The Cathode Ray Mission: Body Double and Girls on Film

Jake Dihel
14 min readAug 17, 2021


Spoilers for Body Double

Brian De Palma is a prior interest of this blog, and is an ongoing interest of myself personally. One of, if not the most polarizing auteur in American film history, his films have rarely found the kind of mainstream critical success of some of his New Hollywood contemporaries, criticized as being stupid, misogynistic, excessive, and irresponsible, and have often been the subjects of outright controversies over their frequently violent and sexual content. Whether these criticisms are valid or not is part of a conversation of taste, and De Palma made the decision early in his career to actively reject the notions of good taste that Hollywood had traded in, opting to revel in the lowest genres, the “body genres” as Linda Williams describes them, horror and pornography specifically. What distinguishes De Palma from any other director making a living shooting cheap slashers and pornos is not only his obviously advanced skill (De Palma is in no small way one of the most talented directors to ever live), but his integration of classic and contemporary Hollywood modes into the lowbrow content. This is most obvious in his numerous riffs on Hitchcock, the ultimate symbol of classical Hollywood craft: when watching Dressed to Kill or Obsession, the films of Psycho and Vertigo are evoked very explicitly, but they’re so vulgar, both in form and content, that the pleasure attained from the older works is impossible to reattain, because the sources of that pleasure are made bare; what pleasure is attained is compromised as a result, a pleasure that is knowingly complicit in the onscreen exploitation of women. Put another way, De Palma’s films are Hollywood films stripped of all pretension, the quiet part made loud, and as such constitute an ongoing dialectic on Hollywood and on filmmaking as a whole. Nowhere is this more fully realized than in 1984’s Body Double.

Immediately following his biggest success yet, Scarface, Body Double feels more like a passion project, an expression of De Palma’s cynicism towards the toxicity of the industry he worked in. Body Double progresses much like a combination of two of Hitchcock’s most self-reflexive works, Rear Window (written about here) and Vertigo. De Palma’s film follows a struggling actor, Jake Scully (played by relative no-name Craig Wasson in what is another layer of metatextuality) as he falls into a web of intrigue after taking on a housesitting gig during which he witnesses the murder of a female neighbor that he had been spying on. The plot itself, like many in the spirit of classic film noir and Vertigo itself, is convoluted, weaving its way through Hollywood and eventually the pornography business, replete with all sorts of plot twists, doubling, stalking, performing, and the occasional ultraviolence. Much like Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie in Vertigo, Scully overcomes his idiosyncratic fear (claustrophobia here instead of vertigo) by film’s end, but unlike Scottie he manages to save the day in the process, though in spite of this Body Double is a deeply cynical and bitter film, the “happy ending” being far more ambivalent than it might appear.

Body Double is structured fairly cleanly into discreet halves. The first half is where its reputation as a Hitchcock rip-off comes from, as the first hour is a fairly shameless retread of first Rear Window, then Vertigo. Scully is introduced by the former housesitter Sam Bouchard (Gregg Henry) to the act of spying on a neighbor woman, showing Scully the telescope and talking about the woman’s nightly routine of dancing topless in front of the window and masturbating on the bed (a less inhibited incarnation of Rear Window’s Miss Torso; the woman we learn is actually being watched is even named Holly Body, if the allusions weren’t clear enough). Scully is perfectly primed in this moment to become the sexual voyeur that Bouchard wants him to be, and that De Palma wants the audience to be, and he follows through without hesitation, watching this anonymous woman from a vast distance away. For as much as De Palma does indulge in Scully’s voyeurism, he is also deeply critical of it; during the moments of his peeping, his perspective is not uninterrupted, De Palma frequently cuts to a reverse shot of Scully looking through the telescope, the watcher briefly becoming the watched. This cutting creates a disassociation between audience and character perspective, rendering Scully’s act far less titillating and more violating. This is articulated more explicitly during a later scene of Scully peeping on the woman — rather than just him watching the woman, he becomes aware of a third presence, a handyman working on a satellite dish outside of her window, and when he turns his view towards this third presence he can see that the handyman is watching her as well. The action he has been taking, of watching this woman without her knowledge, has been abstracted onto a different subject, allowing Scully to now view himself objectively, and his reaction is revealing — he is visibly disturbed. He cannot get off on spying on this woman knowing what he looks like doing it, the fantasy has been interrupted, and he steps away from the telescope. This is all, of course, easily mapped onto any form of spectatorship, not just the nakedly lecherous kind that Scully is indulging in. In these moments Scully is an audience analog, but unlike Hitchcock, De Palma is not interested in purely displaying the logic of spectatorship but instead in interrogating the spectatorial impulse and its subject-object dynamics.

Rear Window gives way to Vertigo when Scully starts following the woman, who he learns is named Gloria Revelle (Deborah Shelton). In a way, we see in this first half the entire progression of Hitchock’s theorization of spectatorship: Rear Window inventing a fantasy from a safe distance, Vertigo closing the distance to try and turn fantasy into reality, and Psycho violently terminating the fantasy once it has failed to materialize. Scully justifies his stalking by believing that Gloria is in danger, but De Palma doesn’t let him off the hook. During the extended scene at the shopping mall, Scully is frequently framed from a distance, following Gloria around, sneaking around corners, watching her change — he is not heroic or romantic or sympathetic in any way in these moments, he is a creep that is trying to follow through on the ideas in his head. At this last point, De Palma makes an important gesture: Scully changes his position while he watches Gloria through the store window, and his perspective slightly shifts as a result, which reveals the presence of the dangerous stalker doing the exact same thing as Scully. The two characters are mirrored both visually and in their actions, and whatever justifications Scully gives himself, however valid they may be, are shown to not have any material differences from a more sinisterly intentioned actor. Of course, this scene ends with Scully lifting a pair of Gloria’s underwear out of the trash, something he cannot possibly justify to himself when the police question him about it, and revealing the lecherous impulses that his supposed heroics try to cover up.

The resolution to this part of the story is familiar: Scully gets too involved in his own fantasy and fails to save Gloria, who is killed by the other stalker (in one of the most gruesome deaths in a De Palma film and with some extreme phallic imagery, she is gored by a power drill). It’s at this point that De Palma stops playing Hitchock’s game and starts furthering his own ideas, as Scully falls into the world of pornography and the orbit of pornstar Holly Body (Melanie Griffith) in his mission to learn who killed Gloria. It’s through this second half that the rhetoric of the film becomes Brechtian, almost Godardian, in its reflexivity; rather than Hitchock’s abstraction of film production and spectatorship, De Palma goes literal, filling the film with cameras, actors, producers, and televisions, with the highlight moment being the actual porn shoot that Scully and Holly take part in.

This is the moneyshot

Scully sees a clip of Holly’s new smash hit porno, and develops a hunch that she was actually the woman he was watching at night, not Gloria Revelle; to determine whether he’s correct or not, he lands a role in a porno film alongside Holly. What follows is pure, 1980’s MTV excess and sleaze: set to “Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Scully makes his way through a sex club, soaking in all the light S&M, leather, and horniness drenching the set before being led to a back room helpfully labelled “Sluts”. He stands back there, dressed nebbishly in glasses, sweater, and khakis, and spots Holly through a doorway. He peeks his head in as she dances in the mirror, and lets her know, “I like to watch.” She invites him in, and they start making out and fucking as the camera circles around them, intercut with flashbacks to his 360-degree kiss with Gloria Revelle that nearly ended in them fucking, both of which being direct references to Vertigo’s famous 360-degree kiss after Scottie has successfully turned Judy into Madeline, turning his fantasy into reality. These three shots constitute a progression that De Palma is clearly aware of, first the heavily romanticized fantasy of Scottie in Vertigo, then the more explicitly eroticized, nearly-coital fantasy of Scully and Gloria, and finally the fully erotic performance of Scully and Holly. It’s a progression that reflects changing productive possibilities, from the erotically stunted limitations of classic Hollywood censorship to the more relatively uninhibited Hollywood of the 1980s, but more than that it functions dialectically, laying bare the reality of cinema’s spectatorial appeal: everything we see onscreen is an abstraction of sex and death. The abstractions themselves are designed to obscure this fact, and their success translates to differing values of taste, which is why pornography is at the lowest rung on the taste ladder, followed closely by horror — they are the most honest about our desires, they show us people fucking and people dying, and its why Hitchcock is in good taste and De Palma is not. In “Her Body, Himself” Carol Clover uses Body Double to illustrate this, pointing out that Scully’s personal character arc is basically a classic Hero’s Journey through the different levels of legitimate art, starting out as a horror actor before descending into the world of porn before returning successfully to horror with higher aspirations to follow, like Shakespeare (2-3). But what’s important to recognize, and De Palma clearly does, is that the core that these levels are layered on top of is the cinematic representation of women.

In her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema”, which I’ve referenced here before, Laura Mulvey uses Vertigo as her point of reference to develop her theory on film spectatorship and the male gaze, outlining the simultaneously fetishistic and identificatory qualities of spectatorship — the viewer distances themselves from the object of the look to erotic ends, but also narcissistically recognizes themselves in the object as though the screen were a mirror. As a result of society’s patriarchal and heterosexual orientation, the cinematic object is primarily women, defined by her “to-be-looked-at-ness” in Mulvey’s terms, she is constituted as visual spectacle, as opposed to the male subject’s active cinematic role; the camera looks with the male at the female. Hitchcock understood this dynamic well, it’s why Vertigo is one of the greatest films ever, but De Palma might understand it even better. We’ve already seen how he compromises the male gaze’s unspoken dominance by throwing it into a moral quagmire, where the act of looking is itself a violation, but in the shot included above where Scully watches Holly during the porno shoot, De Palma troubles the dynamics of spectatorship even further. Within this one shot, we see first: the male gaze in action, as Scully watches Holly, an object made explicitly eroticized, and she sees her literal mirror image, both the scopophilic and the narcissistic qualities of spectatorship on display. The camera, however, does not abide by the normal rules, as instead of sharing Scully’s perspective it is positioned at an objective point, where we can see the second step De Palma is making, which is literally seeing the male gaze in action, not just taking part in it but observing it just as Scully did earlier in the film with the handyman. We see the subject-object relationship formed directly in front of us in very plain terms, the woman is displayed prominently for the pleasure of the male viewer, but De Palma takes this a step even further by revealing the cinematic apparatus that creates this dynamic — as Scully enters the room, the door swings open and closed, and in the reflection of the door’s mirror we see the film camera looking back at itself. It’s a radical move, implicating both the nature of production and the viewer’s own spectatorship in the construction of these male and female roles; just as Scully sees himself reflected back at him in the handyman and the stalker earlier, we see ourselves reflected back at us in the image of Scully and in the mirror image of the camera.

While perhaps it never reaches this high point of self-criticism again, the second half of Body Double sustains an immense degree of reflexivity and awareness of itself as both a cinematic and Hollywood product. Almost every component of the film can be viewed as a criticism of Hollywood, from the obvious parallels between the porn industry and the “legitimate” film industry to Bouchard’s murderous Native American disguise, an evocation of Hollywood’s first bogeyman. But where it really ends up punctuating its point is in the film’s final moments: Scully ends up uncovering Bouchard’s complicated plan to murder Gloria, and ends up overcoming his claustrophobia to save Holly from being killed as well — classic Hollywood arc. Where it grows complicated is in Holly’s reaction to Scully’s heroics. Rather than a more typical feeling of gratitude and relief, she continues to view him with skepticism, even claiming that he’s a necrophiliac and that he’s going to get off on her dead body. Violence has been less foregrounded in the film before now (outside of Gloria’s murder), or to be more accurate the violence of the film has been less literal, but in this final exchange an important element is articulated, which is the confluence of sex and death that defines women onscreen. If women exist in pornography to be fucked, then they exist in horror to be killed, and the latter is often a sublimation of the former; even the death of Gloria makes use of phallic objects and sexualized framing to link the two. The pleasure of horror and death may not be literally necrophilic in nature but it is often a substitute, a thin layer of abstraction as we move up the ladder of taste (two quotes by horror directors to drive the point: Dario Argento, “I like women, especially beautiful ones. If they have a good face and figure, I would much prefer to watch them being murdered than an ugly girl or man.” And Hitchcock, “Blondes make the best victims. They’re like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints.”)

And where this leaves us at is a display of all these ideas in what is perhaps the most important end credits scene in history. We return at the end of the film back where we started, Scully has toppled his claustrophobia and is back to playing the vampire in a cheap horror B-movie. We watch a generic scene being filmed in which vampire-Scully shares a shower with a young woman who is unaware of his malicious intent as he is about to bite her neck. The director pauses filming to swap out the actress for a body double to film the nude part of the scene, and it’s generally funny, showing the complicated and somewhat ridiculous process involved in any sort of film production, but the end product is an image that summarizes the reflexive criticism De Palma has been developing throughout the film: a close-up of a naked woman’s breasts being groped by a man as blood runs down her body. It cuts right to the chase, almost a direct claim from De Palma, that this is what the movies are, that this is what Hollywood wants but isn’t honest enough to admit. What’s important here also is the interchangeability of women onscreen; Holly played Gloria earlier without a hitch, just as this body double stands in for this other actress, and nobody will know the difference (Holly even jokes with the actress during the swap: “You’re gonna get a lot of dates when this comes out.”). What matters in this business is not who the woman is, but the image of the woman’s body, as replaceable as it needs to be, which is something De Palma even touched on earlier in Blow Out (“I didn’t hire her for her scream, Jack, I hired her for her tits!”). It’s a lighthearted note the movie ends on, but it speaks to a far darker nature of Hollywood filmmaking, something that Body Double has been deconstructing the entire time, from its interrogation of the male gaze and the classical style to the pornographic underbelly of Hollywood to the literal representations of women onscreen.

There is I think a counterargument to make against this film and against De Palma in general, which is that for how subversive and critical it is towards the Hollywood mode and the exploitation of women, it is still taking part in that system which it criticizes. De Palma is incredibly critical of the norms of Hollywood filmmaking, but his works are by no means feminist; he is the premier peddler of sleaze in American film history, and that reputation doesn’t spring from nowhere: he often indulges in gratuitously violent and sexualized depictions of women in his films. And likewise, most of his career has taken place within the Hollywood system that he clearly hates so much, directing mainstream hits like Carrie, Scarface, The Untouchables, and Mission Impossible. So the issue becomes the incoherence between De Palma’s subversive goals and the material reality of his career, and I don’t know that you can square the two but that’s also what makes him a compelling artist. His career is contradictory and the criticism that he wants to have his cake and eat it too is valid in some cases, but for Body Double I think it’s important to the goals of the film that it be as indulgent as it is, and made by who it was at the point of his career that it was. Once again I’ll cop to what may very well be happening, which is I’m making excuses for one of my favorite directors, something I most certainly did when I wrote about Dressed to Kill that is obvious in hindsight but wasn’t at the time, but I do really think the aims of Body Double are much more important and De Palma’s excesses are more necessary in furthering those aims. The entire film is a demystification of Hollywood specifically and cinema in general, and hiding critiques behind layers of abstraction as in classic Hollywood, or delivering them through layers of discourse as in Godard’s political work, would be obfuscating the point. The point in question being how men onscreen look at women, and how we look at women onscreen; it’s a purely cinematic question, and it can only be actively discussed in cinematic terms. Body Double then is something unique in the history of Hollywood: it is its own double, both film and film criticism, homage and original, high art and lowbrow sleaze — thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.



Jake Dihel

recreationally writing about movies and other media