American director and screenwriter Brian de Palma, a leading member of the New Hollywood movement that lasted from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s, has been in filmmaking for nearly sixty years. Best known for his crime movies and psychological thrillers, the auteur has frequently been criticized by both reviewers and audiences for his use of violence and explicit sexual content. His movie Body Double, a neo-noir erotic thriller he directed, produced and co-wrote with Robert J. Avrech, suffered the same fate upon its original release in 1984. Although critic Roger Ebert praised it, calling it ‘an exhilarating exercise in pure filmmaking’, he was way ahead of the curve, seeing in De Palma’s reviled film the very thing that would eventually lead to it being revisited and gaining the cult status it had deserved from the get-go. Its eventual cultural influence can be seen in novels such as Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, where Body Double is said to be the main protagonist’s favorite film, one he claims to have watched a total of thirty-seven times.
But critics and viewers were not the only ones who initially had a problem with De Palma’s mixture of pornography and gore—the executives at Columbia Pictures were the first ones to raise concerns regarding the movie’s themes and depictions, but only after it had received a lukewarm response from the audience during its preview in Los Angeles. In De Palma’s own words: ‘The only people crazier than the people who criticize me for violence are the people at the studios. I can't stand that sort of cowardice.’
And just as De Palma had prophesized at the time, his movie was given an X rating by the Motion Picture Association of America Rating Board, meaning that he had to re-edit it because many theaters were not too keen on showing X-rated films. This was not new territory for De Palma, who had already gone through the same process with his movies Dressed to Kill (1980) and Scarface (1983). After his experience with the latter, the director had said: ‘I'll show them. I'm going to give them everything they hate and more of it than they've ever seen. They think Scarface was violent? They think my other movies were erotic? Wait until they see Body Double.’ Ironically enough, it was thanks to the success of Scarface that De Palma got an offer to direct three movies for Columbia Pictures, the first of which was Body Double, which he started working on immediately after finishing the aforementioned crime drama. But due to Body Double’s lack of both financial and critical success, the deal Columbia Pictures had made with De Palma was dropped and the remaining two pictures were never made.
Body Double follows struggling actor Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) who gets fired from a low-budget horror movie due to his claustrophobia kicking in whilst shooting a coffin-scene. After experiencing yet another damaging blow, this time in respect to his romantic relationship, Jake finds himself looking for a place to stay. In comes fellow actor Sam Bouchard (Gregg Henry) who watches Jake uncovering a traumatic memory in a method acting class and invites him for a drink. As it turns out, Sam’s rich friend needs someone to house-sit his modernist home in the Hollywood Hills and because Sam himself is going away on business, he offers the job to Jake, who gleefully accepts. There is one particular item in the house that Sam draws Jake’s attention to—a telescope that can be used to spy on Gloria Revelle (Deborah Shelton), a neighbor who has an erotic dance routine every night at the exact same time. Needless to say, Jake cannot look away. Nor is he supposed to. What follows is a tantalizing tale of murder, mystery and lust which at one point drives Jake to seek out a porn star named Holly Body (Melanie Griffith) and at another lures him into the depths of his claustrophobia.
While De Palma was interviewing women for the role of Angie Dickinson’s body double in his 1980 neo-noir slasher Dressed to Kill, the director started thinking about body doubles and how they could be used to manipulate someone into looking exactly where you wanted them to look. He then hired Robert Avrech, whose previous screenplay he took a liking to, to co-write the script with him. The two artists ended up being two peas in a pod, with both of them harboring a deep admiration for the movies of the great Alfred Hitchcock. They embarked on a journey of ardently watching his classics Rear Window and Vertigo together so as to discern the narrative strategies used in those films. This should come as no surprise, since De Palma has always been prone to referencing and quoting other filmmakers in his movies. His neo-noir thriller Blow Out starring John Travolta was based on Francis Ford Coppola's masterpiece The Conversation and Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup, The Untouchables borrowed a scene from Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin and Dressed to Kill was yet another clear homage to Hitchcock and his movie Psycho.
In Body Double, De Palma borrowed Hitchcock’s motif from Vertigo, the one of a man whose psychosomatic condition has a profound effect on his course of action, resulting in him remaining stuck in the most pivotal moments. While Vertigo’s John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson has acrophobia and experiences subsequent vertigo as an adaptive response to a traumatic event that resulted in the death of a co-worker, the claustrophobia of Body Double’s Jake Scully stems from a moment in his childhood that rendered him powerless. De Palma makes sure that we are well aware of Jake’s condition, opening his movie with a shot of him inside a coffin in vampire make-up, frozen stiff. With this scene, De Palma lays the groundwork for what is to come, briefly but poignantly showing us his protagonist’s reaction to enclosed spaces, rather than telling us about it.
But as was the case in Vertigo, the story does not revolve around the main character’s condition—instead, the phobia becomes a tool that is used against him, as well as a catalyst for events that are yet to unfold. The condition is, therefore, ingeniously utilized as a plot device in its own right, disabling our down-on-his-luck hero from making a crucial move in a meticulously devised game of chess he does not even realize he is a part of. Ultimately, the very reason he was chosen as a clueless pawn to begin with would end up becoming the thing that enables him to become a self-aware player and emerge victorious after all. Not only does he manage to overcome his fear in the most crucial of moments, but he also uses his new-found psychological freedom to do things he previously would not have dared.
As far as De Palma’s borrowing from Rear Window is concerned, the parallels are more than apparent, with the themes of voyeurism and scopophilia (deriving sexual pleasure from looking at nude bodies, pornography, etc.) functioning as the building blocks of Body Double’s narrative. The notion of the male gaze is as prevalent as ever, with it being a factor the movie could in no way do without. For Jake’s inability to avert his gaze is the very thing that drives the plot forward, enabling it to unravel in ways both perplexing and enticing. His unwillingness to look away is, in fact, the only truly predictable parameter in De Palma’s erotic tale of obsession and manipulation. We the viewers are meant to witness events from Jake’s point of view, for the director counts on our own fascination with taking glimpses into the lives of others to kick in—that is, after all, why we revel in watching movies to begin with. As Jake’s obsession with observing Gloria grows, our interest in the story reaches its peak—which is only understandable, since we only know what he knows for we only ever see what he sees. And as he slowly starts gluing the puzzle pieces together, we gladly follow suit.
It could be said that the director not only gleefully panders to our voyeuristic tendencies per se, but also to our more basic, sexual urges that result in our blood running hot. As De Palma himself stated: ‘This is going to be a movie in the De Palma style and tradition. An erotic thriller. It has a voyeuristic theme, about people being sucked into the things they're watching. A wild, erotic roller-coaster ride, so many twists and turns. I've watched audiences jump before, or seen them sit bolt upright in their seats. But I can't wait to watch an audience when they see this movie. They've never seen anything like this before.’ And indeed we have not. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that Body Double eventually became a cult classic, with its unique amalgamation of porn, gore, voyeurism and psychological impediments turning it into a highly stylized and uniquely suspenseful viewing experience that manages to pay homage to Alfred Hitchcock while at the same time remaining entirely unique.
Brian DePalma for "Body Double" 1984 - Bobbie Wygant Archive
Melanie Griffith for "Body Double" 1984 - Bobbie Wygant Archive
Craig Wasson interview for Body Double 10/13/84
Deborah Shelton "Body Double" 10/13/84 - Bobbie Wygant Archive
Actress Deborah Shelton on being cast for Brian De Palma's BODY DOUBLE (1984)