Every nightmare has a beginning…this one never ends.
What have we here—a sleazily voyeuristic murder mystery, chock full of crazy twists, mixed-up identities, homicidal sexual rage, and sophisticated camera chicanery, a film notorious for its ratings wranglings with a censorious, scissor-friendly MPAA?—yep, it must be a Brian De Palma production! Okay, so Brian De Palma's tales of suspense often echo a liberal love for all things Alfred Hitchcock. No doubt about it, De Palma borrows traditionally Hitchcockian narrative devices and visual styles. Get over it; love him or hate him, Brian De Palma is one of the greatest pure filmmakers of his generation, period, end of story.
Written and directed by De Palma, his 1980 then-controversial classic Dressed to Kill now comes to DVD in a new, fully loaded special edition, courtesy of the much-maligned MGM Home Entertainment crew.
Facts of the Case
Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson—Big Bad Mama, Police Woman television series) is a lonely, sexually unfulfilled woman. Still very lovely, yet rapidly approaching middle age, she's the prototypical case study for Bored Housewife Syndrome. Like Lester Burnham in American Beauty, she's stuck in a living quagmire, every day a dull reminder of her patterned unhappiness. Also, just like ole Lester, she starts her day off by pleasuring herself in the shower, fantasizing about being overpowered and raped from behind by a mysterious, faceless man under the steaming, streaming faucet, as her husband Mike obliviously shaves in front of the bathroom mirror nearby.
Indeed, Kate feels unattractive, both physically and emotionally, and wham-bang, quickie morning sex with hubbie only serves to further depress her. She turns to her therapist, Dr. Elliot (Michael Caine—Get Carter, Quills, Jaws 4) for emotional advice, but even this psychiatric interlude crumbles awkwardly after she aggressively propositions the good doctor, only to be rejected in her advances. Dejected and disheartened, Kate goes off to an art museum to lose herself in her singular thoughts. While there, she catches the eye of a mysterious man, and they engage in a flirtatious game of cat-and-mouse amongst the patrons and paintings. Could this anonymous affair perhaps be just the desirous adventure needed to rekindle that passion and satiate the empty sense of longing inside her?
To tell any more would only serve to spoil the surprises in store for those not privy to the serpentine sleuthings of Dressed to Kill. I will say that somehow, Kate's whiz kid son Peter (Keith Gordon—Back to School, Christine, Jaws 2)—think Encyclopedia Brown reinvented as a teenaged science/technology nerd—and a whore-with-a-heart-of-gold- who-sees-too-much, Liz Blake (Nancy Allen—Blow Out, Carrie, RoboCop) join forces in an unlikely alliance to track a mysterious, straight razor-wielding murderess. Throw a sleazy, typically uncooperative, ball-busting New York detective out for answers (Dennis Franz—Blow Out, Body Double, NYPD Blue television series) into the mix, sprinkle in some dark humor and a liberal dash of near-unbearable tension, add a few bloodbath-drenched set pieces, and you have the recipe for a vintage De Palma thriller ready to serve repeatedly.
I can't tell you how many times I've had people comment to me that they liked Casino the first time around, when it was called GoodFellas. Or, when I enthusiastically recommend Sam Raimi's criminally underlooked A Simple Plan, many simply state that they didn't like it only because it felt too derivative of Fargo. Uh, okay—they both have snowy landscapes and are set in the Midwest—the similarities end there; the comparative storylines are apples and oranges. Sure, GoodFellas and Casino both share similar actors, visual style, and perfect soundtracks, but the stories are as different as night and day!
I feel the same way about the Hitchcock/De Palma parallels. Sure, De Palma obviously lifts some visual cues and narrative structure from the Master's technical oeuvre, but he tells wholly separate stories within the suspense genre. It's just easier (i.e., lazier) to dismiss De Palma's work as that of an inferior Hitch-wannabe. Well, De Palma is not just the Great Hitchcock Imitator, and Dressed to Kill is definitely not merely Psycho-Vertigo redux.
Of course, it goes without saying that De Palma's visual dynamism is abundantly displayed here in Dressed to Kill. It's a directorial tour de force. With his typically excellent use of the split screen technique, fluid, widescreen crane pans, and multiple point-of-view-shots, there is no shortage of De Palma's trademark energetic, stylistic camera bravado. Indeed, at one point De Palma even employs mirrors within the split screens themselves, so the audience is, in essence, watching and processing four interrelated images. However, there is a point to all this visual tomfoolery, a substance behind the style and a marvelous method to the madness, if you will, and repeat viewings certainly serve to tip the careful viewer off to these slight visual clues sprinkled throughout the frame. You will pick up on something different with each screening, and that is certainly part of the fun of delving into a De Palma production.
Within these strangely wonderful juxtapositions of visual marvel, De Palma injects a considerable amount of heart-pounding suspense. Note well the sensational, spine-tingling elevator sequence, with its chilling shot of a killer lurking behind the doorway, visible only to Nancy Allen's character through the reflection in the security mirror, lying in wait to pounce and attack. Or how about the bravura, dialogue-free set piece at the museum, where only De Palma's continually roving camera effectively captures Kate's divergent emotions and trepidations, thus allowing the audience to identify fully with her lingering guilt and unhappiness, without so much as a single word uttered. These sequences really showcase De Palma's distinctly effective visual storytelling skills and his ability to thrust his audience into the role of passive voyeur, luridly watching the action unfold helplessly before our eyes.
In the DVD booklet enclosed, director De Palma notes that Michael Caine, with "his amused sense of detachment," was his immediate choice to play the central character of Dr. Elliott. I couldn't agree more—De Palma did well in raising Caine for this demanding part. This really is one of Caine's finest performances, in a distinguished career laced with great (and not so good) roles.
All other principals in the cast, most notably Angie Dickinson, Nancy Allen, Dennis Franz, and Keith Gordon, likewise deliver vivid, memorable performances. They collectively add an exemplary range of emotional depth and complexity to each character they inhabit, never grinding the roles down into standard, cliché-ridden caricaturization. Gordon, in particular, crafted an immensely sympathetic, heroic yet real, three-dimensional teenage persona that is all but gone from today's loud, brash Hollywood stereotypically youth-fueled drivel. Fans of NYPD Blue and Hill Street Blues already know what a fine character actor Franz is (especially when occupying the sleazy, slimeball shoes of New York's finest), and here he's typically fantastic as the Norman Buntz/Andy Sipowicz-like Detective Marino.
Initially slapped with the kiss-of-death X rating, De Palma had to make considerable cuts to finally get that commercially acceptable R rating. He was forced to strategically excise parts in the opening shower sequence, replace some lascivious dialogue, and tone down some of the overt gore. Thanks to the wonder of DVD, and the wise decision-making skills of some suits at MGM Home Entertainment, we can now see Dressed to Kill in all its nudity-filled, gore-splattered, unrated glory. That's right folks, MGM has done the right thing and included the Unrated director's cut, in addition to the R-rated theatrical version, on this disc. Accessible via seamless branching, this complete, unrated edition is the only way to go, although it's fantastic that MGM also saw fit to include the theatrical, MPAA-mandated, R-rated cut too, making this an all-the-more comprehensive package for fans of Dressed to Kill.
This anamorphically enhanced DVD, properly framed in its 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio, displays a nice new transfer that is well refined in its rich color rendering and shadow delineation. While the image is somewhat soft, hazy, and a little grainy at times, the overall detail is never lacking. Print artifacts occasionally make their distracting presence known, but the widescreen visual presentation on this DVD will certainly satisfy those who have only watched Dressed to Kill on previous cropped, washed-out home video releases (or edited for content on network TV). It's not a particularly great transfer, but it is an abundantly acceptable one nonetheless.
MGM went the extra distance for its audio presentation as well. This is the way to do it—put the original theatrical mono soundtrack on the disc for the film purists and completists, and then slap a brand spanking new, digitally enhanced and remastered 5.1 track on there for the home theater aficionados who want to be engulfed in splendid surround sound. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix really comes alive during the ambient sounds of the film, like when a rumbling, crackling thunderstorm perks up near the climax. Pino Donaggio's powerful, eerily evocative score also sounds fantastic on this disc, and the character dialogue is always crisp, clear, and ultra-easy to understand. In addition, a French mono track is included, along with French and Spanish subtitles and English closed captions, to round out the admirable audio options on this disc.
As a fully loaded special edition, MGM has done a commendable job in crafting a comprehensive package for its Dressed to Kill release. The entire DVD has a nice presentation, right down to the classy animated menus that are chillingly effective without giving away any plot spoilers or taking forever to load. The best supplemental feature included here is the 42-minute "The Making of a Thriller" documentary, which traces the entire Dressed to Kill production, and includes new interviews with producer George Litto, De Palma, Dickinson, Gordon, Franz, and Nancy Allen (who really looks more beautiful than ever today). Produced by respected DVD documentarian Laurent Bouzereau, it's a characteristically fine assemblage of material, laced with stills, clips, insightful anecdotes, and production recollections. All principals involved seem genuinely proud of their work on the film, rightly so, although Michael Caine is conspicuously absent from this retrospective, and his presence is sorely missed. Personally, as a DVD "veteran" now, I'm less and less enraptured by commentary tracks anymore. Of course, I don't mind them, but give me a well-produced, concise documentary any day of the week in lieu of a rambling audio commentary and I'm a very happy camper; this is one such quality documentary, thankfully, and one that is well worth sitting through.
Rounding out the package are two featurettes that cover the censorship brouhaha surrounding Dressed to Kill. The first of these, entitled "A Film Comparison: The 3 Versions of Dressed to Kill" is a nifty extra that compares the modified unrated, R-rated, and network television incarnations of the movie, via split screen and before-and-after clip contrasts, so now everyone can see firsthand how hacked apart this film has been in its different screen versions throughout the years. "Slashing Dressed To Kill" is the next featurette, a candid 12-minute look into the reluctant negotiation process entered into between filmmaker and MPAA ratings board when forced to make cuts to get that commercially viable R rating slap on such a controversial motion picture. Of course, this mandatory chopping enraged De Palma at the time, but he was able to retain his original vision in the unrated European cut (which we can now all see in the unrated version that appears on this fine disc).
But that's not all—there is also a third short featurette, "Dressed to Kill: An Appreciation by Keith Gordon." Just like Gordon's similarly brief take on the recent Jaws 2 DVD, he talks about his experiences on the set with De Palma, and how it helped shape him into the director he is today. In addition, an advertising photo gallery is included, complete with exhaustive ad slicks, international posters, lobby cards, and poster concepts that really run the stylistic gamut. There is also an animated photo gallery enclosed within, loaded to the gills with production stills, all set to the haunting Pino Donaggio film score, and adorned with a neat animated page/photo-turning effect that really makes it much more interesting to watch than just a regular, static photo montage. Finally, the original theatrical trailer is included in all its grainy, spoiler-laden glory. See, it's not just the trailers of today that give away too many of the surprises, contrary to popular belief!
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Dressed to Kill is a De Palma film, so it's naturally going to have knee-jerk derision from his detractors, those people who look at De Palma and unfairly label him only a scene-stealing hack and perverted misogynist for regularly cow-tailing to the clichéd vulnerable-woman-in-peril conventions of the suspense genre as a cheap emotional tactic to draw the audience in. So be it—maybe Dressed to Kill really is just a slasher flick with fantastic production values—I can live with that. True, De Palma has directed his fair share of misfires, but Dressed to Kill is certainly a film where his stylistic flair is not just manipulative excess attempting to obscure hollow emptiness. Look closer, below just the cold surface, and you'll likely find something special here, and in almost all of De Palma's body of work.
De Palma often treads that fine line between homage and outright cinematic thievery, but he is a master technical craftsman and storyteller whose work is almost universally a joy to watch and immerse yourself into. Imitation can indeed be the sincerest form of flattery when carried out with loving reverence and real talent, and not just ham-handed, half-hearted copycat parody.
Stylish psycho-shock films don't come any better than this. Talented acting, superb direction, shocking twists, taut suspense—it's all here. Sure, there is style to burn here—Brian De Palma is a filmmaker in love with his camera, after all—but De Palma sprinkles in just enough lingering substance to gel it all together into a memorable suspense classic that only gains in stature with repeat viewings. And it's not just a one-trick, gimmick-twist of a film that insults your intelligence in the end (cough, What Lies Beneath, cough). This is the real deal; Dressed to Kill is an essential De Palma masterwork that is not to be missed.
I have to pull an "O.J." here and let this killer out on the loose…Dressed to Kill is hereby acquitted of all charges and released on its own recognizance. Furthermore, MGM is now officially off this Judge's short Shit List; they've seemingly responded to their largely negative consumer sentiment by delivering consistently good (and nicely priced) product as of late. However, Brian De Palma is ordered to actually make a good movie once again—you're still on probation, pal for foisting that fecal, bottom-of-the-barrel Snake Eyes and Mission To Mars dreck on the paying public, and this Judge strictly adheres to a "three strikes and you're out" policy—so go ahead and make that rumored rap-fueled Scarface sequel and just see if this demanding court doesn't dump that dimpled De Palma derriere under lock and key for all perpetuity.
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