Brian De Palma is a difficult case. He has talent; extravagant amounts, in some areas. He knows how to move a camera around, his films tend to be nicely shot and edited, and he's a fine comedy director. But he has no taste and no shame and no sensitivity. De Palma doesn't seem to care how women will feel about seeing yet another female dismemberment in one of his films. He seems to have little concern for the tone of violence towards women present in his films, or even the overabundance of violence in general which they display. De Palma also rips off Hitchcock in the most blatant manner. It's practically plagiarism. De Palma is now even ripping off himself ripping off Hitchcock.
Body Double doesn't indicate any changes at all. The story is mostly stolen from Vertigo, with a few burglaries on Rear Window. All that De Palma brings to the plot, in terms of original material, is the background of the world of hardcore pornography. Oh, he does the usual little tricks which he claims are major differences. In Vertigo, Jimmy Stewart was afraid of heights, and this made the plot go. In Body Double, the plot depends on Craig Wesson's claustrophobia. I can't see how anyone can legitimately claim this as anything but a feeble attempt to hide a ripoff.
As usual, the plot is about women in danger. Also as usual, there is gruesome violence, in this case involving a large electric drill. De Palma's attitude towards women again seems hostile, as if he's out to get them, or, perhaps, is afraid that they're out to get him. Body Double's major innovation, for De Palma, is a larger portion of explicit sex.
The plot concerns an actor (Craig Wesson) who has just lost his job, his girlfriend, and his apartment. Another actor sets him up housesitting a fabulous mansion up in the Hollywood Hills. One of the most interesting features of the house is the view, especially through a telescope: every night, a beautiful woman in a neighboring house puts on a spicy masturbation show at her window, apparently oblivious to watchers. For Wesson isn't the only one watching: a sinister Indian is lurking about, apparently after the jewels the woman flaunts in her performance.
Wesson becomes obsessed with the woman and the foreboding stranger. His attempts to warn her of the impending danger and the aftermath of those attempts form the basic plot of Body Double. Wesson finds himself involved in a mystery which leads him into the world of pornography, and particularly to one porn flick actress, played by Melanie Griffith. His investigations bring him closer and closer to the truth, but also put him in danger.
The camera work in Body Double is largely superb. There is a particularly fine sequence in which Wesson trails the woman and the Indian through a ritzy shopping mall, the camera sweeping ominously after Wesson as he tries to catch sight of the woman and giving us glimpses of the Indian, who may be after either or both of them. Though played in bright sunlight, De Palma is able to generate more suspense in this sequence than most directors can with a hoard of shadows and creaking doors. On the other hand, there is also a love sequence in which the camera swoops and dips around the lovers, dollying in and out as well. The overall effect of this scene is ludicrous, though it was obviously meant to convey the height of suppressed passion fulfilled. This one lapse aside, though, De Palma's shot selection and camera movement is highly commendable. Stephen H. Burum's cinematography contributes strongly to the effect.
De Palma gets good, but unextraordinary, performances from his actors. Wesson probably comes off best, but he also has the best part. No one really stands out.
I can only recommend Body Double to film buffs who like good technique and are willing to overlook deplorable themes and story. The violence is more implied than shown, but still will disturb those who have strong feelings against mayhem as an element in entertainment. The sex scenes are only moderately explicit, even by Hollywood standards, but the way some of them are presented could easily offend. Within a scene, De Palma often generates substantial suspense, but he fails to make it carry over between scenes, largely because of an overly familiar plot device.
De Palma has fallen into a common trap for filmmakers. He has produced a technically fine film which, because of its content, is needlessly offensive to large numbers of people. Directors have been doing this since D.W. Griffith and Birth of a Nation, but usually a given director learns his lesson after doing this once. De Palma seems determined to repeat not only his successes and plagiarisms, but also his errors.
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