Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Summer of Films: Body Double (1984)

Body Double is a more pervy remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Directed by Brian de Palma and starring Craig Wasson and Melanie Griffith, Body Double was a box office bomb which later proved to have tremendous legs over the long term. It also happens to be an excellent film.
The Plot
Like Vertigo, Body Double involves a man who has been set up to observe a murder. In Vertigo, Jimmy Stewart was asked by a friend to follow a woman he was told was suicidal. He watches her and slowly develops an obsession from afar. When she later appears to jump from a tower killing herself, Stewart’s testimony seals the deal with the law that she killed herself. However, Stewart’s obsession causes him to start looking for a replacement for the woman and, in the process, he stumbles upon the woman who pretended to be the supposedly suicidal woman and tricked Stewart into thinking the woman had killed herself when in reality she was murdered.
Body Double twists this formula slightly. The story begins with Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) losing his job as an actor and being kicked out of his apartment by his girlfriend, who is having an affair. Unlike Stewart’s character who suffers from vertigo, Scully suffers from claustrophobia. In his moment of need, a man named Sam appears and befriends Scully. They keep running into each other. Soon, Sam offers to let Scully stay in his luxurious home while Sam is out of town, provided he take care of the place and water the plants. Scully is thrilled and accepts. They toast their mutually beneficial arrangement, and in the process, Sam tells Scully to look through a telescope which is trained on the home of a woman named Gloria. Sam tells Scully that each night, Gloria does an erotic dance before she goes to sleep. Sure enough, Scully observes this dance.
With Sam gone, Scully continues to observe the woman. As he does, he sees a man who appears to be an American Indian. This Indian seems intent on harming Gloria. Soon enough, Scully is following Gloria. He tells himself that he wants to protect Gloria from the Indian, but it’s obvious he wants more. In any event, the Indian does follow Gloria and steals her purse at the beach. Scully helps, but his claustrophobia allows the Indian to escape. The next thing Scully knows, the Indian breaks into Gloria’s home as Scully is waiting to watch her dance. He tries to run to her home, but is too late. The Indian has killed her.

After this, Scully mopes around the house, upset at failing to save Gloria. Being the pervert he is, he starts watching porn. As he does, he sees a video advertised in which a woman (Melanie Griffith) is doing the exact same dance Gloria had done. Scully is suddenly suspicious. He tracks down Melanie and tries to determine if she had been paid to do the dance for him, and by whom. (As an aside, I find this to be a much more believable way for Scully to stumble upon the woman pretending to be Gloria than the way Stewart found the woman in Vertigo, which seemed far too random.)
Why This Film Works
Body Double is perhaps the best Hitchcock knock-off I’ve seen. This film not only captures the pacing and feel of Jimmy Stewart’s obsession in Vertigo but it feels even more natural to us. Indeed, unlike Stewart and Hitchcock, who were limited by the Hays Code, Scully is free to be more loathsome. This makes him more believable as a stalker and a peeping Tom. He’s also more believable as the dupe. Scully lies to himself about his problem and he comes across as not very bright. He’s not nearly as collected or as cautious as Stewart’s portrayal. That make it more believable that he would let himself be so easily manipulated and that he would make the wrong choices time and again.
Wasson does excellent work in selling this portrayal of Scully. Had Wasson not come across as so “innocent,” he would have been creepy and the audience wouldn’t have cared what happened to him. But as it is, he comes across as a guy who genuinely believes he cares about Gloria and wants to help her, and you actually do sympathize with him. This was all Wasson’s doing as an actor, as nothing written in the script sold this perspective. Personally, I always thought deserved Wasson deserved a better career.

Director de Palma deserves major credit here too. For one thing, his timing is perfect. The film never drags, but it also feels deliberate. It doesn’t rush. To the contrary, it takes the time it needs to make everything we see work. The images he picks help sell the story too. They paint Los Angeles as a maze, perfectly built for the cat and mouse game Scully plays with Indian. Making the characters actors helps sell the idea that the killer could disguise himself as the Indian, that Scully could find a way to join a porno, and that he would accept this arrangement in the first place. The film is very well cast as well, and it has an excellent score including the song "Relax" from Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
The film does have two weaknesses, though one is forgivable. The first, the forgivable one, is that Wasson can simply get a job as the lead in a porno so he can get to know Griffith. It’s certainly possible, especially with him being an actor, but it feels a little coincidental that it came so easily. The bigger weakness is that de Palma suddenly blurs the reality of the story at the end by making it unclear if all of this had just been a dream during a claustrophobia attack while on set. That’s adds nothing and it’s unnecessary. It’s also confusing and undermines the story. Still, this film is quite good and well worth your time.

Thoughts?

35 comments:

tryanmax said...

As a Hitchcock fan, I'll have to find and see this. I've never heard Body Double compared to Vertigo before. And for obvious reasons, I've not seen many adult-themed films from the early 80s.

djskit said...

Ah, my term paper subjects in my one film class at the vaunted George Lucas School of Film at USC! Unfortunately, my 19 year old self had little appreciation for the emotional complexities of Mr. Scully or for Mr. Stewart for that matter.

I often find Mr. Depalma's attempts to convey 'disorientation' with odd ball camera angels annoying - but here it all works.

ScottDS said...

Man, I really need to see some of de Palma's earlier films one day. The only one I've seen is Blow Out. Of course, the de Palma movie I really need to see one day is Bonfire of the Vanities, just to see if it really is a clusterf---!

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I'm not sure why no one seems to make the connection -- at least, I never see anyone make the connection. Even the wikipedia doesn't make the connection. To my mind though, it's so close to Vertigo that is has to be considered a direct remake.

In any event, I recommend this one. It's a well done and entertaining film that holds a lot of suspense and has some really cool moments. The critics hated it and the film was slammed at the time, but it has found a strong cult following.

AndrewPrice said...

djskit, The first time I saw it, I never paid much attention to Scully's complexities either, but they definitely make the film. He's a fascinating character because you want to like him, but he is creepy, and despite the fact you see him as the hero, he really is a menace throughout.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, You should see this one. This one would be right up your alley with your love of films from this period. This is a solid film and I think you will like it a lot. Let me know what you think.

(FYI, it's been on Showtime or HBO lately.)

John Jameson said...

Did I read that right?: Melanie Griffith was a box office bombshell who later proved to have tremendous legs...
I should see this film :)

AndrewPrice said...

John, LOL! You almost read that right. ;-)

Dave Olson said...

ScottDS -

Bonfire of the Vanities is not a great film. It's barely a good film, but then again art is subjective, and I like it. On the surface it's a stinging indictment of the "Greed is Good" era of the late 1980s, but you don't need to look much deeper to see that it's really a blistering attack on liberal hypocrisy. There are thinly-veiled representations of race hustlers like Al Sharpton, political opportunists like Mario Cuomo, and sleazebag yellow journalists like Geraldo Rivera (played with pitch perfection by Geraldo Rivera.)

But that's a review for another time. (Hint, hint, lads.) I haven't seen Body Double, so I'll look for it on Netflix. Someday.

shawn said...

Ah, back when DePalma still was making good films. I remember seeing this back when it came out and yowza, Melanie Griffith, what a dish! At the time I saw it, it didn't occur to me that the ending could mean that the majority of the film was all in Wasson's head as part of a panic attack.

Tennessee Jed said...

I saw this film when it came out and my reaction at that time (as I recall) was that it was an updated rip-off of Vertigo. My point is only that at that age and time, I wasn't considering things like the valiity of re-makes. There were a couple times it may have bordered on having slow spots, but things picked-up just in time. This film was recently on one or more of the lesser known movie channels (HDNET perhaps.) I saw the last half of it, and concur the ending was one of the things that disappointed. My other recollection is that Debrah Shelton, the actress who got, ahem, "screwed" so-to-speak went on to a nice gig as Mandy Winger, mistress of the villainous J.R. Ewing. Still, this was the kind of under the radar film I like, and it was definitely under the radar despite DePalma's favorability as a director.

Tennessee Jed said...

I forgot to mention how much I enjoyed Greg Henry who played Sam. He is a classic "character" actor. People say "Oh I've seen that guy before" but can never remember where. That is the mark of a pro. He has made a nice career in movies and t.v. generally playing slightly sinister roles. Interestingly, Wasson never did a whole lot as I recall. Sadly, Melanie has been victimized by too much bad plastic surgery and botox.

AndrewPrice said...

Dave, It's worth checking out.

AndrewPrice said...

shawn, The ending is so strange that it's just not clear what they mean by it. I take it to mean that it's all a nightmare he has during his attack. Or, it could just be that this is later after he's overcome his fears. But it mixes so strangely that it's hard to tell.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I enjoy these films too. I like that they take chances and do things the major films won't. They are also often much better written (at least the good ones).

When I was younger, I thought remakes were disrespectful. But I've gotten over that and I take remakes on their own merits these days. It's interesting that both you and I picked up that this was a remake, because few others seem to have gotten that for some reason.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew, in order to pick-up on this, one would need to have been a big Hitchcock fan, and seen Vertigo prior to seeing this one. To me, having both the actors be voyeurs was the obvious parallel giveaway. Still, I have no idea whether it was meant as a hommage, re-make, or just borrowing plot elements.

ScottDS said...

Jed -

I, too, enjoy Gregg Henry - he's one of those under-appreciated "that guy!" actors.

Andrew -

I, uh, "obtained" the film and I'll try to watch it in the next few days. It was actually released on Blu-Ray, but as a limited edition by Twilight Time (they also put out Rollerball). It has since sold out.

Apparently, one of the writers of the film was Robert Avrech who used to contribute to BH.

Tennessee Jed said...

this film figured prominently in the book American Psycho with everything that implies BTW. Give the NOW gang a headache.

Kit said...

So... a must-see?

Tennessee Jed said...

Kit - there is, I think, a danger in discussing films like this because certain expectations (good or bad) tend to be placed on the potential viewer. I liked the film in many ways, but felt it was derivative, and probably my favorite by DePalma. I think you see it if you get the chance. Maybe ask yourself the following question: "what might Body Double, American Psycho, and Body Double share in common?"

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, As Jed says, it's dangerous to put those kinds of expectations on films like this. This is a cult classic because it has a certain appeal, but that doesn't mean everyone will like it or will see it as equally good.

The best I can really say is that I see this as an excellent and enjoyable film which is engaging and worth the time, but has a few forgivable flaws. If you think this might be up your alley, then give it a shot and you may join the cult.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I'm not sure either how it was meant. It strikes me as sufficiently close to see it as a direct remake, but no one has ever claimed that to my knowledge. So maybe it's just an homage?

I also agree with you that you kind of need to see the fundamentals of both films to see the connection. If you don't grasp the voyeur issue or that both characters have been set up to observe a murder, then the remainder of the films has a sufficiently different feel that you could miss it.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Nice work on that obtainage! LOL! Let us know what you think.

FYI, there is some nudity, should that affect your scheduling. ;-)

ScottDS said...

If I can watch David Cronenberg's NC-17-rated Crash in the middle of the day, I think I can handle this one! :-)

Tennessee Jed said...

btw, i was working on a mobile device and tired when I responded to Kit. I meant to ask "consider what Body Double, American Psycho, Shutter Island and even Mulholland Drive share in common"? :)

John Jameson said...

Interestingly, on "Brian de Palma", Wikipedia has "The main plot from Rear Window was used for Body Double, while it also used elements of Vertigo."

ScottDS said...

I just finished it.

Um, can I assume when the film plays on TV, they simply run the end credits over black? :-)

I liked it... good acting... great camerawork (as per usual for de Palma)... but I figured out the identity of the "Indian" during the scene in the tunnel. The tell? His smile. Gregg Henry has a rather distinctive smile and jawline, it wasn't that hard to figure out. From that point, it was only a matter of figuring out what was what. The hint that it may have been a dream or some kind of hallucination on set was totally unnecessary.

Jesus, talk about your mid-movie tonal shifts! I won't say the porn stuff was off-putting (it wasn't), but it was like a bizarre side trip to another world. Oddly, given that we live in such a porn-saturated culture today (for, uh, better and worse), it's not nearly as shocking now.

And how could you review this movie without mentioning Rear Window? The thing that threw me off was the obvious use of rear-projection, as if de Palma was trying to purposely take us out of the movie. (Some critics accuse Hitchcock of doing the same thing in some of his movies, saying the matte paintings in Marnie look shitty on purpose.)

P.S. I had to look it up to be sure, but the actress who plays the sales woman at the lingerie store... she was Gozer!

Tennessee Jed said...

John Jamison - I read the wiki article on DePalma after your post, and would think just the opposite {sic} plot of Vertigo borrowing a visual element from Rear Window. Still, it does kind of answer the question (at least for me) of intent. De Palma clearly was heavily influenced by Hitchcock and Body Double was a film meant to reflect that. It also reminds me that he borrowed heavily from other films throughout his career (e.g. Blow Up and the Conversation.)

Scott - DePalma was known at the time for stretching the boundaries put in place by the industry censors. We have descended so low in that regard as a culture that his stuff now seems tame in comparison.

ScottDS said...

We've also regressed in some ways, too. De Palma was frequently called out for misogyny in his movies - I can only imagine he'd be run out of town on the rails today for something like that.

It's funny - he used to be mentioned in the same breath as the other "film school brats" like Lucas, Scorsese, and Coppola. Not so much today. Not to mention the fact that movies like this today would either : a.) be made for TV, or b.) would feature 20-somethings and be PG-13.

AndrewPrice said...

John, I think the idea that Rear Window was used is too surface an analysis. The only element of Rear Window to be used is that he's spying on a woman. Nothing beyond that fits. Rear Window is about a normal guy who is bored and starts innocently watching his neighbors and becomes suspicious of a murder because of the unusual behavior of his neighbor. None of that applies in this case. He isn't innocent. He never sees the husband or even knows about him. He doesn't suspect a murder, he witnesses it. He isn't immobile, instead he follows the woman around and then tries to chase down the murder. Ultimately, the only similar element to Rear Window is that he's looking through his window into another.

But then you have a very similar plot to Vertigo. He's lured into this so he will be a witness. He is a witness. He tells the police what he does and thereby protects the husband. He becomes obsessed. He find the woman who did the dance. He makes contact with her and gets her to confess. Then he fights the guy who set him up. All of that is both Vertigo and Body Double. So I would argue that this film is easily Vertigo, but only has a coincidental element to Rear Window.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I honestly don't understand why he would crap on his own ending, but he does. He must have meant something that I just don't see, or what he did just didn't work well.

And yes, when they show it on television, they run the credits of a black screen. LOL!

In terms of figuring it out, I personal never believed the Indian makeup, so I know something was up. I'm not sure I knew it was Henry the first time, but it didn't matter. It was still a good film even knowing what was happening.

And yeah, the tonal shift is rather harsh.

John Jameson said...

Andrew, I agree of course. Wikipedia is following an article by Scott Tobias and Noel Murray which also misses the Vertigo connection. I just found it interesting that Wikipedia notes the Hitchcockian remake (this can also be seen in the edit history of Body Double), but names the wrong movie. One exception is a lone voice of the talk page of Body Double, observing "It's essentially a remake of Vertigo."

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - I am now convinced there is nothing coincidental about the spying issue. It is a very strong visual element, and in all liklihood, drawn specifically from Rear Window. The plot, however, is much more Vertigo for the reasons you cite. Whether DePalma meant to "honor" Hitchcock or was incapable of coming up with something totally his own is up for conjecture. There is no question, of course, that it is a common phenomenon in film making. And, getting back to your own original point-- it works pretty well, and "re-making or borrowing or stealing" is not automatically dishonorable.

ScottDS said...

So I just finished Bonfire of the Vanities...

Um... what's interesting is, just from watching it, you'd never know it was considered a huge fiasco. It's not a great movie and I'd hesitate to call it a good one, but it's watchable, and there have been far worse movies made.

I never read the original novel, nor have I read Julia Salamon's The Devil's Candy about the making of the film, but from what I've read, the filmmakers f---ed up by: a.) making Hanks' character too likable (understandable given the money involved in making a big studio movie), and b.) making the judge black instead of white (and Jewish), which was their way of presenting a positive black character since the Al Sharpton-style preacher is NOT a good guy at all. PC? Sure. But his speech at the end about "decency" wrapped things up a little too nicely and was no doubt counter to Tom Wolfe's inentions.

The movie looked great (virtuoso camerawork, per usual for de Palma). The opening 5-minute tracking shot is a technical marvel. Honestly, the film kinda ran out of steam for me at the halfway mark. And the reveal of the secret recording was a little too convenient - one of those things that can only happen in a movie.

My favorite character was actually F. Murray Abraham's opportunistic DA. "Yesterday I was a respected Jewish liberal. Ten minutes of news like this and all of a sudden I'm a hymie racist pig?!" :-)

Not a disaster, just a curiosity.

PikeBishop said...

I have not even read the review, just got in from a whirlwind vacation and getting caught up on my favorite blogs when I saw this. What I remember of this film was during some long, drawn out scene on a beach, where the camera just spun round and round, me looking at my fraternity brother (also a big movie and theatre guy) and saying, "For God's sake De Palma, enough with the exposition, get to the god damn point already!" He laughed as he was about to say the exact same thing.

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