Dressed to Kill [Blu-Ray]
Director : Brian De Palma
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1980
Stars : Michael Caine (Dr. Robert Elliott), Angie Dickinson (Kate Miller), Nancy Allen (Liz Blake), Keith Gordon (Peter Miller), Dennis Franz (Detective Marino)
Few movies have become lightning rods for the kind of intense, focused public controversy that swirled around Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill when it was released during the summer of 1980. The highly stylized and seductive mixture of sex and violence in De Palma’s elaborate reworking of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) became the cause célèbre of feminists, politicians, and civic groups, especially those that had for years laid the blame for a violent society at the feet of its artists. The rhetoric surrounding the condemnation of Dressed to Kill was extreme, moving beyond accusations of causing violent behavior in its viewers to literally equating the movie to murder. It was, they would have us believe, dangerous.
There is only one way to view Dressed to Kill as dangerous, and that is if you are literal enough to read it straight. De Palma’s career has been hounded by accusation of misogyny because too many people think he is serious about his subject matter. They miss (or ignore) De Palma’s guiding voice behind the camera lens telling us that, beneath its literal exterior, this is all an elaborate parody. Dressed to Kill, with its transsexual serial killer, graphic murder scenes, and steamy shower fantasies that turn suddenly violent is too easy to find offensive if you read it literally, which is exactly what many people did.
But, once you absorb De Palma’s intricate camerawork, take into account the mixture of straight and over-the-top performances by the actors, and look at how Pino Donaggio’s orchestral score works ironically against the action on-screen, a whole different experience emerges, one that is a brilliant send-up of suspense and horror conventions that is, at the same time, extremely suspenseful and often vary scary. Some react against De Palma’s movies because they work too well. If he were a shabby, lazy director who made bad movies with violence against women, no one would care. The problem is that he is too skilled, too perceptive about how our buttons get pushed, and too adept at manipulating our emotions; people get angry because he works them over, but only the ones who can’t see the humor in it all, especially their own vulnerability in the darkness of the movie theater.
This is where De Palma excels, as did his spiritual cinematic mentor, Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock could get away with it because, since the late 1950s, he had been elevated to auteur status among academics and the high-art crowd. In 1980, De Palma was still viewed by many as a hack, despite his being highly acclaimed by film critics throughout the 1970s. It is at this point, of course, that we should not forget how intensely negative was the response to Hitchcock’s Psycho--now an undisputed cinematic masterpiece and historical milestone--when it was first released. Stanley Kauffman, writing in The New Republic, could have been writing about Dressed to Kill when he complained that Hitchcock employed “his considerable skill in direction and cutting and in the use of sound and music to shock us past horror-entertainment into resentment.”
Like Psycho, it is difficult to describe the plot of Dressed to Kill without giving away its secrets. Suffice it to say that it is a murder-mystery that involves a sexually frustrated housewife (Angie Dickinson), her brainy, inventive teenage son (Keith Gordon), her psychoanalyst (Michael Caine), and a high-price call girl (Nancy Allen). The murderer in the film is a transsexual named Bobbi who is also one of Caine’s patients, which raises the interest of the investigating detective (Dennis Franz). Like Psycho, it is structured around a sudden shift in audience identification, as De Palma succeeds in getting us to identify wholly with one character, before introducing a sudden murder and then switching the identification to another character. He does this exceptionally well, and it helps that the two characters with whom we are meant to identify are interesting and likable people, well-played by the actors.
As a director, De Palma had reached his greatest point of maturity with Dressed to Kill; it is a movie in which he is completely and utterly in control of every detail, no matter how seemingly insignificant. The movie has a trashy, almost contemptible brilliance, and as Kauffman complained about Hitchcock, I think many thought De Palma was squandering his talent on junky murder and horror movies laced with pop psycho-babble and lots of blood and nudity. Yet, it is exactly this kind of material that cries out for the treatment De Palma lavishes on it because, otherwise, it sinks into mediocrity. He infuses the material with a dark wit and punches it up with dirty, but recognizable sexual fantasies and an overriding theme about guilt. In terms of the mechanics of writing, De Palma is not particularly great; the structure of Dressed to Kill is almost too much a reflection of Psycho (right down to the tedious explain-all scene at the end), and his dialogue is often flat. Yet, he brings the story to life with bombastic visual aplomb and an ironic sensibility. He refuses to take himself too seriously, which is why so many others did.
Dressed to Kill is replete with memorable sequences that stand on their own as great examples of gripping cinema. A scene in which Angie Dickinson’s character plays a cat-and-mouse game of flirtation with a handsome stranger in a museum is a brilliantly sustained bit of silent cinema, telling us everything we need to know through imagery and music--not a single word of dialogue is needed. The infamous elevator murder sequence is a work of malevolent genius, both for its effectively gory shock tactics and the careful manner in which De Palma frames the aftermath, showing how another character catches a glimpse of the murderer in a concave mirror, thus sending the narrative into an entirely new direction (one can already see him paying homage to his own previous work, in this case his 1973 film Sisters).
As the years have passed, the controversy surrounding Dressed to Kill has subsided, especially as De Palma’s reputation as an auteur in academic circles has increased. Those who vilified the movie in 1980 probably still think it is a sick piece of trash that encourages violence against women, even if their efforts have been expended in other areas. As happens with most situations of that nature, time and reflection have shown that the outrage surrounding its release was mostly overheated and misguided. The movie’s detractors have the right goal--to eliminate violence against women, or against anybody, for that matter--but pinning such a wide-ranging social blight on a single movie or group of movies only takes attention away from its real sources. As the controversy has subsided, the humorous detachment De Palma always intended when he made Dressed to Kill has only become more obvious.
|Dressed to Kill Blu-Ray|
|Subtitles||English, French, Spanish|
|Distributor||MGM / 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||September 6, 2011|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Presented for the first time in full 1080p high definition, Dressed to Kill looks better than it ever has before on home video, improving on the previously available Special Edition DVD from 2001, especially in terms of print quality and color. Bear in mind that the film has an intentionally soft, slightly murky look, so it doesn’t look all that sharp, even in high definition. However, you will notice improvement in fine detail nonetheless, especially in the extreme close-ups (of which De Palma is a big fan). The image bears some noticeable grain, especially in the night scenes, which is clearly a result of the film stock that was used. The disc features an enveloping DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track. Ambient sounds, especially during a thunderstorm near the end of the movie, are effectively rendered through the surround channels, and Pino Donaggio’s gorgeous (and sometimes schmaltzy) musical score sounds fantastic. |
One complaint, however, is that the Blu-Ray does not include both the unrated and the R-rated theatrical version of the film as the DVD did. Instead, it includes only the unrated (often referred to as the “European cut”) version. The differences don't amount to much--a few seconds of graphic violence, a few seconds of nudity, and some altered dialogue--but they are crucial in illustrating the fine (and often absurd) line that separates an R-rated movie from an X-rated movie. It would have been nice to have access to both versions, if only for comparative purposes.
|All of the supplements here have been recycled from the 2001 DVD. First up is the excellent 45-minute documentary The Making of Dressed to Kill, written and directed by Laurent Bouzereau, the film scholar and De Palma expert who also produced the documentaries for MGM’s Special Edition release of Carrie. The documentary gathers together most of the major contributors to the film for new interviews, including De Palma, producer George Litto, and actors Angie Dickinson, Keith Gordon, Dennis Franz, and Nancy Allen. |
Bouzereau has also produced a handful of featurettes, the most interesting one being the comparison featurette, which allows you to watch crucial scenes in the movie in three different versions: unrated, R-rated, and the network-TV cut. For the comparison of the unrated and R-rated versions, the scenes are placed one on top of the other so you can see every cut and alternate angle that was required to get the R-rating. There are also comparisons of dialogue scenes, and watching the network-TV version is a real education in just how heavily butchered films of this type are when they go on prime-time.
Once you have watched the comparison featuette, you may find “Slashing Dressed to Kill,” a 12-minute piece that focuses on the controversy surrounding the movie’s rating and how it had to be edited down, to be a bit redundant. It does offer interviews with De Palma and Dickinson, among others, and their reactions to the film’s reception at the MPAA. In the third featurette, “An Appreciation by Keith Gordon,” actor-turned-director Keith Gordon offers a compelling bit of testimony as to the cinematic importance of Dressed to Kill and his take on De Palma’s craft.
Two photo galleries are included. The first is an animated photo gallery of production and behind-the-scenes photographs, while the second offers several galleries of international versions of the poster art, as well as poster-art concepts that never made it to print. Lastly, the disc includes the original theatrical trailer in anamorphic widescreen.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © MGM / 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment