The main feature of the night was Brian DePalma’s Body Double from 1984. We’ve been running the trailer for the past couple of weeks to advertise the screening, a teaser which involves tantalizing glimpses of a nude woman and a pearl necklace. I've wondered if something like that would be permissable to advertise a movie today. The ad apparently won a Clio award, the Adult Film Industry’s equivalent of an Oscar.
In the early 1980’s DePalma was known as “The Modern Master of Suspense”, a title that implies a legacy from Alfred Hitchcock, who is known as “The Master” of screen suspense and audience manipulation (much as Elvis is “The King” and Springsteen is “The Boss”). DePalma’s problem, though, was that his style so closely resembled Hitchcock’s that some cried foul, accusing the director of outright plagiarism. With his 1980 Dressed to Kill DePalma did a riff on Psycho, right down to plot misdirection involving a big star who exits early from the story and a killer with sexual identity issues.
Dressed to Kill begins with a shower sequence featuring a graphically naked Angie Dickenson that still has a shock effect when viewed today. For the muff shots DePalma enlisted the services of a body double – which inspired the title of this film (and an amusing recreation of the shower scene beneath the end credits).
Early on in Body Double there’s a shot of what appears to be a desert, which is later revealed to only be a painting on a Hollywood back lot. This is an announcement of intention on the part of DePalma, as the film trades on the idea that “you can’t believe everything you see.” The film centers on Jake Scully (Craig Wasson), working actor with an unfortunate condition of claustrophobia. After catching his girlfriend in bed with another man, Scully accepts and offer from another actor acquaintance, Sam Bouchard (Gregg Henry), to house sit an amazing Space Needle-type elevated home. The house offers a view over Hollywood and something more – via telescope, Sam informs Scully of the sexy next door neighbor, Gloria Revelle (Deborah Shelton), who performs a striptease in front of her open window every night like clockwork.
Scully takes to watching the woman each night until he notices someone else has become aware of the lovely lady’s exhibition. DePalma borrows Hitchcock’s device of playing out suspenseful scenes with little to no dialogue (the museum scene in Dressed to Kill, the CIA computer room theft in Mission:Impossible), and here he conducts a 15 minute cat & mouse tour-de-force that involves Scully following the Indian who’s following Gloria, from a shopping mall to a beachfront motel.
It’s hard to go into much more detail without giving away the surprises the movie hinges on, suffice to say that there’s a memorable scene involving a gargantuan power drill (what would Freud say?) and that Scully eventually ends up posing as an adult film producer to get close to porn star Holly Body (Melanie Griffith), who holds the key to a mystery.
If Dressed to Kill was DePalma’s Psycho, then Body Double is both his Vertigo (main character afflicted with paralyzing psychological condition) and Rear Window (in which wheelchair bound James Stewart believes he witnesses a murder next door after spying on his neighbor with a telescope). That he is able to effectively mimic the style of The Master so well is clearly worthy of some kind of praise. DePalma’s own personal stylistic touch in those early days seemed to be about breaking the sleazoid barrier and including as much sexuality in his thrillers as was permissible. Carrie’s first scene takes place in the girl’s high school shower room; Dressed to Kill starts off with an explicit shower sex scene and follows it up with some of the most frank sex talk in a mainstream R rated movie at that time. With Body Double DePalma had hoped to create the first studio film with real, rather than acted, sex scenes. One of the problems some of our Saturday Night Freak Show guests had in relating to Scully was the fact that, given the opportunity, he steals a pair of Gloria's panties. In his later work DePalma seems to have outgrown his naked obsessions, although he returned to revisit the erotic thriller with 2002’s little-seen Femme Fatale, starring Rebecca Romijn.
Other noteworthy DePalma suspense titles include the adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie; Blow Out, which features John Travolta as a sound man who thinks he’s recorded the sound of a political assassination); and the aforementioned Dressed to Kill. After Body Double, DePalma moved away from thrillers to direct some of his biggest successes – notably Scarface with Al Pacino, The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way and the first Mission: Impossible. He famously flopped all over the place with the big studio adaptation of of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, and returned to the suspense genre in 1992 with Raising Cain.
Leading man Wasson had a starring role in 1981's Ghost Story, and subsequently appeared in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. Co-star Henry appeared in subseqent DePalma films Scarface, Raising Cain, and Femme Fatale - as well as notable appearances in the Mel Gibson vehicle Payback and the recent horror romp Slither. Melanie Griffith also appeared in The Bonfire of the Vanities. And Dennis Franz, who here plays a B-movie director, made a name for himself playing "that sleazy guy in Brian DePalma movies" prior to finding stardom on N.Y.P.D. Blue. He also lists Blow Out and Dressed to Kill in his credits.