The Devil and Brian De Palma
When it was released in 1984, Brian De Palma’s ‘Body Double’ was dismissed as a pornographic fiasco. Is it time we took another peek?
Few directors seize an opportunity like Brian De Palma. In 1983, riding high on the success of Scarface, De Palma was offered a three-film deal by Columbia Pictures, who wanted to see where this stylish and controversial pulp auteur would go next. The following year, he repaid them with a film that was so squalid, so bloodthirsty and so critically pummelled that three weeks after its release the studio had torn up his contract, painted out his private parking space, and thrown him off the lot.
The film the then 44-year-old director had given them was Body Double, a Los Angeles-set erotic thriller in which a Peeping Tom becomes the key witness in the murder of a nymphomaniac trophy wife. Among its notable traits are an apparently wilfully bad lead performance from a virtual nobody, entire scenes openly plagiarised from Alfred Hitchcock, cameos by genuine porn stars and a sequence in which the aforementioned desperate housewife is skewered on an enormous drill. As far as Columbia was concerned, it was a $10 million fiasco. But for De Palma, the outrage was worth every last buck.
He’d been plotting to make a film like Body Double ever since the release of his transgender slasher movie Dressed To Kill had riled the American film ratings board, known as the MPAA, back in 1980, and the ordeal of getting Scarface approved for public exhibition was the last straw. De Palma had recut his scabrous cocaine-dealing saga four times to try to appease the MPAA, but the board insisted on lumbering it with a commercially ruinous X certificate which was reduced to an R only after he brought in a narcotics cop who pleaded its case as a cautionary tale.
Body Double was to be the film that showed he would not be cowed. Even during the Scarface publicity tour, he was already elatedly describing his next project to the men’s magazine Esquire as a “hardcore pornographic suspense film”. In short, the film was an almighty “Up yours!”, aimed not just at the censors, but the critics, commentators and Hollywood players for whom Brian De Palma films were just misogynistic trash.
Except Body Double isn’t trash, misogynistic or otherwise. It’s unrepentantly trashy – not the kind of film you watch while your parents or kids are in the house, or with your curtains open. But it’s also a complex, provocative suspense thriller that bears comparison with the three immaculate Hitchcock classics – Vertigo, Psycho and Rear Window – it gleefully drags through the sludge. The latest rehabilitation attempt comes in Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s superb new documentary De Palma, a
chronological frolic through the director’s career.
Baumbach and Paltrow’s film is genially hosted by its subject, who’s now an avuncular 76-year-old. But if you want the fun of (re)appraising Body Double for yourself, the new British home entertainment label Indicator is releasing it on Blu-ray (for the first time ever in the UK) and DVD next month.
The first thing to understand about Body Double is that the film itself is a body double, the pert, unblushing, low-class lookalike who’ll do everything those prissy Hitchcock movies won’t. And, as with Vertigo, the plot revolves around the real identity of an alluring woman. It opens with a deadpan-absurd prologue in which actor Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) is forced to leave the set of a vampire movie in disgrace after having an attack of claustrophobia in his coffin (a dry nod to James Stewart’s detective in Vertigo who has to retire from the force after developing a fear of heights). Then, when he gets home, Scully finds his wife in bed with another man. Emasculated twice over, he takes a house-sitting job in a modernist apartment overlooking Mulholland Drive. The previous occupier grinningly draws his attention to a telescope trained on a nearby mansion, where a beautiful woman struts around the first-floor bedroom in revealing nightwear every evening “like clockwork”.
In much the same way as the wheelchair-bound photographer in Hitchcock’s Rear Window – another classic James Stewart voyeur – surveys strange goingson in the apartments opposite his living-room window, Jake becomes obsessed with Gloria Revelle (Deborah Shelton). It’s a dream of a name for a dream woman and poor Jake is so beguiled he doesn’t wonder for whose benefit this steamy show is being staged.
Nor does he realise that by ogling, he implicates himself in a wild and dangerous conspiracy that climaxes in that gut-twisting drill kill. Like the shower attack in Psycho (Hitchcock again), you swear you see more than you do, though you see enough. The film’s most notorious shot – the whirling, screaming murder weapon dipping down between the killer’s legs like a giant steel phallus – was shocking enough to be a favourite of American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, who chirpily claimed to have watched it 37 times.
It’s a fiendish reminder from De Palma to his devotees and detractors alike that when it comes to his films, there’s no such thing as “just looking”. In fact, after the murder, a detective calls Jake the killer’s “blood brother”. In De Palmaland, if you’re watching, you’re a participant. Voyeurism is not a spectator sport.
As yet another wall of mirrors in this pervert’s funhouse, De Palma originally planned to cast a real adult-film actress as Holly Body, a “porno queen” who plays a pivotal role in the film’s second half. But after carrying out a filmed audition with porn star Annette Haven on the Columbia lot (this was the point at which studio bosses started to fret), he realised she couldn’t quite capture the character’s bright-eyed playfulness, so retained her services as a consultant, and gave her a cameo in a sequence in which the band Frankie Goes To Hollywood perform their song Relax.
Ironically, this put De Palma in a compromising position: he couldn’t imagine an established actress happily taking on Holly’s more explicit scenes. But he reckoned without Melanie Griffith, whom he’d almost cast in Carrie eight years earlier. Her screen test proved she was as fearless as any porn star, though after she was cast, she and De Palma prudently decided to destroy her audition tape.
For the supposedly heroic role of Jake, De Palma alighted on Wasson, who, being tactful, is magnificently persuasive as a man doomed to spend his life on Hollywood’s fringe. Nevertheless, a sequence in which Wasson tails Shelton’s Gloria from her house to a shopping mall in Beverly Hills and watches her trying on lingerie is one of the most absorbing things De Palma has ever filmed.
The scene takes us to an uneasy moral grey space where we’re unquestionably watching Gloria from her pursuer’s point of view.
Is this fun? Are we enjoying the chase? Critics at the time thought not. The morning after the press screening, one of the bosses at Columbia rang De Palma and told him: “They’re going to kill you tomorrow.” And so they did.
Nearly three decades on, De Palma’s devilish doubling – of cinema and pornography, heroes and voyeurs, distressed damsels and femmes fatales – can finally be given its due.
I’d say “due respect”, except respect has nothing to do with it, as the trailer for Body Double’s movie-within-a-movie, Holly Does Hollywood (aka “the Gone with the Wind of sex film”), reminds us with a wink.
“Holly keeps the business where it belongs – in the gutter,” enthused the porn magazine Screw. It was the review De Palma deserved all along.
After Melanie Griffith’s explicit audition, De Palma wisely deleted the tape
No such thing as ‘just looking’: Melanie Griffith as a porn star in Body Double, top; the previous year Brian De Palma, right, had made his name with Scarface, above