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What To Watch: Playing Mind Games in ‘Body Double’ (1984)

Body Double is a 1984 thriller about a young actor’s obsession with spying on a beautiful woman who lives nearby, leading to a baffling series of events with drastic consequences.

Have you ever watched a movie and been so caught up in it that you actually sort of pause and tell yourself, “hey, this is a really good movie,” as if you have to make some kind of mental note because so few have made an impression? That’s exactly what happened the first time I watched Brian De Palma‘s 1984 epic Body Double, a sensational, twisted Hitchcockian gem of a film that still shakes me even today. Watching it again recently, I was struck by it compelling and ingenious visuals, from its bold, cheesy (purposeful) opening, to its numerous creative storytelling camera techniques that homages the very craft it itself is. It’s an indulgent, salacious, piece of arthouse new-wave fun that was disregarded by most on release, but has since become one of the famed director’s most celebrated cult hits. It’s a must see.

Body Double
Body Double, 1984 © Columbia Pictures Corporation

THE STORY: After a quick start on the set of a Z-grade horror film where we learn that actor Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) suffers from debilitating claustrophobia, he heads to home early to find his girlfriend (Barbara Crampton) sleeping with another man. Crushed, and with no place to go, he gets an offer from an acting colleague named Sam (Gregg Henry) whose wealthy friend is traveling in Europe and needs a house sitter for his ultra modern home, a one-story octagon set atop a 30 foot pillar (the famous Chemosphere in LA). Sam shows him the building’s best feature, a telescope that peers into a neighbor’s house, that of the beautiful Gloria Revelle (Deborah Shelton), who has a naughty habit of dancing erotically in front of the windows. This becomes a nightly practice for Jake, becoming obsessed with her beauty until he sees something very upsetting and so, the next day, decides to follow her, leading to a nightmare of deception … and murder.

Body Double
Body Double, 1984 © Columbia Pictures Corporation

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: If you know anything about De Palma, you know he’s hardly conventional, his long takes and slow zooms only a small part of the man’s directorial arsenal. Body Double is no exception, the film populated by many clever visuals that give the movie a unique feel. De Palma is a master of misdirection and it’s important to keep your eyes busy as scenes unfold, as there is always trickery in play. There is nothing wasted here and Jake’s surreal encounters and dreams are no less impactful and significant than anything else, everything offering clues to the larger mystery.

This is a character-driven film, centered on Jake, a flawed figure with not much of a backbone who must rise to be the hero. De Palma, who wrote the story, keeps the discovery of secrets limited only to Jake’s experience, and by extension, our own. However, it’s much more than that. With Jake’s vulnerabilities and failure to act keeping him a witness rather than savior, the film becomes an odyssey of sorts as he begins to piece things together. We know he’s innocent, but others think not, and he becomes ensnared in a highly complex trap. It’s great fun to watch him try and figure it all out, the clues only leading him further down the rabbit hole. It’s a deep, deep hole.

Body Double
Body Double, 1984 © Columbia Pictures Corporation

A GREAT MOMENT: It’s not much of a spoiler to say that a woman is murdered. The whole premise rests on the fact that Jake sees it happening through the telescope. I’ll skip much of the setup of how and why she has become important to him and what events have led him to be so involved with her, and only say that the sequence when the murder occurs is pretty terrifying stuff. It’s also well directed and acted, and while it may borrow a bit from Hitchcock’s Rear Window, that’s half the point, De Palma giving that film’s iconic moment a bit of a spin.

Body Double
Body Double, 1984 © Columbia Pictures Corporation

What’s really impressive is it’s lack of dialogue, nearly the entire scene played out through the telescope lens frantically sweeping from window to window between two characters, the woman and the stranger in her house. Jake watches with increasing fear as the intruder slips about the house unseen by the woman, she casually going about her business, changing clothes while the man attempts to break into a wall safe and make off with the goods inside. It’s a game of hide and seek as she moves about the two floors of the house, and when it becomes clear she might be in danger, Jake finally tries to help, but he’s too late and the girl meets with a gruesome end. It’s nasty but again, if you know De Palma, it’s also unbearably suspenseful. And awesome.

THE TALLY: Body Double is an uncommon thriller, a visually disorienting masterpiece that plays with expectations as it travels its hero along a twisted route of morbid curiosity. De Palma thrives in the thin ether between the absurd and the realistic, his films a collection of near over-the-top dramas that remain grounded by superior direction and excellent performances. That goes doubly so for this, one of my favorite films by the director. Look for an early turn from Melanie Griffith in a key role and Dennis Franz as a movie director. This is terrific filmmaking and while it veers from the norm, it’s nonetheless a timeless classic. It’s what to watch.

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