Financed by Samuel Z Arkoff to the tune of $6 million and released at the height of the North American slasher boom in 1980, Brian De Palma’s “Dressed to Kill”, along with its follow-up “Blow Out”, developed the grammar of the Hitchcockian suspense movie for modern cinema and applied it generously to the extravagant bravura stylisations and balletic violence familiar from (and formerly much more indigenous to) the Italian giallo sub-genre, as practised to the height of its perfection at that point in time in the cinema of Dario Argento. The film melded them artfully into the perfect horror-thriller formula, enabling the resultant glossy psycho-sexual melting pot to take a cool $33 million at the domestic box office.
De Palma’s work in Hollywood during this period tended to be divided and alternate between quirky art house indie features and more commercially minded and expensively made thrillers, developed for the director’s agent-turned producer George Litto. Unfortunately, the great success of the film, and its appearance at a point in history when the recent release of a glut of slasher movies had made violence towards women in popular cinema a hot button social and political issue, resulted in De Palma copping more than his fair share of notoriety and opprobrium for what was in fact an extremely tongue-in-cheek play on horror thriller plot contrivances and conventions previously worked up and practised by Hitchcock himself for “Psycho”, coupled with the kinetically orchestrated leaps in plot logic conveyed in Argento’s magnum opus “Deep Red”, in a work conceived at least partly as a means of providing a high profile leading role for De Palma’s new wife at the time, the actress Nancy Allen (who’d appeared in his previous work “Home Movies” alongside Kirk Douglas and Keith Gordon, the latter of whom also joining her for “Dressed to Kill”).
As well as suffering various censorship problems incurred by the MPAA’s unwillingness to allow the film an R rating without cuts, “Dressed to Kill” was keenly demonstrated against by women’s groups in the US and the UK, and De Palma, like Argento, found himself vilified as a maestro of misogyny. At the same time as this, he was also being pilloried for being a Hitchcock imitator: not only was he apparently a woman hater, but his cinematic woman hating was unoriginal and plagiarist to boot, according to some critics!
The UK release came at a particularly sensitive moment though, since, by 1980, the Yorkshire Ripper serial murders were still being carried out and looked no nearer to being solved, nor their perpetrator brought to justice, after half a decade of terror. It seemed to some observers at the time that while women continued to live in fear of walking the streets, modern cinema merely trivialised and celebrated the violence that was being perpetrated against them in real life with images of their physical defilement on the big screen produced for entertainment. In reality, the success of “Friday the 13th” had simply made the slasher flick seem like an easy way for producers to recoup their investments, and the genre was really only the latest variant of the familiar roller-coaster fright flick that had long existed on the fringes of respectability but was now starting to become an attractive proposition for mainstream producers too.
“Dressed to Kill” is a superb exercise in sustained controlled technique allied with the sheer abandon that is produced by a visual extravagance coolly coloured by the deceptively romantic, orchestrated score of former Italian pop star Pino Donaggio. It is bookended by dual soft focus, slow-motion re-imaginings of the “Psycho” shower scene: dream sequences that take place at the beginning and at the end of the movie in the same bathroom location, and which make use of the same elements of imagery (glinting razors, mirrored reflections which double and divide images of the self; the vulnerability of nakedness shrouded in a steam-soaked haze). The content of each dream is only slightly rearranged each time, yet takes vastly differing forms and signifies very different things for each of the female characters who experience them. The first dream is relayed to the viewer as the erotic rape fantasy of a sexually dissatisfied middle-aged woman, while the other appears as the nightmare of a sexually confident younger female who has witnessed a murder take place in a lift, and is waking from her dream in the murder victim’s own bed. The film still holds up as a distinctive variant of the tried and tested stalk-and-slash psycho-thriller formula, encompassing two opposing approaches to the template that, when brought together, highlight the genre’s disturbing confluence of sex, violence, reality and fantasy in a much more graphic yet visually lush iteration than mainstream cinema audiences would have been familiar with at that time.
The film laid the groundwork for a second wave of glossy Italian gialli in the late-eighties, which in turn foreshadowed the blockbuster Hollywood erotic thrillers of the 1990s. The classic controlled, meticulously planned methods and cinematic mannerisms of the buttoned-down-and-repressed Hitchcock formula collide here with the bohemian sexual politics, wildly gesticulating exuberance, surface gloss and baroque spectacle deployed in Dario Argento’s cinema. De Palma’s penchant for the organisation and precise mathematical planning of key sequences, and their careful placement as part of a jigsaw pattern of narrative structuring, hosts a system of visual motifs and signifiers that re-occur against a shifting backdrop of contextual juxtaposition -- contrasted by the obvious enjoyment De Palma derives from the sheer opulence of the imagery being brought to bear on the material here, in soft swathes of romantically lit gorgeousness, by cinematographer Ralf D. Bode. Technology also played an important role in the style of the film and helped to bring these two approaches – the traditional and the modern -- together with the help of the new Steadicam camera system: while Argento’s cinema previously relied on wire-guided camera rig ups in order to convey the modernist sense of kinetic free-flowing movement that was so characteristic of his work in the 1970s, the invention of the Steadicam brought a dreamy kind of smoothness to the extended single take shot when mainstream directors later sought to un-tether their cameras from dolly tracks and tripod-centred panning come the widespread adoption of a similar movement orientated aesthetic in the Hollywood cinema of the early eighties.
The film’s oft mentioned ten minute art gallery sequence brings to the boil all the technical and aesthetic concerns that continue to inform the cinema of Brian De Palma today: it’s simultaneously a testament to Hitchcock’s insistence that any scene’s images should always be able tell a story by themselves and that dialogue is merely the dressing, but is also an example of bravura visual extravagance executed simply for the sake of it – sweeping camera moves swirl about a modernist art gallery environment, but are ordered in a superb piece of editing by “Apocalypse Now” editor Gerald B. Greenberg which turns this robustly scored piece of silent cinema into a mini opera, encompassing everything we need to know about the psyche and subjective thoughts of the otherwise voiceless murder-victim-to-be Kate Miller, played by former “Police Woman” star Angie Dickinson. It’s a virtuoso piece of film-making, but needed to be precisely choreographed and planned to perfection (a rope had to be tied between Dickinson and the camera to ensure focus was maintained throughout) while perpetuating the illusion of spontaneity. Despite the strident feminist criticisms of the movie -- understandable in the context of the times in which they were made -- “Dressed to Kill” emerges from posterity as one of the most adventurous, mischievous and radical films of its type, with provocative things to say about late-‘70s female sexuality, gender identity and the concept of split personal and professional self-hood masked by the Hitchcockian conventions of the genre in which De Palma preferred to work at this time.
Character development and narrative logic are, of course, the first casualties of the Brian De Palma thriller aesthetic. But what makes this film work so well anyway, is the hallucinogenic ambiance imposed on it by the constant reiteration throughout of dream imagery and objects that have played a central role in the mise-en-scène during the opening and closing dream sequences, helping emphasise the fact that this is a psychological thriller built on a Freudian model of the subconscious, in which the imagery and content of dreams informs all aspects of the narrative and exposes the psyches of each and every character -- victim and murderer alike. Thus the slow, ponderous tracking shots seen throughout both dream sequences, and their extension of time crystallised through movement that is conveyed in extreme slow-motion; and each dream’s emphasis on the doubling of figures reflected in mirrors, or caught in the light catching and reflecting on flashing blades, are defining elements that are also made integral to the suspense scenes in the main body of the film, particularly the central murder sequence in the park avenue hotel lift, where high-class call girl Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) witnesses Kate’s (Dickinson’s) bloody death throes after the unfortunate woman, returning from an adulterous assignation with a stranger to retrieve her wedding ring, having just learned that she’s contracted a venereal disease as a result of her one afternoon of indiscretion, is violently attacked by a cut throat razor-wielding, black-gloved blonde woman in a leather coat, who turns out to be a transvestite transsexual who (major spoiler alert!), in turn, is revealed later to be the alter ego of Kate’s tweedy psychiatrist Dr Elliot (Michael Caine) – a man with a divided self, whose spit personality also has his/her own issues with gender identity to deal with!
The murder sequence is a bloodier, more visceral incarnation of the shower scene from “Psycho” and ironically echoes the victim’s own fantasies of sexual fulfilment, taking place in a similarly confined space in which razors and glimpsed reflections once again are the central components, as they were in Kate’s opening erotic fantasy dream sequence. The sequence is stretched to suspense breaking point, the action slowed down to a crawl to allow the significance of the baton change-over from Kate to Liz to be foregrounded at the moment at which Liz is about to take over the role of the central female character in the movie -- a development which is conveyed by the brief exchange of meaningful glances between the two women. The rest of the film plays out as a fairly standard amateur murder investigation after Liz teams up with Kate’s computer-wiz inventor son Peter (Keith Gordon, playing a character who is essentially De Palma’s younger alter ego) who uses his technical invention skills to help them both track one of Dr Elliot’s patients, unaware that the heavily bewigged figure snapped leaving Elliot’s office is actually the good doctor himself in the guise of Bobbi: his pre-op transsexual alter ego who kills whenever Elliot is sexually aroused by his women patients, and who is now intent on stalking Liz, as she was the only witness to his/her crime.
De Palma came up with this macabre idea after seeing an interview on the Phil Donahue Show, and the movie shows its age somewhat in that, even twenty years after “Psycho”, the screenplay still feels it has to provide an ‘explanation’ to allow viewers in 1980 to understand what a transsexual actually is. One could take offence at the implicit association made between deranged murderousness and the transsexual sensibility, although the film is really about repression in that Elliot has created an entirely separate personality to host his gender issues so that he can maintain the traditional married, monogamous heterosexual facade while his true feelings about his sexual identity are only ever acknowledged by his ‘other’ hidden self. The film is playful and knowingly absurd in equal measure, but the whole thing ends up playing like an extended Freudian dream, allowing the contrived plot convolutions executed in order to try and hide the fact that there only ever really is one suspect throughout its entirety, to be accepted for what they are.
In the end the film completely dissolves any barrier between the dream lives of the characters and their so-called waking realities in a final ‘Gothic’ coda in which the insane Elliot apparently breaks out of a expressionistic, Panopticon-like mental asylum, where the inmates are all-seeing observers to his insanity, to come and stalk Liz back to the Miller house and menace her while she’s taking a shower in Kate’s bathroom. Taken at face value, it’s an extremely dumb film, with unlikely plot developments occurring at every juncture. But De Palma knows perfectly well what he’s doing, and even the fact that Angie Dickinson’s body double in the opening shower scene clearly belongs to a much younger and more voluptuous woman, feeds into the major theme of the film, which is that identity and the sense of self are unfixed and underdetermined and open to re-interpretation in our fantasy lives. It’s not hard to imagine that a middle-aged woman like Kate Miller would imagine herself in her erotic dreams possessing a body of much younger woman; and isn’t that what feeds the modern obsession with body-altering plastic surgery in a culture obsessed by youth? The desire to change the inner self through the outward alteration of the body has become an even more recognised and accepted feature of the modern psyche in the years since this work, intended as a mainstream entertainment movie, was made; and this helps it retain a weirdly potent kind of currency despite it belonging to a very different era in film history. The characters are all somewhat cardboard, but the film is cleverly cast to evoke certain associations in the viewer which would have been obvious to a 1980 audience but which may be somewhat lost to a viewer today. Nevertheless, the sight of Michael Caine dressed in a blonde wig with lipstick, eye shadow and stockings (‘I knew if I worked hard and long enough that one day I’d get to play me mother!’ the actor is supposed to have quipped on set!) is worth the price of the Blu-ray on its own.
The HD transfer is inherently soft as befits the original film print but this is a strong presentation and the best the film has ever looked in the home viewing market. The original uncompressed mono 2.0 audio track is included and comes as the default option, but a robust DTS-HD Master audio in 5.1 Surround Sound is also included and the film comes with optional English SDH subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing .
Arrow Video have assembled a number of extras from different sources to make this UK Blu-ray release the ultimate edition of the film available. Laurent Bouzereau’s 2001 Making Of documentary, originally made for the MGM special Edition DVD release, appears here in standard definition and features an excellent overview of the conception and filming of the movie with contributions from Brian De Palma, Angie Dickenson, Nancy Allen, Dennis Franz and George Litto among others. This is complimented by “Slashing Dressed to Kill” a ten minute featurette on the censorship brought to bear on the film, and the various different edited versions it resulted in. A comparison featurette is also included which allows the viewer to see each censored sequence play out side by side with the director’s original version. The spoiler-filled theatrical trailer and a gallery of behind the scenes stills also appear, but in addition Arrow also gather four lengthy interview segments put together by German company Fiction Factory, each running between 20 and 30 minutes and featuring producer George Litto and performers Angie Dickenson, Nancy Allen and Keith Gordon, who each talk in-depth about De Palma’s work and the making of the film. The disc comes with a reversible sleeve with original artwork and newly commissioned art by Nathanael Marsh. Plus, the collector’s booklet contains new writing by critic and author Maitland McDonagh and a new interview with poster designer Stephen Sayadian by Daniel Bird, illustrated with original archive stills and promotional materials. The package is superb and highlights how “Dressed to Kill” retains its place as one of the most important horror/thrillers of the 1980s and still constitutes some of De Palma’s very best work. Highly recommended.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!