Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Neo-Noir Thriller Watch: Body Double (1984)

this scene isn't in the movie, and I don't think that lady is, either

Watched:  09/29/2021
Format:  Amazon
Viewing:  First
Decade:  1980's
Director:  Brian DePalma

I have two memories of Body Double (1984) existing, although this was the first time I'd seen the film.

1.  This movie was always on the shelf at every video store and had a sorta naked lady on the cover, sporting at least slightly less clothes than a Sears underwear ad.  It's ubiquity was part of my growing recognition that grown-ups did go and see movies with skin in them that were about sexiness - and that did not equal "porn".  So, I guess this cover was part of my realization that genre included the "erotic thriller" alongside slasher flicks and Rated-R comedies.

2.  In high school I read American Psycho, which was not on the reading list.  I'm in no rush to return to the book, but the movie turns satire into straight up comedy.  I dunno.  The film felt defanged to me, but was probably the only way to get it made.  One sign of Bateman's... issues was that he belonged to a video club and would continually check out and return Body Double.  It's an ongoing concern in the book whether he has returned his tape and whether it's available.  

Like a lot of movies I felt were not going to be something I could rent as a kid, I sort of compartmentalized Body Double and just never saw it.  So, after Paul and I were talking about DePalma for reasons tied to a different film, I figured I'd take 6th grade me who'd seen this movie's cover so many times and finally just watch the thing.  

Let me get this out of the way, because I won't assume you'll read too far in this post if you've not seen the film:  at some point, the movie turns into a NSFW Frankie Goes to Hollywood video as the movie briefly becomes a scene from a porn film.  With members of Frankie Goes to Hollywood hanging about, and it is CINEMA MAGIC.  (that is all.  I just wanted to talk about Frankie Goes to Hollywood for a minute.  It's by far my favorite part of the movie.)

Look, Body Double isn't great.  

It's an academic exercise in Hitchcockian obsession and Hitchcock's own tendency to use the camera to make film scholars overuse the term "the male gaze".  Throw in some heavy handed stuff about "illusion" and "voyeurism" and some use of mirrors and mirroring, but then forget to make the characters interesting.  

Look, our lead winds up a blank slate with the few things we know about him becoming obvious signposts for the plot.  I don't blame the actor.  He's trying.  There's just not much for him to do but LOOK as DePalma tries to fit a lot of things into a single movie.

It's arguably noir, certainly neo-noir, and if you've seen Rear Window or a few other Hitchcock movies along the way, it's a classic thriller.  

Essentially - a struggling actor comes home early to find his significant other cheating on him.  Losing his place and unmoored, he stumbles across a fellow actor who offers him a home (in LA's famed Chemosphere!), which happens to have a view of a manse across the way with a very big window in which a very sexy, big-haired woman dances provocatively by herself, mostly naked.  

Our hero (Craig Wasson) sees a menacing figure ALSO watching his sexy subject and begins to watch less out of lust and more out of concern, eventually pursuing and finally meeting the woman.  I hesitate to tell much more than that.  But it slips into murder, an exploration of Hollywood films via their dark mirror counterpart in the porn industry, and lots of stuff that 90's erotic thrillers would return to.

The cast is mostly non-stars with the exception of Melanie Griffith, in 1984 possibly someone people might know, and I am sure for DePalma a huge get as the daughter of Tippi Hedren, one of Hitch's legendary blondes (worth noting Griffith here appears as a punky platinum blonde herself).  The "that guy" Gregg Henry plays our leads benefactor/ pal.  And Dennis Franz plays DePalma stand in, Rubin.

Frankly, I'm @#$%ing shocked my film instructors didn't recommend this movie in film school as an easy explainer on these topics.  You can diagram the movie to all the favorite topics of Film Studies 101.  But it is chock full of sex and nudity, so, not the usual faire for film school, I guess.  But, man, credit where it's due for DePalma making a movie that would take a massive amount of energy and time to break down all the ways "seeing" and "illusion" work in this movie. 

Unfortunately, if you're at all tuned in to these ideas, the film also telegraphs all of it's twists and turns by virtue of so being about the ideas that there's no real surprises and it feels like what should be clever has all the surprise of "what am I getting for Christmas?" when its clear Mom wrapped a bicycle in Christmas paper and put it beneath the tree two weeks before.

It's got some definitely provocative stuff that feels like DePalma pushing things right up to the point of the fine line between an R and an X rating.  The movie doesn't just contain nudity, it's swimming in it.  It's the point.  And that's a fair point, btw, before y'all think I'm going to start pearl clutching.  And among the thesis topics here, the combination of violence and sex is right there as the movie opens on a guy dressed as a vampire who can't literally "perform" as an actor because of his personal hang-ups, and finishes as he returns to the role.

And, of course, I don't have time nor inclination to break down every scene for "seeing", "watching", "illusions" and "mirroring".  But rest assured, it's all very much there.

Maybe that's the problem - there are a lot of ideas in competition here (I've just scraped the surface), and all of them are treated a bit like a puzzle box to solve, so it leaves the literal part of the story as just a skeleton for these things to hang on.   It feels like the cart was put before the horse with the Film Studies elements, and that's... okay?  It's not a bad movie, exactly.  It just doesn't give you much to hang onto to care about any of the proceedings.

If there's one scene I absolutely didn't get, it was our hero suddenly not just making out with, but nearly disrobing one of our female leads on the beach.  Was that in his head?  What the hell was that sequence?  I need some help here.

Anyway, I may watch this again some time - it has some interesting stuff going on (the Chemosphere!), but is also an example of how movies can live too much in a director's head and not fulfill their primary objective, of telling a story that holds together. 

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