When Stephen Burum, ASC collaborated with director Brian De Palma on Body Double, he had already shot one of the most visually striking films of the decade, Rumble Fish. But the partnership with De Palma would yield some of Burum’s most impressive work, including Carlito’s Way (which Cahiers du Cinéma voted the best film of the 1990s) and the ASC Award-nominated The Untouchables. De Palma and Burum’s collaborations are marked by an obsessive attention to composition, color and lighting, and their visual sophistication is on full display in Body Double.
Jake Scully (Craig Wasson), an unemployed actor who suffers from claustrophobia, gets a house-sitting job across from the home of a nubile woman (Deborah Shelton), on whom he spies every night. Scully becomes obsessed with his neighbor, and when he discovers that someone else is following her, he becomes an active participant in her life. This leads to a mystery involving voyeurism, Hollywood, and the pornography industry.
Upon its release, Body Double was attacked in a number of forums, particularly by feminists, who accused De Palma of creating another misogynistic slasher film. Given the movie’s satirical critique of America’s obsession with image and beauty — a subtext made explicit in the character of Holly Body (Melanie Griffith), a porn star Scully meets when his investigation takes him into the adult-film industry — the charges seem ill-founded, especially when one considers how men are typically presented in De Palma’s films. His female characters are generally quite intelligent and self-aware, but the men are weaklings; indeed, the trait most common to De Palma’s “heroes” is their inability to take action.
The notion of man as an impotent voyeur is beautifully conveyed in Body Double by Burum’s lighting and lens choices. In one sequence, for example, Scully finally approaches Gloria, his neighbor, on the beach. The romantic moment is interrupted when Gloria’s stalker snatches her purse and runs off. Scully tries to catch the thief but is immobilized when he steps into a long, dark tunnel that sparks a claustrophobic reaction. The scene is simple conceptually, but the strategies that inform it are specific and effective; Burum shoots the beginning of the chase with a long lens, creating the impression that Scully isn’t making any progress, and when Scully gets to the tunnel, the romantic lighting that characterizes the rest of the movie is replaced by a harsh, burned-out look that perfectly conveys Scully’s nausea. Body Double is filled with set pieces like the tunnel chase, but the film is no mere exercise in style. Burum’s dynamic cinematography is always at the service of the story at hand, a complex exploration of sexuality and its representations in the media.
Sony’s new DVD of Body Double features a sharp anamorphic transfer that allows the viewer to see every detail. This is particularly important in the movie’s many deep-focus compositions, in which the viewer can choose between multiple planes of action thanks to the filmmakers’ dense frames. The vibrant Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix is equally layered and provides a wonderful showcase for Pino Donaggio’s lush score.
The disc includes four making-of featurettes that total 50 minutes of screen time. The first, “The Seduction,” includes interviews with De Palma, Griffith, Shelton, Gregg Henry and Dennis Franz and focuses on the preproduction phase. The same participants are featured in the other three segments: “The Setup,” which explores the theme of voyeurism; “The Mystery,” which focuses on the film’s treatment of porn as well as its convoluted plotting; and “The Controversy,” which details critics’ and audiences’ hostile reactions to the picture. These documentaries contain many fascinating insights and stories, but one wishes Burum had been interviewed or enlisted to provide a commentary track (as he did on the Mission to Mars disc). Nevertheless, the engaging behind-the-scenes anecdotes and impressive transfer of this great American thriller make this DVD a must.