[The ‘screenplay’ excerpts contained herein are entirely 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; that is to say, 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 Hitchcock’s 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 Body Double’s bravura command of style or its woozy, surrealistic ambience (if ever you want to see De Palma at his most, well, De Palma, this should be your go-to), but one portion in particular—arriving at roughly 32:40—stands out as its set-pièce de resistance.
EXT. SHOPPING MALL – PARKING LOT – DAY
A chic, brown-haired WOMAN in sunglasses––mid-thirties, dressed all in white––climbs out of her vehicle and hands the keys to a valet, then strides purposefully across the lot to one of its public telephones. As she lifts the receiver to make a call, a MAN––floppy-haired, unassuming, clad in brown––appears beside her at an adjacent payphone: he, too, lifts the receiver, but has no intention of placing a call. His only concern is the hushed conversation taking place over his shoulder.
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.
INT. SHOPPING MALL – DAY
Once inside, she boards an ESCALATOR and is swept up through the bowels of the labyrinthine building, blissfully unaware (one assumes) of the inquisitive Scully close by. Next, a STRANGER––tall, disgruntled, in dark hat and shades––appears behind them on the escalator: we’ve seen him somewhere before! The clandestine two-way just became a curious menage-au-trois. They reach the upper level; Scully continues his pursuit of the siren in white, as the peculiar stranger wanders out of shot.
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 whilst his enigmatic target stares longingly through a succession of store windows; at one stage going so far as to faintly caress the glass, as though it were an illicit love. With Scully’s intentions not totally 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 sanctuary blessed with bountiful bystanders and the wistful, romantic energy of Pino Donaggio’s score?
By deploying an ingenious manipulation of space, mood, and viewer accountability, De Palma now craftily increases the ante, forcing us to watch—from Scully’s POV—as the unnamed brunette stops at a lingerie boutique, goes in, picks up a skimpy pair of 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 ridiculously intrusive façade, his comportment 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 exaggerated, carnal ostentatiousness of De Palma’s 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 female store clerk spots the sheepish, loitering Scully; she alerts mall security, and a guard springs vigilantly to attention.
By bringing this fast-growing assortment of characters into play, De Palma may very well be questioning—if not judging—us viewers about our part in all this. With whom do we identify? The stalker, or the stalked? Tattletale, or authoritarian? An interesting moral plight, though we barely have time to contemplate it, with the camera now panning to reveal the suspicious other stalker: that threatening third wheel, last seen riding 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? Next, the security officer catches up to Scully and, for a fleeting, magical moment, all five subjects—cat, mouse, clerk, guard, stranger—are captured in frame: an involuntary quintet conjoined by sheets of reflective glass, ravishing photography (from the assured hands of Stephen H. Burum), and the uncomfortable fact that none of them has any real awareness of what the other is doing—or, indeed, their motivation for doing it.
That the action builds to a crescendo so preposterously unexpected—shifting from the sterile confines 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?