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?

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - In This Issue - Rob­bie Collin

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

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