February 19 at Doc Films: “Body Double”

By BRIAN BELAK

Alfred Hitchcock directed his last movie in 1976, but had his lengthy career spanned into the 1980s, it’s very likely he could have made Body Double (1984), showing at Doc Films at the University of Chicago on Wednesday, February 19.

Instead, Body Double was directed by Brian De Palma, though it remains clearly influenced by the ghost of Hitchcock. In the film, struggling actor Jake Scully loses his job and wife in the same day, throwing him out of his house and into endless interviews for new roles. Luckily, a new friend Sam offers Jake shelter through house-sitting a rich friends house, across the way and an easy telescope view from the window where sexy Gloria Revelle dances half-nude every night.

At this point, the film basically becomes Rear Window (1954) meets Vertigo (1958) with a splash of hardcore pornography. Jake revels in spying on Gloria’s seductive dancing, but after a few nights of harmless peeping, he turns his telescope to witness her being brutally murdered by a shadowy burglar. The police close the matter as a burglary, but Jake, watching late-night pornographic TV, notices a porn actress dancing the same dance as Gloria and decides to investigate this “body double” more closely.

Where De Palma and Hitchcock mostly diverge, then, is in the depiction of sexually charged material. Hitchcock was limited by the social norms preventing any explicit nudity, despite pushing the envelope with gratuitous lingerie scenes in Psycho (1960), but De Palma, working in the carefree ‘80s, is under no such constraints. Gloria is shown dancing in her topless glory, and Jake’s undercover foray into the porn industry is only barely censored. Unlike Hitchcock’s implied sexuality, De Palma’s film is rampant with it.

The most interesting subtext lying underneath the film is the story of Jake’s overcoming his own psychological limitations. He originally loses his job due to intense claustrophobia preventing him from completing a scene, a weakness that establishes him as the perfect candidate for Sam’s evil plan. The climax of the film therefore focuses on Jake overcoming this claustrophobia and is easily the most effective moment of the film.

After he tracks down Gloria’s killer, Jake is himself captured and is about to be buried alive when the film suddenly cuts out of the action and Jake emerges from a stage coffin just as he did at the start of the film. He has a pep talk with the director who fired him previously for this exact reason, psyches himself up, and climbs back in, at which point the film returns to the burial scene with Jake emerging triumphantly to fight back. It turns out that the entire scene had taken place inside of Jake’s mind as a way of overcoming his weakness, with De Palma realizing this moment through a clever editing technique.

Other clever moments of directing prove that De Palma was not completely deserving of his Razzie Award nomination for Worst Director when the film first came out. He plays with the voyeuristic camera angles that enthrall Jake so much, even extending the long-distance shots into moments that have nothing to do with voyeurism, like the scene of Jake following Gloria through the mall. By shooting from so far away that Jake and Gloria become almost imperceptible dots in the maze of escalators, De Palma makes the spectator complicit in the act of voyeurism, suggesting that we may not be so different from Jake in our interest in looking at things.

On the narrative side, Body Double is full of moments that serve only to drive the plot forward to the next point, just to be forgotten about as soon as they are over. When Jake walks in on his wife having sex with another man, Jake is heartbroken and it serves to be the catalyst that gets him out of his house. Fifteen minutes later and a peep through the telescope at Gloria, and Jake never mentions his wife again. A similar thing happens with Jake’s brief porn career. He acts in one porn film for the sake of his investigation, but as soon as he finds out what he wants, no character mentions porn again, not even the porn actress that seems to become a new girlfriend for Jake in the end.

This is another distinction that sets De Palma apart from Hitchcock. In a Hitchcock film, there’s the sense that nothing is wasted, as if everything that happens on screen has meaning on multiple levels that Hitchcock specifically placed there. In contrast, De Palma’s film is a little awkward and sloppily done, full of wasted moments and information that becomes irrelevant almost immediately.

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