Judge Brett Cullum is ready to kill anybody who thinks De Palma is a Hitchcock hack.
Our reviews of Dressed to Kill (1980) (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection (published March 30th, 2016), Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Collection (published April 20th, 2011), and Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Collection (Blu-Ray) (published March 29th, 2011) are also available.
"Don't make me be a bad girl again!"—voice of Bobbi the killer
Director Brian De Palma is often maligned as being a horny Hitchcock imitator who exploits women, and Dressed to Kill is one of the best examples critics hold up for this charge. There are nods to Vertigo and Psycho mixed in with gratuitous explicit sex and Argento style gore. It would be simple enough to dismiss the film as trashy exploitation fun, but there are great performances and a super stylish use of the camera that begs you to reconsider. I may be about to kill my film critic credibility but I enjoy Dressed to Kill, and it works for me on many levels. It is a sexy and suspenseful thriller that holds up after all these years like any good film. It is well made, well acted, and something that could never be recreated outside of its era.
Facts of the Case
A bored middle aged housewife (Angie Dickinson, Police Woman) opens the story with her steamy sexual fantasy of being raped in a shower while her oblivious husband just keeps shaving. The dream ends and reality settles in. After a morning of mechanical love making and a psychiatric session with her shrink (Michael Caine, The Dark Knight), she flirts with a dark stranger in an art museum. She ends up having a quickie with him in a cab that continues in his well-appointed financial district apartment. The act makes her feel alive, but it turns out to be the last thing she ever does. The woman is brutally murdered shortly after the affair in an elevator by a razor wielding blonde psycho.
Her nerdy son (Keith Gordon, Christine) teams up with a witness who happens to be a happy go lucky hooker (Nancy Allen, Carrie) to solve the mystery. There's only one hitch: the mysterious blonde is now out to get them. The police detective (Dennis Franz, NYPD Blue) seems to be in no hurry to believe they are in any danger, so the pair must figure out a way to save themselves before they end up on the business end of a razor.
Dressed to Kill may be cobbled together from elements of Hitchcock, but De Palma manages to put his stamp on everything with slick sexuality and a high sense of style that makes his own brand. There is a sense he is not as concerned with making a thriller as much as he is in making every element sensual. There are lingering camera moves, soft focus, plenty of full frontal female nudity, and violence that invades the most mundane proceedings without much warning. He tells entire stories with a couple of shots, such as when we flip from the sordid fantasy of the bored housewife to her reality where we go from steamy shower to suburban bedroom with no dialogue. He allows Dickinson to say everything with her eyes alone. The entire museum seduction is played with no dialogue either. It is bravura film making and it works so well. Every element of the film is carefully studied and focused so that we get a high sense of cinema.
On top of all this, it's just a fun ride with plenty of shocks along the way. When you compare it to erotic thrillers such as Basic Instinct or Wild Things it holds its own much better than trying to force it to contend with the films it is an homage to, like Vertigo or Psycho. Feminists and the gay community may find some issues to be angry about, but De Palma stays true to his own vision no matter what the cost. Oddly enough, he had wanted to adapt Cruising and lost out to William Friedkin, and they both released these films in 1980 to MPAA scandals and protests. This film could never be remade today, because the sexual politics are too dicey to navigate now. Women are punished for being sexual, anything deviant is considered psychotic, and rape is held up as a female fantasy. Sex equals death, which worked for 1980, but might be too tough for this era's politically correct leanings.
There are two elements that work like gangbusters, and you have to mention cinematographer Ralf Bode (Saturday Night Fever) and composer Pino Donaggio (Carrie) for their contributions. The camera moves propel the story forward, and Dressed to Kill has some amazing focus tricks. There are moments where fields of clarity split to force the audience off kilter, and then alternatively there are uses of rack focus that highlight one small detail in a short burst. The score is a character as well, providing a sonic escort from the sensual to the violent by going from lush romance to staccato strings in an instant. Donaggio was a frequent collaborator with De Palma, and this is some of his strongest work.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Disappointingly, ten years after their initial release of Dressed to Kill on DVD MGM offers us the exact same package with minimal upgrade. They have removed the branching that allowed viewers to watch the theatrical United States cut and left the European unrated version as your only option. The transfer does get a bit of a polish with a more deeply saturated look and removal of noise and debris that was on the original disc. It seems like the film is now darker, but it remains grainy and gauzy looking, which is true to the theatrical presentation. Much of Dressed to Kill is intentionally made to look soft and dreamlike, so it's hard to criticize this disc for lacking in visual clarity or hard focus. Also, the film stock from 1980 holds it back just a touch. There's a blue wash over many parts of the film, and that keeps colors from popping except for when the reds come out during the murder sequences.
The best treatment comes in the sound department which now has far more dynamic range thanks to the master audio treatment along with a five channel mix. The audio stage feels like it is expanded both for the screams and lightning bolts as well as the brilliant Pino Donaggio score.
Extras include all of the original features produced for the 2001 release. There is a quite thorough making-of feature that clocks in just over forty minutes. All the major cast members are interviewed, save for Michael Caine, and Brian De Palma gets his chance to defend himself against claims of misogyny and ripping off Hitchcock. There are also a trio of featurettes which are shorter but a lot of fun. One gives you the chance to see a comparison of three versions of the film—the unrated cut, R-rated, and then the "TV rated." There is a "Slashing Dressed to Kill" segment which discusses the MPAA and how these cuts and trims were made to avoid that dreaded X rating. Keith Gordon pops up to do an "appreciation" of the film, and he gets his chance to geek out and tell us why the movie is so brilliant. There is also a photo gallery set to the score, and there is the original trailer now given the HD treatment. The only thing missing is the booklet that came with 2001 DVD which offered trivia about the production as well as some quotes from De Palma about his casting.
Dressed to Kill gets a slight upgrade in transfer and retains all the same extras from DVD to Blu-ray. Ten years later, fans may want to make the leap to high def just to see it look and sound slightly fresher, but what a pity more could not be offered. There is no quantum jump in quality or any new material to look at. Still, it's being sold at a nice price point so it should be worth it to most ardent De Palma fans or those who haven't bought it yet. The film still works as an erotic thriller with all the explicit scenes intact from the unrated cut, and thank goodness they decided to keep all the excellent featurettes from the DVD offered back in 2001. Dressed to Kill is a kinky classic that works several decades later, even if the ideas about women and sex are from a different time.
Guilty of being a sexy and stylish take on Hitchcock conventions with a hell
of a lot more graphic elements.
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