Brian De Palma had big plans for ''Body Double,'' his new thriller. ''If they want an X, they'll get a real X!'' he told Esquire magazine last winter. ''They wanna see suspense, they wanna see terror, they wanna see sex - I'm the person for the job.''
After a buildup like that, it was a surprise to see ''Body Double'' sail through the rating system, getting an R on its first try. Even his previous picture, the more conventional ''Scarface,'' had to be resubmitted in different versions to evade an X (a rating not acceptable to the studio involved) and win an R from the appeals panel.
Maybe the filmmaker was kidding all along with his ''Body Double'' bravado -''tweaking the nose of the Establishment,'' to use the words of an agent quoted in Susan Dworkin's new book, ''Double De Palma.'' Judging from screenplay excerpts in the current issue of Film Comment, he certainly had the makings of ''a solid X-rated roller coaster that would knock everybody's socks off,'' as Dworkin puts it. They lay the foundation for an intensely sordid mystery with a pornography actress as a main character and murder by impalement as a climax.
But let's face it, De Palma is too much of a joker to pull off such a steamy shocker. There's always a smirk just barely hidden in his movies - a smirk that hinders the visceral and emotional impact of nearly all his films, no matter how hard they strive for the classic status of the Hitchcock gems he loves and emulates.
And yes, ''Body Double'' is another prime example of his Hitchcock pilferage. Fans of ''Vertigo'' will recognize the hero who's lured into witnessing a murder , becomes obsessed with a woman who resembles the victim, and runs into trouble because of a deep-rooted phobia. For admirers of ''Rear Window'' there are long episodes seen from a distance through a telescopic lens. Viewers of ''Psycho'' and ''North by Northwest'' will also spot borrowings, references, and homages thereto.
De Palma shows his usual technical skill in stringing these tidbits together, and contributes some wholly original moments, especially in his striking use of indoor and outdoor space. ''Body Double'' has fewer visible seams than pictures like ''Scarface'' and ''Dressed to Kill,'' and some of the camera work is elegant.
But the whole thing is basically a gag to De Palma - and that's a bad problem in light of the sleazy material he's peddling, which feeds largely on a vision of women as objects to be ogled or butchered. To give the filmmaker his due, he doesn't debase women to celebrate a macho image of men, as Dworkin points out in her De Palma study. But that's a virtue by default, and it's not enough to redeem his movies. In fact, the trouble with De Palma is that he doesn't celebrate much of anything except his own cold style. Unless he finds a new and deeper vision, he'll be a second-rater for good.