Dressed to Kill (1980) 4K UHD Review: Hitchcock Outdone

To ‘get’ Dressed to Kill, you probably have to bear a soft spot in your heart for slasher movies. And it helps to be of the tribe that views the movie’s director, Brian De Palma, as both a shit-grinning ripoff artist and (after Alfred Hitchcock, that is) the Master of Pure Cinema or Suspense. (Members of this sect wear a tiny dagger-shaped amulet round their ankles. They meet once a year in the basement of the Beverly Hills chapter of the Friars Club.*) Without this mindset, the movie might disappoint you.

In fact, you’d do well to approach it as I’m sure one of its stars, Michael Caine, did. As indicated by an audio interview with him (which is on the special features disc of the new Kino Lorber set), he knew he wasn’t making a piece of crap. Capping the movie’s dark humor with a dry mixture of amusement and contained malice, Caine doesn’t flinch. He’s exemplary. He plays straight to the material, and he lifts it.

Not that others here (Nancy Allen, Angie Dickinson, Dennis Franz, and Keith Gordon) handle themselves poorly. Quite the contrary. In terms of De Palma’s oeuvre, Dressed to Kill stands tall. It’s a sharp diamond, a beautiful take on giallo movies, to which Caine adds a special luster. When given free rein to play with a movie-movie fan’s notion of pure cinema, De Palma rarely missteps. Adding Caine to the mix is bound to make that palette unique.

When Dressed to Kill opens, an over-the-hill, sexually bored homemaker, Kate Miller (Dickinson), is in a dream—touching herself in the shower. On a rather jarring note, the dream ends. We cut to Kate and her horny hubster, engaged in a stiff bit of the old rumpy-pumpy. As her day unfolds, she visits her shrink (Caine), to whom she vents her sexual frustrations. Afterward, she goes to the Met, where a stud seduces her. Some hours later, a tall blonde woman dressed in leather and shades kills her with a straight razor. In a Hitchcock-inspired switcheroo, the movie then shifts its focus to Kate’s geeky son, Peter (Gordon), and Liz (Allen), the call girl who found Kate’s body. Each has their reasons to play amateur sleuth and solve Kate’s murder before the cops might. So, they team up (and Allen & Gordon make a charming duo). The final ‘unmasking’ doesn’t surprise us, but I won’t discuss the plot further.**

Is the movie sick and shameless? It might strike people as such. Is it heartless? Hell no. It is all heart. I mean, c’mon! First thing, De Palma gives you a scene with full-frontal nudity. And after a night of passionate lovemaking, Kate finds out her one-night stand has a venereal disease. De Palma plays to the voyeurs in us. He believes in such blatant manipulation; he wants to recycle the trash that made an impression on him (and I mean great trash; the movie echoes bits and pieces of Psycho, Klute, and Deep Red), and he wants to tickle us pink (especially those of us who’ve studied the horror and suspense-thriller genres and have seen many, many giallo movies). The outrageousness doesn’t feel accidental or tacked-on.***

Kidding and reveling in the genre elements that form his sandbox, De Palma elevates the form he plies—but this only seems to happen when the studio powers that be leave him to his own devices. And when he works solely in a serious mode, like he does with a war tragedy (e.g., Casualties of War, a moderately effective film, or Redacted), he’s off. The result is shrill, leaden. When he’s uncensored—and when he falls back on the black satire to which he’s inclined—you don’t see how exaggerated and amped and silly it all is (or you do, but it doesn’t put you off), because he’s right there with us, enjoying the ride. This helps explain why the implausible bits in Dressed to Kill shouldn’t bother us. De Palma seduces us with his love of visual storytelling. Hitting all the motifs for which he’s known (e.g., the self-ripoff of a fake ending; a graceful use of split diopter shots and split-screen), he’s much too clever and focused on rearranging the parts we know so well for the effort to bore.

And from its first scene on, Dressed to Kill airs its intent. With an aching, beautiful score by Pino Donaggio that keys us to the movie’s pervy glamour, that borders on camp, we surrender to De Palma’s delicate mix of dirty-boy humor and suspense. In the shower, Dickinson conveys both trembling desire and a parody of a terrible actor’s portrayal of the same. She’s amazing. In certain shots, Ralf Bode’s cinematography is dreamy, almost fuzzy (I hear he fitted a nylon stocking over the lens to achieve this effect). In other shots, it’s comic-book lurid. This gives the movie an odd, eerie sheen; it fits the dreamlike scheme. And in the end, De Palma sticks to Howard Hawks’ formula of three magnificent scenes and no bad ones. To draw us in, he relies on story-boarded visual technique (not dialogue) to hypnotize us. I won’t tell you which scenes these are, but you’ll know ‘em when you see ‘em.

Perhaps I’ll wish I hadn’t said this, but… Dressed to Kill outdoes Hitchcock. De Palma goes further than Hitch ever did. He holds nothing back (Hitch couldn’t be as explicit as he might have dared).

We’re in his grip. Dressed to Kill is a near-masterpiece.

Disc 1 of the new Kino Lorber (KL) 4K UHD set treats us to a gorgeous 16-bit 4K scan of the original camera negative of the unrated version of the movie, with 5.1 surround and lossless 2.0 mono audio. It also has new audio commentary by movie critic and author Maitland McDonagh.

Disc 2 of the set is a Blu-ray of special features. Among these are new interviews with Allen, Gordon, and Associate Producer and Production Manager Fred C. Caruso. In addition, the KL set gathers 2012 interviews with Allen, Dickinson, and Gordon. It also offers a slew of items that date back to 2001—an appreciation by Gordon, a making-of documentary, a featurette called “Slashing Dressed to Kill,” and a comparison of the unrated and TV-rated versions of the movie. (The unrated version restores shots of a body double’s pubic hair. It also restores some of the carnage cut from a scene that takes place in an elevator, as well as explicit dialogue spoken near the movie’s climax.) Lastly, this disc also includes 1980 archival interviews with Allen, Caine (as mentioned), and Dickinson, besides seven radio spots and the theatrical trailer.

*I’m joking.

**At the risk of betraying some of the movie’s secrets, I want to discuss its depiction of transsexualism. On a recent episode of The Video Archives podcast, directors Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary discuss this aspect of the movie and the controversy it’s sparked over the years. Avary argues that—by dint of De Palma’s inclusion in the film (in typical-to-De Palma, media-within-media style) a real-life segment of the Phil Donahue show, wherein Donahue interviews a transsexual person—De Palma lets the viewer know he acknowledges transsexuals are real people with real lives and emotions. That they are as worthy of respect and compassion as anyone else is—and so (Avary continues) Dressed to Kill is De Palma’s knowingly absurd paranoid fantasy. He lays himself and his fears bare in a satirical dreamscape styled with giallo-inspired notes. I could take or leave Avary’s read of this aspect of the movie. Still, the way De Palma handles this issue has little to no effect on my appreciation for, or enjoyment of, the movie.

***One night, many years back, I saw Dressed to Kill at the Hollywood Cemetery. As I recall, the audience loved it. I had a great time. The communal movie-going experience boosts De Palma’s best work.

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Jack Cormack

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