[The screenplay excerpts contained herein are my own creation; it was not my intent to imitate the work of Brian De Palma/Robert J. Avrech—I have not read their script for Body Double.]A
great set piece is to the suspense film what fresh air is to oxygen: imperative. More so than story, dialogue, or performance, it is the clocklike complexities of these slick, self-contained sequences that help turn an ordinary thriller into an outstanding one. “There is no terror in the bang”, explained Hitchcock, “only in the anticipation of it”. If any other filmmaker has lived by these words, it’s Brian De Palma.
Allegations of sadomasochism, misogyny, racism, and homo/transphobia have long plagued the director’s catalogue, though I would challenge even the cruellest of his critics to find fault with De Palma the technician, his prosperous golden period—the 1970s through ’80s—being perhaps the most explicit demonstration of his prowess. This remarkable lineup of features (Sisters, Obsession, Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Scarface, and so on) afforded De Palma the freedom to fine-tune his signature grasp of audiovisual guile, punctuating his tales—through an immaculate triad of music, editing, and mise-en-scène—with rhapsodic bursts of breathtakingly orchestrated action.
Hot on the trail of those beauts was 1983’s Body Double, a cheeky, painstakingly meta love poem—or poison pen, depending on your perspective—to Vertigo (1958; go ahead, add plagiarism to that previous list of crimes), the scuzzy nature of voyeurism, and the vacuous artifice of the ‘Hollywood dream’. I could prattle at length about the picture’s bravura command of style or its woozy, surrealistic ambience (if ever you want to see De Palma at his most, well, De Palma, you’ve hit the jackpot here), but there’s one portion in particular—arriving at roughly 32:40—that stands out as its set-pièce de résistance.
The guy is our protagonist, Jake Scully (an impeccably docile Craig Wasson), and he has been observing his wannabe ladyfriend quite regularly of late—first only at night-time, through a telescope pointed directly at her apartment; but now in broad, sweltering Los Angeles daylight, having followed her by car to this location. Finishing her convo, the woman puts down the receiver and makes her way into the mall . . .
It is the way in which we are plunged so complicity into the action during these moments that De Palma conjures a stupefying air of curiosity, the prowling, close-range camerawork planting us tightly into Scully’s battered sneakers while his enigmatic target—gingerly caressing the glass at one point, as though it were a secret lover—gazes longingly through a succession of store windows. With Scully’s intentions not clear to us just yet (he’s a good guy, right?) we are cautiously unperturbed by this tentative game of cat and mouse: how much harm can our budding heroine really come to in the bright fluorescent spaciousness of the plaza, a sheltered sanctuary blessed with multiple bystanders and the wistful, romantic energy of Pino Donaggio’s score?
Deploying an ingenious manipulation of space, mood, and viewer accountability, it is here that a drooling De Palma ups the ante, forcing us to watch—from Scully’s POV—as the anonymous brunette steps into the plush confines of a lingerie store, picks up a pair of lace pants, and makes her way over to a changing cubicle. The curtain is drawn but, conveniently, left ajar just enough for us to witness her slip off her own panties and slide the new ones up to her waist; the puerile Girls’ Locker Room wet dream brought lasciviously to life. Peeping in through the store’s façade (absurd in its invasiveness), his demeanour resembling lustful, transfixed half-guilt, Scully hasn’t taken his eyes off her this whole time—nor, come to think of it, have we.
Were it not for the carnal ostentatiousness of the approach, one might feel more than a little grubby for having been implicated in this perverted act of lechery. Not a second goes by, however (not just here but throughout the entirety of the picture), where we are under the impression that this is anything but a lurid work of fanciful pulp fiction: a movie, ladies and gentlemen. Besides, we are soon snapped back to our senses when a salesgirl catches sight of the loitering Scully; she alerts mall security, and a guard gives chase.
By acquainting us with this fast-evolving cluster of characters, De Palma seems to be questioning—nay, judging—us viewers about our role in all this. With whom do we identify? The stalker, or the stalked? Tattletale, or authoritarian? An interesting moral plight, for sure, though we’ve no time to speculate, the camera now panning to reveal the other stalker: that suspicious third wheel, last seen on the escalator but presently stood leering at Scully from a display window at the opposite periphery of the store. Who, pray tell, is this weirdo after? Our leading dweeb? Our damsel not-quite-yet in distress? Us, the embroiled spectator? The security fella catches up to Scully and, for a fleeting, magical moment, all five subjects—cat, mouse, clerk, guard, stranger—are captured in frame: a fortuitous quintet conjoined by sheets of reflective glass, ravishing photography (from the delicate hands of Stephen H. Burum), and the uncomfortable reality that none of them has any idea what the other is doing—or their motivation for doing it.
That the action builds to a crescendo so outrageously unexpected—shifting from the sterile enclosure of the shopping arcade to a panoramic beachfront—is testament to De Palma’s expertise in recalibrating the mechanisms of genre cinema: first by establishing core dramatic tension, then layering it with thick globs of subtext and technical sparkle, before finally taking the whole shebang to the furthest perimeters of plausibility. It is also the reason that I shan’t scrutinise (or spoil, for those who haven’t had yet had the pleasure) this vast, intoxicating set piece any further. After all, would DP himself not maintain that it’s best to leave the audience wanting more?