“Oh, I borrowed your razor and … well, you'll read all about it. Some blonde bitch saw me. But I'll get her.”
Possibly coming the closest to Giallo as American cinema has gone, Brian De Palma savagely ripped mainstream thriller conventions asunder with this disturbing, fetishist, psychologically twisted tale of murder, obsession, cross-dressing and gender-bending. He whipped up controversy with his depiction of graphic sex and violence, lingering subjective POV photography adding the spice of illegitimate viewer complicity in wanton acts and pushed the boundaries of acceptability and taste. This was art-Grindhouse, its topic and its narrative no more palatable than the sleaziest of exploitation flicks, though perhaps less visually extreme. He took the notion of female endangerment into a fiercely new taboo zone of full-frontal nudity and violence, yet very slyly subverted the formalities of the genre, even if the mechanics of his ripe and over-the-top scenario played directly into the hands of the moral baiters who would cry “Misogynist!” at him. Yet, unlike Dario Argento, who would gleefully admit that a woman in peril was simply more exciting to watch than a man in peril, De Palma was seductively spinning the concept on its head with an antagonist at war with their own sexuality.
It was a great hook – a kind of pre-emptive strike at those who would simply assume that the movie was just a glossier version of Bill Lustig's grim Maniac that came out at around the same time and was almost universally vilified (see separate BD review). He was getting his stab in first, but although it would silence some ill-tempers, there would still be plenty who would find much to complain about.
Dressed To Kill, released back 1980, was just as convoluted and implausibly psychotic as Tenebrae would be a couple of years later. Both films would be deeply stylish and frequently outrageous exercises in pure audience manipulation. They would both use provocative imagery – violent and erotic – and awesome camera-work to illustrate their accusatory nature. Both would take a very simple situation and expand upon it with a plethora of red-herrings, false trails and painful reveals that, to be honest, no genre fan worth his or her salt, had not seen coming almost from the get-go. Yet in the case of Dressed To Kill, the shock unveiling of De Palma's insane killer is neither the physical conclusion of the film nor the main thrust of the tale. De Palma is embracing the hang-ups that are, ironically, caused by the liberation of a permissive society, whilst Argento was much more at-home with the torments of repression and guilt and the horrors they could produce. Dressed To Kill, therefore, celebrates rather than demonises the allure of perversion and unquenchable desire. It is not a better film than Tenebrae, but is the more mature, and the two play together very well.
Expanding upon the themes, the visual panache and the hypnotic moods of Sisters and Carrie, the New Jerseyian auteur sought to unhinge and terrify with a darkly motivated detective yarn that addressed some very grown-up concepts, and to push some boundaries very insistently into the realms of the devoutly controversial. He was making operatic steals from the horror film, but smothering them with a slow-lensed, neon-flared urban filter. He was also making his most opulent homage to Hitchcock. And if he hadn't already died, it's a cinch that he would have had Bernard Herrmann score the picture too, as he had done with Sisters and Obsession. His next regular musical muse of Pino Donnagio assumes the role, wholly going for the screaming strings and swooningly eerie ambience that Herrmann was the undisputed master of.
Angie Dickinson explodes her own TV screen persona of the dynamic Sgt. Pepper Anderson in the classic show Policewoman as the sexually unfulfilled Kate Miller, a frustrated married woman who turns to her shrink, Dr. Robert Elliott (Michael Caine), for psychological assistance and, when driven by rape-fantasy dreams, even “hits on” him in a misguided attempt to seek sanctuary from her own loneliness. Advised by the good doctor to confront her unfeeling husband with her anxieties, Kate nevertheless indulges in an impromptu game of hide-and-seek with an amorous stranger she becomes drawn to in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and, after a wild seduction on the back seat of a cab, goes back to his apartment to further their lust for one another. It would appear that Kate has found the appropriate outlet for her simmering desires but, after discovering evidence of something rather unpalatable about her new lover, things go from bad to considerably worse. As she leaves the apartment and enters the elevator she is cornered within it by a mysterious blonde with a straight-razor and slashed to death.
But the murder is partially witnessed by Nancy Allen's call-girl, Liz Blake, who then winds-up facing charges herself unless she can come up with some concrete evidence that will nail this elusive blonde who nobody else in the building appears to have seen. New York's less-than-finest, in the surly, aggressive and bigoted form of Dennis Franz's investigating Detective Marino, give her a couple of days to find the suspect. So, realising that the blonde could well be another troubled patient of Dr. Elliott, Liz endeavours to root-out the killer in a very covert and amateur operation that is anything other than by-the-book. However, she is not alone on the case. Kate Miller's nerdy teenage son, Peter (the ace Keith Gordon from Jaws 2 and Christine and now an accomplished director, himself), has a few sleuthing skills of his own and, after the deranged blonde makes an attempt on Liz to apparently silence her accusations, the two team-up to ensnare her, once and for all.
So, playing from the same page as Hitchcock’s audacious Psycho, De Palma does the unthinkable in the first remorseless act and yanks that rug from under our feet by killing the woman we'd assumed was the heroine. Even though audiences had seen this grand outrage before, they were still monumentally shocked that they could be suckered-in so easily again by a headlining star getting graphically wiped-out. The trick is supreme, of course, because it means that we are then forced to reach out to new characters, having lost our conduit into the story. In effect, the film begins again from a fresh perspective, with Liz and Peter becoming the emotional umbilical cord that we cling onto. But we have to start over, the film now heading off in a different direction to the one we began with.
We still have the familiar face of Michael Caine to steady our nerves, though, don't we?
Caine had just made the bizarrely unappreciated and rarely seen Peter Benchley pirate action adaptation The Island, and was just about to duck out of a slew of American thrillers that he had been making, including The Swarm and Beyond The Poseidon Adventure, but his character, here, harks back to something he made a little bit earlier in 1976's The Eagle Has Landed, in which he played the paratrooper captain who is really a German commando leading a hit squad to assassinate Winston Churchill in a sleepy Home County hamlet. The switch from gung-ho derring-do to mild-mannered Manhattan psychiatrist may have seemed like quite a leap but, as those who know both films will understand, the two roles have a fair bit in common. Both characters are masking something a little less than savoury, and have hidden layers that prove crucial to the plot. Caine is magnificent at simply sitting in chairs – one behind his own desk and one back at the cop-shop – and calmly indulging in craftily calculated verbal sparring. He can be reassuringly incisive and accommodating with his patients without sounding as condescending as many other actors may have done, and his more decisive rebukes towards Marino's gruff line of questioning, as well as his anxious demands to David Margulies' Dr. Levy about an allegedly dangerous and threatening sex-change patient called Bobbi, who may or may not be involved in the murder, are stark and emphatic and full of professional umbrage. Caine doesn't get to do a great deal, other than gently probe and assess other characters, but he anchors the suspense with an assured refinement, in full knowledge that even if the genre-savvy are already way ahead of the game, he is moving at his own deliberate and measured pace. It's a wonderfully understated performance.
De Palma had seen a transsexual being interviewed on The Phil Donahue Show and the seeds of what would become Dressed To Kill were sown. It came at the right time, too. He'd spent a year writing a screenplay for Prince Of The City which had not met with approval from the studio, and he'd been subsequently fired from the production. In desperation, De Palma returned to an older and unproduced script adaptation he'd written for what would eventually become Cruising, about the dangers of random sex in the predatory modern world. A bit of tinkering here and there brought in the theme of a disturbed transsexual whose murderous female side overtook the male half whenever it became aroused by a woman and then, out of jealousy, slay them. It was troubling material but with the right cast, De Palma and producer George Litto believed they could have a sizeable hit on their hands. Initially they had Sean Connery and Liv Ullmann in their sights for the two lead roles, but when both baulked at the offer, they were delighted with Caine and Dickinson. De Palma incidentally wrote the part of Liz Blake specifically for his then-wife, Nancy Allen. Coming over with such brassy confidence as the high school bitch in his adaptation of Stephen King's Carrie, Allen was something of a force to be reckoned with. She could be sexy, sassy and smart, but she could also be vulnerable and comedic. The investigative hooker she essays here has all of these credentials, together with a witty nod to the audience and a wry sense of irony.
However, I cannot buy, not even for a moment, the relationship that develops between herself and Gordon's determined orphan Peter. Both actors are great, but the bond is utterly preposterous and filled with highly unlikely contrivances. I can fall for Liz's early attempts to wrestle out clues about the various “clients” who stay at the hotel where Kate was killed – even though it would be a lot easier if she just told the truth about her enquiries in the first place. I can even believe the amazingly protracted seduction sequence that she hopes will buy her time to check out Dr. Elliott's patient files. But the interaction that builds up between she and Peter is just a pile of old Scooby-Doo, I'm afraid. After saving Liz from the blonde during a tense set-piece on a New York train, their post-trauma get-together is totally cringe-worthy and even sanctimonious. The major scene in which poor Peter is forced to stand watch whilst she goes undercover to find clues is hampered by the fact that he is outside in the pouring rain the whole time. I don't care who you are or what the stakes are, or how visually impressive it looks, you simply would not remain unsheltered in the drenching downpour for as long this kid does. It just doesn't work, I'm afraid. And then we have the horribly absurd sequence in which Liz provides all the explanations about gender-bending and what the operation entails for those who crave it. Whilst, once again, Allen and Gordon perform the whole shebang totally in-character and with conviction, the rapport is highly unlikely, the dialogue laborious and the set-up just so contrived and suspense-sapping. In its favour, though, is the sight of the reluctant eavesdropper whose appalled distaste is a potentially accurate mimic of the reactions that De Palma probably believed he would be getting from certain quarters upon the release of the film. It also, rather playfully, pre-empts a similar moment in Michael Wadleigh's excellent eco-horror, Wolfen, when Diane Venora's Detective Beck Neff lists all the ghastly terrorist atrocities she's heard of for Albert Finney's dishevelled cop, Dewey Wilson, in front of a poor hot-dog vendor.
Perhaps I'm being a bit too harsh. I mean you have to commend a central pair in a film like this who haven't become lovers by the end of the ordeal, which would be the far more traditional device to have employed. Though, having said that, perhaps it would have been even more controversial if the hooker had offered the kid who saved her life a “freebie”?
Much better is Dennis Franz as the single most identifiable and completely convincing New York cop that has ever grilled a suspect, hurled a burger-mouthed obscenity at a pimp or taken a grubby back-hander on the mean streets of the Big Apple's rotten core. Seen in what must be a gazillion urban thrillers and cop shows, he is the eponymous representative of the law's more dubious and less trustworthy arm. Here, he is just as unsympathetic as ever as Marino, but he is not the typical swine with a badge that he has often portrayed. As down to earth as they come, Franz is terrific at conveying the aura of a man who has definitely seen it all … and probably indulged in a fair bit of it, himself. His acerbic, impatient and intolerant attitude towards both Caine's Hippocratic adherence to defending his clients' identities and Liz's attempted concealment of her profession is both clichéd and yet fresh given his authentic handling of the character. Franz is a terrific actor, but he must be a terrible slog to get along with, so good is he at playing an irascible, sewer-swilled bully.
Where Dressed To Kill is a clear winner is in its accomplished set-pieces and its often stunning imagery.
Taking a slightly different slant on Carrie's opening shower sequence by having Kate Miller clearly pleasuring herself amid the steam, whereas Creepy Carrie's incident is far more innocent – though no less shocking – De Palma is establishing naked women, flowing water and a sense of languid, soon-to-be-devastated soft-core titillation. We all know that the close-ups of Kate's body are not actually Angie Dickinson, although the actress does indeed reveal a fair amount, but this doesn't halt the mood that De Palma is after. When the figure of her rape-fantasy suddenly looms up behind her and takes violently intimate hold of her, there is a genuine sense of indecency and loathing about it that compounds our own unwitting voyeurism in the act. Suddenly you know that all bets are off and that Dressed To Kill is often going to be undressed to thrill as well, but that such an emotion won't be quite as intoxicating as you'd like it to be. The actual murder scene is genuinely horrific. The use of a straight-razor and not just a knife is actually more wince-inducing. The cuts are real slices – precise and neat and deep. De Palma does not wallow in the red stuff like Lucio Fulci would do in his own variation on the theme in The New York Ripper, but the result is still agreeably nasty. The pursuit of Liz through the streets and then down into the subway and onto a train is terrific and quite influential. It would be impossible to count the amount of damsels who have since been stalked and terrorised in just such a manner on New York's subway system since De Palma went highly mobile with his elusive murderer. He brings in a jolting last-second shock that works brilliantly. The entire finale, again culled from Carrie, is marvellously done. Frustrating at the same time, of course, once we realise what is really happening, but marvellously done nonetheless.
Everyone loves the protracted mini-movie set in the Museum of Art. Critics lavished praise upon its mis-en-scene, its excellent use of subjective POV photography from Ralf D.Bode (Saturday Night Fever, The Accused), its densely emotional build-up of suspense and its canny playing with audience expectations. The first time that I saw it and, indeed, in many subsequent viewings, I couldn’t help but find the whole thing so horribly overblown as to be almost hysterical. Even now, I find De Palma’s obsessively moody, overly wrought and paranoid set-piece a slice of the purest melodramatic overkill. Kate's desire to hook on to someone, seemingly anyone else, is desperate and in-character, but De Palma’s attempt to combine the realism of movement and timing of her impulses with the dreamy, almost otherworldly ambience of heightened emotion and surrealist drama is shockingly overplayed. A huge part of why this doesn’t work so well for me is Donaggio’s flamboyant and painfully earnest, overly operatic score. My love/hate relationship with the composer’s work has received ample attention in many other reviews and whilst I do enjoy his music for Dressed To Kill, I find that both he and De Palma, symbiotically, push one-another to exaggerated extremes that I find quite unintentionally amusing. Bernard Herrmann would have saved it for me, I'm sure. Technically, as with most of the director’s work, this set-piece is meticulous and splendidly orchestrated. I can’t fault that aspect of it at all, and I realise that I could be alone in my opinions about how it all plays out.
It is during these high-point sequences when De Palma is at his most ingenious and alive. But we cannot escape his abundant plagiarism.
The mistaken identity angle is, of course, something that had popped-up in Sisters and Obsession, and would be revisited in Body Double, though all of this stems from Vertigo and Rear Window. The cross-dressing and shower traumas hail from Psycho, as does the lesson in clinical explanation. Even his next film, the great Blow-Out with John Travolta and Nancy Allen again, was a lift from both Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 Blow-Up and Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation from 1974. The filmmaker was in serious danger of losing anything resembling a distinctive voice of his own. But with Dressed To Kill, his already well-documented Hitchcockian affectations were just too overpowering and were losing that essential sense of homage and becoming just another case of “De Palma ripping off the Master of Suspense” all over again. However, the filmmaker even plagiarises himself. The dream element and shock ending are pure Carrie. The chase through the carriages of the train, with its added obstacles of irate gangs and other bystanders is something that De Palma would rework again in the awesome finale of Carlito’s Way – a climax which, of course, borrowed big-time from his station shoot-out in The Untouchables, which was lifted from … come on, come on … Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin.
So, in many ways, watching a Brian De Palma film is like getting a little whistle-stop education in classic Cinema.
I’ve been guilty of slagging off De Palma in the past. I can’t stand things like Snake Eyes, Body Double, Casualties of War and Mission To Mars, and there are plenty of interesting but half-baked productions such as Obsession, Phantom Of Paradise, The Bonfire Of The Vanities and Raising Cain that are either too plagiarist, whimsical or out-and-out trashy to be regarded as anything other than inspired claptrap. But this doesn’t take into account the amount of not just good films, but absolute classics that he has made. There’s Carrie, obviously, and The Fury which remains a hugely underrated precursor to Scanners. But what about Blow-out, Scarface, The Untouchables and, an absolute favourite of mine, Carlito’s Way? Perhaps more than any other established auteur, De Palma has that unpredictable ability to either amaze or to infuriate. Dressed To Kill has all of his signature moves – admittedly a helluva lot of these moves are actually lifted from others, but he has been able to put his own stamp upon them, just the same – and it provides an unusual slant on the psycho-killer format. As warped and as explicit as it is, the film owes more to the big overblown gothic thrillers of old such as Spellbound, Dragonwyck or Rebecca than it does to Argento's Deep Red and The Bird With The Crystal Plumage and Carpenter's Halloween, all three films that it has a lot in common with. And yet, if you're having a bit of themed “psycho” session, it plays perfectly with the likes of either Tenebrae or Vertigo, or as the middle-ground between the them both – which is not such a bad stepping stone to be. Dressed To Kill played a huge part in making splatter respectable and noteworthy by high-brow critics and exploitation-lovers alike. It isn't unusual to find it snuggled in close to copies of Maniac and The New York Ripper on a gorehound's shelf, and yet it is cited right alongside some true genre classics from the Silver Age too. Thus, it attained an important relevance to the genre it borrowed so greedily from. De Palma took the best elements and this, in turn, fed into many of the off-kilter thrillers that followed in its bewigged, stilettoed wake.
Dressed To Kill is a high-gloss, high-profile tale of sexual deviation and the price that such a lifestyle often seems to entail. It is equally derided and celebrated for its excesses, yet whilst it is no out and out “classic” in my opinion - it is simply far too derivative to attain that status – it remains a showboating experience that accurately carves off a chunk of New York's ongoing cinematic legacy and dresses it up with style to die for and an atmosphere so redolent that it leaves a residue in the air. It's arrival on Blu-ray in its full uncensored and unrated form is a powerful reminder that even the mainstream could challenge popular convention.
Erotically charged and infernally driven, Brian De Palma's ode to earlier psycho-thrillers is just too stylish and provocative to ignore. Forget the silly bits and just revel in the atmosphere.
Dressed To Kill it may be, but is MGM's new AVC 1080p transfer dressed to thrill?
In a word, yes.
This looks great in hi-def. The print is in very fine shape, with no scratches, tears or debris at all across the 2.35:1 image, and only a smattering of very fine pops and specks to betray anything of its three-decade old vintage. DNR? Well, if there has been any applied, it has been lightly and respectfully. The film's grain looks intact and well-textured to me. We do get some spikes with it, but this seems totally authentic to the source. For the most part, it is fine and consistent, and not the grubby mire that stippled the DVD. I wasn't distracted by any aliaising, or smearing. I did think that some edges had been enhanced, particularly when characters were seen against a lighter background, but upon closer inspection this looked to be inherent to the photography and the lighting. Either way, it posed very little distraction. There is no banding taking place and black levels looked marvellously deep and satisfying, although it is possible that they have been boosted a bit and some detail have been crushed within. Contrast is well supported, with some great delineation down in the subway and during the chase, as well as during the shadowy set-up with Nancy Allen getting down to her lingerie. The image can often have a very vivid, though still warm feel.
There is a softening appearance to the photography, which this transfer reflects very well, so this was never going to be the sharpest picture in town. This said, there will be no complaints about the clinical neatness of the close-up slicings that we see appearing in flesh, or the clarity on stocking-tops and suspenders. And it is worth noting that the transfer handles things like the steam from the shower without the image just becoming a foggy and indistinct mess. The deluge of tracking shots and pans are also very well-held and smoothly rendered.
Colours are well reproduced. They are never startling or dynamic despite De Palma's gaudy inclinations, but then the film was never devised that way. Primaries are satisfying, with red being a strongly developed element in the palette. The blood isn't overly realistic, but then again it isn't the comicbook paint that Tom Savini was using right around this time. As far as I am concerned, the claret looks nice and splashy and is suitably bold. It certainly provides a nice and emphatic contrast to the torn flesh it issues from. And, speaking of flesh (of which there is a lot on show), skin tones are pretty accurate, if a touch on the warmer side. Fidelity is assured reasonably consistent throughout – just a couple of minor fluctuations which are probably more associated with the source than anything else. The transfer is just as ease with the relaxing shades of Dr. Elliott's office suite, the more clinical brusqueness of the police station, and the various hues that decorate the nocturnal Manhattan streets.
MGM have done us proud with this transfer. For those who didn't expect much from a soft and dreamy old image, this is surprisingly robust and happily very film-like.
MGM don't provide the original track, but we get a very reasonable DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix that doesn't shoot itself in the foot with any bogus-sounding effects. In fact, what the surround track is able to do actually enhances the experience quite well. The rears are brought in to help accentuate many things that add to the immersion and the mood. The water of the shower flows all around us. The trains down in the subway don't miss the opportunity to growl and rumble across the soundscape. The heavy rainstorm that buffets and lashes poor Peter on his stakeout has the added impetus of utilising the full set-up and it does so with accuracy. The honking of car horns, the screeching of tyres and the general hubbub of the New York streets is also conveyed with spatiality and detail. The sequence in the museum also allows for the movement of footsteps to clatter around the speakers.
When Peter uses his bug to eavesdrop on Marino and the good doctor conferring in the cop's room, the soundmix comes into its own. We hear their voices coming through over Peter's little ear-piece, and this is convincingly downplayed and centralised, whilst the noise of the cop-shop at large still bubbles and thrums around us. Now that's quite neat. How many other films and audio designs would have just squeezed-up the voices and forgotten about the ambience? These are all subtle things that don't cry out to be noticed, but they add a lot to the atmosphere and the mood of the film. So, hats off for the effort.
Naturally for a film like this, the score is going to up-front and forceful. To this end, Pino Donaggio's vastly heaving symphony of terror keeps its stingers and its crescendos delightfully overt. But even the more subtle melodies have plenty of breathing space. Instrumentation is pretty keen and separation is intelligent and accurate-sounding. This isn't merely a wall of sound. Those Herrmann-esque strings scream and shriek with power and clarity. Dialogue doesn't suffer through any of this, and it always comes across with clarity and character.
Overall, I was very impressed with how Dressed To Kill sounded on the format. I really hadn't expected much from it, so this was a very pleasant surprise.
There's nothing here that fans haven't seen before on DVD.
The Making of Dressed To Kill (43.51 mins)
This is good stuff, folks. A well put-together – aren't they always when they're done by Laurent Bouzereau – retrospective documentary that brings in the main players who got the production made, although there is no input from Caine, and charts the film from its genesis in De Palma's mind and how seeing the interview on Phil Donahue galvanised things and re-shaped it. Angie Dickinson expresses her shock upon reading what she was required to do and realising how her reputation would be absolutely blown to smithereens afterwards. De Palma confesses that the Keith Gordon character was based very much upon himself and his early computer tinkerings, and that Dr. Elliott was based (at least in part) on the shrink that he was seeing. Dennis Franz is still shocked at the language they were able to use in the film. Nancy Allen has fond memories of it all, and Gordon applies a methodical mind to De Palma's methodology. All the major stuff – the sex, the violence and the taboo subjects – are covered. This isn't new, but it is still a vital look back from those involved.
In the Unrated, R-Rated and TV-Rated Comparison (5.14 mins) featurette can witness the different cuts that the film received for each of these showings. This concentrates on the most infamous moments, of course, which would be the opening shower sequence, the murder in the elevator and then Liz getting all kinky in the Dr.'s office.
This is all expanded upon and explained with opinion by De Palma, Allen and Keith Gordon in Slashing Dressed To Kill (9.50 mins)
And Gordon then reappears to discuss the film and the his admiration for the filmmaker in An Appreciation by Keith Gordon (6.06 mins)
We also get some added ambience with a luxurious Animated Photo Gallery (6.13 mins) and the package is completed with the film Theatrical Trailer (2.10 mins)
Personally I love what De Palma did with this sexed-up psycho-thriller. He may have riffed very heavily upon his major influence of Hitchcock, but he also realised the powerful nature of his own stylistic trimmings and paid mighty homage to Carrie's opening and closing episodes. Filled with elaborate trimmings and directorial excess, the film is both brutal and dreamy, highly suspenseful yet frequently languid, which results in a dark fairytale of twisted sexuality and madness.
The uncut version of the film is an adult delight. It's not all that gory, although the centrepiece murder is still a truly wicked slicing 'n' dicing of a female TV icon, and the skin-show isn't anywhere near as eye-popping as it once seemed, but the cumulative effect of De Palma's arty sleaze-fest is still highly tantalising and the film is delightfully erotic throughout.
MGM have done a bang-up on the transfer too. Dressed To Kill both looks and sounds terrific. The image was always going to be soft, but this AVC encode gives it a life and vitality that I have never seen it enjoy before. And the audio definitely provides a new dimension to the tale. There's nothing new in the extras roster, but even if what there is is familiar, it is still good. The retrospective documentary is wonderfully put-together by the master of such things – Laurent Bouzereau – and the little look at various cuts is always amusing. We don't get the theatrical cut of the film included with this release but, really, who wants that? This is always how it was meant to be seen.
Dressed To Kill slashes its way onto region-free Blu-ray and, like the title suggests, it's looking good.
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