Appellate Judge Tom Becker is on the Entemann's diet. His body has tripled.
You can't believe everything you see.
Facts of the Case
Actor Jake Scully (Craig Wasson, Schizoid) has hit a rough patch. He's just lost only job, as a vampire in a low-budget film, because he's claustrophobic and can't stay in the coffin without blacking out. He goes home to find his girlfriend cheating on him. Since it's her apartment, he's now homeless. He'd given up drinking, but now he's back to that.
But things look up for Jake when an actor acquaintance, Sam (Gregg Henry, Payback) makes him an offer. Sam's been housesitting for a wealthy man, and now Sam has to leave town for a while, so he offers the place to Jake. It's a big, beautiful apartment with a fringe benefit: a telescope pointed at a window across the way where a beautiful woman strips down and does an impromptu "solo show" every night.
Jake becomes obsessed with the beautiful woman and concerned when he starts seeing something else: the woman being robbed, menaced, and later stalked by a craggy-faced man.
As might be expected, Jake's obsession doesn't lead to any place good. He witnesses a murder and indirectly fouls up a police investigation, and somewhat improbably, winds up dabbling in the smut industry, hooking up with a popular porn actress, Holly Body (Melanie Griffith, Something Wild).
And as we all know, voyeurs who walk on the dark side never have it easy.
Brian De Palma's Body Double is a deeply flawed film. On the plus side, it's visually striking and inventive, and features some good performances along with one excellent performance; on the downside, the script seems to have been cobbled together by middle school students whose entire life experience has consisted of watching old Alfred Hitchcock movies in the basement without understanding how and why they work.
Let's start with the good.
One of the strengths of the film is the cinematography by Stephen Burum (The Untouchables). It's a fascinating film to look at, with its bold colors, soft lighting, and often complex camerawork. De Palma enthusiasts will note a fair amount of self-referencing, particularly to Dressed to Kill, including an extended, elegantly shot pursuit of a mystery woman in danger by the protagonist and direct hit on that film's famous elevator scene. The film opens and closes with scenes from a cheesy horror movie that's in production; many of De Palma's early successes were also horror movies (Phantom of the Paradise, Carrie, The Fury), and he seems to be having a good time riffing on the genre and "show business" in general.
The Twilight Time disc of Body Double (Blu-ray) presents an excellent image. The film is soft looking to begin with, and the transfer correctly retains this softness, as well as bringing out the colors and details. Twilight Time also offers a strong audio presentation, a DTS Surround track that's crystal clear and offers an rendering of the often low-speaking voices as well as the occasional scenes of bombast—notably, a gloriously sleazy bit of business that incorporates '80s anthem "Relax" by Frankie Goes to Hollywood with a smut a film.
A few weeks ago, I reviewed Schizoid, which like Body Double featured Craig Wasson. I noted then that it was unfortunate that Wasson's on-screen career never went farther, and I'd like to echo that thought here. Wasson makes a great protagonist in Body Double—flawed and vulnerable, and personable enough for the audience to identify with him, even if much of what he does isn't especially sensible or even noble. His scenes as a punk-rock vampire are priceless, and he brings enough dignity and intelligence to the role that you actually do feel for him, even as it becomes apparent that he's a first-class patsy.
Even if you find the film frustrating and meandering, stick around for Melanie Griffith's justifiably lauded breakthrough role as porn star Holly Body. De Palma had wanted to cast an adult film performer, but the studio wouldn't get behind it. Griffith, who knew De Palma through her then-husband, Steve Bauer (Scarface), pushed to get cast despite the abundance of nudity and sexual content.
Griffith doesn't get a whole lot of screen time in Body Double, but she certainly makes the most of it. After watching most everyone else on-screen creep around, the introduction of the foul-mouthed and uninhibited Holly Body is like a breath of fresh air. She is like no one else in the film, or in too many other films, for that matter. This is a grand, ballsy performance, and if Griffith's star kinda burned out after the '80s, Body Double is an excellent reminder of how she became a star in the first place.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The script. The story. Good lord.
Narrative cohesion and logical plot twists were never hallmarks of De Palma's thrillers, but the muddled, coincidence-driven antics in Body Double make films like Sisters and Dressed to Kill seem like carefully crafted, intricately designed puzzle boxes.
In order to buy into Body Double, you don't have to suspend disbelief, you have chloroform disbelief, hack it up with an axe, and stuff it in the back of a closet. Seriously, if this film were any more convoluted, it would need to be straitjacketed.
It's as though De Palma took his three favorite subjects—murder, smut, and Hitchcock—and decided to build a movie around them, not really caring if it all added up. His resolutions are so idiotic, they're almost insulting, barely a step up from "it was all a dream."
That's not to say the film isn't fun or that it's boring. All the ridiculousness De Palma throws on the screen would be fine if he did a credible job of tying everything together. Unfortunately, when it comes time for the denouement, Body Double goes limp, and it's disappointing enough that it resonates after. It's like ordering a big, mouth-watering, deep-fried chicken steak with gravy, only when you cut into it, you discover it's tofu.
While my feelings about the film are decidedly mixed, Twilight Time has done a good job bringing it to Blu-ray. In addition to the improved tech, the disc includes some short featurettes ported from an earlier release—interview pieces with De Palma, Griffith, Henry, and others—as well as an isolated score track and a booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo.
Brian De Palma is an acquired taste, and while he's made films that I enjoy and admire, I just can't sign on for the majority of his work. I recognize that he has a significant fan base, and I understand the appeal of his films, but for me, I walk away from a De Palma film frustrated or annoyed more than I walk away satisfied.
Hung jury, case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Twilight Time
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