RETRO-ACTIVE: THE BEST FROM THE CINEMA RETRO ARCHIVES
“MURDER IN SOFT
By Raymond Benson
De Palma’s crime thriller/horror flick, Dressed
to Kill, was a controversial release in 1980 for its depiction of violence
against women and its sexual content— nevertheless, it was a successful entry in
the director’s oeuvre during the most
fruitful period of his long career. The film was released in America with an
“R” rating—but only after De Palma, under protest, compromised with the ratings
board and agreed to cut some footage, re-edit a couple of sequences, and change
some lines of dialogue.
Palma’s preferred unrated version of the film was released on home video not
too long ago, but The Criterion Collection has seen fit to issue a new, 4K
digital restoration, supervised by the director, of what might have been an
“X”-rated picture back in the day. The results are gorgeous. De Palma’s
thrillers from the mid-seventies and early eighties tended to be shot with a soft
focus that emulated some of Hitchcock’s late work of the sixties and seventies.
This was intentional. De Palma himself admits in a new interview in the disc
supplements that he was in a “Hitchcock period.” The director on numerous
occasions paid homage to the master of suspense in more ways than just the
photographic style alone. For example, Dressed
to Kill contains cool blondes, kinky sex, shower scenes, cross-dressing
killers, the bumping off a protagonist early in the story, and a lush
orchestral score reminiscent of the way Hitch used Bernard Herrmann’s musical lyricism
to heighten tension.
story begins with Kate, a sexually frustrated Manhattan housewife (played by
Angie Dickinson), who is seeing therapist Dr. Elliott (Michael Caine) about her
marriage. Early in the picture there is a brilliantly-choreographed extended
sequence, set in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in which Kate plays
cat-and-mouse with and allows herself to be picked up by a strange man. Then
she gets into serious trouble inside an elevator. A blonde woman in a hat and sunglasses
(resembling Karen Black in Hitchcock’s Family
Plot) slashes her to death with a straight razor. We then learn that one of
Elliott’s patients—a disturbed transsexual—stole the razor from the doctor’s
amateur sleuths Peter, Dickinson’s science-nerd son (played by Keith Gordon)
and Liz, a high class hooker who witnessed the murder (portrayed by Nancy Allen).
They team up to find the killer since the police (represented by a young Dennis
Franz) are having little success with the investigation. The movie then becomes
Allen’s picture. As related by the actress herself in a new interview in the
supplements, De Palma wrote the role for her—after all, she was married to the
director at the time. Allen delivers a performance that got nominated for a
Golden Globe for “Best New Star,” but also for a Razzie (Raspberry Awards) for
outcome of the story is no surprise, but that probably doesn’t matter. Dressed to Kill is all about an exercise
in style. De Palma is the real star
of the movie, and his presence is felt throughout. His signature close-ups,
tracking shots, soft focus, and carefully orchestrated techniques for
generating suspense, scream to the viewer that an auteur is at work. Maybe a little too loudly. But that doesn’t mean
Dressed to Kill isn’t entertaining.
It is. It’s just that it feels like we’ve seen it all before. Perhaps in a
supplements on the disc are extensive. New 2015 interviews include the
previously mentioned ones with De Palma (who is in discussion with
writer/director Noah Baumbach) and Allen, but also producer George Litto,
composer Pino Donaggio, shower-scene body double (and Penthouse Pet of the Year at the time) Victoria Lynn Johnson, and
poster photographic art director Stephen Sayadian. Also new to the release is a
profile of cinematographer Ralf Bode, featuring director Michael Apted.
Previously released extras include a 2001 documentary, The Making of Dressed to Kill, a 2001 interview with actor Keith
Gordon, and more than one feature about the different versions of the film and the
battle with the ratings board. There’s also a gallery of some of De Palma’s
storyboards. The booklet includes an essay by critic Michael Koresky.
Dressed to Kill is not De Palma’s
best work by a long shot, but it is representative of the director’s superb craftsmanship
at a time when he was at the height of his powers. If you’re looking for
something sexy, provocative, and gloriously violent to serve with your popcorn,
Kill will fit the bill.