Passion and Provocation in Lonely Times: The Terror of Isolation in Brian De Palma’s “Body Double”

Columbia Pictures
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On first impression, the 1984 thriller Body Double may appear to be writer/director Brian De Palma’s most tongue-in-cheek attempt to do all the Hitchcocks in one. It’s all there: the vertigo from Vertigo, the windows from Rear Window, the schemes of Dial M for Murder, the manic sexuality of Psycho, the intrigue of North By Northwest, the dread of Strangers on a Train, the conspiracy of The Man Who Knew Too Much. But, of course, just as notorious as De Palma’s dedication to the Hitchcock lexicon is the truth that his films are not merely derivative but passionately inventive — to ignore the creativity on display would be simplistic. As De Palma himself quips during the fascinating 2015 documentary charting his career, it’s a mystery why so few other filmmakers don’t themselves use the masterful cinematic tools that Hitchcock gave them. This is all to say, while Body Double certainly evokes a greatest-hits compilation of Hitchcockian techniques, it should not be considered simply an homage, but rather, one of the most vivid depictions of urban isolation and personal loneliness that American cinema has to offer.

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The film follows Jake Scully, played by Craig Wasson, a struggling LA actor with a wilting personality and crippling claustrophobia (which is not technically the same as vertigo, so there). In a classic when-it-rains-it-pours setup, in one awful day he loses his acting job, finds his girlfriend cheating on him, and is left without a place to stay. At this low point he meets Sam Bouchard, played by shifty De Palma regular Gregg Henry, who enters Scully’s life with endearing friendliness and generosity, then offers him a too-good-to-be-true gig housesitting in an ultra-modern Hollywood Hills property. The furnishings are immaculate, and the view of the city is sublime, yet Bouchard considers the house’s most attractive feature to be the gorgeous woman who dances naked in her open window a few blocks away, every sensual move visible through a conveniently positioned telescope — “my favorite neighbor,” as he puts it. 

Over the course of the film’s thrillingly suspenseful midsection, Scully gives in to his voyeuristic urges, and watches the woman’s erotic dance whenever possible — until one night he witnesses her brutal murder. From there, Body Double takes on a disarmingly daring mania, involving an in-built Frankie Goes To Hollywood music video, a deep-dive into LA’s pornography industry, and the sudden introduction of Melanie Griffith’s career-boosting performance as Holly Body, a resourceful porn star who might hold the answers to the insidious plot. So, Hitchcock in its voyeurism, murder, intrigue and repression — bona fide De Palma in its blazing intensity, hyper-eroticism, and hair-raising violence. 

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But beneath all the style, bombast, and fun, Body Double presents a churning, kaleidoscopic portrait of loneliness in a big city – of the fear of treachery, duplicity, and abandonment, of not being able to trust individuals because individuals are always pretending. Scully is an intriguing main character not because of his personality or demeanor — on the contrary, like many a Hitchcockian protagonist, he is very, very average in both regards — but rather his terrible loneliness. All his misfortune is the result of fractured social relationships, from his wife wordlessly disrespecting him, as if no explanation is needed, to his boss unfairly firing him for his lack of presence as an actor. After being pushed around at work and at home, he is left without shelter and without anyone to call a friend, and his subsequent actions all reflect his desire for contact or companionship of any kind — a desire which, as the film’s ultimate twist reveals (spoilers from here on out), sends him right into the predatory arms of the manipulative Bouchard. As with many great twists, everything turns out to be a setup; the dancing woman is not who she appears, the murdered woman, Gloria, (played by Deborah Shelton) is actually Bouchard’s wife, and Scully’s deference and desperation made him the perfect witness, and the perfect patsy.

Naturally, the fact that a woman is murdered is the most tragic and horrifying element of the film’s plot — but De Palma takes care to demonstrate that Bouchard’s manipulation of Scully’s vulnerability is also a contemptible act of villainy and abuse. Bouchard specifically targets Scully because he knows how desperate he must be; to be adrift and alone in a city as sprawling as Los Angeles is indeed a haunting notion. In this manner, beneath the murder and mayhem of the film’s surface plot, Body Double conveys a great deal of its underlying terror and pathos through its allusions to fundamental loneliness, of helpless disconnection from a dispassionate society. 

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Much of this effect is achieved through De Palma’s meticulous use of space and distance. The house, as striking as it is, comes to resemble more of a cell than a destination, a place of isolation rather than a place of comfort or luxury. Even before the plot turns violent, one might get the impression Scully has been unwittingly trapped there, stuck sequestered away from the world by his unfortunate circumstances and lack of other options, while the LA skyline, initially presented as a breathtaking vision, comes to represent the society from which he is relentlessly excluded. On a sexual level, as well, Scully is one of the few characters who never actually has sex in the film, but remains a peripheral spectator to the rampant sexuality flourishing around him. As if teasing both the character and the viewer, De Palma even imbues the one moment Scully does express sexual passion (a rapturous embrace with Gloria, whom he believes to be the naked dancer) with a confounding visual plane where distance itself is warped and dismantled to the point of surreality. The camera circles around their entwining bodies as if escaping the limits of the second dimension altogether, before settling back into normalcy as Gloria breaks away from him and runs away, again returning Scully to a haunting state of separation from all other people.

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Even the soundtrack, Pino Domaggio’s acclaimed (and very difficult to purchase!) collection of chilling strings and ethereal 1980s instrumentation, relentlessly draws attention to Scully’s isolated state. As the plot thickens, almost every encounter with another human contact is accompanied by a suspicious, tense musical atmosphere, if not by even more haunting stretches of tense, ominous silence. Perhaps the most famous instrumental motif from the film, the sensual, tropical theme “Telescope,” is ingeniously incorporated as if a musical expression of Scully’s subliminal psychosexual state — it is no coincidence that the theme begins the moment he first sees the woman through the viewfinder, and returns whenever his potent desires to observe and examine her return to his mind. Even the vivid portion of the film that takes place in the belly of the beast that is LA pornography ultimately highlights Scully’s fundamental isolation; to get closer to Holly Body, he auditions for a part in a porno that involves playing the square, uptight voyeur at the center of hordes of erotic dancers in Frankie Goes To Hollywood video “Relax,” a dynamic which again underscores his perpetual outcast status (as a side note, if you think the sequence I just described sounds like a ridiculous yet tantalizing concoction of themes and stimuli, I assure you, it is).

Intriguingly, though Scully eventually gains enough resolve to push back against the cruel schemes he has been thrust into, his isolation remains a constant. He seeks out and works with Holly Body to expose Bouchard’s artifices, but never earnestly connects with her as a friend or a lover. The only moment that implies his re-entry into society is the extended shot that plays under the credits, in which he has been re-hired in his acting job and shoots a scene involving (ha ha, Brian) a body double. Yet De Palma does not associate the fact of Scully’s isolation with the pain of his manipulation, but ultimately suggests it is Scully’s reckoning with his socially distanced state that spurs him into self-defensive action. This is to say, while Bouchard intentionally preys upon his loneliness, it is only in isolation that Scully realizes how much he has lost control of his own narrative, before he brings about the film’s conclusion by finally acting up.

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So, Body Double is a stimulating spectacle of loneliness, isolation and spatial anxiety — so what? Watching this film for the first time in early April, as part of my personal time-passing project to watch every De Palma film in order, I was struck by how incisively its narrative captured the feelings of underlying dread that the concepts of social distancing and indefinite periods of isolation provoke. Whether this worldwide game of musical chairs left you fortunate enough to have a comfortable seat, or in a difficult situation to bear for so long, the overarching pattern of individuals being forced to confront and process their isolated individuality can easily become a terrifying one. In these sequestered situations, one is presented with the time and the pressure to ponder who they really are, what they really believe, where they really are in their life, who they can truly consider their friends, and so on. I will save my more passionate thoughts regarding the worldwide protests that have evolved out of various pressing situations for a different forum, but suffice it to say, the situation we are now experiencing is itself a byproduct of the pressures to answer these same personal and existential questions. It appears, to me anyway, that the most palpable and justified rage, anxiety, and passion, all over the world, has come from those who did not like their answers.

By framing social isolation as itself a tool capable of extreme manipulation as well as the liberation of a lonely mind, De Palma not only crafts an invigorating and inviting thriller, but offers a distillation of the parallels between personal anxiety and urban unrest within a film now evidently ahead of its time. I would recommend Body Double to all fans of Hitchcock who could use a little more rampant sexuality, and as well to those who crave a thrilling, meticulous adventure through the deepest anxieties of big-city life and modern society. Whether this terrifies, excites, or intrigues you, we should appreciate Body Double for more than its Hitchcockian influences, or even its signature De Palma flourishes, but for its crafty emotional complexities as well.

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