Dressed to Kill
When compiling a list of the greatest directors ever, Alfred Hitchcock will invariably make the short list. He was acknowledged as a master during his lifetime and his place at or near the top of the pantheon has never been seriously questioned or challenged. He was an innovator who did as almost as much to amend the language of cinema as Griffith did to write it in the first place. Surprisingly, given the reverence for his work and the influence he had on the craft of filmmaking, there have been precious few filmmakers who deliberately set out to work in the Hitchcockian tradition (a fact noted in Hitch’s obit). Spielberg often co-opted elements of Hitchcock’s style but to different ends, Shyamalan at his best was certainly in the neighborhood, and referring to early Argento as the Italian Hitchcock was not total hyperbole.
Really, the only director who can truly be said to have deliberately followed in Hitchcock’s footsteps is Brian De Palma. From Sisters, to Blow Out to Raising Cain, De Palma has consistently referenced Hitchcock, both in theme and in technique. His reverence for Hitchcock is a source of great controversy among cinephiles: De Palma’s fans see him as the natural successor to Hitchcock’s legacy (and worthy of it, at that) while his critics have labeled him a copycat hack not fit to shine Alfred’s dinnerware. Adding more fuel to the fires of debate in 1980, incidentally the year Hitchcock died, was De Palma’s Dressed to Kill, a deliberate…some would say homage, others would say plagiarism…of Hitchcock’s most famous film, Psycho. Is De Palma’s film a killer thriller, or is it just the same old, same old dressed up in fancy clothes? Let’s take a look and see…
Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) is an attractive, middle aged housewife trapped in a loveless marriage. At night, she has disturbing, sexual dreams. During the day, she services an inattentive husband. Her only respite from the drudgery that is her life is her therapy sessions with Dr. Robert Elliot (Michael Caine). So unhappy is Kate that she offhandedly offers Dr. Elliot sex, which he turns down.
On a trip to the museum, Kate sees the prototypical “tall, dark stranger.” She’s intrigued by him, and starts sending him silent signals. At first he seems indifferent or unaware but before long Kate is on the receiving end of some oral satisfaction on the way back to his apartment, where she stays until well into the night. Rifling through the strange man’s desk looking for paper to leave a “Dear John” note, Kate finds a medical report indicating that the man she just slept with has STDs (specifically, gonorrhea and syphilis). Hurriedly making her way out of the building, she realizes that she’s left her wedding ring in her one night stand’s apartment. She never actually makes it back to his apartment, though; she’s slashed to death with a straight razor by a mysterious blonde woman. A high priced call girl, Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) witnesses the crime when she inadvertently stumbles upon the Kate as she’s dying, and catches a brief glimpse of the killer in the elevator’s security mirror.
At the police station, Liz is harangued by a cop (Dennis Franz) who pegs her as a suspect in the murder. When Kate’s son, Peter (Keith Gordon) overhears this, the duo teams up to find the murderer, who is now stalking Liz hoping to tie up loose ends. When they find out that “Bobbi,” the killer, is a patient of Dr. Elliot, the two would be gumshoes concoct a plan to sneak into his office and take a peek at his confidential files. The secret of Bobbi’s true identity, however, is something neither of the wannabe detectives could have ever anticipated.
De Palma really pulls out all the stops in the execution of Dressed to Kill. At his height, he was a director in tremendous command of his craft and even his biggest detractors have to admit that the man had style to burn. The camera in Dressed to Kill almost never stops moving and the centerpiece of the first half of the film, an extended sequence conducted almost entirely without dialogue, is a virtuoso piece of filmmaking. De Palma has always loved his gimmicks, but it becomes apparent very early on that Dressed to Kill is more a technical exercise in audience manipulation rather than a thriller centered around living, breathing human beings. Most viewers will be all in or totally tuned out before the first murder occurs, a third of the way into the picture. Personally, I was willing to go with it. I’m a fan of De Palma’s early work (though his later films, like The Black Dahlia, have really taken the shine off his earlier pictures) but in this instance De Palma is asking more than is reasonable of his audience.
It’s really hard to discuss Dressed to Kill in terms of theme since so much of the film is aped directly from Psycho. If there are any deeper subtexts they are more like remnants of Hitchcock’s film and not at all De Palma’s doing. It’s really too bad that De Palma sells himself short here because Dressed to Kill could have been a magnificent film, rather than the flashy and disposable one it wound up being. That seems to be De Palma’s unintentional legacy, though: he’s continually sold himself short as a storyteller to show off De Palma the craftsman. When he’s restrained his style to focus on characters he’s completely lost at sea; his most famous film, Scarface, has writer Oliver Stone’s fingerprints on it more than De Palma’s. The only time Brian the storyteller and Brian the auteur have ever seemed to find true equilibrium is in The Untouchables.
I seem to be dancing around directly discussing Dressed to Kill but there really isn’t much to discuss about the film itself. It’s stylish and well-made and totally empty at its core. Even the potentially offensive linking of transgenderism and psychopathy doesn’t really raise ire because it only seems to have included it as a nod to Psycho. It would be offensive if I thought for a minute that De Palma was using it as anything more than window dressing. De Palma even goes so far as to rip off his own shock ending from Carrie, pulling off a final twist that is completely cheap and arbitrary.
De Palma fans will have fun spotting his late 70’s/early 80’s stable of actors. Nancy Allen returns from Carrie (and would star in two more De Palma films in the next year: Home Movies and Blow Out). And, of course, you have NYPD Blue vet and De Palma regular Dennis Franz sleazing it up as an obnoxious, foul mouthed cop. They’re both given far more screen time than headliner Michael Caine, who is doubly wasted (take that to mean what you will).
On the other hand, Keith Gordon creates an extremely likeable hero with Peter. Working his way through school pursuing a degree in mathematics De Palma would design, build and sell custom computers. The role of Peter is clearly semi-autobiographical and his scenes are some of the few that don’t feel like they’re there fulfilling plot requirements or for cheap effect. De Palma can write three dimensional characters, which makes the fact that they’re so lacking in Dressed to Kill such a disappointment.
The Dressed to Kill Blu-ray is an improvement over the 2001 special edition DVD, though a few caveats mean it’s not exactly an across the board step up. First, the good: detail is much improved. Colors are richer and more saturated and black levels are far darker. The artificial edge enhancement is gone. On the downside, the increased resolution means that some already less-than-impressive make up effects are even more distracting and fake-looking. It also appears that too much noise reduction has been applied: grain is far less apparent, so an already soft looking movie looks even softer than it needs to. There is also a weird smearing in some scenes with what looks like thick vertical lines (check out the man’s had in the subway scene for an example). I’ve never seen anything quite like it and it’s very distracting. It only appears in a couple of scenes, so it’s not a deal breaker but this transfer is probably going to disappoint hardcore fans.
The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio track is far better. I was a bit nonplussed that, once again, the original mono audio track wasn’t included, but the 5.1 remix is manages to expand the sound track without sound artificial or using distracting, canned surround effects. Dialogue is relegated to the front channels and is always crisp, clear and free of clipping. Surrounds are liberally applied, yet in such a subtle way that they actually increase the tension and suspense rather than distracting from it.
If you bought the 2001 DVD special edition then you know what to expect in the supplemental section, as all features have been ported over to the Blu-ray (with one exception). Unfortunately, with the exception of the theatrical trailer, none of the special features are given HD upgrades.
While not as exhaustive as the feature-length documentaries for Jaws or The Thing, the Laurent Bouzereau-produced “The Making of a Thriller” (43:51) is nevertheless a well-produced making-of feature that will be of interest to non-fans as well as De Palma’s faithful followers.
“A Film Comparison: The 3 Versions of Dressed to Kill” (5:14) compares four of the raciest and most explicit scenes in their original unrated format, the R-rated theatrical cut and the network TV version. The oddest change made for the R-rated cut was the elimination of the work “cock.”
In “Slashing Dressed to Kill” (9:50) De Palma and Nancy Allen opine on the unrated and theatrical versions of the film. I don’t know why “Slashing” and the comparison featurette weren’t combined into one, since there’s a lot of overlap between the two features. Slashing probably would have worked as an optional audio commentary over the comparison documentary. One thing De Palma does is address criticisms of his appropriation of Hitchcock’s vocabulary. Methinks the gentleman doth protest too much.
“Dressed to Kill: An Appreciation by Keith Gordon” (6:06) actor-turned-director Keith Gordon talks about working with the notoriously exacting De Palma. It’s an interesting an affectionate, if slight, tribute.
The Animated Photogallery (6:13) consists of promotional and behind-the-scenes pictures set to music with a cheesy page flipping transition. Very dated and passé, even in 2001. This really should have been redone to take advantage of the additional interactivity that Blu-ray allows.
The Original Theatrical Trailer (2:10) is the only feature presented in high definition. Considering that sorry state of trailers back then, the trailer for Dressed to Kill is actually very well put together.
The only feature that hasn’t been ported over is the option to watch the R-rated Theatrical version of the film. Most fans probably wouldn’t even bother to watch it, especially when the comparison featurette is included, so its omission isn’t much of a loss. It would have been nice for it to be included, along with the original mono soundtrack, for the sake of completion, though.
The bottom line is: “Does Dressed to Kill work?” and the answer to that is: “yes and no.” On the barebones level of a thriller, as a visceral experience, it mostly works (assuming, of course, you can get through the first act). Once the immediate impact wears off, though, there’s not much left to chew on other than the style. Dressed to Kill is cleverly crafted, well-acted and stylish. It’s also a disposable, middling effort in De Palma’s oeuvre. The Blu-ray is a definite step up in both audio and video quality from the 2001 special edition DVD, though the deficiencies in the video and the lack of an HD upgrade for the special features should probably give even the biggest Dressed to Kill fan pause before they shell out full price to upgrade.
*Because of the quality of the HD format, the clarity, resolution and color depth are inherently a major leap over DVD. Since any Blu-ray will naturally have better characteristics than DVDs, the rating is therefore only in comparison with other Blu-ray titles, rather than home video in general. So while a Blu-ray film may only get a C, it will likely be much better than a DVD with an A.
Great review, but a B- for the image quality? Little harsh, no? It's a soft film for sure and there's not much MGM could've done with it since it's inherent in the source material. I'd give it an A- or at least a B+ since there isn't a trace of print damage. It's an extremely clean print.
I also couldn't detect ANY noise reduction. MGM rarely, if ever, uses it. There are actually a few scenes where DNR could've been used a tiny bit, since they're shrouded in grain.
Love the movie and now I want to revisit it. Depalma had a great vision for this flick and it looks like MGM did it well. Nancy Allen is a fave. Thanks for a great review.
How about Keith Gordon's hairline in the featurette...looks like the devil got his horns cut.
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