hardly the disaster everyone says it is. And Mission to Mars, whose plot Prometheus recently stole lock, stock and barrel, is also underrated. But I must say I wasn’t much of a fan of his last three films - Femme Fatale, The Black Dahlia or Redacted - so he seems to be past his golden years. And his best films - Carlito’s Way, The Untouchables, Mission Impossible - are often his most uncharacteristic ones. The last two especially were big, commercial, star-studded projects and it might have been interesting if studios had put him in charge of more films like that. I also wish that younger action/thriller directors would learn from him; films like Knight and Day and Wanted and Red would have benefited from something similar to his mischievous wit.

Craig Wasson as the figure who is at the centre of Body Double at first seems a little bland, but he makes an impression after a while, as does Gregg Henry, who plays Sam. However - surprise, surprise - the women’s roles in this film are not very strong. The mystery woman of the first half, Gloria (Deborah Shelton) is a total blank even when Jake meets her and they start talking, and Melanie Griffith, who takes over in the second half of the film, is not much better. You mainly notice what a sexually explicit role this was for her. The character herself doesn’t amount to much.

The film is full of incidental pleasures. The music when Jake first starts spying on Gloria (‘Telescope’ by Pino Donaggio - you can find it on Youtube) is really quite beautiful. The apartment he’s in is the famous Chemosphere in the Hollywood Hills (though its striking interior here is no doubt a studio set). Another great setting is the multi-leveled beach house where part of his pursuit takes place. And there’s a good scene in a shopping mall (though when he spies on Gloria in a lingerie shop, and she just happens to leave the curtain to the changing room open a few inches, the element of teenage boy wish-fulfillment becomes a bit laughable).

There are many parts of the film which are deliberately artificial. When Jake is driving we often see him against a back-projected scene. And when he’s following the woman he sometimes gets ridiculously close to her without her noticing anything amiss. All this is fair enough because it’s the director playing with movie clichés (just as Tarantino does now). But there are other times when the artificiality is more of a problem. The premise on which the plot is built, the elaborate way Jake is set up to be a witness to a crime, is a bit hard to take. For this plot to work, every cop has to be blind and stupid. And part of the story rests on him becoming suspicious because he recognises the way two women dance as being identical. This to me seemed a bit bungled. All they had to do was to give each of them some little thing to do that was very distinctive, but in fact their moves are totally generic and I found it hard to work out why he was making the connection. Plus when Jake suddenly becomes a porn actor and films a scene with Holly Johnson from Frankie Goes to Hollywood singing ‘Relax’, it’s just bizarre and takes you completely out of the story.

Also the ending of the movie is very unsatisfying. After a perfunctory climactic face-off with the villain, the main storyline is left curiously unresolved as regards the relationship between Jake and the Melanie Griffith character. Then we cut away to something completely unconnected and the film shoves a pair of tits in our faces! It’s done in a way that’s so gratuitous and silly it reminded me of Airplane, when a bare-breasted woman runs in front of the camera for no reason. If the film had been a comedy I wouldn’t have minded, but it’s a preposterous ending to what at times is a very tense thriller. And there seems to be no reason at all why it’s the final shot of the movie.  

See 88 Screenshots from Body Double here

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