The Film: 4/5
Brian DePalma doesn't enjoy courting controversy. It just seems to find him very easily. The man makes highly stylized and sexualized movies with tons of nudity and violent photography with the beauty and intensity of a Robert Mapplethorpe live art installation. No wonder the squares from coast to coast gave him so much shit in the 70's and 80's. But Middle America's lack of preparation for a filmmaker as talented in his craft as he is brazen in his devotion to honor and often outdo his cinematic inspiration Alfred Hitchcock as Brian DePalma did not stop his movies from finding audiences. After nearly a decade of making endearingly oddball arthouse comedies and genre breakthroughs like the twisted horror tale Sisters and the jaunty and tragic rock musical Phantom of the Paradise the director scored his first major smash in 1976 with the acclaimed Stephen King adaptation Carrie. The grosses on that timeless terror feature gave DePalma clout that had not previously possessed and opened many doors for him in Hollywood to make the kind of lurid thrillers from directors like Hitchcock and Dario Argento he had long admired.
After playing it cool for the next four years with the Vertigo homage Obsession and the (literally) explosive suspenser The Fury DePalma became attached to an adaptation of Gerald Walker's 1970 novel Cruising. He worked on the script for several months and was forced to abandon the project when the rights couldn't be obtained. DePalma remained fascinated by a sequence he had written into the script that wasn't in the novel where a lonely married woman picks up a stranger in a museum for a daytime sexual encounter. He used that scene and several others from his unused Cruising screenplay as the embryo from which Dressed to Kill, the thirteenth and most controversial film of the director's career next to Scarface, was formed.
DePalma chose Angie Dickinson, the platinum blonde iconic actress who began her career working with directors like Samuel Fuller (China Gate) and Howard Hawks (Rio Bravo), to play his unhappily married New York housewife Kate Miller. When we first meet her she’s enjoying a very sensual hot shower until she’s taken from behind by a mysterious male assailant. This is later revealed to be a nightmare that fades into Kate on the receiving end of one of her husband Mike’s (Fred Weber) “wham bang specials”, a soured erotic fantasy concealing the unpleasant reality of middle-aged suburban discontent. The role was a huge change-up for Dickinson at the time; she had played sexualized characters before but not exactly on this level. I don't even know why I bothered listing the name of the actor who played her husband because the guy's a complete non-entity in the story and Weber never acted on film or television again. Not that I know of anyway. Remember Klinton Spilsbury?
Kate is perfectly content with her joyless life as long as she has her whiz kid son Peter (Keith Gordon) to lean on for moral support. She also has her regular therapy sessions with the handsome and charming Dr. Robert Elliott (Michael Caine), who resists her advances on the grounds that he is happily married, unlike her. This crushes her spirits enough that she picks up a good-looking and mysterious stranger at an art museum later that day and has an experience that boring ol’ Mike could never conceive of giving his wife.
That’s before Kate gets brutally murdered in an elevator by a tall blonde woman wearing sunglasses wielding a razor. It's horrific to watch the coltish ingénue Dickinson get sliced to ribbons with the scenery drenched in streams of stage blood. This sequence was one of several that fell prey to censors when the films was originally slapped with the dreaded X rating. Arrow’s release represents the first time the unrated director’s cut of Dressed to Kill has ever been available in the U.K. The murder of Kate contains several echoes of the famous shower murder in Hitchcock’s Psycho, but what Hitch exposed to us in split second film frames is given to us in all of its gory glory by DePalma. It’s one of the most brutal scenes in the director’s celebrated canon. Dickinson does an amazing job conveying her character’s fear and vulnerability in the moment, one of the few death scenes in 1980’s horror that carries the weight and profundity of Greek tragedy.
The slaying is partially witnessed by Liz Blake (Nancy Allen), a high class prostitute who uses part of her nightly earnings to play the stock market. Liz sees the killer but then makes the ill-advised move of picking up the murder weapon, which makes her the prime suspect in the eyes of investigating detective Marino (Dennis Franz). Dr. Elliott is questioned about the killing since Kate was his patient and Marino hypothesizes that another patient of the doctor’s may have been responsible. Elliott remains silent out of doctor-patient privilege to the cop’s consternation. Peter overhears their discussion and resolves to team up with Liz, who is now a target of the killer revealed to be a crazed transsexual named “Bobbie” (and voiced by none other than the Phantom of the Paradise himself, William Finley), to bring the fiend who butchered his mother to justice.
A killer tranny? Looks like DePalma got to make his version of Cruising after all. No wonder gay and lesbian activists were in uproar over their portrayal in Hollywood’s major releases, but they focused most of their fury on Friedkin’s version of Cruising, which opened five months prior. Dressed to Kill had its own share of problems to confront when the time came.
That’s about all I can tell you without spoiling the major plot surprises. Well, more like a surprise. If you’re willing to forgive DePalma for the more politically incorrect lapses in his storytelling - the scene where Liz gets hassled by a gang of predatory black men right of The Warriors for no reason other to add extra tension to an already tense enough scenario for instance - and an occasional plot hole that could consume the very fabric of time, then you just might find Dressed to Kill a darkly humorous erotic thriller that movies like Basic Instinct dream of being.
It’s laughable now to remember a time when DePalma was accused of being a misogynist who sees his female characters as little more than objects of desire and targets for slaughter, as if such a thing was never a reality. Almost everyday you can go online or turn on cable news and watch as women are continuously being subjugated by a predominantly male ruling class that seeks to deprive them of their rights to equal pay and control over their own bodies and freedom from sexual harassment in the workplace. Dressed to Kill’s two main characters are both strong, intelligent women; one views sex as an escape and a fulfillment of an elusive fantasy, while the other uses sex as a means of financial support. Getting naked and falling prey to a transsexual lunatic not named Frank-N-Furter does not define them, but they also can’t stop those things from happening. That’s life in a DePalma flick: sex doesn’t equal death as it was believed to do in slasher movies, but one is usually pretty close behind the other.
I’m not going to spend the rest of this review psychoanalyzing the characters and exploring in great detail the themes Dressed to Kill shares with other films by Brian DePalma; honestly, I’m just not that good or insightful a writer. It's a sexy and fun thriller that only rarely calls attention to how clever it thinks it is. Sometimes it's like DePalma doesn't intend for the movie to be taken seriously. The material is absurd and highly derivative of far better films, but it's played and executed with the utmost respect and dry humor. The director has spent the decades that followed Dressed to Kill's release trying to replicate its creative and commercial, but the results were strained efforts like Raising Cain and Femme Fatale that tried too hard and failed spectacularly.
Dressed to Kill was filmed in elegant long takes, languid tracking shots and pans, and artful scene compositions including DePalma’s customary use of split screen. Instead of focusing on different angles of the same set piece as in Phantom of the Paradise and Carrie the director uses the split screen to give us two scenes happening at the same time that do little to advance the plot but rather give us some insight into two of the main characters, Liz and Dr. Elliott. Ralf D. Bode, the German cinematographer who lensed Saturday Night Fever and Coal Miner’s Daughter, photographs the action in beautiful soft focus that adds to the film’s overall feel of a waking dream that could turn at any moment without warning into a full blown nightmare. Pino Donaggio’s score strikes a fine balance between Bernard Herrmann’s sneaky, slow-building Psycho music and the compositions by Ennio Morricone from Italian erotica and giallos.
The cast is superb. Not a bad performance in the bunch. Dickinson makes such a great impression in the first act that her death haunts the rest of the film. Nancy Allen finds the sweet and irresistible center to her tough cookie hooker with the proverbial heart of gold. Knowing that men view her as sex on heels she uses it to her advantage. Keith Gordon didn’t get many worthwhile roles before he gave up acting and became a director, but as Kate’s intrepid science genius son he gives one of the better performances of his abbreviated career. Michael Caine makes for a fine, ambiguous presence as Dr. Elliott, playing his cards close to the vest until the third act where the puzzle pieces begin to fall into place. When an actor was needed to play a mouthy, blowhard cop who got the job done regardless there was none better than Dennis Franz. Sporting a hairpiece that would make a Trump weep Franz is a foul-mouthed comic treasure.
DePalma fills out the supporting cast with brief turns from familiar faces such as Brandon Maggart (best known for playing the killer Santa in Christmas Evil) as a shy customer of Liz’s, Bill Randolph (one half of the hapless rutting couple that gets run through with a spear by Jason in Bay of Blo...I mean Friday the 13th Part II) as a wily cab driver who helps out Liz in a pinch, Penthouse Pet Anneka Di Lorenzo (Caligula) as a Bellvue nurse, and future Fresh Prince of Bel-Air producer - and Blood Simple supporting player - Samm-Art Williams as an ineffectual subway policeman.
Arrow’s 1080p high-definition widescreen presentation of Dressed to Kill in an aspect ratio of 2.39:1 (slightly stretched from its 2.35:1 theatrical ratio) isn’t a revelation, but the movie looks pretty sharp for its age. The entrancing cinematography by Bode is improved greatly by the reduction in grain. Colors are cool and muted to an extent. The vibrant night scenes contain the most precise detail. Our audio options are English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and 2.0 LPCM Dual Mono tracks. There are no discernible differences to be found in the channels but everything sounds clear and free of audio distortion. English subtitles are included.
Arrow has included over 100 minutes of fresh new interviews produced by Robert Fischer and Fiction Factory to go along with most of the bonus materials ported over from MGM's previous Region 1 DVD and Region A Blu-ray releases.
"Symphony of Fear" (17 minutes) - Producer George Litto talks about how he first met Brian DePalma while working as a Hollywood talent agent when the director needed help finding distribution for his 1973 thriller Sisters. He also gives a good overview of his work on the Dressed to Kill production including his dealings with American-International Pictures studio head Samuel Z. Arkoff and using his connections to secure a Philadelphia art museum as a filming location.
"Dressed in White" (30 minutes) - Leading lady for Dressed's first half-hour Angie Dickinson holds court for another thirty minutes. Originally she refused the role when DePalma offered it to her as it went against her tough image as TV's Police Woman. though she later came to consider her performance as Kate Miller as the best of her career. The process of selecting a body double to play Dickinson's naked body in the opening shower scene later inspired DePalma to make Body Double for Columbia Pictures. The longest stretch of this interview is devoted to the filming of the museum sequence. An interior monologue for the scene was planned to be recorded by Dickinson but the director dropped the idea before it could be done. It took 28 takes to nail a crane shot showing Dickinson coming out of the museum at the end of the sequence.
"Dressed in Purple" (23 minutes) - Nancy Allen has a deeper connection to the film in that she was married to DePalma at the time and he wrote the material for her. She was uncomfortable (but with a cheery attitude about it all the same) about wearing the revealing black lingerie during her climatic scene with Caine and confesses to being more at ease with complete nudity as she displays in a shower scene to rival Dickinson's. Allen concludes her interview by reflecting on the controversy over the film's initial X rating and the influences of Hitchcock and Argento ("the Italian Hitchcock") on Dressed to Kill.
"Lessons in Filmmaking" (31 minutes) - Having left behind a prosperous acting career in the late 80's to pursue his dream of becoming a director, Keith Gordon enhanced his behind-the-camera education while playing science whiz and amateur sleuth Peter in Dressed to Kill. Gordon and DePalma had first worked together on the director's 1979 independent feature Home Movies and the actor found the New York shoot a blessing as it allowed him to alternate between the movie and local theater work. In earlier drafts of the script his character was conceived to be a 10-year-old kid but that was changed because it would have made the relationship between him and Liz the seasoned prostitute a little awkward.
Held over from the previous MGM releases: the retrospective documentary "The Making of a Thriller" (44 minutes) which features interviews with the participants from Arrow's new featurettes along with DePalma and actor Dennis Franz; "Slashing Dressed to Kill" (10 minutes), in which DePalma, Litto, and the cast address the controversies over the film's violent and sexual content and its perceived victimization of women prior to its theatrical, before anyone ever actually saw it; and "A Film Comparison" (5 minutes) presents several sequences from Dressed to Kill that were trimmed or altered for the theatrical and early home video releases as seen in the unrated, R-rated, and network television cuts.
The original theatrical trailer and a behind-the-scenes still gallery close out the Blu-ray extras. Arrow has also included reversible cover artwork featuring the original release poster image and new artwork by Nathaniel Marsh and a collector's booklet in which you'll find a new essay on Dressed to Kill by author and film critic Maitland McDonagh and an interview with poster designer Stephen Sayadian conducted by Daniel Bird, illustrated with original archive stills and promotional materials.
Dressed to Kill isn’t a perfect film, but it is a perfectly unhinged mystery with something to offend or entertain just about everyone. 33 years after its controversial release and it still remains one of Brian DePalma’s crowning achievements as a filmmaker. Arrow Video’s Blu-ray is the definitive release of the movie on the home video market to date. Future releases could do better, but until that day comes this is the one to own. Highly recommended.