A modern master of the self-reflexive movie movie (or as Owen Gleiberman once called him "the masturbator of suspense"), Brian De Palma has made a career of being the most precocious kid in film school. Like his illegitimate heir Quentin Tarantino, De Palma sets his thrillers not in the real world, but in the movie world. There, Hitchcockian devices are like oxygen and the director is his camera: restlessly, arrestingly prowling and, though unblinking, not above a wink.
By 1984, De Palma already had an unshakeable reputation as a rip-off artist mining the most memorable films of Alfred Hitchcock, and Body Double qualifies as a mash-up of Rear Window (the basic plot of a voyeur who stumbles onto a crime) and Vertigo (a slow, obsessive cherchez la femme midsection and a crippling phobia). Forgotten '80s actor Craig Wasson stars as Jake Scully, a schlemiel of an actor whose claustrophobia loses him the lead in a crappy "B" vampire movie (as the flick's sleazy director, Dennis Franz goofs on De Palma).
Out of work and depressed, Jake gladly agrees to house-sit on behalf of a fellow actor (Gregg Henry). The house, which rises into the Hollywood hills, includes a telescope, just the ticket for peeping on the surprising nightly sight of a neighbor's sexy stripping. Even more surprisingly, the telescope affords him a view to a kill. Looks like Jake picked the wrong week to start drinking again. Jake's investigation into the strange goings-on involves him with two sexy women, one an upper-classy brunette (Deborah Shelton) and the other a hot blonde porno actress named Holly Body (Melanie Griffith).
Devised and co-scripted (with Robert J. Avrech) by De Palma, Body Double emblematizes De Palma's refusal to take Hollywood seriously. Jake first notices Holly as the star of an adult-movie trailer that cites the porno's awards and quotes enthusiastic critics. De Palma goes on to blur the line between the twin film industries by having legit actor Scully take a porno job (ostensibly to get close to Holly) and by having Holly refer one of Jake's actor friends (a woman, ha ha) to an upcoming porn audition.
It's a thoroughly L.A. story, beating David Lynch to the punch by seventeen years in staging a crash on Mulholland Dr. Daringly, De Palma turns the porn film within the film into a full-fledged music video, set to the controversial sex-bomb "Relax" by Frankie Goes to Hollywood (natch). Just as De Palma implies that Hollywood is pornography, he suggests that movies are life for obsessive viewers. Film frames and picture windows box in our sense of reality (claustrophobia indeed) while Jake—posing now as a porn producer—half-lies to Holly, "I want you in my picture."
There's a signature complicated Steadicam shot in a mousetrap-like mall sequence, and a Hitchcock-one-better attempt in a dizzying clinch a la Vertigo, but as surely as De Palma's technical achievements are unimpeachable, he's guilty of sacrificing storytelling effect in the process. The chintzy plot cuts corners with coincidence, and De Palma's so giddy with auteur power that he recklessly blends thriller and comedy with something less than Hitch's panache and just-so restraint.
Missing the lesson of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, De Palma shoots his wad early and often, whether treating us to liberal nudity or serving up phallic symbols (a dingy, hot-dog-shaped fast-food stand and a jumbo-sized, death-dealing power drill). But it's all part of the fun in a Brian De Palma thriller. His postmodern retakes on Hitchcock are reliably distinctive (so, in their way, atmospheric) and never boring. The great filmmaker-pornographer he confesses to be, De Palma gets us off.
Sony's updated disc promotes Body Double to a special edition, built around a very nice anamorphic transfer with a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. The strong presentation extends to a set of four brand-new featurettes directed by respected documentarian Laurent Bouzereau: "The Seduction" (16:43), "The Setup" (16:54), "The Mystery" (12:15), and "The Controversy" (5:32). De Palma's on hand to share his war stories about the film's development and reception. Also interviewed are Melanie Griffith, Deborah Shelton, Gregg Henry, and Dennis Franz (star Craig Wasson is conspicuously absent). The roughly fifty minutes of interviews and clips illustrate what led De Palma to make the film and his initial plan to cast an actual porn actress in the role of Holly; Griffith's preparation and fruitful, though nakedly awkward collaboration with friend De Palma; the nature of voyeurism; and assorted reminiscences and opinions on the film from the cast. De Palma also discusses the most memorable visual components, from the unusual locations to the camerawork of the mall sequence and the beach chase (he considers the latter a rushed and failed sequence). Rounding out the disc are previews for Population 436 and Basic Instinct 2: Risk Addiction.
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