DRESSED TO KILL (De Palma, 1980)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Sep 8, 2015
Review by Christopher S. Long
SPOILERS ABOUND. THE MOVIE'S BEEN OUT FOR A WHILE, AFTER ALL.
Celebrated as pure cinema by critics seduced by its audiovisual virtuosity, dismissed as implausible hokum by viewers focusing on its lurid storyline, attacked by some for its allegedly misogynistic content, Brian DePalma's “Dressed to Kill” (1980) offers a little bit of something for just about everyone, either to cheer or to jeer.
My favorite part of the film is a scene near the end when prostitute/murder witness/investor Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) has lunch at a fancy restaurant with teenage inventor/investigator Peter Miller (Keith Gordon). Liz cheerfully explains to Peter the very specific details of a sex-change operation; the words “penectomy” and “vaginoplasty” ring out in the swanky eatery, causing an eavesdropping older woman at a nearby table to nearly blow her pricy lunch, a vintage DePalma twist on the Three Stooges penchant for pulverizing the wealthy dowager with a cream pie right in the face. They slice the penis right down the middle, you see... It doesn't quite carry the sting of the director's all-time brilliant “Be Black, Baby” sketch from “Hi, Mom!” (1970), but it's definitely the cheeky DePalma we fans of his earliest work love the best.
I sense that I may have skipped a few steps. Let's go back to Kate getting sliced by salami in the elevator. No, not just yet. Let's start instead with Kate in the shower which is also where the movie starts. Middle-aged Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) luxuriates under the hot water as she stares longingly through the billowing steam at her hunky, muscled lover on the other side of the bathroom. Kate likes what she sees and caresses her most relevant and responsive body parts (provided in close-up by Penthouse Pet Victoria Lynn Johnson) before being surprised by a mysterious assailant who sneaks up behind her in the shower stall. He sure has strong hands and he knows where to place them. A less titillating surprise awaits as Kate's fantasy yields to the reality of her husband having a “wham-bang” go at her in bed.
Kate transitions seamlessly from morning hump to playing the doting mother to the aforementioned Peter, a bespectacled whiz kid working feverishly on a homemade computer for his science project. From lover to mother, Kate then becomes a patient as she bares her soul to her very dignified psychiatrist Dr. Elliott (Michael Caine), a confession which also includes an attempt at seduction.
Unfulfilled by any of her sexual encounters thus far, Kate whisks away to the art museum where she picks up a stranger in one of the film's signature set-pieces, a sequence involving a complex and nearly wordless exchange of furtive, interlocking glances, tracking shots winding sinuously through gallery chambers, and swelling operatic music by frequent De Palma collaborator Pino Donaggio. It all concludes with a cab ride to an extended session of afternoon delight in the pickup's apartment. Delight turns to fright on board the elevator when a blonde woman in a black trenchcoat appears out of nowhere (except to the very attentive viewer) and slashes Kate repeatedly with a straight razor, gouging her beck and shredding her face in a sequence that, at least in the unrated version (included on this disc), leaves little to the imagination.
A woman with a healthy libido acts on her sexual impulses and is immediately punished for her transgression; heck, as an added insult, just before her murder Kate learns that her handsome stranger has a venereal disease. You can understand the charges of misogyny leveled at the film, and you can probably also understand the counter-argument. Like the French New Wavers he admired so much, De Palma's films often referred primarily to other films. The formula of shower plus female protagonist abruptly dispatched provides an obvious link to Hitchock's “Psycho,” of course. But as the film delineates a series of female identities (spouse, mother, sexual being) in its opening shots, it also recapitulates the ways in which women have traditionally been viewed and judged by cinema practically since its inception. In De Palma's words, a great deal of film history has involved “following a beautiful woman around.” Often with less than pure motives.
Another fair question to ask would be whether the film takes a sadistic stab at the audience. In a half hour or so we get to know Kate quite well, to watch what she watches and desire what she desires, to view her as a full and empowered individual and then we have to watch her slashed to ribbons in gory detail. You slice your protagonist right down the middle, you see...
Anyway, Liz Blake, wrapping up a job with a John who offers a friendly stock tip, witnesses the final moments of the murder and winds up the target of the razor-wielding blonde, a patient of Dr. Elliott's who is angry about the doctor not approving a sex-change operation from male to female. The good doctor fields taunting phone calls from the killer while also trying to track her down; you probably won't be too surprised to learn not all is as it seems. Peter also turns his considerable deductive powers on the case in order to seek justice for his mother, and the various characters zigzag through New York with that gracefully gliding camera (under the auspices of cinematographer Ralf Bode) tracing circles and pacing restlessly through the urban nightscape, with some of the finest work saved for a brilliant subway sequence which sees Liz bounced from one threat to another all ending with a typically out-of-the-blue De Palma flourish.
Even more than most worthwhile movies, “Dressed to Kill” rewards multiple viewing. The roving camera captures action staged on multiple planes. You have to watch the subway sequence over and over to tell just who is darting in and out of frame in the background. And when you know where the story ends up, you can go back and see the clues strewn along the path: notice Kate's wedding ring resting on the alarm clock, the mini-pantomime scenes that play out in the distance in the museum, the unlikely exclamation point on the medical form punctuating the words “venereal disease.” And isn't it interesting how Dr. Elliott is introduced working as his own receptionist because the woman who usually does the job is on vacation?
If you find the action over the top, it is surely intended to be. The Dinaggio score alone underscores the excess welling out of so many scenes and De Palma is capable of going for genuine thrills while also planting tongue firmly in cheek. If that's a game-breaker for you, “Dressed to Kill” might not be the throat-slashing good time of your dreams, but I'd encourage to focus on the multiple treats for the eyes and ears. By any rational definition, “Dressed to Kill” is a remarkably composed audiovisual symphony. If you're put off by the film's portrayal of gender dysphoria as mental illness, however, I can't say I blame you one bit.
If you follow these sorts of kerfuffles you might know that Criterion initially intended to release “Dressed to Kill” in August, but the first batch of discs suffered from a production error which led to much of the transfer looking “squeezed.” Criterion announced a new printing with the correct transfer would be released on Sep 8, though not all copies got to reviewers in time for that new street date. Any copy you order from a retailer (Criterion, Amazon, etc.) will now be correct and will indicated “Second Printing 2015” at the bottom of the section of the back cover copy that begins with “Under exclusive license...” If you somehow get a copy that says “First Printing 2015” you have the defective version. The rest of this review will refer to the corrected Second Printing.
Image detail on this 1080p transfer is immaculate with a very pleasing fine-grain structure visible throughout. The colors are slightly muted though red is still very red when it needs to be. With the production snafu fixed, there are no complaints to make about another excellent Criterion high-def transfer.
“Dressed to Kill” had to be whittled down somewhat to avoid an X-rating on its initial release and was further mutilated (more understandably in this case) for its television broadcast. This is the unrated cut as preferred by director Brian De Palma. See below for a few extras that address the different versions.
Other DVD releases have included a 5.1 surround track, but Criterion sticks solely with the original monaural track in linear PCM Mono. The lossless audio is crisp, clear, and efficient. Whatever it lacks in surround depth it makes up for in clarity; the film doesn't always employ a naturalistic sound design, omitting or including effects for, well, certain effects. Dinaggio's potent score is a vital part of the film and sounds great in lossless audio. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
Wow. Criterion has gone above and beyond with 13 (!) separate extras, most of which are fairly substantial.
The first batch of extras consist of newly recorded interview with Brian De Palma (19 mm.), Nancy Allen (16 min.), producer George Litto (12 min.), and composer Pino Donaggio (16 min.) All are obvious inclusions considering the players' central roles in the film and the best of the batch is definitely De Palma who, surprise surprise, speaks about the influence of Alfred Hitchcock.
Somewhat more surprising (and pleasantly so) are the other two new interviews. First up is Penthouse model Victoria Lynn Johnson (9 min.) who served as Angie Dickinson's body double in the shower scene; she talks about De Palma's awkwardness asking for certain changes (dying the hair... down there) and also how her initial request to not be credited didn't keep her participation a secret. She doesn't seem to mind. Next is Stephen Sayadian (10 min.), the photographic art director for the original movie poster which played a central part in the publicity campaign. Sayadian started working at Hustler before striking out on his own.
“The Making of 'Dressed to Kill'” (2001, 44 min.) is an older documentary that you may have seen before. It's pretty vanilla, consisting mostly of interviews with cast and crew rehashing familiar stories about production, but it's of some interest.
“Defying Categories: Ralf Bode” (2015, 11 min.) provides director Michael Apted and video artist Peer Bode the opportunity to discuss the film's cinematographer Ralf Bode (Peer's brother – Ralf passed away in 2001).
“Slashing 'Dressed to Kill'” (2001, 10 min.) discusses the cuts needed to get the film from an X-rating to an R-rating and also touches briefly on the protests by feminists groups at the time.
“An Appreciation by Keith Gordon” (2001, 6 min.) provides the actor an opportunity to analyze some of the more interesting techniques and flourishes in the movie. It's a sharp observation that proves that good films need to be viewed more than once before they can really be understood.
The disc also includes a gallery of Storyboards used for shooting and a “Version Comparison” (5 min.) which plays split-screen video of the Unrated version (included on this disc) and the R-rated version (released in theaters) as well as the TV Broadcast version. It includes a few sequences such as the shower scene and the elevator scene.
The copious extras collection wraps up with a Theatrical Trailer (2 min.)
The slim fold-out insert booklet includes an appreciate essay by critic Michael Koresky.
I don't think I spent enough time talking about how great Pino Donaggio's score is. It's great. Trust me. Or don't, and listen for yourself. I still like “Greetings” (1968) and “Hi, Mom!” the best, but “Dressed to Kill” is among my favorite De Palma films. This corrected Second Printing (see Video section for details) features a great high-def transfer and the extras are almost as excessive (in a good way) as parts of the film.