One can draw a direct line from any body double or doppelganger film set after 1958 to Vertigo. “Only one is a wanderer, two together are always going somewhere,” Kim Novak tells James Stewartearly on in the film — a sentiment that could be true of movies, in general. Two people at the head of a story can call for excitement, even more so if there are two of the same person. What Heat is to heist pictures, Vertigo is to body double ones.
It’s not like there weren’t these kinds of films before Alfred Hitchock unleashed Vertigo into the stratosphere, just as there were clearly heist films that preceded Heat. Yet, Vertigo sort of became a benchmark for successors intrigued by the film’s themes. It’s influence was (and still is) unavoidable in a way where filmmakers can’t help but make a film without at least referring back to it in some way or another. For good reason, Vertigo lives on in the subconscious of many a filmmaker and what makes it so affecting is re-watchability. The viewer, essentially, becomes just as obsessed with solving the mystery as the film’s leading man: the fragile, Scottie.
After witnessing the death of a fellow policeman on a rooftop in the film’s opening scene, Scottie is forced into early retirement as he develops a fear of heights, which causes him vertigo. This doesn’t keep him out of work for long, however, as he’s asked by his old college buddy, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to follow Elster’s wife, Madeleine around for a few days; explaining that she’s been acting quite strange, that maybe something’s up. Scottie begins following the dashing blonde Madeleine around, and in tailing her begins to fall for her before she falls to her death…or so he thinks.
The rest of the film is a masterful examination of a twice-traumatized individual longing for his lost love. Scottie wants what he can’t have, so he follows around a brunette named Judy Barton, who oddly resembles Madeleine in everything but her hair. Guilt, obsession, desire, and loneliness are the ideas that dominate Vertigo, and are perhaps, the same qualities that helped the film de-throne Citizen Kane as Sight & Sound’s #1 film of all-time, starting in 2012.
Falling madly in love with someone, so much so that you believe that they’re not dead, has been explored with success and sometimes not throughout film history. Much of this content has come within the body double genre, as this neatly lends itself to genre-hopping, fusing, and repackaging. In the post-Vertigo era, there has been no shortage of body double spectacles and it’s interesting to note how the genre has evolved over time. The following list is by no means exclusive but it includes some worthy legends of cinema as well as thriving foreigners new to the game.
Dead Ringers (1988), dir. David Cronenberg
As budgets skyrocketed and action movies became the soup du jour of the 1980s, a disruptive genius (David Cronenberg) from north of the border was still churning out high quality psychological thrillers. At worst, Dead Ringers–a film where Elliot and Beverly Mantle (both played by Jeremy Irons) are twin gynecologists with an appetite for treating abnormalities and infertility problems — features one of the best needle drops/musical numbers in body double movie history. At best, it’s one of the best performances given in a Cronenberg picture.
The scene starts out with Beverly laying on the couch in a fetal position, as “In the Still of the Night” by The Satins begins playing and Elliot enters the frame, slow-dancing with a beautiful brunette. Beverly eventually succumbs and the dance becomes a sexually charged triptych, evoking Y Tu Mama Tambien vibes only these two men are related and almost seem more interested in feeling each other than the woman stuck between them. The song feels like one more commonly heard in a Scorsese picture but it works here.
The body double theme here is quite literal and there is literally mystery that these two doctors are twins. The mystery comes as a result of Claire (Genevieve Bujold) caught in the love triangle between the two brothers. The problem is that she can’t tell which brother is which until their polarizing personality traits–that of Elliot being a prick and Beverly being a sweetheart– create tension and manipulate Claire into some unappealing waters. Cronenberg, as he’s so proficient at doing, adds a body horror element to this picture and confronts the ideas behind genealogy and bloodlines. How do we cope, function, and relate to the ones inextricably, or are related to, and how does that affect the lovers and people around us.
Lost Highway (1997) dir. David Lynch
It’s hard to “know” what exactly happens in a David Lynch film. His filmography can turn off critics and viewers alike by their confusing, often inaccessible nature. If you don’t try and search for all the answer, however, watching his work, and especially Lost Highway, can be one of the more satisfying experiences. Before stalkers sent VHS tapes of their own house being spied on to Juliette Binoche and her husband’s house in Cache, Fred (Bill Pullman) and Renee (Patricia Arquette) were the ones receiving them. Only this time the tapes entered the bedroom, somehow.
Fred’s a saxophonist who then gets sentenced to death row for murder but after a night of sleep, a middle-aged man suddenly turns into a twentysomething with a burning headache named Pete (Balthazar Getty). He’s released from the prison cell, given his newfound identity, is followed by a pair of detectives and he begins working at an autoshop. Everyone seems to know him, and that he works there, and most importantly, he recognizes Alice (Patricia Arquette), only this time she’s blonde and not brunette like the identical looking woman that Fred was married to and got sentenced for killing.
This magic moment, as the Lou Reed song plays on with Alice entering her car in slo-mo, and this film, feels like the work of magic, of reincarnation and rebirth; of second chances for both Fred and Renee. David Lynch and co-writer Barry Gifford pull a reverse Vertigo by making the Kim Novak character here, played by Arquette, start out brunette and go blonde. Stopping and starting a character’s arc, dropping in these cryptic, nefarious characters (like one played by William Blake) in, and infusing a neo-noir sensibility certainly makes this a cryptic, yet inviting delight. Pete’s obsession and affair with Renee leads him further down an underworld he’s better left out of and leads the viewer to a guessing game worth analyzing and discussing long after the closing credits roll.
Femme Fatale (2002) dir Brian De Palma
It’s no surprise that Hitchock’s greatest admirer, Brian De Palma, has made not one but two (Body Double) riffs on Vertigo in his immaculate, Oscar-less career. Everyone’s got a favorite De Palma and this one’s mine. Underrated would be one way to describe this cleverly directed heist-meets-body-double spectacle.
Laure Ash (Rebecca Romijn) plays lead star and someone who double crosses her team of diamond robbers mid-Cannes Film Festival. As in, she makes love to a woman named Veronica in the bathroom and manages to strip said woman of all memorabilia for millions in value, presumably. It’s one of the all-time great opening set pieces ever and De Palma’s cross-cutting and mapping of the whole scene, which stretches across several locations within this Cannes movie theater showing. Laure appears in Paris and gets mistaken for Lily, a woman who looks identical to Laure who recently went missing. Laure switches identities with Lily and then Nicolas Bardo (Antonio Banderas) with his camera and flamboyant imitations spots her and chaos ensues.
By casting the ravishing blonde Romijn, he toys with the audience just as assertively as Romijn does with the men in the film. Some who lust, others who love, and those who want to kill her. The body double themes shine through the idea of second chances and mistaken identities in this film and Romijn uses her sexuality to manipulate and dictate the outcome of her story, her clandestine operation based on her terms. De Palma here, as he so often does, goes for big set pieces and incomparable camera gyrations. Instead of the moody, methodical nature of so many body double pictures, De Palma seeks to entertain on a grander scale and then whips out a doppelgänger narrative just for good measure.
Enemy (2013) dir. Denis Villeneuve
Pound for pound, Enemy is the best Denis Villeneuve movie. It’s very much of the A24 tonally hipster world and yet it’s also detached and very Villeneuve. The French-Canadian director’s career is marked by some high concept, big-budget spectacles that guarantee a certain production quality akin to contemporary Christopher Nolan. What makes Enemy notable is the fact that the body double is a male character.
Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) plays a history professor living in an unfurnished, dour apartment in downtown Toronto, where high-rise construction is pervasive and cranes take the look of the giant spiders (yes, spiders) that get showtime later on in the film. One day, a co-worker recommends a film to him where he realizes the bell boy in the film looks exactly like him and it happens to be an actor named Anthony Claire. Bell confronts Claire and both of their world’s become disturbed in a major way.
Enemy serves as a nice companion piece to this year’s Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time, a Hungarian feature where a female doctor recognizes a man who she fell in love with, in America a few months back, but he doesn’t happen to know who she is. The plot revolves around the idea of the woman chasing the man and seeking to uncover whether she’s just going crazy or that is in fact the same person she made love to and agreed to meet in Budapest.
Villeneuve’s strength as a director comes from his ability to create tension, intrigue, and build up. Here, playing with a much smaller budget, the director keenly uses transition shots to go big and weird. “Hegel once said that all the greatest world events happen twice,” Adam exclaims to his somewhat interested history class. In Enemy everything doubles, including the two blonde lovers–Mary (Melanie Laurent), who plays Adam’s hookup buddy and Helen (Sarah Gadon), who plays Anthony’s pregnant wife.
Spiders that appear and reappear, pregnant women, cityscape shots, and so forth — the story is playing with something much bigger than just body doubles and coincidences and sexual desire. It has those components but it might be stealing something from the great beyond, a la Amy Adams in Arrival — though even that is up for interpretation. Casting Isabella Rossellini as Adam’s mother, as seemingly the most normal person in the film, is a nice cap tip to David Lynch’s body double work. Getting a tight 90 minute Villeneuve feature as cryptic and rewatchable as this may never happen again.
Phoenix (2014) dir. Christian Petzold
German-born Christian Petzold might be the second biggest Hitchcock admirer in all of cinema history. Arguably, each of his features has Vertigo vibes in some way or another. Yet, none do it as effectively and with as much panache as Phoenix. Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) plays a Holocaust survivor who once worked as a cabaret singer. After escaping terror and getting reconstruction surgery done to her face, she returns to Berlin, only to find out that the surgeon can’t quite make her face look the way that it used to. Despite warning signs that her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) was the one that gave her up to the Nazis, Nelly goes searching for him and finds him working at the Phoenix nightclub in Berlin.
Johnny wants his missing wife’s inheritance and thinks Nelly looks a lot like her, so she agrees to live with him and this is where the film begins. Petzold’s recreation of 1930s Berlin is nothing short of haunting and decrepit, in the same way as his lead heroine who holds the film in her grasp and never lets go. Watching the story unfold just to see whether Johnny recognizes that Nelly is the woman who was his ex-wife makes the watch entirely worth it. Much in the same way as Femme Fatale, Phoenix plays with the notion of mistaken identities and second chances. Not to mention how from Nelly’s perspective, it can be used as revenge towards Johnny, if in fact he did turn her in. It’s a period piece and a wartime movie without any soldiers dying or bullets flying. That, in and of itself, feels like a singular achievement.
The body double movie, as one can see, holds no boundaries. It crosses between genres and languages, over oceans, among new construction, and urban terrain. In higher density areas, the genre seems to do most of its damage, with characters disappearing into a swathe of strangers or behind a series of cars. How this current generation, and the ones that follow it, embrace this immortal trope is an exciting process to follow.
With recent works, like Enemy and Preparations to be Together for Unknown Period of Time, it has become a woman following a man’s game. The tables have been turned, been subverted, and finagled with. As more female filmmakers emerge, like Lili Horvat, the gender gaze will flip and have a newfangled point of view. As more Black voices, like Jordan Peele, keep getting projects greenlit then race and identity will further enter into the conversation. Yet the subtext will always include head nods, winks, allusions that will forever be indebted to the De Palmas, Lynchs, and Hitchcocks that came before and paved the way for this specific type of mystifying and remarkably satisfying genre.
The ambiguity and unanswered questions that so often litter these plotlines are exactly what make these films so infinitely rewatchable. Why things happen or what things mean are often up for interpretation, and like the characters themselves, everything comes in, at least, twos. It’s a whole lot more satisfying as a result.