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cinema Essay

Demented Deranged De Palma

Body Double (1984)

Poor Jake Scully. 

What else could he be, but a failure. 

He is playing a goth vampire in a B-Horror movie called ‘Vampire’s Kiss’, only to realize that he has claustrophobia.

Paralyzed in a coffin. Think about a frozen vampire who cannot come out to terrorize at night, a frightening thought. As if on cue, the set of Vampire’s Kiss catches fire. 

But Jake’s been here before. 

Here meaning under the ever growing shadow of disappointment, after all he’s a struggling actor in LA; rejection and failure are any actor’s constant buddies. With his chin back up and small smile on his pale face, Jake drives home, only to find his partner in bed with someone else. 

She also seemed to enjoy it. The face.

Poor Jake Scully. 

When someone is down, one kind word, even a smile might make the person feel that this is godsend.  But cynical De Palma knows that in the real world unlike the ideal, there is no kind word without malevolence, no smile without a secret and no help without expectation. 

Those who fall for these ‘godsend’ acts, risk lowering themselves into the bottomless pit of irredeemable failures. 

Jake Scully’s face is that of pure failure, the one that you want to slap and bring back to life and shout “don’t trust these guys!” when he accepts a caretaker job in the hills of LA. 

It was Hitchcock, who said something about putting the bomb under the bus and making the audience go mad knowing that it is going to blow-out (pun intended) ,Jake’s serial failure to the path to foolishness is DePalma’s answer to Hitchcock’s bomb under the bus.

We can see what’s going to happen to Jake, but he cannot.

A lot’s been said about De Palma’s Hitchcock obsession (yes he’s also made film with the same name- double title pun here, well done me), yet he goes all the way in this neatly laid down trifecta of a plot which includes the best of Vertigo, Rear Window and Dial M for Murder. 

It almost feels like De Palma having his vengeance on the critics who had dubbed him Hitch minor. Ok here you go, maybe thought De Palma, here’s three suspense classics- watch me put them in a blender. 

Hitch would have probably recognized the cruel intentions (no pun intended here, no reference too) behind the plot, but would have never muddied his hands and knees in the sewer that De Palma bravely (and gleefully) goes into. Slumming it proudly by making a movie about moviemaking which begins at the fringes of Hollywood and descends into pornography. It’s really too much, but never not enjoyable. 

Never not enjoyable- that’s De Palma as a tagline there for you. That could literally be the title of a career retrospective of De Palma, but they made one such and simply called it De Palma, the fools I tell ya.

Coming back to failures.

Failures make the best reflective protagonists and you can never get a better one than a failure in love; here’s Jake Scully in this fancy house in the hills with the rotating bed and when the lights go down his ‘nearest’ shapely neighbour starts to put on a show. 

Stop looking Jake! Stop looking for God’s sake. 

Easier said than done, but look he does.

Maybe it’s love, maybe it’s a fascination, maybe it’s just that he feels he is owed some relaxation after all the effects of failure kick in. When the relaxation kicks in, also does Pino Donaggio’s astral music plays over her routine, Body Double pushes its weight and reputation from being just another erotic thriller to the realms of art. 

In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, one who would have thought that De Palma just is the swoop of the camera, he is just the crazy angles and he is just the slow motion- this would have just been that, an erotic thriller from the 80s which probably was given as an alternative when Basic Instinct was under circulation at your local video store. 

But this is De Palma. 

Nothing is generic, nothing is expected and nothing is out of bounds- you would think an attractive neighbour doing a self pleasure routine is going overboard but then comes the shock of the power drill (did he really do that in the 80s?- first time Tarantino-heads ask lol) and then he surprises you with a musical number shot on an X-Rated film set which weirdly asks us to “Relax, don’t do it, when you wanna go do it.” 

While the voyeuristic elements are drawn out of Rear Window, the movie smoothly blends into long stretches of Jake Scully jointly (?) pursuing his neighbour ala Vertigo which rightly feels like a silent film, here too it’s just on camera and with music that De Palma builds the tension. I cannot stress this enough because Jake Scully is a nobody or say the person could be anybody like you (the reader) or me and not the stars like Grace Kelly, Kim Novak or James Stewart about whose life and death we care about. 

It’s a different way to look at filmmaking to reduce the stress of the characters themselves and put more pressure into the visuals (and in effect on the director himself). 

Roger Ebert opens his review of Body Double, calling it an exhilarating exercise in pure filmmaking and all through praises the direction but notices that there is very little point to the film. 

Sorry Roger, bless your soul, the point is that De Palma wished to hoist this story of an everyday failure and construct around it one of the most visually stunning thrillers. 

Psst: Ebert also uses the word construct twice, just saying. Would like to state that when the movie came out, critics were not as charitable as Ebert was and promptly dismissed it. Body Double’s reputation has only grown from then on. 

Maybe I’m reading too much or maybe i’m trying to drill (no pun intended here too) home the point of “filmmaker of failure” too much, but to me this clearly is a “it could happen to you” type film and Hollywood does a lot of “this could happen to you” films, ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances; the you in “it could happen to you” is probably played by Cary Grant whose is heroism personified. 

In contrast, Craig Wasson’s Jake Scully (poor Jake) is emasculated in full technicolor, his helplessness is at the core of his failure and when a person is at their depths and when there is no internal motivation to proceed, nature comes to his aid. 

Nature in the form of women, of course. 

First in the form of Deborah Shelton and then in Melanie Griffith. 

There’s a phrase that people going through shit are familiar with- the dark night of the soul. The seemingly unending period of trials and tribulations that a soul has to go through before it’s communion with the ultimate.

Body Double can be seen as Jake Scully living through his long dark night of the soul (it is not necessarily one night) getting one bad hand dealt to him after another, just when you thought he hit rock bottom, there’s another blow waiting for him in the corner. 

The biggest of them all is when his helplessness couldn’t prevent the death of the woman he thinks he is fascinated with, it’s a double blow at the end when he comes to know that he is in some way responsible for it. 

And this is where it turns. 

Body Double is one of the rare happy ending films from De Palma, maybe because it was too much even for him.

Jake Scully does find himself in the end and illustrates that one can simply stop being a failure by just taking control of their life in order to not only to better oneself but to help others. 

But since there is a deadly director like De Palma calling the shots, the difference between success and failure could be as serious as life and death. 

The end.

Cover image credit: https://www.screenslate.com/articles/body-heatbody-double