Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With Ben Wheatley’s take on Rebecca in theaters and en route to Netflix, we’re singling out other Hitchcockian thrillers—ones that explicitly recall the master of suspense.
In his 1970s and early ’80s prime, Brian De Palma often made thrillers that were inspired by Alfred Hitchcock. Take, for example, Dressed To Kill, which is nothing more than an updated retelling of Psycho, with a cross-dressing killer that dispatches the ostensible heroine in the first half. But the Hitchcock comparisons—along with criticism he received for how he characterized LGBTQ people and sexually liberated women in Dressed—must’ve started to get on De Palma’s nerves. Double is basically his balls-to-the-wall response, a movie that’s not only blatantly Hitchcockian but also blatantly De Palma.
After years of setting most of his films on the dangerous, debaucherous streets of New York, De Palma went Hollywood for Double. The movie follows Jake (Craig Wasson), a down-on-his-luck actor who witnesses the murder of a mysterious woman (Deborah Shelton) he’s been peeping on from the swanky home where he’s staying. De Palma obviously bites from Rear Window and Vertigo here, finding an acceptable Jimmy Stewart stand-in with Wasson. (He even sounds like the star.) But if Dressed was a Hitchcock tribute many mistook for a soulless ripoff, Double is De Palma purposely giving his detractors a soulless ripoff. He amps up the sex and the sleaze in the second half when Jake, who predictably goes into amateur-sleuth mode, infiltrates the hardcore porn world and gets cast in some sort of glossy kinkfest—complete with Frankie Goes To Hollywood performing its signature tune, “Relax”—opposite porn queen Holly Body (Melanie Griffith, a.k.a. daughter of The Birds star Tippi Hedren).
Double has to be the most I’m-doing-this-for-shits-and-giggles movie De Palma ever directed. (His little-seen Home Movies, which he made with his Sarah Lawrence College film class, comes a close second.) It’s surprising how many people took this trolling so seriously. The movie was a flop at the box office and mostly trashed in the press, though a few critics got the joke. (Vincent Canby called it “[De Palma’s] most blatant variation to date on a Hitchcock film,” while Paul Attanasio said it is “carefully calculated to offend almost everyone”). Audiences hated it, too: In a 2002 salute to De Palma in Vanity Fair, critic James Wolcott recalled the “catastrophic public screening” of Double he attended “where the audience hissed the notorious low-angle shot of a power drill pointed at a supine woman’s body like a steel penis.”
Right from the jump, De Palma revels in Double’s Hollywood artifice. Every time we see Jake at a studio, fake backdrops and boulders are being wheeled away. But the fakery doesn’t stop when he leaves the lot. It extends to scenes of Jake driving his drop-top convertible around town, for which De Palma deploys an old-fashioned rear-projection shot. Without question, the movie’s most over-the-top moment, when Wasson and Shelton share a passionate kiss on the beach, is also its most deliberately inauthentic. It’s obviously meant to resemble the revolving make-out session between Stewart and Kim Novak in Vertigo. But De Palma goes way the hell out for his version, cutting abruptly from footage of the actors smooching outdoors to them clearly on a soundstage, on some revolving platform, against a projected backdrop of a beach, just ravaging each other as the camera does multiple, accelerated swirls around them.
By the end, De Palma has given both his fans and his haters what they crave. He ends his movie with a sequence in which a De Palma-like director (played by Dennis Franz, a one-time De Palma regular) shoots Jake, playing a vampire, biting a naked girl in the shower. A gum-smacking body double steps in for the actress, cementing the whole scene as a nod to Angie Dickinson’s shower scene in Dressed, where she used a double. Even after all these years, Body Double is still tawdry, twisted, and smart-assed, right down to the final frame.