Brian De Palma has always been unfairly beset by critics. In his early years as a director he was accused of ripping off Alfred Hitchcock and of being exceptionally misogynistic. Today he's criticized for not making films as well as he used to. Seems like a fellow can't win. "Dressed To Kill," his admittedly brutal, 1980 suspense film, is a case in point. Yes, the film is clearly influenced by Hitchcock's "Psycho," but what few folks complain about is that his major cinematic thefts are really from himself, namely from own 1976 fright flick, "Carrie." As for misogynist, well, that was a part of "Psycho," too, wasn't it.
In any case, no matter from whom he's borrowed, the result in "Dressed To Kill" is a good, taut thriller that may have you turning your head on a couple of occasions and maybe scratching it on a couple of others, but you'll be riveted to your seat the rest of the time. MGM studios have issued it in a Special Edition that includes multiple versions of the film and an array of extra features that make the DVD an attractive package.
The movie begins with an almost exact duplication of the opening of "Carrie," complete with dreamy music and a slow-motion shower scene erupting in unexpected violence. From there it follows a "Psycho"-like plot involving murder and duplicity. Angie Dickinson stars, fresh from her role as television's "Police Woman." She plays a beautiful married woman, Kate Miller, fast approaching middle age, who feels neglected by her husband and questions her own sexual attractiveness. (The actress admits to a body double for close-ups in her nude scene but is nevertheless still more than good looking.) Her nerdy teenage son, Peter (Keith Gordon), is a computer geek, self-absorbed in his basement science projects.
In desperation, Kate looks to other men for comfort, like her analyst, Dr. Robert Elliott (Michael Caine), and a stranger she meets in an art gallery. The doctor rejects her come-ons, but the stranger invites her home after a lengthy and effective scene in the labyrinthine gallery, a scene fraught with sexual tension and initially mistaken intentions. Immediately following her brief, afternoon affair, she suspects she's contracted a venereal disease, but that soon becomes the least of her worries. I might add that De Palma differs from Hitchcock mainly in that he shows the splatter of blood in full color.
The next major figure popping into the picture is a call girl named Liz Blake (Nancy Allen), who is a witness to a brutal murder in an elevator (which substitutes here for a shower stall). Teaming up to solve the killing, Liz, the son Peter, and Dr. Elliott all try to locate the mysterious blonde that Liz saw wielding a razor in the elevator, a blonde who may just be one of the doctor's patients. Subsequently, all three are discouraged from and yet prompted to investigate further by a tough, crude New York City police detective named Marino, played in stereotypical NYPD tough, crude fashion by Dennis Franz.
"Dressed To Kill" combines sex and violence, screams of pleasure and pain, in almost equal measure. Suspense builds on suspense, tensions mount, and the double endings remain just as frightening today as when most of us first saw them some twenty years before. The mark of a good thriller, I think, is that it continues to produce shivers down your spine even when you know full well what's going to happen.
Not to suggest, however, that the film is perfect. If you think about its internal logic too much, the film may seem more than a trifle irrational. And De Palma probably lays it on a little heavy in the symbolic meaning department, especially when pointing up people's dual personalities (like Kate's married life vs. her secret adultery), and in his use of split screens and mirrors to convey the idea of people's double images. I mean, in this film everyone is watching everyone else; heck, they're even watching themselves. In some scenes there are even split screens and mirrors within split screens! It gets to be a bit much. But in general "Dressed To Kill" is a dazzler of cinematic technique and an intelligent, crowd-pleasing slasher.
Now, in regard to the technical attributes of the DVD, I found the audio on this MGM disc better than its picture quality. The Dolby Digital 5.1 remix is especially subtle in its use of rear-channel ambient sounds like crowd noise, voices, and rain to enhance the suspense. It's one of the more quietly effective soundtracks around, and it's especially efficient at conveying composer Pino Donaggio's ironically balmy musical score.
The image characteristics, however, are fairly ordinary--mostly soft around the edges in brightly lit scenes and a bit ragged and grainy in darker scenes, with some moiré effects and a few age specks and flecks from time to time. Colors remain natural in this 2.13:1 ratio, enhanced transfer, though, and the blood shows up in all its splendor.
Among the Special Edition's pluses is having the choice of watching either the R-rated or unrated versions of the movie on the same disc. Seems that De Palma's original vision faced the possibility in 1980 of receiving an X rating for excess violence and nudity unless he trimmed a few minutes of footage. On the DVD the director has found the advantage of restoring the cuts (if I might use the word). Then, in case you watch the unrated version but don't recognize where the restored footage was inserted, there's a featurette that compares the unrated, R-rated, and even the network television versions against one another. Plus, there's a second featurette, "Slashing Dressed To Kill," that explains almost the same thing. After that there's a third featurette called "An Appreciation by Keith Gordon," wherein Mr. Gordon gives us further insight into the making of the film. Next, there's a forty-four-minute documentary, "The Making of Dressed To Kill," featuring interviews with almost all the stars (except Caine) and the director today. Finally, there are animated photo and advertising galleries with separate menus, one of MGM's informational booklet inserts (four pages this time instead of eight), an unusually scant sixteen scene selections, and a widescreen theatrical trailer in less-than-perfect condition. English and French are the spoken languages, with French and Spanish subtitle options.
As I said before, De Palma uses a mirror motif quite often as a metaphor for people's divided personalities and in some instances even uses mirrors within mirrors to hammer home his meaning. I'm not sure all of this isn't overkill, but it gives you an idea of how far the director went to make his film a more-than-ordinary shock flick. Although "Dressed To Kill" is too derivative and maybe a little too self-consciously artsy to be classified as a great thriller, it is a couple of notches above the rest of the pack in the genre. It remains one of De Palma's better films.