* * * Part II
Back in the mid-nineties, the films of Alfred Hitchcock had their own section in video stores, including Blockbuster Video, and Hitchcock even had his own featured display at Universal Studios, along with the famous “Psycho house” set – but the early films of Brian DePalma and pretty much any film by Dario Argento were pretty difficult to come by. I was able to find and rent DePalma's The Fury on VHS from an independent video store close to where I lived in North Vancouver; and after searching around different video stores in Vancouver, Surrey, North Vancouver, and West Vancouver, I finally came upon (in that last city) a videotape copy of Argento's Suspiria and DePalma's Sisters. Rented the former and asked the video clerk if he would be willing to sell me the latter – and he agreed, letting me know that Brian DePalma's 1973 film was not exactly a hot renter. Well, he didn't exactly use those words, but I was thrilled that he was willing to sell me the Warner Brothers VHS tape for ten dollars. Bringing that tape home, it would be the first time I'd see what is DePalma's first foray into the ultra-stylish, erotic, and bloody gory realm of his mystery horror-thrillers – exactly the type of dark, sexy, and violent mystery-thrillers that he would be celebrated for (and become the center of controversy by) in the first half of the 1980s. Sisters would also draw the definitive line where DePalma began experimenting with dual- and alternate-personalities, a subject that would mark (and somewhat define) his later works through Dressed to Kill and Raising Cain. The idea of “doubles” that also comes about in Sisters when we're introduced to Margot Kidder's twin sister, had been toyed with by DePalma previously in his thriller Obsession and of course was taken from Vertigo, the “double” in Hitchcock's film the object of much anguish and obsession to leading man Stewart.
* * *
The “double” in Hitchcock's Vertigo appears after the wife of Stewart's lost friend suddenly commits suicide after leading Stewart, suffering the affliction of the film's title, up the freakishly steep steps of an old cathedral to the top of the interior of a bell tower. Stewart witnesses this suicide, not by sight, but by hearing first Novak's scream and then discovering that she's jumped from the bell tower to her death. DePalma one-ups this witness-to-the-death scenario in his own Body Double (1984) by having his protagonist, played by Craig Wasson, actually see the heroine getting brutally murdered with a constructionist's power drill. In both Vertigo and Body Double this death of the heroine appears at the halfway points through each film. For all intents and purposes, DePalma's Body Double is a remake of Hitchcock's Vertigo.
DePalma cleverly employs the idea of Hollywood's body double – a model who steps into place for a film actress when nude close-ups are required – into the actuality of his thriller-plot for Body Double, a film that DePalm never even had intended to direct in the first place, but yet would mark the cumulative film of his masterwork trilogy (Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Body Double) from 1980 – 1984.
Columbia Pictures, the Hollywood studio responsible for producing Body Double, actually flatly refused to produce the film for DePalma unless he himself directed it. Even the studio know that Body Double would not succeed with the auteur taking a backseat as writer/producer; he needed to helm the project himself. When DePalma finally agreed to direct (dropping an unproduced pet project to do so), Ccolumbia Pictures greenlit the project and filming commenced in Los Angeles in 1984 – amongst much controversy. By 1984, DePalma had already acquired a reputation to rival any of his own fictional split-personality characters – he was revered as an auteur, a maverick, and decried for being nothing more than a Hitchcock rip-off artist, and at worst, a misogynist. Displaying the violent and bloody deaths of attractive women in his films were commonplace. Or the femme fatale might be a deranged maniac herself. But there was always an undeniable beauty in his shots; it always seemed to me that DePalma loved women, and he wanted to celebrate them in the very same manner he strove to celebrate his greatest influence – Hitchcock.
“Culture uses art to dream the deaths of beautiful women” – Elisabeth Bronfen
Everything about Body Double is done in extreme excess, including the nearly endlessly flowing and spinning camerashots used to comprise the often over-complicated sequences (like when Wasson follows the object of his curiosity and desire, Deborah Shelton, through the Escher-like maze of the multi-leveled Beverly Hills mall, utilizing elevators, escalators, and store windows to construct the framework for both the scene and the scene's satirical criticism of the changing times – in Vertigo, James Stewart may have been able to follow Kim Novak around the city without much question from outsiders – in DePalma's version, Wasson is made to feel like, and look like, a leering pervert). Adding to the excess of Body Double is the intricately-shot series of voyeuristic set-pieces, the abundant nudity, the ease with which DePalm shifts his backdrop from the B-movie Hollywood movie industry to the hardcore Los Angeles pornography industry while we, the audience, never blink an eye. And finally, of course, the violent and bloody deaths that occur to propel the mystery plot along. The death of what may have been the leading heroine, Deborah Shelton, as also infused with electrifying suspense and action as Wasson, having witnessing the murder actually occurring, is literally running for her life as he tries to save her – although he must (impossibly) cover the distance between the scene of her murder, in her own house, and the hilltop house he was spying on her from through a long-lensed telescope.
Dispatching with the leading heroine halfway through a film was a plot device that intrigued Alfred Hitchcock – although he employed this device in his masterpiece Vertigo, he would revisit it sooner than later in Psycho, a film based on a book by celebrated horror author Robert Bloch. Of the book, Hitchcock had been known for saying: (The death of the leading lady) was the only interesting thing about the book. You'll notice that this statement wasn't in quotation marks as I'm paraphrasing though keeping within Hitchcock's spirited feelings about the book and its plot. In fact, however, the character of Marion Crane is killed before the end of the third chapter in Bloch's book. It's just that up until then, she had been the main focus, although Norman Bates was actually introduced on page one. But Hitchcock really was a master of cinematic plotting, and his changes to Bloch's novel served the film version of Psycho in unprecedented, iconic ways at that point in film history.
One of the key differences between Hitchcock's Vertigo and DePalma's Body Double is that in Hitchcock's film, after the death of the heroine, James Stewart finds her double purely through coincidence and accident. In DePalma's version, Wasson, still obsessed with Shelton and now spiraling downward with guilt and regret, decided to take matters into his own hands and turn himself into a very convincing amateur detective. In Vertigo we get the idea that James Stewart feels something is not right after seeing Novak's double. The uncertainty simmers under his outward actions in trying to romance this double. In Body Double, Wasson more overtly conveys the fact that he knows something is amiss, albeit after a twist on Vertigo's key scene – where James Stewart runs into the double on the street, in front of a storefront, by accident; Wasson's character sees Shelton's body double – essentially the person he'd actually been tricked into spying on – performing the same open-curtain striptease routine on a trailer ad for a porno film on late-night cable one night while drunk and brooding over the murder of Shelton. Where James Stewart recognizes the face of the double, Wasson recognized the body and sexualized dance of Shelton's double. The body double in DePalma's film is played by Melanie Griffith, daughter of Tippi Hedren, who made had her own cinematic mark by starring in Hitchcock's films The Birds and Marnie.
Craig Wasson begins his amateur detecting by first visiting the porn section of a Hollywood videostore, of course. This is not atypical behavior for DePalma's characters, which I'll get into in a minute. DePalma is clearly all too happy to show us the interior of this videostore location from 1984 – shelves stocked with all manner of videotapes, both VHS and the doomed BETA cassettes, the lavish cover boxes from the movie studios all arranged across meters and meters of shelving units, leading (or guiding) Wasson to the back of the store – in to the depths, where the “Adult” movies are categorized and kept. In 1984, the porn industry was the key pillar to the videotape-rental industry. Even in 1991, a high school friend of mine who worked at the largest Canadian videostore chain, Roger's Video, told me that without the “Adult” section in the rear room of the store, the location she was working at could not survive financially. Blockbuster wanted everyone to believe that the family-aspect of videostore rentals was what was defining the industry. This was an outright lie, it was the porn industry. Blockbuster tried to change the industry by being the only video store/chain that did not house an “Adult” section and had studios create specific non-NC17 version of films for them (both Last Tango in Paris and Showgirls had been re-cut for Blockbuster specifically). But the truth was that porn ruled. In North Vancouver, where I was living at that time, there were two video-rental stores called Red Hot Video that dealt only in “Adult” movies, and that business was thriving. These stores were also the center of their own controversy when a women's group claimed responsibility for bombing these stores in 1984 – the same time DePalma was filming Body Double in California.
(To be continued...)