Dressed To Kill Review

Mike Sutton has reviewed the Region 1 release of Brian De Palma’s masterpiece Dressed To Kill. A great film receives pretty good treatment from MGM on a new Special Edition.

Dressed To Kill is one of the most sheerly pleasurable films ever made. A jet-black suspense comedy about sex and murder, it makes most thrillers look seriously under-nourished. Detractors of the director, Brian De Palma, throw around words like “derivative” and “misogynistic” with the self-assurance that his critics have been saying the same things for over twenty years now and have still got no closer to what makes him such a great film-maker. You could say, wrongly I think, that it’s an example of style over substance but when the filmmaking is this accomplished the style is the substance.

It’s hard to discuss the film without revealing some plot points, but I will try not to give too much away. In a typically cheeky nod at Hitchcock, De Palma begins Dressed To Kill with a shower scene, the first of two in the film, and turns the implicit erotic thrill of Hitchcock’s voyeuristic scene into something frankly sexual. Kate Miller, played with greak skill by Angie Dickinson, is a middle aged housewife who is becoming increasingly dissatisfied with her life. In her dream, she is soaping up in the shower and caressing a body which is clearly not hers but the dream physique which a 40 year old woman might covet. This is both a good visual joke – linked to the view of the girls’ locker room pictured as a 14 year old’s wet dream in Carrie – and a significant pointer to the key themes of voyeurism and subjectivity which play through the rest of the film. Kate is bored and frustrated, screaming out for a bit of love and attention and even coming on to her analyst Dr Robert Elliot (Caine) for some reassurance about how attractive she is. Going to the art gallery to meet her mother, she allows herself to be seduced by an anonymous stranger and goes off to his apartment for some illicit afternoon sex. Needless to say, before the afternoon is over, her idyll is all too easily shattered.

What follows is a relatively straightforward suspense thriller which is made into a classic by the sheer breathtaking style of Brian De Palma. Few other major directors take as many risks as De Palma does. Take, for example, the beautifully erotic art gallery scene in which Kate Miller is picked up by the handsome stranger. Beginning with a few little details of love and family, De Palma builds the scene into a complex, subjective love play in which the Panavision version of the steadicam prowls, presenting both Kate’s perspective and the objective view of her actions. The scene takes us right into the mind of the protagonist in a fearless show of solidarity with the character – a solidarity which does much to rubbish the accusations of misogyny. We share her emotions and her embarrassment at what is happening, an embarrassment tempered by a sexual frisson she doesn’t feel with her husband. The lush, sensual camerawork of Ralf Bode and the gorgeous music score by Pino Donaggio conspire with De Palma’s direction to create what might be the best scene in recent American cinema. The skilful technique is used here to further narrative and reveal character and is far from the “showing off” that De Palma is accused of with monotonous regularity. There are other scenes which match this one in verve and accomplishment – the brilliantly edited first murder, the crane shot in the madhouse – but it’s the gallery scene that stays in the memory.

Along with the style over substance accusation is the plagiarism accusation. Some have said that Dressed To Kill is so derivative of Hitchcock and particularly Psycho as to be legally suspect, but I don’t think the claim holds up to scrutiny. There are two main similarities – the knife murder, which is similar only in location and weapon and not similar at all in editing or composition, and the motivation of the killer which is definitely similar, but not so much as to be identical. I guess it comes down to how you define “influence” and the extent to which you decide Hitchcock’s influence on the grammer of the suspense film was so profound as to be unavoidable. I incline towards the latter, but it’s an important question when responding to De Palma since he constantly invites comparisons with the Master. However, De Palma’s style is rather different from Hitchcock’s; much warmer, more Baroque, more erotically charged and, I think, more elegant. He is also just as daring as Hitchcock, using the technical experimentation of mid-period Hitch and pushing it as far as it can go – and then, just a little bit further. Take the use of split-screen here; it reveals a vital clue to the audience and makes a couple of significant character points that are important but could have been explained in a more prosaic manner. There is not a single shot in this film which is accidental or careless, it’s as seamless a piece of work as anything De Palma has ever done.

The other criticism of De Palma is his alleged misogyny. When Dressed To Kill was released in Britain, it was attacked as misogynistic and exploitative. While this is understandable in the hysterical climate of the time, it is hard to actually see anything in the film which backs it up. The suggestion that women who are sexually promiscuous are asking for trouble is stated in the film by Lt.Marino and then debunked by Dr Elliott as soon as it is uttered. The women in the film are likeable, intelligent and totally sympathetic and while De Palma is not exactly a feminist, he does at least create strong female roles in this film, Carrie, The Fury and Blow Out.

The performances are uniformally excellent. Michael Caine is particularly impressive in a role unlike any other he has ever played and he comes through with a subtle, quizzical performance that is exactly what is required. Angie Dickinson has never been better before or since and neither has Nancy Allen, who brings new life to the old witness chased by the killer cliche. Keith Gordon has a pleasantly fresh presence as Kate’s son Peter and Dennis Franz is hilarious as the incredibly scuzzy Lt.Marino, a cop whose manners are nearly as bad as his wardrobe.

More than anything, however, this is a technical triumph and a showcase for virtuoso work from the entire crew. Although De Palma is working for the only time with DP Ralf Bode and editor Jerry Greenberg, both men bring a lot to the movie. The luxuriant, erotic sheen of the film is constantly beautiful and gives the movie a look of its own, far removed from the Hitchcockian roots of the story. Greenberg’s editing is razor-precise, especially in the subway chase scene and the art gallery set-piece, which must have been a nightmare to cut without loosening the tension. The central murder scene relies on both these collaborators; the scene is visually varied and strangely expansive without losing the essential claustrophobia of the setting. The third collaborator who brings a great deal to the overall success of the film is the composer, Pino Donaggio. Donaggio, whose previous successes included the scores for Don’t Look Now and Carrie – along with the music for Dusty Springfield’s hit “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me” – uses a dreamily romantic main theme, all sinuous strings and moaning voices, combined with a Herrmanesque frisson for the violence to give the film a languorous sheen which contrasts with the suspense and the gory violence in the key murder scene.

But the genuine star of the film is Brian De Palma. His visual imagination seems limitless here as if his basic instinct for filmmaking has suddenly gone into overdrive. From the inspired use of mirrors to the complex tracking shots – including one on a stairway which involves an incredibly complex 360 degrees pan and four pages of dialogue – everything comes together in a way which has rarely happened for De Palma. Usually, his films have a weak link somewhere; but there are no weak links in Dressed To Kill, everything simply works. He is working from his own script for the first time since Phantom of the Paradise and this seems to have inspired him; the dialogue is funny and off-colour and it doesn’t have the clunking literalism of John Farris’s script for The Fury, the one element in that film which didn’t seem right. There are slight concerns here and there, mostly in the plotting which becomes a bit slap-dash at one point, but the visual strength of the film overcomes this without any difficulty.

Dressed To Kill is so much fun that it beats most comedies and action blockbusters hands down in the entertainment stakes. Like North By Northwest, it transcends the thriller genre to become pure cinema without the austere respectability of “art” to weigh it down. It’s a great movie experience – De Palma has never topped it, and on the evidence of his recent work, he probably never will.

The Disc

When I heard MGM had got the DVD rights to Dressed To Kill, my heart sank. My second favourite film of all time given the same insulting treatment as Heaven’s Gate or The Long Riders ? Luckily, MGM have produced this Special Edition in one of their more conscientious moments and the result is a very good disc indeed.

Firstly, you get the option to watch the Unrated or the R-rated version of the film. Not many serious changes, but the Unrated version is probably more shocking in the key murder scene.

The picture quality is generally good and sometimes excellent. A film like this, frequently using soft-focus effects, demands a good transfer and this anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer does a good job. I haven’t seen this movie in the full Panavision ratio since its theatrical release and a more obvious example of the damage wreaked by pan and scan is hard to find. This is a brand new transfer and it is by far the best version of the film I have seen for home viewing. It’s a little soft, but that’s characteristic of Ralf Bode’s photography and not principally a fault of the fisc. Detail varies from adequate to good, as do the colours. I didn’t find any serious artifacting problems, although artifacts and grain are sometimes evident.

There are two English soundtracks on the disc. The first is a new Dolby Digital 5.1 remix of the original mono track. It’s absolutely fine and one of the better such remixes, although there is little use of the sub-woofer and the surround effects are limited to ambient weather sounds and the wonderfully rich score. The mono soundtrack included on the disc is the original theatrical mix and is absolutely fine, although the music score seems rather thin in contrast to the 5.1 remix.

There are some very nice supplementary materials included here. The central one is an excellent documentary on the making of the film, compiled by Laurent Bouzereau with his usual care. There are interviews with all the major players with the odd exception of Michael Caine – since he has called De Palma the best director he ever worked with, he obviously can’t be ashamed of the film, so maybe he had three films to make on that day. It covers all the expected ground and is thorough, if not particularly surprising. Since this is Bouzereau’s favourite De Palma film, the unanimously positive tone of the comments isn’t surprising.

Two more features deal with the controversy arising from the film. We get an interesting comparison of key moments from the Unrated, R-Rated and G Rated TV version of the film and a short documentary called “Slashing Dressed To Kill” dealing with the censorship problems and the feminist objections to the film. It doesn’t mention the events in Yorkshire, where paint was thrown at the Odeon 1 screen in Leeds where it was playing – this being the time of the Yorkshire Ripper murders when women were particularly sensitive about this sort of film (although this was the wrong target when misogynist trash like “Don’t Answer The Phone” was playing at the same time). There is also a nice little appreciation of the film by Keith Gordon, now a director, who plays Peter in the film. We get two photo galleries and the original trailer. The menus are nicely animated and backed with music and there are 16 chapter stops.

This isn’t quite the full-blown definitive special edition fans of the film might have wanted and the absence of a commentary is a little frustrating for those of us who want to hear De Palma talk about his technique at length.

However, considering the surprisingly low price and the quality of what is on offer, I have no hesitation in recommending this disc. The film remains one of the best ever made, in the admittedly subjective view of this writer, and the disc does nothing to change that opinion. As far as I’m concerned, this is a must-buy DVD.

Mike Sutton

Updated: Oct 02, 2001

Get involved
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum
Dressed To Kill Review | The Digital Fix