October 29, 1984 12:00 PM

A witty, suspenseful, dazzlingly erotic intrigue, this is 1984’s hellzapoppin’ top thriller, and it restores director Brian De Palma as rightful heir to the Hitchcock throne after last year’s backslide with his overdone Scarface. Body Double is a variation on two Hitchcock masterpieces, Vertigo and Rear Window. The central character, played with shambling grace by Craig (Four Friends) Wasson, is an L.A. actor getting by on TV work and cheap vampire movies. Just as Jimmy Stewart suffered from fear of heights in Vertigo, Wasson is claustrophobic. The villain uses that fear to make Wasson an accomplice to a gruesome murder. Wasson is housesitting at a high-tech aerie that commands a great view of the Hollywood Hills and the window of a rich housewife. Like Stewart in Rear Window, Wasson can’t help watching. He becomes obsessed with this sleek brunette, played by the gorgeous Deborah (Dallas) Shelton. But his voyeuristic passion turns to fear when he spots an Indian on a nearby tower spying too. In a stunning and seductive De Palma set piece, without sound except for Pino Donaggio’s evocative music, Wasson follows the woman from a shopping mall to a beachfront motel where he must confront his lust and his conscience. De Palma’s all-seeing camera makes most other movies today look like the sloppy TV products they are. It would be a disservice to give away more of the plot, except to mention Melanie (Night Moves) Griffith, who gives a star-is-born performance as a porn star. Along with unraveling the mystery, De Palma also exposes the underlying issue of porn and violence. Feminists are likely to be on De Palma’s case about a scene in Body Double in which Shelton is assaulted by a man wielding a drill. De Palma films the incident (the man holds the drill between his legs) as if to incite such criticism. But the scene is done by indirection and De Palma doesn’t linger on it. Neither does he dehumanize his female characters: The women are so strong we want to know them better. The acting, including that of Guy (Streamers) Boyd’s hardnosed cop, is especially forceful. But the film belongs to De Palma, who brings to it all the richness of his craft as a master of mayhem without sparing intelligence. Body Double ranks with Dressed to Kill and Carrie as his best work. (R)

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