If there’s a word to describe the experience of watching Dressed to Kill it would have to be jouissance, a term in literary theory meaning a kind of response which goes beyond enjoyment and moves into the realm of the intensely, almost erotically pleasurable. It is a film in which Brian de Palma most shamelessly, almost indecently, indulges his love of pure filmmaking for its own sake, to the point where there’s no longer any division between style and substance. In a movie like this, the style is the substance, and the obsessions of the filmmaker and his technique merge into a seamless whole. De Palma has made films which are more emotionally affecting - Blow Out is particularly devastating – and he’s made ones which are more popular. But thirty three years on, Dressed to Kill remains, for this writer at least, his most completely satisfying and most wildly enjoyable film.
On a narrative level, the film is a niftily constructed thriller which deals with sex and murder. Kate Miller (Dickinson) is a forty-something housewife who dreams of a more fulfilling life and decides to take a chance on a casual sexual encounter with a stranger she meets in an art gallery. The fantasy becomes hideous reality when she discovers her illicit lover has gonorrhoea and she flees, only to be killed in an elevator by a mysterious blonde called Bobbi. The murder is witnessed by Liz (Allen), a prostitute, who teams up with Kate’s son Peter (Gordon) to discover the truth, helped or hindered by the police and Kate’s psychiatrist Dr Elliott (Caine).
Following the stylistic dead-end of The Fury, a stunningly well-made film which collapses in on itself because it fatally lacks an emotional centre, De Palma went off to make Home Movies with his students from a film course at Sarah Lawrence College. This seems to have reinvigorated the interest in people which makes Obsession and Carrie so effective, and Dressed to Kill is an unusually close and generous study of two women.
The first forty minutes of the film are dominated by Angie Dickinson who gives her best film performance as Kate Miller, a woman with whom we as viewers are made totally complicit. She is at the centre of every scene - there’s only one significant moment where we break free from her perspective - and the result is an unusually detailed portrait of the life of a dissatisfied woman whose life is hopelessly incomplete without sexual satisfaction. We feel the erotic thrill of her masturbatory dream just as we feel the grindingly thuggish slam of her husband’s “wham bam thank you mam special” that interrupts it – it’s not a rape fantasy incidentally since the rapist seems clearly to be the representation of the husband’s unfeeling lovemaking interrupting the dream. Most of all, when she follows the stranger through the art gallery, we sense her contradictory feelings of guilt and excitement. Her orgasm in the back of the taxi is a thrilling moment of release. When she is killed there is no sense, contrary to what some critics said at the time, that she deserves it for her sexual “immorality” – I read a contemporary review of the film complaining that the film was misogynistic, in which the writer referred to Kate as a “prostitute” which makes one wonder who the real misogynist is. Her death is horrible, sudden and tragic, made all the more so by the desperate yearning to live that we see in her eyes as she reaches out for Liz. It is also, of course, deeply ironic and terribly, blackly comic; reminding us that De Palma has always been a director skilled at the art of pitch-black humour – remember The Fury when Carrie Snodgrass’s character is at her happiest right at the moment she is hit by a car, the beautifully judged ironic tragedy that concludes Blow Out or the abrupt termination of Carlito Brigante’s escape plans. Constantly in De Palma’s work, reveries are interrupted by the dull thud of real life – dreams are always followed by the shock of waking.
Like many dreams, Dressed to Kill is alternately sexy, scary and comic. The film is suffused with eroticism, nowhere more so than in the gliding movements of the Panaglide camera, yet the most arousing sequence has no sex or nudity in it; that’s the lengthy love-play in the art gallery between Kate and her mystery lover. Filmed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, this may well be the best extended scene in the director’s filmography. At first, it’s all about looks – the stare of the woman in Alex Katz’s picture “West Interior”, the gorilla in “Reclining Nude”, Kate glancing at the people around her. Then we get a switch from looks to movement as the mystery man leads Kate on a flirtatious chase around the gallery and there’s a wonderful disjunction between the tense, jerky mood, the restless music and the effortlessly smooth camerawork. The scene manages the difficult task of simultaneously 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. 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. There are very few serious mainstream American films about women’s sexual inner lives but this is one of them and it’s a tribute to Angie Dickinson that, without any dialogue, the feelings are plain to see.
The comic side of the dream comes largely from the delightfully alive Nancy Allen as Liz. She could have been a terribly clichéd character – the wised-up prostitute turned sleuth – but Allen makes her warm, likeable, funny, and just a little bit offbeat; neither afraid to admit that she needs help nor to use her sexuality to get the upper hand. She’s at her very best in her scenes with Keith Gordon, especially when his geekiness about computers is trumped by her nerdily completist knowledge of sex-change procedures. We feel very protective towards Liz which makes the scenes were she’s put in peril all the more effective. The suspense comedy aspects of Liz’s story are played for all they are worth, De Palma being aware that nothing tops a scare better than a laugh.
The scares, like all of the suspense in the film, are executed with seemingly effortless brilliance. I think this is actually the main resemblance between Hitchcock and De Palma – they work very hard to make it look easy. Dressed to Kill is clearly a fantasia on themes from Psycho, beginning and ending with a return to the shower sequence - De Palma’s own primal scene. It seems to me that De Palma uses Hitchcock as a muse and spins off from his films in a way which seems completely acceptable in music and art but seems to upset people when directors do it. In the shower scenes, the director seems to be saying, “You know this one but now look what I’m doing with it”. He does things which Hitchcock wanted to do but never quite managed, like making Cary Grant a killer, and puts a spin on scenes we remember. But if there’s a lot of Hitchcock, and numerous other influences at work, from 1970s giallo cinema and Antonioni, through Godard, to Powell & Pressburger, the overall effect is quite distinctively De Palma’s own. The technical experimentation of Hitchcock’s middle period is taken much further and Dressed to Kill is a riot of technique. Split-screens, slow-motion, screens within screens, shifting perspectives, split-diopter shots, madly extended crane shots, one-take shots in difficult locations; you want it, you’ve got it. This is only achieved with immense technical skill, something which De Palma’s detractors seem to ignore or dismiss, but there’s also a great reliance on the skills of Ralf Bode, the DP, and Jerry Greenberg, the brilliant editor. Even more significant is the contribution of the composer Pino Donaggio who writes a gorgeous love theme for the opening credits and hits every note of suspense right on the nose.
Dressed to Kill is a marvellously scary ride and like all the best rides, it leaves you with a huge smile on your face. It has a comic spirit and scenes continually take unexpected turns into various kinds of humour, even in scene which are also tense like the confrontation between Liz and Dr Elliott where her dialogue sounds like a pastiche of the slightly more madcap fantasies in Nancy Friday's My Secret Garden. Comedy bubbles up everywhere whether it's the police interrogation where everyone seems to be spying on everyone else or the society lady's reaction to Liz's detailed description of a penectomy. The supporting cast helps a lot in this regard, whether it’s Michael Caine’s deadpan reaction to hearing Liz’s sexual fantasies or Dennis Franz as the sartorially challenged detective in charge of the case. Right from the start, when Angie Dickinson is given the patently obvious body double that Kate Miller might fantasise as having, you feel you’re in safe hands so you can relax and enjoy a richly rewarding, beautifully made chiller that doesn’t let up until the final moments when, for once, the shock isn’t topped by a laugh. De Palma, perhaps the finest puppet master in modern cinema, works our strings with ruthless efficiency. You're left uncertain, slightly disturbed, wondering whether you have actually woken from the nightmare. Then, if you’re anything like me, you’ll want to watch it again.
Dressed to Kill comes to UK Region B-locked Blu-Ray in very good shape indeed. The transfer would appear to be the same one that appeared on the US and French discs but I thought it looked a little bit more detailed than the US Blu-Ray from a year or so ago. The overall impression is one of a slight softness but that’s characteristic of the original cinematography. Colours are sensational throughout, particularly flesh tones – colour reproduction has been a highlight of Arrow’s recent releases – and there are nicely deep, true blacks. The transfer comes from a 35mm interpositive which was clearly in excellent condition. There is light grain visible throughout but very little, if any, obtrusive noise. Dressed to Kill will never look pin sharp – it’s not meant to – but it looks as good here as it ever has done.
The soundtrack is just as good and the absolute highlight is the lossless mono track - which didn’t appear on the US release. Certainly the 5.1 remix is immersive and quite subtle but it’s great to hear the film as it originally sounded. Dialogue, music and effects are in excellent balance with Pino Donaggio’s score coming across particularly well. Optional English subtitles are available.
A generous package of extras is included on the disc, alongside a booklet which was not available for review. The extra features compile those from the US MGM and French Carlotta releases with only the appreciation by Keith Gordon missing – this feature is superceded by a lengthy interview.
We get four extended interviews with cast and crew – George Litto, Nancy Allen, Keith Gordon and that great trouper Angie Dickinson. If you’ve seen anything else produced by Robert Fischer’s Fiction Factory, you’ll know what to expect and you won’t be disappointed. All the participants are open and honest about their work on the film and all seem very pleased with how it turned out. There’s very little scandal – Nancy Allen hints at one or two things regarding her marriage to De Palma but not much more than that – and some fascinating technical detail, especially regarding the troubled shooting of the art gallery sequence. Dickinson comes off best – she regards the film as the finest work she ever did – but Keith Gordon is also interesting on the impact the film had on his work as a filmmaker.
As for the test, there’s a 43 minute documentary from 2001 which was previously included on the MGM DVD release. The Making of a Thriller interviews De Palma, George Litto, Jerry Greenberg, Nancy Allen, Dennis Franz, Keith Gordon, and Angie Dickinson. It is a perfectly fine example of Laurent Bouzereau’s style and is most valuable as a chance to hear the director talk about the film.
Slashing Dressed to Kill is a brief but interesting study of the film’s reception. It details the cuts needed to take it from a potential X rated movie to an R rated one. One of them was the word “cock” which strikes me as particularly prissy. It also discusses the charges of stealing from Hitchcock and the controversy surrounding the film’s violence towards women. This has always seemed to me to be pretty much a red herring, since it’s one of the relatively few genre films of the period which bothers to take time to create realistic and unsentimental female protagonists with whom the audience has complete sympathy. There was some misogynistic trash being made in the slasher genre at the time - not as much as some commentators suggested - but Dressed to Kill isn’t remotely in that category.
Finally, there is an enlightening comparison of the unrated, R-rated and TV versions of the film – the version on the disc is, incidentally, the same as the unrated version. We also get a photo gallery of some behind-the-scenes stills and the original trailer.
Arrow’s Dressed to Kill presents one of my favourite films in a tip-top Blu-Ray edition which trumps the US MGM release by including the original mono track along with all the extras from the French disc. Very, very highly recommended.