Over the years, Brian De Palma has taken more than his share of critical slings and arrows, suffering denigration as a derivative hack—nothing more than a Hitchcock rip-off artist. But De Palma is never content to merely imitate; he riffs on familiar themes like a virtuoso jazz musician. Even better, think of him as the quintessential cinematic mash-up artist, tossing bits of Psycho and Vertigo into Dressed to Kill, but also lifting elements from the Italian giallo and working in plenty of his own personal references, from boy genius Peter’s (Keith Gordon) jury-rigged home computer to the florid art adorning the museum scene (De Palma directed an early documentary on the Op art movement).
Fortunately, he hasn’t lacked for advocates. One of his earliest, and most vocal, champions was the perspicacious Pauline Kael, who keyed into Dressed to Kill as the writer-director’s swan song to the swinging ’70s, a gaudily excessive headstone erected atop the moldering corpse of the sexual revolution, and thus “permeated,” as she wrote in Taking It All In, “with the distilled essence of impure thoughts.” Or, as high-priced call girl Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) might put it, it’s a “mindfuck.” And that’s precisely the point: In this film, sex is fantasia; it’s all in your head.
The opening hothouse-steamy shower scene establishes upfront the film’s theme-and-variation playfulness. Tracking through a bedroom and then spying around the corner into a bathroom, the camera focuses on middle-aged hausfrau Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson at the height of her Police Woman fame) sponging off in the shower. Through the fogged-up glass door, she observes a man shaving with a straight razor. A series of cutaways to her impossibly nubile body (using a Penthouse Playmate for Dickinson’s body double drew indignant ire) leaves no doubt that she’s pleasuring herself to this vision. Thus, as is his wont, De Palma ties sexual stimulation to voyeurism (examples from his films could be multiplied ad infinitum). Suddenly, hands clutch Kate from behind and she screams. Looking, pleasuring, and violating are thus inextricably and cunningly linked.
An aural match cut bridges the next shot: Kate in bed, moaning with ersatz pleasure, while her husband puts it to her. The local news on the radio dominating the soundtrack, as well as the high-angle shot fixing on the faceless husband and Kate’s less-than-enthusiastic expression, leaves no doubt that she’s bored and unfulfilled by the mechanized routine of it all. Through a sophisticated pattern of POV camerawork and sound design, De Palma unmistakably outlines the nexus of Kate’s feelings, fears, and desires, which a subsequent scene with her therapist, Dr. Elliott (Michael Caine), will only confirm. Maintaining a system of doublings and reflections, De Palma will redeploy the sonic match cut in the taxicab rendezvous between Kate and her anonymous pickup when an orgasmic cry of pleasure morphs into blaring traffic noise.
Likewise, the extended museum set piece avails itself of De Palma’s “pure cinema,” relying on nothing more than blocking and camera movement to stage an entire playlet of thwarted attraction and sexual surrender, as Kate rebuffs a lothario’s advances, then decides to pursue the offer. Originally, De Palma’s script called for voiceover narration to telegraph every stage direction and strange interlude of direct address within this complicated waltz-like sequence, but he sensibly opted to jettison this expositional overload. Now the gliding Steadicam accompanies Kate from room to room as she evades and then seeks her would-be seducer, picking out various couples and family groups along the way, each of which represents an alternate route to her erotic cruising (first dates, fumbled pickups, chasing after wayward children).
This sequence also introduces, via the interpolation of recollected events, such as Kate dropping her glove, one of De Palma’s preferred visual techniques, the split-screen, whether literally dividing the frame in half or, as often as not, using the less intrusive split diopter lens that keeps both extreme foreground and background in focus simultaneously. Later scenes carry this tendency to its almost parodistic conclusion: While both Dr. Elliott and Liz watch the same TV show, a Donahue episode featuring male-to-female transsexual Nancy Hunt, the bicameral frame fractures even further, displaying a veritable kaleidoscope of two TV screens, a three-way mirror multiplying Liz’s features, Elliott’s reflection glimpsed in the television set’s glossy varnish, all distinctly visible. Moments later, Liz employs two telephones (one white, one black) to negotiate an assignation for money so she can grow her stock portfolio.
Much like Psycho’s Marion Crane, Kate Miller meets her doom only after she decides to go back, to make amends, in this case returning to her lover’s room where she left her wedding ring. This development smacks of existentialist irony, rather than eye-for-an-eye punishment for sexual promiscuity. We may be nothing more than the sum of our actions, but, more often than not, chance relieves us of the responsibility. The elevator murder sequence is one of the most intense, intricately constructed pieces (call them “numbers,” if you will, as in musicals) De Palma has ever produced. Playing with a point of view that shuttles between killer, victim, and witness, the scene also concretizes the moment of transference, as Kate and Liz lock gazes. Kate’s outstretched hand, seeking surcease, becomes Liz’s active grasp, removing the weapon, as it were, right from the killer’s clutches. It’s a playfully sublimated vision of castration, akin to the scene in Raising Cain where a dying killer shoots the tip off a thrusting phallic weapon, thereby saving a man’s life.
Dressed to Kill’s finale is a razor-sharp reprise of its opening. While Liz uses the Millers’ shower to wash away the residue of her fateful encounter with Dr. Elliott, he escapes from an asylum by strangling a nurse and donning her white uniform. The murder is shot from above, the camera craning ever higher, revealing ranks of leering loonies ranged about who resemble nothing so much as filmgoers in their balcony seats. Arriving at his victim’s house, he stalks around it, seeking an optimal entry point. Shot entirely from Elliott’s POV, this sequence hearkens back to the opening of Halloween and prefigures its own parody as explicit horror film in De Palma’s follow-up, Blow Out.
Elliott’s attack on Liz is soon thereafter revealed as nightmare, a dark echo of Kate’s initial sexual fantasy, but far removed from the realm of voluntary control. Jolting awake, Liz refuses Peter’s attempts at consolation, cringing from his very touch. She’s been contaminated by the contagion of Elliott’s madness. Neither she nor the audience can even be certain she’s finally conscious, the bad dream may be never-ending. This, too, echoes the final shots of Carrie and Sisters, ambiguous assessments of the cost accrued by banging your head against the walls of authority.
Furthermore, all the major characters in Dressed to Kill personify an intrinsic duality: They betray divided loyalties, lead compartmentalized lives, or even exhibit schizoid tendencies. More than simply fingering the LGBT community yet again as a source of aberrance, the film suggests that intrapersonal wellsprings of conflict are our common stock. Something inimical pits the self against itself. Such is human nature.
Given Ralf Bode's affinity for soft-focus cinematography, and the general age and condition of the film stock, Dressed to Kill looks about as fresh and clean as you could hope, albeit not a vast improvement over MGM's previous DVD edition. Artifacts are virtually nonexistent and edge enhancement isn't an issue. Grain varies between moderate and heavy. Colors tend to the understated, except, fittingly enough, for the deep red gouts of blood. The monaural soundtrack has been spiffily upgraded to DTS 5.1, bringing out ambient sounds like hissing rain and grating subway cars, as well as foregrounding Pino Donaggio's elegant score, swoony and lush one minute, all shrieking staccatos the next.
The special features are unconverted standard-def, except the 1080p theatrical trailer, the lot of them ported over from MGM's 2001 DVD package. "Unrated, R-Rated and TV-Rated Comparison" anatomizes the cuts inflicted on the film to secure an R rating, employing a top-bottom split-screen technique as a sort of stylistic salute. As well as having to remove full-frontal nudity from the shower scene (what star Dickinson charmingly refers to as "beaver shots") and the graphic slashing in the elevator scene, De Palma was forced to re-dub lines that were considered too lurid and explicit. When, in the film's climactic scene, Liz attempts to seduce Dr. Elliott, the R-rated version substitutes "bulge" for "cock" in her come-on, "Because of the size of that cock in your pants, I'd say you weren't that married." The truncated network TV versions of these scenes stand alone, risible in their elliptical prudishness and constricted by the 4:3 pan-and-scan format. Most of the information this piece so vividly illustrates is, in turn, incorporated into "Slashing Dressed to Kill," which also recapitulates the critical and feminist backlash against the film. "An Appreciation by Keith Gordon" presents actor turned director Gordon the opportunity not only to gush about his experience with the maestro, but to direct the viewer's attention to some of the film's formal and technical virtues. Finally, the choicest cut of all, a 45-minute documentary that covers "The Making of Dressed to Kill." In addition to the usual behind-the-scenes tidbits, De Palma details the film's original opening scene: Still set in the shower, this time a man is shaving, steadily removing all his facial and body hair before depilating his pubes and then performing self-castration. One wonders how that would have gone over with critics and audiences alike.
De Palma’s fever dream of fear and desire may never get the deluxe Blu-ray transfer it so richly deserves, but Dressed to Kill still goes straight for the jugular after all these years.