It hasn't been a good day for Jake Scully (Craig Wasson). He is a Hollywood actor who was filming a vampire movie when his claustrophobia caused him to freeze midway through a scene, so was sent home early to recover. And when he returned to his house, he was dismayed, to put it mildly, to find his wife in bed with another man. Now unable to stay at home, he goes to the nearest bar, even though he was supposed to have given up drinking, and after snapping at the barman he apologises and accepts his offer of somewhere to live temporarily. But he's still looking, so how about a modern apartment in the hills? What could possibly go wrong?
Well, as this is a shameless rip off of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo and Rear Window all mixed up together into a lurid mush, quite a lot could go wrong. This was of course a Brian De Palma thriller, and he continued his efforts to create a kind of American giallo while in other respects paying tribute to his filmmaking hero. Writing the script with Robert J. Avrech he fashioned a story largely preoccupied with fantasies and artificiality, so that by the end he was postiively revelling in the smoke and mirrors that passed for his plot.
Wasson was one of the eighties' least appetising leading men, but here he seems well cast as a loser and borderline bumbler who is believably fooled by the scheming around him. As Jake, his phobia is exploited by De Palma when it suits him, so that every twenty minutes he is dropped into a situation where he is forced into a panic attack, as in the first instance where he goes to an acting class and is made to relive a traumatic childhood experience. One of the people attending this class is fellow thespian Sam (Gregg Henry), who complains about this treatment and escorts Jake out of there.
However, he has a proposal for our hapless hero. Sam has been staying at a rich friend's swanky apartment but is moving out of the city for a while so invites Jake to move in and water the plants while he's away. This is fine by him, and when he reaches the building he is offered a bonus: if he cares to look through the telescope at the city below, there's a certain set of windows he can see through where a woman parades topless a regular times of the night. The hero-as-voyeur is an old tradition in thrillers, but Jake jumps in with both feet (or both eyes), growing more and more fascinated by the woman (Deborah Shelton).
So fascinated in fact that he begins to follow her (the acting work has hit a quiet period), and realises that he is not the only one on her trail. There's an interesting theme of the act of observing having the watcher and watched strike up a relationship of a curious sort, not least when Jake gets to know porn star Holly Body (Melanie Griffith - she is in this film eventually and steals the show) who he has caught on a sex channel's commercials spot. Yet this isn't really developed as everything is in service to the twists of the narrative, and once you realise what is going on it all seems difficult to accept and full of ludicrously poor logic. You're better off admiring De Palma's way with a camera, which is excellent here, and his sly (sick?) sense of humour which even makes its way into the film's setpiece murder sequence. Music by Pino Donaggio. Oh, and nothing says 1984 like putting Frankie Goes To Hollywood in your film.
He's not aversed to directing blockbusters such as Scarface, The Untouchables and Mission Impossible, but Bonfire of the Vanities was a famous flop and The Black Dahlia fared little better as his profile dipped in its later years, with Passion barely seeing the inside of cinemas. Even in his poorest films, his way with the camera is undeniably impressive. Was once married to Nancy Allen.