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By Brian Lafferty


November 7, 2011 (San Diego) – Dressed to Kill, now out on Blu-Ray, is Brian De Palma at the apex of his career’s “Hitchcock Stage.” It began with Sisters in 1973. It continued with Obsession in 1976, which was a remake of Vertigo that actually bettered Hitchcock’s alleged masterpiece (Vertigo is, to me, perhaps the most overrated film of all-time). In 1980 he wrote and directed Dressed to Kill, a mystery thriller that borrows a lot from Psycho (De Palma, in a featurette, defends himself against plagiarism accusations, arguing that Hitchcock created a specific film grammar that he merely utilized).


Dressed to Kill begins with an unhappy housewife named Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson, who is best known in TV Land as the eponymous Police Woman in the 1970s). She has a brief and steamy affair with a mysterious man and is brutally murdered shortly after. Call girl Liz Blake (Nancy Allen, De Palma’s then-wife) is accused of the murder. With the help of Kate’s teenage son, Peter (Keith Gordon, who would play another troubled nerd in John Carpenter’s Christine three years later), she attempts to clear her name while the killer stalks her.


The Blu-Ray contains only the unrated version of the film. It was originally edited for content to obtain an “R” rating from the MPAA. The violence and sex is relatively tame compared to today’s standards, but it still retains its brutality.


Take the infamous elevator death scene. The homages to Psycho are clear. The score by Pino Donaggio sounds similar to that heard in Psycho’s famous shower scene, but the chords don’t have as much shriek as that of Bernard Herrman’s iconic (and now heavily parodied) strings. Unlike the shower scene, in which not one shot features the knife piercing Janet Leigh’s skin, the elevator death scene consists of mostly extreme close-ups of the knife slashing Kate’s face and hands.


It’s gruesome, ugly, and hard to watch, yet it’s magnetic. It feels like De Palma wanted to show the stuff that Hitchcock couldn’t show in 1960. I viewed his technique as an exploration and companion viewing, and not as an attempt at improvement.


The sexual content was heavily edited to appease the MPAA. It contains explicit female full frontal nudity, a very brief rape scene, and a fondling in the back seat of a car. None of it’s titillating. De Palma’s camera made me feel like a guilty voyeur who shouldn’t be watching these supposedly private sex acts. Perhaps it’s the way he slowly moves the camera, as if it’s a Peeping Tom. Maybe this is why I got the feeling that I violated these characters’ privacy and by watching them engage in illicit acts without turning away.


That’s the power of Brian De Palma’s constantly moving camera. The Steadicam and De Palma were made for each other. It makes seemingly private spaces such as showers places where a person can be violated. During the museum sequence, De Palma places the camera at a height equal to Kate’s eyeline. As she follows the mysterious man, the subjective point of view shots make the man alluring and mysterious, just like how she sees it.


Structurally, Dressed to Kill reminded me of Dario Argento’s 1975 giallo film Deep Red. Like Deep Red, Dressed to Kill takes a convoluted mystery in which De Palma holds as much back as he possibly can. Along the way he sprinkles a few scenes with aesthetically and artistically crafted violence. Even when he reveals something, it only minutely helps. It isn’t until the very end that everything is revealed and when it is, I was left shocked and in a daze, still trying to wrap my head around it.


The story structure is sound, but De Palma isn’t a very good writer of dialogue. He rarely writes the movies he directs and based on the dialogue, he seems to be a better director than a writer. The characters’ lines are often awkward. Dennis Franz, playing the Detective investigating Kate Miller’s murder, is fed overwritten cop speak that borders on parody.


MGM Home Video does a solid job on the transfer. De Palma doesn’t offer much to look at within the frame; very little striking color is used except for blood. I presume this to be because he chose to emphasize the moving camera. Nevertheless, the transfer is many steps above upconverted DVD.


The bonus features are fine if you haven’t owned the DVD, like me. MGM Home Video recycles the bonus features from the DVD for this release. They are featurettes that tell a lot about the making of the film. Most notable for me was the one that showed through split screen the difference between the unrated, R-rated, and network TV versions of the more violent, sexual scenes and suggestive dialogue.


An MGM Home Video release. Director: Brian De Palma. Screenplay: Brian De Palma. Original Music: Pino Donaggio. Cinematography: Ralf Bode. Cast: Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson, Nancy Allen, Keith Gordon, and Dennis Franz. 105 minutes. Unrated.


Brian Lafferty can be reached at brian@eastcountymagazine.org. You can also follow him on Twitter: @BrianLaff.


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